But we don’t persist in asking if we know there is no chance of an answer. Last month, I took my car to my mechanic for an oil change. He opens at 8AM so I was there at 8:30. But the doors were locked, no one was there. It was the day after July 4th and he had closed for the holiday weekend. There was no sense in me staying there knocking on the door asking for an oil change, because there was no chance for an answer. We only persist in asking if we know there is chance of getting an answer. So inherent in Jesus’ admonition to keep on asking, seeking, knocking in prayer is the reality that an answer is possible. The widow persisted in pestering the judge because he was the one who could and should give her justice. The man persisted in pestering his neighbor at midnight because he knew the neighbor was there and could give him what he needed. We are to be persistent in prayer because God is the one who can and will answer our prayers.
There is another reason to persist in prayer and that has to do with a cultural factor at work in these stories that people in Jesus’ day would have picked up on immediately, but it’s one that is not as strong in our own culture and that is the concept of honor and shame. Middle Eastern culture is not as individualistic as our own culture. It’s very communal. So we have to keep in mind when we read about Jesus’ interactions and teachings, that it is always in the context of a community. So let me ask you a question. When you hear the story of the man going to his neighbor at midnight and waking him up, asking him to get out of bed and give him some bread for this visitor, do you sympathize more with the man who needs the bread, or with the neighbor who has to get out of bed and give this guy bread and then most likely get his kids back to sleep because the whole household has been woken up? Because if the guy had just planned ahead for his visitor and made sure he had bread, this wouldn’t have happened. Am I right?
Jesus’ audience would have sympathized with the guy who needed the bread, not the guy who was woken up. Back in those days, you were honor bound to give the best hospitality to guests. The basic need was an unbroken loaf of bread for each guest. People ate with their hands and bread served as a utensil. You wouldn’t give a dinner guest a fork that someone else had used that hadn’t been washed. They wouldn’t have given someone a loaf of bread that another person had eaten from. Also back in those days, there would have been a communal oven in the village that everyone used and so you only had certain days of the week when your family could use the oven. So everyone knew the schedule and knew who had fresh bread in the house. Obviously the guy with the guest didn’t have use of the oven that day or he would have made fresh bread for his guest. But he knew his neighbor did use the oven and did have fresh bread. Finally, when a guest came, they were the guest of the whole community, not just one individual family. It was the responsibility of the whole village to see that they were properly cared for. Because people placed such a high value on hospitality, everyone in the village would have done what was necessary to properly care for the guest. It would have brought shame on the whole village if a guest was not treated well.
Today, when we invite someone over we take full responsibility for caring for them. We don’t want people to leave our home thinking we were rude or not good hosts. This weekend my brother and his family were with us to celebrate Bethannie’s leaving for college. So I made sure the house was cleaned, fresh sheets were put on the bed, fresh towels were put out and that we had extra food and drinks on hand. We wanted them to be comfortable in our home. Back in Jesus’ day, a visit like this would have been more communal. One neighbor would have provided the sheets, another the towels, another special dishes and so forth. The host was providing the house for the person to stay in, so he would have gone around the village and collected everything else he needed for the guest from his neighbors. So if he knows that this person has the best tablecloth in the village and that one the best dishes, he goes and gets those because the honor of the whole village is at stake. The village doesn’t want to be known as a poor place with bad hospitality so everyone would have brought out the best and taken care of the guest.
So when people heard the story that this man was going around asking for bread, they sympathized with him and understood that their sense of honor would have compelled them to get out of bed at midnight and get together the best loaves of bread they had and give them to the man, along with anything else he needed. Applying this to prayer, we persist in praying because God is the one whose sense of honor will compel Him to answer our prayers. If our sense of honor and value of hospitality compels us to provide for guests in our home in an adequate way, how much more will God provide for us, His children, when we have need?
God is the one who can and will answer our prayers. There are many instances in the Bible where God tells His people to come to Him and ask and He will answer. Isaiah 58:9 says “You will call and the Lord will answer.” In Isaiah 65:24 God says “Before they call I will answer.” In Jeremiah 33:3 He says “Call to me and I will answer you and show you great and mighty things you do not know.” In Psalm 86:7 the psalmist says to God “When I am in distress I call to you because you answer me.”
It’s a matter of honor with God that He answer when people call on Him in prayer. The concept of honor in Jesus’ day had to do with avoiding shame. There were strong ideas of what was honorable and what was not. People of honor were people who followed conventions and didn’t do things to bring shame on themselves, their families or their communities. This idea still persists in many cultures of the world including the Middle East. One of the things you may have heard of is honor killings. This is when a person is killed by a member of their family or social group because they have been thought to bring shame on their family or community. Most often it is women who are killed in this way because the way they dress or act is considered shameful, or because they don’t want a prearranged marriage. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 women a year are victims of honor killings. This shows you how seriously honor and shame are taken in these cultures. So in these parables that we are looking at today, we have to realize how startling it would have been to Jesus’ listeners to hear that a neighbor would refuse to give bread or a judge would have no concern for what people thought of him and his actions. It got their attention because these things went so much against their core value of honor.
The parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 was scandalous not only because there was a judge who didn’t fear God or care about people, but also because this judge represents God! Jesus is taking a bold risk in using a negative character to represent God and to teach by contrast that God answers prayer. The point of the parable is that we ought to always pray and not lose heart. Jesus begins with a description of the judge who is a man who doesn’t feel shame. He’s an anomaly in this honor bound culture. This is one of the sharpest criticisms that could be levied against a person in Jesus’ day. This judge does shameful things but doesn’t feel ashamed of them. He should be a person of honor. He’s a leader in the community and people come to him for justice. He has a great deal of power and authority. He should be the one who is most concerned that things are done right.
The widow by contrast is innocent, without power, destitute, and oppressed. She has no one to help her. Back in Jesus’ day a woman didn’t go to court. A man would go if a family had a legal issue because court was a very rough place. The fact that this widow is in court pleading her own case shows that she has absolutely no one to help her. This judge should have taken care of her need first. In the Old Testament the Lord had specified that orphans and widows were to be cared for and to be protected from oppression and violence. The orphans and widows were to be the first ones whose cases were heard in court. The fact that this widow had to keep coming to the judge with her plea was against Old Testament law. Her legal rights were being violated. But the judge is the only one who can give her justice so she keeps coming back day after day. The judge becomes convinced that she will never give up, that she will pester and irritate him forever. And so even though he can’t be appealed to out of a sense of duty to God or to the people, or out of sense of shame for evil, he finally grants the woman justice just so he can have some peace.
How much more will a loving father grant justice to His children who cry out to Him day and night? If we persist in prayer, we will be heard. We aren’t appealing to a scoundrel of a judge who doesn’t care for anyone but himself. We are appealing to the God who welcomes us to come before Him in prayer, whose character is one of mercy and justice, and who wants to answer our prayers. In Luke 18:7-8 Jesus asks the rhetorical question “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” It is in God’s character to answer us when we cry out to Him.
The night when I was working on this sermon our dog was sitting next to me in the chair in the living room. Vandy had come in to work on some things there as well and he was talking to the dog. He had gotten her a doggie biscuit earlier and he always gets a couple and teases her with them. He’ll give her one and then hide the others somewhere. So he had one doggie biscuit set aside but she snuck up and got it. He was fussing at her that she took it without asking. So I asked him why did she need to ask and he said because it was polite. Now the doggie biscuits all belong to the dog. They were bought for her, they are made for her and nobody else in the house is going to eat them. But she still has to ask for them. It’s kind of the same way when we pray. God has all that we need. He’s Lord of our lives and He’s provided for our salvation and for every circumstance we may face in life. He created this world with everything that we need for life. He’s provided for the life to come. All this is for us. But we still have to ask. And we have to be persistent in asking. Because really it’s not about being polite, it’s about being in a relationship. Vandy wants the dog to ask him for treats because he wants to relate to her. He wants her attention and wants to interact with her. God wants to have our attention. He wants to communicate with us and relate to us. He wants us to learn about Him as we relate to Him.
Ultimately we pray because God is our Father. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he said we are to start with the words “Our Father”. These are words of relationship. The relationship we have with God is one of love and acceptance and also one of discipline and correction, all done with perfect justice and mercy. We spend time with God so that we can become more like Christ, that we can also be people of honor. The bible tells us that we are being formed into the likeness of Christ, with ever-increasing glory that comes from the Spirit. We pray persistently so that we can come to know the mind of Christ, to know His will for our lives, and to receive what we need from His Spirit in order to participate in His mission on earth. God doesn’t reject the person who comes before Him in prayer. He doesn’t kick us out of His presence or walk away from us. He doesn’t leave us hanging, refusing to grant us what is just and right as He knows it should be. He may tell us “no” or He may make us wait while He works to get things ready for us to receive a “yes”. But He never ignores us or actively works to harm us.
It takes faith and persistence to keep coming to God, presenting our requests to Him, when it seems no answer is coming. But in those times, as we continue to come to God in prayer, we get to be in His presence. I remember Pastor Leonard’s sermon from a few weeks ago when he reflected on the story of Jesus and the disciples in the boat when the storm came up and the disciples woke Jesus up, scared they were going to be killed. They had the answer to their prayers right there in the boat with them. They were with Jesus. As an outsider looking in I can say of course they were going to survive because Jesus was there. But how many times do we get discouraged and afraid because we pray for something and don’t see the answer and we forget that Jesus is in the boat with us? He’s promised to never leave us.
I’ll invite the worship team to come forward now as we transition into a time of prayer. And during this time, I want to encourage us to think about who God is. He’s the God of hospitality who welcomes us to come into His presence and spend time with Him. He’s our Father who loves us and has already determined to provide for us. He’s the God of honor who keeps His word and doesn’t lie to us. He’s the God who sees and hears us, He gets us, He knows where we are at and still welcomes us to come to Him. One of the things that has struck me this summer as I’ve watched the response of this congregation to this series of sermons on the Scriptures of Good Report is that many of us are carrying heavy burdens and many people are coming to God in prayer for many different things. Some of you may have gotten answers already this summer but others are still burdened and still crying out. As we pray today, let’s pray for each other for God to give us the strength and the faith to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, knowing that we will get an answer.
So what I want us to do as a response today is to stand up and join hands with the people sitting next to you. This may mean you need to move around a little or reach across the aisle for someone’s hand. And as we hold hands, let’s pray for the people on either side of us. I’m going to ask the worship team to join hands with me up here. We’re going to just take a few minutes and pray for each other, for the worries or burdens that the people next to us might be bearing, for the needs they might have, for God to be at work in their lives and for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done. Let’s take a few moments and pray.