The results from a 2014 survey detailed what Americans pray for most often. First on that list: family and friends. Their own problems came in at the number 2 spot. Future prosperity was a common prayer for more than a third of respondents, while praying for government officials—something Paul commends to Timothy in his letter to him—was done only by 12 percent. It turns out that praying for politicians happened less frequently than those who prayed for their favorite sports team to win, with 13% of respondents doing that.
A sermon on Luke 18:1-8.
There were interesting items on that list, like how 1 in 5 of us has prayed to achieve success in something we put very little effort in—perhaps college students who didn’t study for the exam? Or how 41% of people have prayed for those who had mistreated them—that’s a direct imperative from Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, less people have prayed for their enemies, another of Jesus’ commands. 5% of Americans admitted praying to God for something they knew would not please God, which really has to make you stop and ask: what should we be praying for anyway? For God to give us something that we know God would dislike? It’s like a kid asking his mom for the BJ’s sized bag of halloween candy all for himself. I wonder if God gives those prayers an eye roll as big as those parents would. Sometimes when we pray, we tend to treat God like a giant cosmic slot machine, hoping to hit it big.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus has just finished telling his disciples about the coming of his kingdom, and then he tells them this parable about their need to pray and not lose heart. “In a certain city,” he starts, “there was a judge who neither feared God not had respect for people,” which tells us quite a bit about the content of this man’s heart. He’s been around long enough to have secured his position in life. He’s moved his way up through the ranks, and now he is able to preside and offer verdicts about cases that come his way. In Jesus’ day, there were no juries of one’s peers, so when it came time to render a judgment, it was all on the judge. And, Jesus tells us, there was also a widow in that town who kept finding that judge day after day and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” You can picture the scene, right? This woman coming after the judge as he tries to quickly make his way to the courtroom, his robes billowing behind him. “Judge, you know I’m due some justice. I can’t make it on my own, and you’re constantly overlooking me and what I’m rightfully owed.” And she doesn’t relent. She’s like that annoying beeping from your smoke alarm in the middle of the night, chirping every minute to tell you it’s time to change the batteries.
And just like that incessant noise keeping you awake, the judge has finally had enough. “Look,” he says, “I don’t fear God or respect other people, yet because this infernal woman keeps coming to me day after day, I’ll give her what she wants so she may not finally come one day and slap me in the face.” (Which is really what Jesus said back in the day, we just translate it to be a bit more metaphorical by saying “that she might not wear me out.” I personally like the visual Jesus gives us.)
Notice he doesn’t disagree with the common perception that he’s a bit full of himself. That he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. We don’t know what’s taking him so long to offer justice—which is what the Torah tells him to do. Back in Deuteronomy, we hear from God as the people of Israel enter the Promised Land, “You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” So this unjust judge with the big ego has been dragging his feet, it seems. Maybe he’s hoping for a bribe from the opponent, or maybe that person is a friend of his. We just don’t know. All we know is that the widow has worn a path to his door, and she keeps banging on it, and he finally relents.
And if this guy eventually caves in, Jesus says, will not God grant justice to the ones crying out day and night? Will God delay in helping them?
Now if you’re like me you’ve probably got at least a handful of things you prayed to God for that didn’t get answered the way you had hoped. From those small things like an Atari gaming console when I was a kid to the larger ones like healing for my parents when they battled cancer. So we might want to gently remind God that sometimes it seems that there is in fact a delay in that promised help, or even a blatant disregard of the request. That knuckles have gotten bruised and sore from that metaphorical knocking on that door.
In that survey on prayer there were some interesting break downs when you dug a little deeper. Like this one: if you have a college degree you’re more likely to pray that someone else would fail. Those without a degree, not so much. Then there’s this: according to the survey 5% of the population had prayed to God at least once for someone else to get fired. However, it turns out that the number balloons up to nearly 20% for those making more than $150,000 a year, while for those making less than $30,000 a year, it’s only 1% who have. Those at or near the poverty line know what it’s like to scratch out a living to survive, so while they might not like someone at their workplace, they know not to ask God to have that person lose their livelihood. Those of us on the other side of the spectrum, well….
The New York Times ran an opinion piece a few years ago by psychologist Daniel Goleman highlighting this “empathy gap” between the rich and the poor. He writes, “[W]e focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.” He concludes, “Tuning in to the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which in turn can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action.” And, I suspect, what they pray about. In this little parable it’s the poor widow who needs compassion and justice and so she comes day after day. The judge only gives in to get her off his back. He doesn’t have any empathy; he said so himself. He doesn’t respect others. He just doesn’t care.
“And yet,” Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Perhaps that faith is related to our empathy and what we pray about.
Think about those in our day needing justice. Like those 49 migrants flown from Texas to Florida to Martha’s Vineyard just a couple of weeks ago. While much ado was made about them for a couple of day, have we continued to pray for them and their need of justice? Have we asked God to intervene? There are other places where we see the need for God’s hand on our earth. Like the war in Ukraine, or the plight of women in Iran, or the thousands still without power in Puerto Rico nearly a month after Hurricane Fiona came through. Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. Busing in Boston has been an issue for many this year due to staffing shortages—and it’s especially impacting the poor. Young elementary students getting home hours after they are supposed to from school while parents worry sick over them.
Justice, it seems, is sometimes hard to find. It’s like there’s an unjust judge around every corner. But when I think about some of my own prayers, I realize many of them are for my own desires and wants and needs. They rarely wander into the realm of justice. For God to intervene on behalf of others. And yet when we do pray for justice—when we pray for the needs of those who have been unjustly ignored, we participate in the coming reign of God. When we take time to offer our petitions to God again and again on behalf of those who have been overlooked, that’s when we engage in the empathetic work of Jesus. That’s when we show our faith.
This stewardship season, we are focusing on the ways that we’ve been restored by God here at St. Mark’s. We’re looking at how St. Mark’s becomes that place that helps us become more faithful. To become those who both fear God and respect others. That’s the mission of this community, to help us each week be reminded that we are disciples of Jesus, and then equip us to engage in the work of the kingdom that Jesus ushered in. That kingdom where justice for all people can be found. Friends, God is not slow to grant justice; God does it through us. May we become more and more those full of empathy who respond both in prayer and action to the needs of our world. May it be so.