Read Luke 18:1-14
These two stories probably surprised Jesus’ audience, and maybe angered them. In one we have a widow in conflict with a judge. Is that a fair contest? Widows were amongst the most helpless people in the Bible. Israel was to care for widows and orphans because both widows and orphans were abandoned and alone in the world. Orphans were without parents. Widows were without a husband to provide and protect them. Widows couldn’t simply go and get a job. They were left without any means of support. They were dependent on the good will of the community to care for them.
On the other hand, a judge had standing and respect in the community. He was probably wealthy and undoubtedly powerful. If he made a ruling, that was it.
And yet the widow won! The widow beat the judge!
In the second story, a tax collector is contrasted to a Pharisee. They were at opposite ends of the social spectrum. Pharisees were seen to be godly men who obeyed the law of God in all its detail. They were close to God. They were the religious leaders and society looked up to them. They had status and power.
On the other hand, tax collectors were despised. They were collaborators with the occupying Roman forces and therefore traitors. Plus, they were dishonest and used their position to extort exorbitant amounts of money from their own countrymen. Clearly they were going to be hated on several levels.
And yet the tax collector won – at least in Jesus’ summation of the story. The tax collector went home justified before God. Really? The Pharisee who walked with God and who, by his own estimation, lived a laudable lifestyle went home not justified? How could it be that the tax collector, who was a byword for the worst of sinners, could be possibly be right with God? Jesus was upsetting the apple cart.
Jesus often taught a truth that was contrary to what people generally understood. That is still true. Jesus teaches things that are totally contrary to what society at large believes and sometimes we have to re-think our beliefs. But the question is: Do we listen to Jesus or to the conventional wisdom of our society?
Jesus said the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee. Why? Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted. The Bible, a number of times, repeats the principle that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Pr 3:34; Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5)
I am reminded too of the first of the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who know they are spiritually poor, who don’t believe they have got it all together spiritually but who feel broken and needy before God.
In this story, it was the man who felt far from God because of his sin who received God’s forgiveness. It was the man who felt unworthy. It was the man who was broken, not the man who was confident.
There is obviously a lesson there is terms of seeking forgiveness. Those who humbly confess their need are forgiven. But I think there is a more general lesson as well: God hears the weak and the broken. That might be good news, because we might often feel weak in prayer. We don’t have it all together; we don’t understand all of the theology’ we don’t even know if we are praying the right thing, but God hears the prayers of the weak. God will hear your prayers even when they are simply, stuttering prayers.
The first story can be a bit of a puzzle. Why is God compared with an unrighteous judge who is slow to do what is right? Maybe He isn’t. Maybe God is being contrasted with the judge. Even a judge who neither fears God nor respects people, and who is not inclined to respond to this plea for justice, will comply in the end – even if only to get this woman off his back! How much more will a God who is pure and holy and just and is eager to set things right, respond. Jesus specifically says God will not delay long; He will give justice speedily.
That doesn’t mean that God will respond immediately. God knows the best time and that is why we might have to pray and not lose heart. That is why it might be a case of crying to Him day and night. But the point is that God is a just God who will execute justice. That should motivate us to keep on praying.
Interestingly, Jesus then asks if the Son of Man will find faith on earth when He returns? When Jesus comes back, will He find people who are still praying because they believe in God’s justice and goodness, even when the answer is delayed?
Both of these stories tell of people crying out to God in their weakness. The woman is a widow and a victim of injustice. The tax collector is hated and is spiritually broken. Yet God hears the prayers of both.
Obviously, there are also people who are strong in prayer. There are people who are mighty prayer warriors, who have spent time with God and who have learnt about prayer and have grown to be powerful men and woman of prayer. God hears their prayers too but what I think the Bible teaches is that God also hears the prayers of the weak. God hears the prayers that arise out of brokenness and pain and confusion.
Jesus was a powerful pray-er. He could command the wind and waves to be still. When He prayed for the sick, they were healed. He could, with one word, command demons to depart. And yet think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, desperately not wanting to go to the Cross; praying that He would not have to. He was in turmoil and distress. He wasn’t the victorious, confident prayer warrior then. He was a broken man crying out to His Father.
On the Cross He was in no position of strength. He cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” And yet, His prayer in the garden was heard by God and His prayers on the cross were heard by God.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, especially when the disciples kept falling asleep, Jesus said to them, several times, “Watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation.”
That is the prayer of a weak person. Who is going to pray for God’s help not to fall into temptation? The person who knows how weak he is and how likely he is to fail. Who is going to pray that prayer most ardently? The person who is most aware of her weakness. If we truly desire not to fall into temptation, the person who is the weakest is going to pray the most.
