Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018

Prayer & Justice – Luke 18:1-8 - CTiH WPCU – Annual Service 

3pm - Corpus Christi – 21st Jan 2018

The theme for this year’s ‘Churches Together Unity Service’ is justice. And I want to take a few moments to explore the relationship between justice and prayer. And where better to begin than the parable that we’ve just heard – the Parable of the Persistent Widow.

Now my guess is that if we haven’t personally been a victim of injustice, that this parable will probably strike us as a lovely story that reminds us, as Jesus said in v1, that we ‘should always pray and not give up’. So we see this parable as a call to persistence in prayer, but the actual details of the story may feel secondary to that.

But what about those who are victims of injustice? Those who are disenfranchised and oppressed? How would they read this parable? I think that for them, the actual story here, the theme and specific contents of the parable would not feel incidental.

Yes the parable teaches persistence in prayer but it also offers the promise that through prayer we can see justice come because Jesus concludes with the promise in v7, ‘will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?’

Now the main character in this story is of course a widow who has suffered some form of injustice, though we’re not told exactly what. And clearly she was not well-placed to right the wrong.

Because in her day the courtroom was a male forum and so as a woman she had no place being there. Being a widow, she had no husband to bring her case, nor evidently a close male relative. Perhaps actually her adversary had acted unjustly towards her precisely because she was an easy target and vulnerable in this sense.

To make matters worse, we have a judge in the story who is clearly no philanthropist. We’re told that he neither feared God nor cared about men.  But despite the odds being stacked against her, the widow nevertheless secured justice from the judge. How? Well we’re told that the judge feared that she would eventually ‘wear him out’. The expression in the Greek speaks of one who is being beaten down and literally means to ‘strike under the eye’, or to ‘give someone a black eye’.

Jesus shows us here that the only thing this disempowered widow had in her favour was her sheer persistence, and she used it to stunning effect.  Of course Jesus isn’t saying that God is like that judge. His point rather is that if a powerless widow can secure justice from an unjust and unloving judge then how much more will God, who is supremely loving and just, hear and answer our own prayers for justice.

In fact, in contrast to the slowness of the judge to act, Jesus tells us here that our Heavenly Father will act quickly as we cry out to him day and night.

Now I’m sure we all know that scripture calls us to pursue justice.

We have those well-known words in Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

In Amos 5 God tells his people: Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (vv23-24)  So clearly as God’s children we are called to act justly and to work towards seeing justice established on the earth, whether that be political, social, financial, even environmental.

But, and this is what I would like us to take away from today’s message, we are also called to pray for justice. We’re to pray for it, with faith and confidence.

A few years ago I developed a problem with my knees. I had a condition that is sometimes called ‘Clergyman’s Knee’ and it’s common amongst those who kneel a lot. Now my doctor knows I’m a Baptist minister, so you can imagine how sheepish she was when she asked me if I spend much time on my knees. And I had to admit that I didn’t. But I was scared that she’d jump to the wrong conclusion so I quickly added ‘I do pray by the way, but I tend to pace round the room a lot’. And she very graciously said, ‘well it doesn’t really matter which position you pray from does it.’

And she’s absolutely right. I’m not sure our physical posture matters too much when we pray, as long as we find a posture that serves us well. But there is a position in prayer that really does matter and that is our theological position. How do we understand prayer? Are we confident in prayer, including in our prayers for God to right wrongs in the world?

The Benedictines have that lovely maxim, ‘ora et labora’ which literally means ‘pray and work’. And I’m glad that they placed the words in that order. Pray and work.

The theologian Peter Baelz said: “Prayer and action are two sides of one and the same response. Praying is not a substitute for doing, nor is doing a substitute for praying.”

My fear is that we might think that prayer is a little bit too passive these days. Maybe we suffer at times from an over-blown sense of our own human efficiency and sufficiency. So why invest time praying to God when we could use that same time being busy for him? Isn’t that more effective? Maybe if we’re honest we’re a bit more confident of our own action than of God’s action?

But the great truth in this parable is that prayer invites God to act in a situation. It engages his action! And I think that’s why the great German theologian, Karl Barth, described prayer as ‘the most effective form of Christian action’.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a competitive double sculls event but the boat is propelled through the water by the close teamwork of the two rowers. And they both need to keep pulling hard on the oars until the finishing line is crossed.  And that for me is a picture of what prayer is about. We keep praying and as we keep praying God keeps acting until the finishing line is crossed, however long that takes. So prayer is a divine-human co-operation.

Keeping the water theme, I remember that one day I was cycling on the towpath alongside the Oxford canal and I stopped my bike because I saw a strange sight. I watched whilst a father dipped jam jars into the canal and then gave them to his 4 year old daughter who scurried off and watered each plant in turn. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken. And I’m convinced that that’s not how things started. I think he probably had a large watering can, but she asked to help and that was beyond her strength. So he had a decision to make. And so he did the job in a way that could include his daughter and build relationship between them and also teach her at the same time how to care for the vegetables on the allotment.

I think that God is a lot like that Father. He could build his Kingdom on his own but he wants to do it with us and the gift of prayer is a vital part of that.

So we pray for his Kingdom and his justice to come to this world. That’s a big prayer of course. And often humanity will frustrate God’s desires. But Jesus has given us the assurance here that God hears our cries for justice. ‘I tell you’ Jesus said, ‘he will see that they get justice. And quickly.’

So the question isn’t just whether we pray. It’s also, what are we praying for? What should we be praying?

Well Jesus summarises it for us beautifully in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Our prayer must be:
Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.’

Rev. Chris Band, Headington Baptist Church