Return to Sermon Archive
The Prayer Prosthesis
October 21, 2001
by Tony Grant
She was an elderly woman, about fifty years old, moderately well-preserved, although a bit dried out. Granted, fifty is not so old --unless you're living 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. This fifty-year-old woman was recently found in burial chamber TT-95 in the Egyptian necropolis at Thebes-West. For someone who had been buried for three millennia, she looked remarkably well-preserved. Yet even archaeologists were not very interested in her because she appeared to be an average, everyday, garden-variety mummy--until someone noticed the odd-looking big toe on her right foot. It was artificial. It consisted of three pieces of carved wood fitted onto her foot with leather straps, making it the world's oldest known prosthesis. The wooden toe still looked ready for use, still lashed to the patient's mummified toe by a textile lace.
For paleo-pathologists around the world, this big toe was big news. X-rays revealed that the Egyptian woman's actual toe had been surgically removed, perhaps because artery disease had cut off circulation to the toe. Soft tissue and skin had overgrown the site where the toe had been taken off, and then the prosthetic toe had been added.
She must have been a persistent woman to go to all that trouble. Evidence shows that the device worked. Scuff marks on the toe's underside indicate that the artificial toe had assisted the woman for some time while she was alive. Without it, she would have had a difficult time walking like an Egyptian.
Two millennia ago, there was another persistent woman. She was a pain, a pest. And Jesus uses her for an instructive lesson in Luke 18.
Our gospel lesson today is sometimes called the parable of unjust judge and sometimes called the parable of the persistent widow. Jesus locates the parable "in a certain city"an indeterminate expression, indicating that the name of the city is not important.
The judge is described as neither fearing God nor having "respect for people." The idea that fear of God bestowed wisdom and discernment as well as piety is deeply rooted in scripture. Psalm 111:10 "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments." In ancient times, it was believed that, in addition to the professional competence derived from their training, judges should role models, people of character. In order for people to have confidence in a judge, the judge had to be above reproach. But in the parable, the judge was not above reproach. He was a bad judge. who was eager to hear the cases of the rich and to be bribed for a decision.
Widows were on the margins of society, generally poor, generally without much social clout. It was generally acknowleged, throughout the whole middle east that a judicial system should be judged by how well it gave justice to those without power.. ,Widows, along with orphans and the poor, were symbols of the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and their protection was the particular duty of the government. For example, in the Ugaritic legend of King Kirta, Kirta's rebellious son calls for his ailing father's abdication by saying, "You do not decide the complaint of the widow, you do not render judgment for the distressed," KTU 184.108.40.206-34; original in The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places, ed. M. Dietrich, O. Loretz, J. Sanmartin [Muenster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995], 46.) Thus, because it is a widow who importunes the judge for justice, he is under an additional burden to do right.
Say this for the widow. She has gone to the right place. [A copy of the Yellow Pages] The Yellow Pages are very helpful, but you have to know the right person to look up in the book. You would not call a plumber to plant a tree, or a doctor to fix a light switch. The widow in today's Scripture lesson knew exactly whom to call to get justice: A judge. Even though he was an unjust judge "who neither feared God nor had respect for people" (Luke 18:2), he was the one who had the skill and the power to give her justice, and so the widow was right to keep calling him.
Even thought the Judge will not hear her, she persists. Like a bulldog that has sunk his teeth into something, she will not let go. Her constant plea is: "Grant me justice against my opponent" (18:3).
That is the point in the parable: persist. Persistence is a quality worth developing. Ella Fitzgerald said, "Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do ... Where there's love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong.". But perhaps Winston Churchill said it best and most emphatically "Never, never, never, never give up."
Scott Kober in an article entitled "The power of persistence," says, "I read in the Friday, October 16, 1998, Des Moines Register that hospitals in Iowa are not intentional about the fight against domestic violence. According to the article, "Iowa hospitals may be failing to identify as many as half of victims of family abuse."
