Patient, Persistent Prayer

Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. “They” are the disciples, whom Jesus is instructing and preparing for the last days when they will no longer see Him but would have to “watch and pray.” Today’s Gospel and Old Testament readings are about faith in Jesus and the life of prayer that flows from faith in Jesus.

Jesus tells us what this parable means, and good thing, or we might have missed the point altogether. The “God-figure” is a crooked judge who neither fears God nor men and is probably on the take. The faith-figure is a pesky widow who keeps showing up in his courtroom making the same demand for justice. And while the crooked judge could not care less about justice, he will give this woman her justice for no other reason than she is grinding him down with her persistent petitions. And that, my friends, is the picture of stubborn faith at persistent prayer.

The point of comparison is obviously lesser to greater. God is not an unrighteous judge but the Righteous One whose judgments are pure and precise. If a crooked judge can be persuaded by the persistent petitions of a woman seeking justice, how much more will God, the Righteous Judge work justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? No, of course not! He will do justice for them and do it quickly. You have Jesus’ word on it.

The key word for the day is importunity – patient, even stubborn persistence. Persistent prayer flows from grounded faith, which is why it is pointless to tell an unbeliever to pray. Prayer is an exercise of faith, trust in God’s promise. It may be a small faith, a dim faith, a flickering faith, even the tiniest little opening in a wall of unbelief, but there must be faith for there to be prayer. That’s why our reading ends with the big question. Not will there be prayer when the Son of Man comes? There will surely be much prayer. But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?

Why then do we lose heart and fail always to pray? To a large measure, it’s our impatience. Impatience kills importunity. Old Adam is very impatient. It’s now or never. Have it my way in sixty seconds or less. We hate standing in long lines, being stuck in traffic, waiting for the web site to come up on a slow connection, being told to take a number and wait our turn. We’re insulted. Important people don’t wait to be seated at a restaurant. We want it now. Instant gratification.

Prayer is an exercise in patience. You are praying to the God for whom a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day. This could take a while. One of the characteristics of faith is patient endurance (Greek hypomone), persistence in face of difficulty, long-suffering. The woman in the parable keeps coming back to the crooked judge with her persistent petitions because she has no place else to go. Even if the judge is uncaring, unsympathetic to her cause, sitting on the bench and waiting for a bribe, she keeps coming back to him day and night because there is no one else who can grant her justice.

We lose patience with prayer. We don’t get what we want, when we want it, and so we quit, or look for another “more productive” path. Our prayers are shallow, sporadic, undisciplined, anemic. It’s like going to the gym a couple of times, lifting a few weights, and then concluding, “This exercise stuff doesn’t work. I don’t see a hint of muscle.” Prayer is exercised over the long haul not the short term; it’s a marathon, not a 100 yard dash at top speed. Our reflexes, conditioned by our instant everything world and our self-centered natures quickly run out of steam. What’s the point in prayer when nothing seems to happen?

I’ve occasionally quipped from this pulpit that God doesn’t seem to answer my prayers, at least on demand. I say that in view of those who would seek instant answers as though God were a divine ATM machine. It would be more accurate to say that God is grindingly slow in answering my prayers, almost to the point that I’ve forgotten what I was praying for by the time God gets around to dealing with it. Old prayers are answered as though they were prayed yesterday, like an old treasury bond that one day comes to maturity and you’ve forgotten you own it. “A day is like a thousand years; a thousand years like a day.”

I am reminded of St. Monica. Monica was a woman of patient and persistent prayer. Though she was brought up as a Christian by her parents, she had a very difficult marriage to a pagan named Patricius, a man of violent temper and a womanizer. He never beat her or abused her, as was common in that day, but her marriage could hardly have been considered happy and fulfilling. Moreover, she was also hated by her mother-in-law, who made her life miserable. Monica attended church daily and each day prayed like the woman in the parable. Eventually, Monica won the favor of her mother-in-law, and her husband became a Christian.

Monica had three children, one of whom was named Augustine, who would become one of the great fathers of western Christianity. Augustine had a rather rebellious youth, shacked up with his girlfriend with whom he had a child, and caught up in a kind of philosophy-religion called Manichaeism. Monica dragged her wayward son to the local bishop to straighten the young man out, but to no avail. The bishop advised Monica simply to pray for her son. “Leave him alone,” he told her. “Just pray to God for him. From his own reading, he will discover his mistakes and the depth of his profanity.” When Monica insisted, the bishop said, “Leave me and go in peace. It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost.” And so she prayed for her son with a mother’s tears before the Lord’s altar for nearly 10 years. Later, Augustine would write in his Confessions that his mother Monica wept more for his spiritual death than others mothers shed for the bodily death of a son.

“Will not God give justice to His elect, His chosen ones, who cry to Him day and night?”

We pray for those people on our intercessions list, the same names recited week after week after week. Some get well, some die, some stay the same. We keep on praying anyway because that’s what faith does.

We have this notion of God as our vending machine high in heaven. Put in the quarters and dimes of praise and faith and out pops the blessing on demand. There are plenty of preachers willing to serve up that counterfeit coin to our instant gratification culture. Don’t buy it. Prayer is persistent and patient. God isn’t a vending machine. You know what happens when we lose patience with vending machines. We kick them, rattle them, pound on them, curse them. Or we just give up and find another one that will deliver the goods.

The life of prayer is like Jacob wrestling with God in the wilderness. Jacob pins God down and won’t let him go, even with his hip out of joint, until he receives a blessing. That’s the stubborn persistence of faith. The new name he receives is Israel, one who wrestles with God. That’s what the Church is, what baptized believers are, God’s Israel, ones who wrestle with God in prayer. And yes, we walk with a limp, by faith and not by sight, but that disjointed hip is our strength. When we are weak in ourselves, then we are strong in the strength of God.

Jesus prayed. He prayed in the Garden that the cup of His death be taken away, if there was another way, yet “not my will but yours be done.” He prayed for those who mocked Him. “Father, forgiven them, they do not know what they are doing.” He prayed to the Father when the Father seemed absent in His suffering. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He prayed in His dying breath in the darkness to the silent Father, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

He prays for the world, for His Church, for you – interceding as the world’s High Priest, offering the Blood of His once for all Sacrifice. He prays before the throne of His Father as the One who wrestled with God on our behalf, who lost not his hip joint but His life in order to save us and bring us into that intimate life of prayer. He is that persistent widow in the parable, pleading for justice before the throne and winning for us our justification before God. He has done God’s justice to our sins. His prayers are always heard, and through Him, in His Spirit, our prayers are heard too.

It is no vain, empty religious exercise to pray. Prayer, together with praise, is the voice of faith exhaling, breathing out what God has breathed in with His Spirit-breathed Word. It is to come as dear children coming to their good and gracious Father in heaven through His Son by the Holy Spirit. It is the pillow talk of Bride and Bridegroom, the intimate conversation of the Lover and the Beloved. It is the family conversation of God’s household in which our deepest longings and hopes, our desire for forgiveness, life, peace are laid before our Father in heaven and are heard and answered.

Jacob called the place where he wrestled with God “Peniel,” the “face of God.” “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Peniel the Jesus place, where you encounter God in the flesh of His Son, here to baptize you, here to forgive you, here to give you His Body and Blood. Here God’s face shines upon you, His countenance is lifted up to you, and you have peace. The holy Liturgy is Peniel for God’s Israel where faith in Jesus is forged and fed by His Word and Spirit. And where faith is forged and fed, there is always persistent, patient prayer.

In the name of Jesus,

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