If Jesus told us to pray it, I suspect it is also a prayer that God will answer. In fact, when God hears the cry of the person who, on the one hand, understands his weakness but, on the other, wants to conquer sin, I think that must delight God. That is exactly what He wants to see in His children.
Do we not too often fail? Can we not identify with Pauls’ words when he said, “The things I wants to do, I don’t do and the things I don’t want to do, I do”?
Jesus urges us to be realistic about our weakness. Recognise that without God we will fail. But the point of praying is that with God we can have victory. God hears the prayers of weak people prone to falling.
James, in his letter, says that the prayer of a righteous man has great power. He then uses an illustration from the Old Testament – Elijah. But look at the comment he makes about Elijah. Jas 5:17 – Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. We might tend to think of this great Old Testament prophet as a spiritual giant far different from us. Yet James reminds us that, actually, he wasn’t any different to us. He was a human being with all the foibles of humanity. We know that Elijah got depressed and wanted to die and complained to God thinking that things were far worse than they really were.
And yet, as James reminds us, Elijah prayed fervently that it might not rain and for three and a half years, it didn’t rain. Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. That is a powerful prayer. Imagine if God asked you to pray that over New Zealand. Would you have the power to stop it raining for 3½ years?
Of course not but neither did Elijah. The power is with God. Elijah was a weak human being just like us but God heard his prayers to powerful effect.
That means that God can also use your prayers to equally powerful effect. Elijah was no different to you. If his prayers could be that powerful, so can yours. The context for James comment about the power of prayer is specifically prayer for healing. God can use an ordinary person like you to bring healing to someone.
There are different types of weakness. There is the weakness of helplessness – when you can do no more; when you are at the end of your tether – when you are simply desperate because there is no hope other than God. There is the weakness of social standing – when you are nobody in society. There is the weakness of powerlessness – when something is required that is simply impossible for you – such as the healing of another person or stopping the rain. There is the weakness of failure – when you have fallen yet again. There is the weakness of spiritual brokenness, when you simply cry out from your lack of spiritual strength. There is the weakness of simply not being a good pray-er. Yet God hears prayers that arise out of weakness.
Romans 8:26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.
When we don’t even know what to pray or how to pray – and sometimes we simply don’t know what to say, yet the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. Even if it is just wordless groans that come out of our mouths, those can be groans that the Holy Spirit is bringing before God. We don’t have to be great pray-ers. We don’t have to have everything sorted and be on the top of our game.
What do we have to be?
In these various accounts we see what does make the difference in prayer. Each one specifically points to a key to answered prayer.
In the story of the widow it was faith. Jesus asked if He would find faith when He returned. Would He find people who are so convinced that God is good and just and will do what is right, that they turn nowhere else but keep bringing their request to Him?
In the story of the tax collector it was humility. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
In Jesus Himself, in the Garden and on the Cross, it was submission to the will of God. Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross but He prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done.” On the cross He submitted Himself completely to the will of God.
In the instruction to pray not to fall into temptation it is our awareness of our need – our awareness that we are weak and need God.
In the story of Elijah two things are mentioned. James talks about Elijah praying fervently but He also says that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful – the prayer of the person who wants to do the right thing (which perhaps is the same as being submitted to the will of God.)
Often our prayers arise out of our weakness, our brokenness, our pain, our failure. What matters is the state of our heart before God. You might be a hesitant pray-er. That doesn’t matter. Do you have faith in God? You might be at the end of your tether. Yet, maybe you also know that your only hope now is God. You might be a nobody in society. So what? God hears the prayers of nobodies who are submitted to His will. And, in any case, all of the time, the Holy Spirit helps us, in our weakness, to prayer.
Maybe we could take those six phrases (faith, humility, submission (to God’s will), awareness of need, fervency, righteousness) and let them shape our hearts as you pray. We can hold those words up against our own prayers as we seek to grow in prayer, and let them shape our heart. And all the time the Holy Spirit is willing to help us in our weakness and to pray through us.
- What types of prayer do you imagine God most enjoys hearing and answering?
- What do you understand being poor in spirit to mean?
- Do you believe that your prayers can be as powerful as Elijah’s? Why or why not?
- Can you tell stories from your own life that illustrate some of the following
- God answered a prayer when you were battling enormous odds
- God answered a prayer when you felt least deserving of it
- God answered a prayer when you didn’t want to do what God wanted you to do but you were willing to do it anyway
- God answered a prayer when you faced a major temptation
- God answered a prayer with a miracle that was far beyond your ability
- God answered a prayer after many years of repeated prayer
- What do you believe are the keys to effective prayer?