In the psalms we encounter voices of exuberant praise, voices of confident teaching, but also voices of lonely lament and questioning. The psalms give voice to the most trusting prayers and to the human soul’s wrestling with the silence of God.
How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
this sorrow in my heart day and night?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
How long? How often has the question risen from the heart to the heavens, and there was no answer, only this outpouring of a longing to be noticed, to be remembered, to be heard and answered? How long, O Lord? How long until once again I can sing songs of joyful praise?
The psalm is in the holy book not just to give voice to our plea, but to let us know that God’s people, generation after generation, have let their questions rise, seeking answers, waiting for answers, day and night. “We have waited and prayed for justice so long, our knuckles are bloody from knocking on that door,” an old preacher sang from a pulpit in Montgomery some fifty years ago. Bloody knuckles from praying. Praise, of course, flies up like a bird on wings of joy and gratitude, but when prayer is little more than a heart’s cry for an answer, the night can be long.
You pray fervently that your friend will be cured of cancer and live; you pray like a warrior and the battle is fierce, but the longed-for moment doesn’t come and she dies, too young.
You pray for an end to violence and war, but how often is your hope snuffed by yet another news story about an attack on a village in Syria, a mall in Nairobi, or a school in Connecticut?
You pray, and sometimes you wonder if perhaps you should not be so bold in your prayers: lower your expectations so the stories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other don’t hit you quite so hard.
Why not stop longing for the world’s redemption and instead ask only for the strength to take whatever life throws at you? Or stop praying altogether?
Jesus knows our worries and he tells us a story about a judge and a widow. Widows in Jesus’ time weren’t necessarily old nor were they necessarily poor, but still they were in a very vulnerable position. When a man died, all his belongings became the property of his sons or brothers, and the widow depended entirely on them for her survival. You know what families can be like. The male survivors had certain responsibilities, based on law and custom, but that didn’t necessarily mean they took them seriously. Disputes involving widows and orphans were quite common, and it was the judges’ responsibility to help resolve those disputes in the community. Jewish law and tradition were quite clear about what was expected of a judge:
Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.
Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment. Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God.
It wasn’t just the part about the fear of the Lord this judge in Jesus’ story habitually ignored. He was a man without shame. Didn’t want to hear the widow’s case. Ignored her plea for justice. Pretended she wasn’t there. Pretended he wasn’t in the office. Wished she would just go away. But she had nowhere else to go. No friends in high places. No judicial complaint hotline. What she did have was this remarkable capacity to make a scene, and she made good use of it. She didn’t go away.
She knocked on his door, “Give me justice.” She camped out on the steps of the court, shouting, “Give me justice.” She followed him on the street on his way to lunch, “Give me justice.” She called several times a day and left messages on his voice mail, “Give me justice.” Even on the golf course she found him, shouting, “Give me justice.” She was unrelenting, untiring, insistent and shameless.
And she finally wore him down. No, the judge didn’t suddenly discover that he had a conscience, nor did he suddenly develop a reverence for God and respect for others, no, he just wanted to get her off his back. He finally did the right thing – for the wrong reasons, but still, he did the right thing. Now, Jesus said, if the worst judge you can possibly imagine will respond to the persistent plea of a widow, how much more will God grant justice to you, God’s children, who pray night and day? Will God delay long in helping you?
Luke says, the story is about our need to pray always and not to lose heart. To pray boldly and tirelessly. To pray trusting in God’s faithfulness and in God’s desire for justice. To pray as if the coming of God’s reign depended on nothing but our prayers. To let our longing for the kingdom rise from our hearts, to ask, to seek, to knock with unrelenting persistence like Sheldon outside Penny’s door.
There’s a story about Mother Teresa and a legendary Washington attorney who was the lawyer for Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others. He was an influential member of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic lay order dedicated to serving the sick and the poor. Mother Teresa was on a fundraising tour for an AIDS hospice, and she had made an appointment to ask for a contribution. Before she arrived, the attorney and his partner quickly rehearsed a polite refusal; they agreed that they would hear her out but say no.
Then she came in. The little nun in front of this enormous desk, solid mahogany, heavy as a rock. Behind it, the man to see. She made her pitch, with urgency and kindness, and the famous attorney apologetically, but firmly, declined.
“Let us pray,” said Mother Teresa and bowed her head. The attorney looked over at his partner, and the two men bowed with her. When she was done, she looked up and made exactly the same appeal. People were dying of AIDS, many of them had been pushed out by their families, many of them were poor, they needed a place where they could die surrounded by love. Again, the Washington lawyer politely declined. Again, Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.”
“All right, all right,” he said, perhaps he knew the story, and he opened his checkbook.
Do you know what they say about the bulldog’s nose? It is slanted backward so it can breathe without letting go. Pray like a bulldog. Pray with the unrelenting insistence of this little nun. Pray with the doggedness of the widow. According to Luke, that’s what the story is about. Pray always and don’t lose heart.
But that’s not all. It’s quite a privilege to reflect on the state of our prayer life while many a widow is struggling to have enough to eat and a place to call home. The widow in the parable is not just an illustration for good prayer habits, she’s also a human being crying out for justice, and she’s alone. Yes, she keeps coming, she keeps shouting to move a judge who cares nothing for God and neighbor, but her persistence also moves you and me. She is making a scene to remind us that God’s reign of justice is among us, and that we are to allow God’s compassion to rule our actions. She invites us to pray like her, but she also urges us to pray with her, to join her in wrangling justice from broken institutions that reflect no fear of God and little respect for the dignity of human beings.
We must be persistent in prayer because the night of waiting can be long, and because in prayer we engage with the living God whose promises we trust and whose purposes we want to serve. Prayer keeps the flame of hope alive. In prayer we let the priorities of God reorder our own priorities. We ask how long, we seek with honesty, we knock on heaven’s door, and we keep at it until the questions come back to us.
I walked with that little story, I sat with it, I meditated on it, I turned it round and round in my heart, and then it turned my heart around and God came to me in the widow – persistent, unrelenting, determined to get my attention, asking, seeking, knocking on my door.
“How long will you hide your face from me,” she asked. How long must children in this city go to bed hungry? How long must old men wander homeless in the streets? How long must I bear this sorrow in my heart day and night and you, you do not know? Look on me and answer.
Sometimes we pray just to try and keep our head above water and breathe while the world is flooding in on us. Sometimes all we want from our prayers is the assurance of God’s love in a world that’s going nuts. But Jesus reminds us of our need to pray always so the promises and purposes of God can reorder the priorities of our lives. We lift up our prayers for justice, for the coming of God’s reign, for daily bread and forgiveness, and as we knock on heaven’s door we hear the knocking from the other side, God’s persistent, unrelenting, and redeeming presence that calls us to work and pray with Jesus.
 Deuteronomy 1:16-17 and 2 Chronicles 19:6-7
 Evan Thomas, The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1992) p. 390