Before I jump in, I’d love to share a bit about who I am. Prior to starting seminary I had the privilege of being a 5th grade teacher at a bilingual charter school in Los Angeles. While I absolutely loved getting to minister day in and day out to my 5th graders, I longed to take time to go to study the Bible. Which led me to move from LA to Denver.
Moving here I was ready to flex every strong, independent woman muscle who doesn’t need a man, and three weeks after moving here I met my husband inner tubing down the Platt River. We got married five months later.
Though much has changed in my life these past two years, one thing that my time as a teacher in LA instilled in me, is keep the younger generation close because I have much to learn from them.
One of my favorite qualities of children and students is their ruthless honesty. I got to see this ability of “saying it how it is” at my classroom's end of the year party. It was my last day teaching before moving out here and a spunky 5th grade student came up to me and exclaimed, “Miss you look so nice today. I like how you made those purple circles go away under your eyes. You look great!”
I now get to work with high schoolers, and I have gotten to learn that high schoolers too can have this gift of “saying it how it is.” It’s one of the reasons I enjoy getting to spend time with them on a weekly basis. I believe they have a way of putting to words what adults have learned to either filter, suppress, or ignore. Because of this ability, I get to learn so much about human relationships with God through their honesty.
During one small group conversation we asked the students to choose a image to share which one most reminded them of God. We told them they were safe to put aside their “correct theology” for the night and speak what they most deeply felt.
The first student raised his hand and said the image that they most honestly felt resembled their experience of God in this season was as Santa Claus, but this Santa doesn’t know how to read English. So they write to him, but he can’t understand them. He apparently can read other languages, but not his language.
Aside from Santa, the image that most resonated with the students was a vending machine. A student said “Ya, it's like you put your money in and then it eats your money and you walk away with nothing.” The students laughed in agreement. A girl student shared that “Well actually, God is like the vending machines on campus where some of them work, and others don't. You just don't know what’ll work so it's just kind of disappointing.”
Sitting and listening I noticed that I wanted to begin to theologically correct the students, yet I felt invited to instead deeply listen and learn from what they were expressing. While the students that evening were using the images to create metaphors for God—they were expressing authentic feelings and experiences of God that we can often suppress or ignore.
Deep feelings that God is not dependable, that God must not care that much about me, that relationship with God is transactional and conditional, that the God we learn about in church is not actually the God we experience in everyday life.
That night driving home, I was thankful the students expressed their honest experience but it made me stop and think, If I allow myself to put aside all my good beliefs about God and acknowledge how I have felt in seasons and moments in my life, due to sin, disappointments, and wounds I too have felt that God was more like a vending machine that maybe worked and maybe didn't work, than a Father I was in a speaking relationship with.
I suspect that if we allow ourselves, without shame and guilt to acknowledge our wounds, heartache, disappointments, and personal failures and relational failures we too have tiny fissions or large cracks in our view of God.
I want to hold in tension the reality of our wounds, our broken world, loss, grief and also the truths of this passage, the truths of God’s character and our challenging call to trust him and take action. This is not easy—but I wholeheartedly believe that it is required of us in order to engage in the greatest gift we have been offered—life with God.
(Read Luke 18:1)
We Are Called to Pray and Never Give Up
Unlike many passages where we must work very hard to dissect it to understand the point, the point of the passage is made very clear for us here. As followers of Jesus, we are called to pray and never give up.
I believe Dallas Willard captures the heart of what it means to pray and never give up with his simple yet true definition of prayer as: “Talking to God about what we are doing together.” I love this definition because it captures the relational, ongoing heart of prayer. Prayer is not limited to a quiet time in the morning, but instead is our continual thought prayers with God as we go throughout our day.
While the heart of prayer is simply talking to God not in eloquence or fancy words, but in our ongoing thoughts throughout the day—there are hindrances that cause this to not be the reality for many of our lives. While some very genuine hindrances are distractions, our cell phones, busyness, stress, the hindrance I want to focus on today is the tension the high schoolers so honestly put into words—Why pray when God feels more like a broken vending machine that takes your money? To translate this metaphor, how are we to persist in praying to God when all the data points around you remain disheartening?
This is not a bad question to ask. This is a vital question to wrestle with because if you are not asking it in this season of life, there are definitely friends and family members who are and need encouragement. I believe Jesus valued this question so much that this parable I am about to read is birthed out if it.
Jesus is talking to his disciples, his friends. What he knows, but they do not yet, is that this teaching will be one of his last teachings before he dies. I believe this context is essential to understanding the deeper heart behind this parable. A parable is an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus is going to use their secular world to communicate spiritual truths.
In light of the suffering he knows is coming, what is it about prayer that he needs them and us today to know?
(Read Luke 18:2-3)
Jesus is telling a story using characters and a circumstance that the disciples would quickly understand in their cultural context. In this story we see two main characters arise: a judge and a widow. Let’s start with the widow.
Listeners would have understood when Jesus said “widow,” he was speaking of someone who symbolizes powerlessness and oppression. Ordinarily, women during that time in the Middle East did not go to court.
Our first character in this story has all the odds are stacked against her. She is oppressed, she has an adversary, and she's dealing with a corrupt judge. Yet we see that the judge gives her justice because, down in verse five, the unjust judge says, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice”—today’s translation “She’s giving me a headache.”
I have to admit, when I think about how much this widow must have had to pester the judge—I imagine my brothers and me every road trip diving to our grandparent’s house I would get so hot in the back seat. This was not an unusual thing for me—one of my many nicknames as a kid was pink because I naturally run hot. So over and over and over again I would say, “Dad, can you turn on the air. Dad, can you turn it up higher, dad, can you turn it down. Dad can you turn it up.” And finally, he would! I think mostly because I was so persistent and was starting to annoy my brothers, so you can imagine the kind of chaos I was stirring up.
