My late, great friend, Clifford Warne was the one who told me a story about an elderly Jewish man who went to the ‘Wailing Wall’ in the Old City of Jerusalem to pray every day. For any who don’t know, this section of the greater ‘western wall’ is a holy site within Judaism, as it’s the last remnant of the wall of the ancient temple – the only section that survived the visit of Titus and his Roman legions in the year 70.
This elderly man comes to the wall every day and prays, and on this particular occasion he is interviewed by a young reporter who is fascinated with his devotion.
She asks him, “how long have you been coming here to pray?”. He says, “I’ve been coming here every day for the last 57 years. I’ve only missed a handful of days over that time. Normally, I am here every single day at around this time, and I pray.
“And what do you pray for?” she asks. He says, “I pray for a lot of things! I pray for my family. I pray for my daughter – that she won’t marry that rotten tailor. I pray for my people. I pray for the Palestinian people. I pray for a lot of things.”
“And in 57 years, have you seen many of your prayers answered?”, she asks him, to which he replies, “Well … no! To be quite honest with you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single prayer answered. In 57 years … not a single prayer answered! I tell you, sometimes you feel like you’re praying to a brick wall!”
This is our experience too, isn’t it?
I don’t know about you, but I pray quite a lot, My prayer-times are very important to me, and yet they are often very emotional times too, and the emotion is so often tied up with the fact that my prayers don’t seem to be getting answered, so I’m praying for the same things every day, even when a part of me is saying that it’s pointless.
A pertinent example: I poured myself out in prayer every day for at least six months, praying that my family would stay together. Prayer not answered.
More recently I’ve been pouring myself out in prayer every day for our church – praying for unity, for grace, for love, for a lot of things for a lot of people. Some of those prayers have been answered, but a lot of them haven’t – not yet, at any rate.
Perhaps it’s not helpful to say, ‘I pray a lot’. What I mean is that ‘I pray a lot for me’, in the sense that I’m praying more now (for longer periods of time and with greater regularity) than I ever have at any other period of my life. Even so, I am sure that there are others in our church community who pray far longer and harder than I do.
In case you’re interested, I combine my prayers with my breathing exercises, and it’s a pattern that really works well for me as it helps me focus in my prayers. If you’ve been on one of my weekend bush camps, I’ve probably taught you these breathing exercises, which involve taking a series of deep breathes, after which you breath out and then hold it there, and stop breathing for as long as possible. I say my prayers during that period of stillness, while not breathing.
As I say, I pray a lot now – a lot for me – and part of the reason for that is because I’ve learnt to pray without taking a breath for up to half an hour at a time now.
Some of you may find it hard to believe that I can hold my breath for half an hour, especially when the Guiness World Record for breath-holding is only 24 minutes. You’ll remember though too that I broke two World Records in 2012. I’m planning on breaking this one soon too, and I will pray as I break it.
At present I’m doing three cycles of breath-holding each morning, and the quiet time adds up, and I always seem to have enough time to intercede for my family, my friends, the church, the fight club, the bush camp, the bishop, the people of Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Manus Island, etc.
I recommend this as a prayer discipline as I find it’s a good way of staying focused. Does it though result in seeing more prayers answered? I don’t think so.
Mind you, I have seen some prayers answered recently. Last week we saw the US end its military occupation of Syria, and that’s something I’ve been praying for very specifically every day for many years now.
Mind you, perhaps I should have specified in those prayers that the US leaving wouldn’t mean sacrificing the Kurdish population of Syria to the Turkish Army! Indeed, it does make me wonder if, while I’ve been praying for a US withdrawal, there have been a larger number of Kurdish people praying this wouldn’t happen.
How does it all work? It’s all a bit of a mystery – why some prayers seem to get answered and others do not. It’s a mystery, which is a pious way of saying that it doesn’t make any sense, and indeed, if you think too hard about it you might be tempted to give up altogether, which is why Jesus tells us this parable.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Luke 18:2-5)
Now, that’s the story, and Luke tells us quite explicitly that Jesus shared this story in order to encourage people ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). This story is designed to encourage us, and yet I suspect I’m not the only person who finds this story more confusing than encouraging.
If this parable is a metaphor of sorts for a person at prayer, the details of the metaphor just don’t seem to work. If God, who hears our prayers, is here being represented by the judge who hears the petition of the widow, it’s not a healthy comparison. Indeed, we are told repeatedly during the parable that the judge has no principles – no moral compass whatsoever!
This judge does not fear God and has no respect for his fellow human beings. He doesn’t give a damn about the woman or about her ‘just cause’. He has no interest whatsoever in her plea. Indeed, his only desire is to shut her up so that he can go and get on with his golf game. If this story is meant to encourage us to keep sending those petitions to the Almighty, this isn’t a very encouraging image to start with!
I appreciate, of course, that Jesus’ stories aren’t always allegories. In other words, not all the characters in Jesus’ stories are meant to align with figures in real life. Even so, for a story to work, it has to connect with us at some point, and if there’s no connection between the judge in the story and our Heavenly judge, where does the connection take place?
