Waiting on God
James C. Denison
When I yawn, you want to yawn, don’t you? No one knows why. Scientists aren’t even sure why we yawn. We live in a confusing world, or at least I do. I don’t know why we drive on parkways and park on driveways, or call it “rush hour” when no one moves, or sterilize the needle for lethal injections.
This week’s news has me even more confused. The Chinese women’s gymnastics team apparently uses several athletes who are nowhere near the required 16 years of age, but Olympics leaders won’t intervene for risk of offending China. Russia signs a cease-fire with Georgia then continues its aggression. Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, but Hillary Clinton will still be nominated. And the first presidential debate of 2008 is hosted by a Baptist pastor in his church, just last night. Who would have imagined it four years ago?
There’s much about the world I don’t understand, and even more about its Creator. I’ve been doing formal theology for 32 years, but I’m still not sure how to understand the Trinity, or explain the Incarnation, or resolve God’s providence and our freedom. And I’ve long wondered why we pray to an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.
If he’s omniscient, presumably he knows what I’m going to ask before I ask it. In fact, Jesus told us that God knows what we need before we pray (Matthew 6:8).
If he’s all-loving, he would want to do the right thing without being asked. Surely my prayer doesn’t talk God into doing the right thing, as though he wouldn’t have unless I convinced him. I might need convincing to skip dessert or join the PTA, but presumably God doesn’t need persuading to do whatever is best.
If he’s all-powerful, he can do the right thing without my request or permission. Why pray, then?
And why pray when he hasn’t answered your prayer the way you wanted him to? What are you still waiting on God to do? What problem are you waiting for him to help you solve? What relationship still needs to be reconciled? What circumstances need to be changed? What illness needs to be healed? What job needs to be given? What bills need to be paid? Why pray to a God whose answers you’re still waiting to see?
Let’s walk through Jesus’ parable, then see why it answers our hardest questions about prayer today.
Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem, most likely in the spring of AD 29. Along the way, Luke says that he “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1). The Jews typically prayed three times a day—Jesus wants us to pray “always,” and never “give up.” That’s why the New Testament tells us to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Even when God doesn’t seem to answer. Especially when God doesn’t seem to answer.
To make his point, Jesus told our parable. It involves two main characters. First, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men” (v. 2). This was a Gentile, not an Israeli; Jewish judges always worked in threes, not alone. This was a paid magistrate appointed by Herod or the Romans. He “neither feared God” as the Jews did, “nor cared about men” as Gentile judges were expected to do. These judges were notoriously corrupt, so that bribery was the only way to get them to act on a complaint or a problem. The person with the most money usually won.
Now Jesus introduces the other character: “And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary'” (v. 3).
Women typically married when they were 14 or 15, usually to men who were in their 30s. Men didn’t live many years after that, leaving their wives as widows for years to come. When her husband died, his property was inherited by his children or brothers, leaving his widow with nothing. As a result, the Bible continually commands God’s people to “look after widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Exodus 22:22 is clear: “Do not take advantage of a widow.”
But someone has. A family member has taken the estate and left the widow with no provision. Or someone in the community has stolen her property, or refused to pay her for services provided, or harmed her in some other way.
Their religious leaders discouraged the Jews from going to Gentile magistrates, preferring to settle matters with the elders and within their religious community. People usually went to them when they wanted the judge to do something the Israeli judges would not. Given the biblical injunction to support widows, it is likely that whatever wrong was done to this woman was permitted by a Gentile judge. The fact that this woman went to such a Gentile judge probably indicates that her adversary had done the same earlier, and that he had rendered the very verdict she is now asking him to reverse.
She “kept coming to him”—the Greek indicates continued, repetitive action. She has no money with which to bribe the judge, as she cannot even afford a lawyer to make her case. Her adversary has already secured the judge’s favor through bribes, political power, or social status. Persistence was her only weapon (Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible Commentary 1179).
Not surprisingly, “For some time he refused” (v. 4a). He wouldn’t listen to the woman’s pleas, or even admit her into the court. But then, “finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!'” (vs. 4b-5).
“Wear me out” translates a Greek idiom which literally means, “give me a black eye” and symbolizes personal shame, disgrace, or loss of face. The judge is not worried about physical assault, but he is concerned about his status and reputation.