Two members of Grace [United Methodist Church] are working to change these statistics and were quoted in the article. Binnie Lehew is the violence prevention coordinator for the health department and Barbara Wells works at Mercy Hospital as the clinical manager of social services. Both of these women are carrying out the story of the persistent widow. They are persistent in working to correct the injustice of family violence within our community. ...
The parable of the widow guides us to understanding the power of persistence. The power of persistence that requires intentionality and a sense of curiosity to notice the world around us. The power of persistence which combats injustice and brings about justice.
In this parable Christ is calling us. Will we be willing to act on our intentions? Will we be willing to follow the lead of the persistent widow?
[Scott Kober, "The power of persistence," Grace United Methodist Church Web site, www.gbgm-umc.org. ]
Persistence enables us to triumph over great odds. In Norton Juster's children's classic The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo embarks on a quest to rescue the exiled princesses, Rhyme and Reason. At the conclusion, returning successful after battling a delightful array of monsters such as the Senses Taker and the Terrible Trivium, he is greeted by a cheering crowd and a joyous parade in his honor. But Milo is reluctant to take credit.
"But I could never have done it," he objected, "without everyone else's help."
"That may be true," said [Princess] Reason gravely, "but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do."
"That's why," said Azaz, "there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn't discuss until you returned."
"I remember," said Milo eagerly. "Tell me now."
"It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathematician.
"Completely impossible," said the Mathematician, looking at the king.
"Yes, indeed," they repeated together; "but if we'd told you then, you might not have gone - and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."
-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 247.
In our text the persistent widow does the impossible. She gets a crooked judge t hear her case. Finally, the judge couldn't stand it any more. "I have no fear of God," he admitted to himself. He even confessed that he didn't care for people. "Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice" (vv. 4-5). He simply wanted to get her out of his hair, because she was wearing him out with her continual griping. The widow's pleas were like a big wooden toe, one that kept jabbing and jabbing and jabbing away.
We are not told directly that the widows persistence had a good outcome. That is only implied in the judge's thoughts in v 5. So what then is the point of the parable? if an unjust judge can be brought to hear a case, then how much more quickly will God hear our prayers.
"Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" asks Jesus. "Will he delay long in helping them?" Of course not! "I tell you," Jesus insists, "God will quickly grant justice to them" (vv. 7-8). Jesus is saying that if a corrupt and uncaring judge responds to persistent pleas, then certainly a holy and loving Lord will do far more, and do it far more quickly. Whereas the earthly judge delays, God acts. God does not need to be browbeaten into submission before he hears our prayers. Ask and it shall be given; Seek and you shall find; Knock and the door will be opened to you.
For some folks prayer is a kind of prosthesis, an artificial crutch that they lean on in time of deep distress. But that is not the way prayer ought to be. Prayer is not like the mummy ladys artificial toe that we use to keep on kicking God in the shins. Rather, prayer should be a natural part of our lives. It is the natural product of our faith relationship with God. Prayer is the critical stabilizing faculty that keeps our faith upright, that positions us to receive from God what he wants us to have.
Prayer is a practice that connects us to a power that is much greater than ourselves, a power that can fill us and change us and strengthen us and guide us. Prayer is a practice that is perfected by persistence - by disciplined determination to be in an ongoing conversation with God.
John Marks Templeton is the creator of a number of well-known mutual funds, including the Templeton Growth Fund and the Templeton World Fund. He is also a person of deep faith, and has always started his annual shareholders' meetings with a prayer. "I pray to be in tune with God's purposes," he explains. "Humans are not wise enough to know what is best, and so you pray that what you do and think and say is in tune with God."
He's been doing this for fifty years at the meetings of each of the seventy mutual funds that bear his name. Most of the funds have done pretty well, although he doesn't connect God to the Dow Jones. Looking back over a lifetime of prayer, he has come to the conclusion that we are all a tiny part of God in some way - kind of like a wave is a tiny part of the ocean. "A wave is not the ocean," he notes, "but neither is the wave separate from the ocean. The wave is not eternal and long-lasting the way the ocean is, but the wave and the ocean are related to each other. The God I pray to in those shareholders' meetings is vastly greater than we as humans have conceived of as yet."