Perhaps we are meant to connect with the widow – a person who is by definition alone and without real support in this world. Is that meant to be us? We are told that she persisted with the judge because she claimed she had a just cause against whoever was allegedly persecuting her. That’s a possible point of connection. Whenever I’m praying for victory over my enemies, I always believe my cause is just.
In truth, I think the connection between us and the widow is a bit tenuous too, and yet there is a connection, and I think I’m in a privileged position to be able to spot it as I have two great advantages over most people approaching this text.
Firstly, I have a rudimentary familiarity with the original language in which this story was written (Koine Greek), and secondly, it turns out once again that being a professional fighter is also a big help when it comes to understanding this text.
The unprincipled judge eventually gives in to the persistent widow. Why? According to my translation, he says “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:5). It’s a sanitized translation. The actual Greek verb used here in the Gospel is hypopiazo, which means “to give a black eye”.
This is a boxing language, and the image of the widow’s ‘continual coming’ is that of the boxer relentlessly driving in on her opponent. Think Joe Frasier. Think Mike Tyson. Don’t think of one of those boxers who dances around, waiting for the right moment to land a quick shot before running back to the other side of the ring. Think of Iron Mike on the warpath against Trevor Burbick or Michael Spinks, relentlessly driving forward and happily distributing black eyes with each hand.
I appreciate that this sort of boxing chatter is not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you miss the metaphor you miss the humor that has been infused into this story.
Mind you, as Biblical scholar F. Scott Spencer recognises, the humor here is not comic relief. The story-teller is poking fun at the powers-that-be, “lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like.” Like a modern-day political cartoon, Jesus is satirizing the corrupt system of his day, and I assume He wants us to laugh along with Him.
So our hero in this story is a boxer of sorts, and, as I say, not just any boxer, but a determined and relentless bully of a boxer who never knows when to back down. Understanding that, I believe, is the key to really grasping this parable.
Where are we supposed to connect with this parable? It’s not through the judge, and I don’t think it needs to be through the character of the woman either. The point of connection in this parable is, I believe, in the struggle itself, for dealing with God in prayer – really dealing with the real God – is a battle!
I note that we had a choice of two Old Testament readings today. One was from Jeremiah 31 and the other was from Genesis 32. I opted for the Jeremiah reading, only because we’d had Jeremiah last week and I thought continuity would be good. I can see though why the Genesis reading was on offer as it has a lot in common with today’s parable. Genesis 32:22-31is the story of Jacob wrestling with God.
I won’t read though that story now. I assume you know it: Jacob, son of Isaac, child of the promise, had been lying and cheating his way all through life until he had that violent stoush with his creator by the river Jabbok.
Jacob at that point in time was being hunted down by two armies, or so it seemed. He has his uncle, whom he’d cheated out of all his wealth, pursuing him from behind with one small army. He had his brother, whom he’d cheated out of his inheritance, coming towards him from the other direction, accompanied by 400 of his mates.
That was the night of truth for Jacob, and so he wrestled all night with God, refusing to let go until his antagonist had given him his blessing. And so, the fight went on until dawn, at which point God ended the thing by hitting Jacob with a low blow!
Is this another parable of sorts? It’s presented to us as a true story, and John Calvin, many years later, would claim indeed that it is only God that we have to fight with!
“our business is truly with [God], not only because we fight under his auspices, but because he, as an antagonist, descends into the arena to try our strength. … what was once exhibited under a visible form to our father Jacob, is daily fulfilled in the individual members of the Church; namely, that, in their temptations, it is necessary for them to wrestle with God.” (Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, published 1544)
This is prayer. It’s a brawl where you cling on to God as your only source of hope but where you can never quite get the grip you’re looking for. It’s pouring yourself out like Jacob did by the river Jabbok. It’s tirelessly pummelling the unjust judge with lefts and rights, hoping to land something but never seeming to get that clear shot! It’s Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where we are told, “being in conflict, He prayed more intently. And his sweat became as great drops of blood, falling down upon the earth” (Luke 22:44).
This is prayer, and it’s no easy thing, but the challenge is to keep going.
And so I set the alarm early enough this morning to allow me to do my three cycles of breathing, and my three cycles of prayer – praying for my family, for the my friends, for Binacrombi, for the Fight Club, for the church, for Syria, for Julian, etc.
Were things looking any brighter as I prayed this morning? Are many of my hopes and dreams looking like they’re about to come to fruition? Not really. Even so, I must keep going, as I really do believe that in the end all my prayers will be answered.
Unlike that guy at the wall, I can say in all honesty that I feel that, over time, all my prayers thus far have been answered – not every one in exactly the way I would have liked, of course, but in a surprising number of cases, exactly as I liked.
We are not praying to a brick wall. Persist, sisters and brothers! Keep coming forward. Keep throwing those punches. Don’t let go. God will give us His blessing. We just have to keep on pummelling for a little while longer.
first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, October 20th, 2019
 F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 292-93.