Today’s gospel reading consists of two parables which Jesus told, to teach his followers about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
The first parable is about persistence in prayer. It tells of the humblest of persons, a widow, who had been wronged and was seeking justice. Perhaps she’d been swindled, or robbed, we aren’t told. She was powerless because of her place in society, yet she knew that she deserved justice and she knew the only way to get it was through the judge. We are told he was corrupt, he was not interested, yet through her persistence she won the justice she had begged for. Jesus may have startled his listeners by comparing God with the corrupt judge, but I think he wanted us to focus on the persistence and faith that the widow had, that eventually she would be given what she needed. She didn’t give up and her petition was granted.
I think Jesus also wanted us to think, well, if a rotten corrupt judge will answer the pleadings of a humble person, how much more will our heavenly father who loves us, listen and answer us.
It can be very disheartening to pray and feel we are not being heard.
Mind you, God’s ways are not our ways and the answer that we receive may not be what we expected. But it will be the answer from the Father who loves us.
Pray always and do not lose heart
The second parable tells us something about how to pray: from the heart, directly to God and tell it like it is. The Pharisee was praying loudly and publicly to the people around him more than to God. He was informing God about his righteousness and his contempt for those who were not as good as he in keeping God’s law. In contrast, the tax collector stood before God, his eyes cast down. He did not supply God with a list of his virtues, rather he assumed that God knew the worst about him. He just asked for forgiveness. Jesus said that this man went home forgiven and justified, which means right with God. I’m sure his heart felt very much lighter! It doesn’t take a lot of words to say sorry and ask for forgiveness, but it must come from the heart.
Those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
Pray always and do not lose heart.
In our services and at home we offer intercessory prayers-in these we are asking God for some things that we and others need.
I’ve been reading a little about belief in intercessory prayers in the history of our church. During the 1800s as more and more became known about how nature works, what causes the weather, what causes diseases, crop failures, and so on, some gave up on intercessory prayer. They thought that, for example, praying for rain to end a drought was pointless, because rainfall depended on a complex set of meteorological conditions, not on God deciding to send rain when his people asked for it.
The Anglican bishop of Melbourne, bishop Moorhouse in the 1870s caused a furor when he wouldn’t join with the leaders of the other faiths to pray for rain to end a drought. Rather, he said, we should agitate for construction of dams and sensible planning for water usage. A practical man. He was right in one way-I think God expects us to do everything we can to help ourselves and others. But he was wrong in believing that God would not hear the prayers of his people and answer them. I believe that God answers the prayers of his people in the wisest way. The answer was not immediate rain because there was a severe drought in Victoria in the 1880s. But it brought about something they needed more: the impetus to plan and build dams and irrigation channels for the future. In the short term, perhaps they began to share water with neighbours and to help one another financially through the drought. All good outcomes of prayer.
We may pray for healing for a friend who is very ill, but sometimes the healing that comes in answer to our prayer is different from what we expect: perhaps it is the healing of family rifts as all are drawn together by a common bond of love for the person who is ill. I have seen a person dying but filled with the joy of finally seeing all of her loved ones standing together and talking at last.
Moorhouse shared the belief of many at the time and now, of a remote creator God, who set the laws of nature going then stepped back and interfered no more. I don’t believe God is like that. I believe God answers prayers, giving us what we need, which may be not what we think it is. After all, God interfered, big time, in the affairs of humans in the incarnation. Thoughout his life, Jesus showed us how God bends the laws of illnesses, paralysis, stormy seas, and death itself, to intervene in the world, because of his overwhelming love of humanity and of creation.
I believe he intervenes all the time by answering our prayers. Otherwise Jesus would not have told us and modeled prayer for us: pray always. He gave us the Lord’s prayer as a model for the sort of words to use, and to show what we can pray for. He spent hours in prayer himself. He gave us the illustrations in today’s gospel of how to pray and how not to pray.