Prayer is like the movement of a wave in harmony with the great ocean that supports it and sustains it. Individual waves can make a splash now and then, and even beat themselves against the rocks - but they are most majestic and powerful when they are rolling in harmony with the ocean that creates them, day after day after day. Even so, when we are in harmony with God and come to him constantly in prayer, we have an oceanic power in our lives.
Supreme Court Prayer Restrictions
Now I know that we Christians sometimes complain long and loud that our prayer lives are being restricted by court decisions. Last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against student-initiated, student-conducted prayer at public high school football games, it seemed like yet another setback for Christian believers. Some of us have wondered for a long time if a football game is an appropriate place for something as sacred as prayer, but we do not need to get into that issue now. Perhaps instead we should focus on all the places we can pray. We have lots of prayer opportunities--in school (e.g., before that final exam), at home, at church, outside, inside, with friends, alone. The Supreme Court did take away that 30 seconds of prayer before a football game, but that still leaves a lot of time. Furthermore, I have noticed, since September 11, many televised prayer services and many reports on people praying, and none of these people seem to have any problems prayingso maybe our complaints about prayer restrictions do not really have that much substance. Maybe what we ought to be doing is less complaining and more praying.
Kevin Burke, a social worker in California, was not a religious person, and he was discouraged from discussing religion in the hospital where he worked. But at San Francisco General Hospital in the early 1980s, he saw several patients who seemed to fare better because of their spirituality.
Now, 17 years later, Burke has studied the effects of religion and spirituality on mental health and found a distinctive result: Those who say they feel "closeness to God," which Burke defines as spirituality, fare much better according to a standard research tool, the Rand Medical Outcome Survey.
Burke traces his research to his days in San Francisco. He remembers one patient, an undocumented worker from Central America, who was suffering from spinal cancer. Because Burke could speak Spanish, the man went to him for help. Burke brought the man a prayer card.
"He thanked me profusely," Burke recalls. "He just started talking about how important it was to pray. All I did was listen." Before the man died, his pain lessened. He required less medication. Doctors asked Burke what he had done. Burke became known as the prayer-card counselor.
The people he interviewed for his doctoral study were in similarly poor health. "All of these people had a number of chronic conditions. Physically, they were very sick people," Burke says. "Persons who were close to God tended to have very high mental health scores, independent of how bad they were physically. They tended to cope much better."
Now I suppose that what Burke is saying could be easily misinterpreted. He is not saying that prayer can be reduced to pain-killing, mood-enhancing theological Prozac dispensed at the hands of a "prayer-card counselor." He is not saying: Take a little prayer in the morning, get some rest and you'll be feeling better in no time. He is saying that the person who walks with God is in a stronger position to endure the calamities of life than one who does not. But there is not quick fix. You don't ignore God all your life, and then suddenly take a prayer card and slip it under the door of heaven asking for help. The faith walk of the Christian is strenuous and demanding. We need a muscular faith for the journey.
In the parable, Jesus had great respect for this feisty woman. She knew how to walk the talk, and talk the walk. Her persistence was rewarded.
May her tribe increase! Even Jesus wondered whether "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (v. 8). It is a good question. Will he find, in each of us, a persistent faith in prayer? Amen.
King, Larry. Powerful Prayers. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998.
Scott, Stephen. "Spirituality helps patients deal with pain," Akron Beacon Journal, February 3, 2001.
Svitil, Kathy A. "Walk like an amputated Egyptian," Discover, April 2001, 12.
We thank you, for you are our God, and God of our fathers and mothers forever. You are the Refuge of our life, the Shield of our help. From generation to generation may we thank you and count your praises - evening, morning, and noon - for our lives which are committed into your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to you, for your miracles which are with us every day, for your wonders and goodness at all times. O Good One, your compassion does not fail. O Merciful One, your loving-kindness never ceases. Forever we hope in you.
-Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley in The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), 859.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 11/05/01