October 16, 2022, Father or Judge?, Luke 18:1-8 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
People who haven’t been around children very much often think that children have short attention spans. But anyone who has had children knows that children can have a very, very, VERY long and tenacious attention span. It’s usually us grownups who get bored quickly and lose interest. Any mother can testify to this if she has played the high chair game with her toddler. The rules of the game are these: the mother, who is trying to get dinner on the table or get the dishes washed, gives her child a toy on his high chair tray to keep him occupied. The child drops the toy on the floor. And the mother stops what she is doing and picks it up. That’s all the rules, and the longer you play the more fun it is – at least if you are the child.
That child is modeling a very young and very playful form of faith for us, and if we are wise we’ll be humble enough to learn from him. He trusts that his mother, as busy as she is – and he doesn’t really have a good feel for that, of course – but he trusts that when he drops his toy she will pick it up for him, the first time, and the second time, and the fiftieth time. Even when she gets tired of the game – and she gets tired way before her child does – he trusts his mother enough to demand her attention. If she delays, or if she takes the toy away, he will squawk loudly and express his sense of injustice, because he has faith that she will listen and respond to him, even if she does have a disappointingly short attention span for his fun game. There are few things in this world more persistent than a child’s faith in his mother.
We human beings are born with a persistent faith. Even the tiniest baby will hold tightly to your finger, or to a lock of your hair, instinctively. She cries when she is hungry, or cold, or uncomfortable, or lonely. She trusts that her mother or her father will come and make things right. She is born knowing her mother’s voice. She quickly learns her mother’s scent and the way she moves. And she instinctively trusts that her mother is able to provide for her needs, to help her in every trouble. She has faith because she is born with the instinctual knowledge of what a mother is supposed to be. And yet even the best of mothers, being human creatures, can never be perfectly worthy of our trust – and the same can be said for fathers and friends and husbands and wives as well – and for most of us growing up, becoming a mature person, means letting go of that childlike trust we had in the beginning.
Faith is instinctual, and faith is natural to us, but faith isn’t always easy. God hears us, and he will bring justice speedily, but like the child waiting for his mom to pick up the toy, or like the baby waiting to be fed, speedily doesn’t always feel so speedy to us. Sometimes faith means crying out day and night, as Jesus said, knocking at the door, over and over again, with the persistence of the widow, not because God is ignoring us or doesn’t care, but because it’s hard for us, his children, to wait upon his timing. It’s hard to keep faith. It’s hard to not lose heart.
We read about Jacob today in the story from Genesis, when he was traveling home. He left home after tricking his own brother, Esau, stealing his inheritance and the blessing of their father, Isaac. And now Jacob was coming back, knowing he would be meeting his brother again, fearful of his brother’s wrath. And he spent the night alone, wrestling with this man who turns out to be God himself. Jacob wrestles the whole night through, and when the morning comes he refuses to let go of the man until he gives him a blessing. Notice that when the night is over, and the man is ready to go all he has to do is touch the socket of Jacob’s hip and dislocate it. He could have overcome Jacob at any time, but he kept Jacob engaged in that struggle all night long. When it says that Jacob prevailed, it doesn’t mean that Jacob was so strong that he won the fight at last; it means he hung on, like a fierce little dog with a bone. And at the end of that long night God gave Jacob a new name – Israel. Israel means “he wrestles with God”, and Israel became the name, not only for Jacob, but for the whole people of God. It became our name; we are the new Israel. We are the children of God, who are called to live in an active relationship with our Father, called to wrestle with him in faith, to hang on, and never let go.
Like a really good parent, like a perfect Father, God wants his children to trust in him enough that they come boldly, and persistently, to him. Like a little child, he wants us to run to him with our needs, day and night, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, when we are grieved and afraid of the pressing evils of the world around us. God will bring justice speedily, Jesus promises that – but God’s timing is not ours. Like our own children, when we tell them “soon”, and it feels like forever to them, sometimes God’s “soon” feels anything but soon. That’s why the Psalms are full of wrestling – “How long, O Lord!” “Have you forgotten us entirely?” “Why are you so far from us?” Those are the words of people of faith, people who know the pain and injustice of this world, but who remember who it is that is the only one to go to.
Jesus told us the parable about the widow and the unrighteous judge, to teach us that we need to pray always and not lose heart. But so often we approach prayer as if God were like the unrighteous judge. We feel like God will listen if only we impress him – or wear him down – with our persistence. We make rules for ourselves – we read book after book, we attend workshops – about how to “do” prayer more effectively. We think our prayers are more powerful if we use the beautiful words from the Book of Common Prayer. Or we think our prayers are more powerful if they come spontaneously from our hearts. We think our prayers will be more effective if we are in the right frame of mind when we pray – if we feel close to God. And we miss the point entirely. The thing that is “powerful and effective” about our prayers is the God we pray to, who is able to do all things, and who, moreover, is the absolute opposite of the unrighteous judge, because he loves us. You are invited to pray always, even to wrestle with God in your need, because God is never bothered by your continual coming. You never need to lose heart because he is your Father, who delights to give you what is good, and he is always listening for your cries.
Jesus told the multitudes a story to reassure them, that they should always bring their needs to God and that they should never lose heart. He told them this story about the persistent widow, who cried out over and over and over for justice, so that even the hard-hearted and godless judge gave her the help she needed, just to shut her up and get her out of his hair. And of course, the point of the story is not that if we keep on pounding on the door of heaven with our needs God will eventually answer our prayer simply because he will get sick and tired of hearing us, like the unjust judge. No, exactly the opposite – we should cry out to the Father and keep on crying out, and never lose heart, because God is NOTHING like the unjust judge. And he is not even like human fathers and mothers, who sometimes grow impatient no matter how loving they are, who sometimes do grow weary no matter how hard they try. Because God never, ever, gets tired of listening for the cry of his children. Day or night, he always hears his children gladly. And he will always come speedily to help us. +