We must trust in the wisdom of God to answer our prayers in the best way. Thinking practically, it’s likely that every person who is dying has someone praying that they may live. We know that this would not be a helpful outcome for the population of the planet. Continuing our practical thinking, there are laws of nature, that is why we have earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanic eruptions and floods and droughts: God created these laws of nature to give us the world in which we live, we would not have a habitable planet without them. Yet these natural disasters can cause suffering and death. We may pray to be spared from them, but all are necessary in the shaping and renewal of our planet. We cannot see the big picture that God sees, so we must trust in his wisdom to answer our prayers in the best way. Even so, sometimes, it seems, out of love and compassion God breaks his own rules when his beloved people call upon him. Rainfall comes unexpectedly. Survivors are pulled from landslide rubble days after hope is lost-prayers are answered. In answer to our prayers after disasters we see the bravery and compassion of the rescuers, the generosity of the aid agencies and their supporters, the medicos. God answers our prayers in God’s own wise ways, and we need to be alert to see those answers.
Some say their prayers are not answered and give up. There may be some reasons for thinking this:
· Are we asking for the wrong things?
We often finish our intercessions by saying that we ask these things in Jesus’ name. That means that we ask just as Jesus would ask for this thing from God. So for example, we might pray that God will comfort our friend whose mother has died, and we ask it in Jesus’ name. For we know that Jesus sought to comfort those who are in mourning and so we know he will be with us, joining in our request to God.
We might bring before God the suffering of the people of Syria. Perhaps we don’t even know what would be the best outcome for them, but we know that Jesus understands and cares about the way children and poor people suffer at the hands of military forces and uncaring rulers. So we can be confident that he will join in our prayer to God, when we ask in his name.
Sometimes, often even, we don’t know what the best outcome is. So we can simply pray for the best outcome. I often do this when a person is nearing the end of a painful illness, when death itself and going to be with the Lord may be the best possible outcome. So we pray for God in his wisdom to bring about the best possible outcome and trust him. It may be recovery or it may be death, but our prayers are answered.
So when we pray about winning the next Lotto, or even the footy Grand final it is not likely that Jesus would be joining with that prayer. Are they the sort of things Jesus would ask of his Father God? No! We really cannot pray such a prayer in Jesus’ name, so the chances of receiving the answers we seek are rather slim.
Intercessory prayer is asking God for what we need, for ourselves and for others. It lets God know what’s on our hearts and that we have faith that God cares and will answer.
But there are other kinds of prayer which we often neglect.
Communication with God needs to be two way, as it does in any meaningful relationship. In order to hear God speaking to us, we have to stop talking every now and then and listen. Switch off the Smart phone, let the phone call go through to message bank and turn off the telly. Sit in silence, focus on a picture, or a candle or some quiet music, whatever helps us to banish gently the thoughts about what to have for dinner, what I should be doing instead of sitting here. Doing nothing, sitting in silence can be hard, we are not used to it. Reciting a mantra, or breath prayer can help the focus: for example, Lord Jesus Christ, grant me your peace, over and over in time with our breathing, helps to still the mind. I particularly like: be still and know that I am God. Over and over, for some minutes, in time with your breathing. That’s meditating. It takes practice to keep from distracting thoughts, but it’s very refreshing and allows us to listen to what God might be trying to say to us. Gently push aside all the intrusive worries and thoughts about dinner. With practice you can build up from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Or more.
God speaks to us in many ways. Another way to open minds and hearts to God is through deep appreciation of his creation: a walk in the garden or the bush, appreciating deeply what he has made and what it reveals of his care and his power. Stare at the stars in the night sky. Be really present in what you are doing, not thinking about what we’ll be doing tomorrow.
Another way he speaks to us is of course, through his word, scripture: reading a passage slowly until some words seem to stand out, seem to really speak to us. Then concentrating on those words, ruminating, chewing over them, asking God why they stand out. What is God saying to me personally in those words?
Can I suggest that it is well worth the time to spend time in prayer with God every day. Ideally spend time with God at the start of each day before the world takes over our lives. Then perhaps finish the day with a time of reflection on the day and where God has been in it. Think about prayers you have said and answers you may have received. It’s worth putting the day back into perspective before we sleep.