So, is Jesus saying—like the widow and like young sweaty Rachel—annoy your Father in heaven to get what you want?
Many people have read this passage to mean, “We too must ask God many many times then maybe he will give me what I want.” While her consistency, courage, and confidence are certainly admirable, there is something more for us here.
This style of parable is called a “how much more” story. Jesus is using an example that contrasts our spiritual reality as children of God. Meaning if this oppressed, all odds stacked against her widow received justice how much more are you, a child of God to be heard and responded to.
In our physical realm, it is true that there are people in positions of having their voices and injustices oppressed. In the spiritual realm, Jesus is teaching us that we are not a powerless widow—but rather followers of Jesus are children of the Creator of the universe. They are given spiritual power and authority to bring transformation to this world. We can boldly approach our heavenly Father in prayer and petition.
I ask you, how do you view yourself in relationship to God? I think many of us, have are tempted to view ourselves as a “spiritual NARP.”
Let me explain. I was first introduced to the term NARP my sophomore year of college. When my dear friend, Hannah Calton, who was a top swimmer at our college, informed me that anyone not in the college athletic community is called a NARP—a non-athletic regular person. I indeed was a NARP. Even though I have played my fair amount of sports in life and like to be active hitting that 20 minutes a day on the treadmill, compared to the college athletic community, I indeed was a NARP.
I first realized this fate in high school when I was playing water polo. When the ref has you all line up to check that you clipped your nails so you can’t scratch, I looked down the row to size up my competition and realized that I could not change the fact I was 5’2” and these girls were at least five to six inches taller than me and were strong and sturdy. It only took one solid dunk under the water for several seconds that I decided to accept my fate as a NARP and retire from my water polo career. I did not have the skills or abilities to keep up with the super athletes.
Sometimes we can have this view of people in the church. There are the spiritual jocks, capable of things us NARPS are simply incapable of. They pray in a way that God would never respond to me like. They have gifts and powers that I simply will never have access to. This is not the view of Jesus—we are all called to pray because we all have access to God through Jesus Christ. No matter your age, no matter how long you have been to church, no matter if you have left the church and are now back, no matter if it’s one word, “help” or a full on lament—we are called to persist in prayer because we all have the power and authority to be heard by God. Do not think less of yourself than God thinks of you.
I got to witness a beautiful example of a young believer at our church trusting in the power of her voice before an almighty God. In a moment of concern for her friend, she took the courageous and potentially awkward step to pray over her friend who was having a hard night. Her pure words of, “God, help my friend have a good night please” have stuck with me. Because it showed me a beautiful example of the confidence of a child of God presenting her heart honestly and simply to him. She was not trying to bend his arm by fancy, long prayers with the perfect word but instead approached God as a daughter who knew she had the powerful ability to pray.
She was not held back by a concept that prayer is for spiritual jocks whom God favors, she was not helpless and powerless in that situation. Rather, she embraced her identity as a co-laborer in bringing the kingdom to earth through prayer.
Now that we debriefed that we are as children of God with the power to pray, we need to turn to the character of the judge to understand who it is we are praying to.
(Read Luke 18:4-5)
Who is this man? He is deeply unjust, uncaring, and unmovable. How do we know this? We see in verse two that he does not fear God, meaning he has no moral authority he is moved by. He also did not care what people thought—which can also be translated as, “he is not ashamed before people.” In the honor/shame society he is in, this is one of the sharpest criticism to be said about a person is that they “do not feel shame.” He is hurting a widow and should feel shamed but does not. In verse four we see that even he confirms that the judgement passed over his character is indeed correct.
Is this passage saying that God is also stingy with compassion on those who are hurting? No! Emphatically, no! Just like the widow, if this unjust judge granted this unlikely plea, how much more will God, who is nothing at all like this judge hear the prayers of his children.
God is not like the judge at all. How so?
He is not unmoved by your cries.
He is not withholding goodness from you.
He is not bias towards good behavior.
He is not tracking how many days you’ve been to church and judging you.
Then I ask again, who is he, and how do we know?
Wrestling through this deep heart question I am in awe of what takes place only shortly after. Shortly after this teaching we see the son of God, Jesus, live out these words to pray and never give up. We see this when he goes to pray to his Father that if there is another way besides dying on the Cross may it be so—he is burdened to the point of sweating blood.
In deep agony he is able to bring his whole self to the Father. How did Christ muster up the strength to accept the gut wrenching reality of God’s will in that moment? How did he persevere in prayer when the data points pointed to God seeming more like a harsh, unmoving judge?
Jesus acted on a foundational and key truth. He knew that his prayers were being received not by a cruel judge, but by a deeply compassionate and caring Father. Despite the events that were to follow, he pressed on with a deep assurance Who he was praying to. He knew he was speaking to a Father who was listening. He knew he was speaking to a Father who was not ignoring him. He knew he was speaking to a good, good God who would not let his Son's prayers go unheard and ignored.
Yet, the challenge many of us will face as we continue to choose to follow Jesus is clinging with all our might to the unchanging, unconditional truth that we pray to our Father in heaven, who deeply cares for us. While I cannot explain the why or why nots of this life, I know it is not because God does not care about us.
But is God being caring, enough to confidently say he is surely a good and powerful God worthy of praying to. No. I argue there is more—there is one last vital piece besides the love of the Father that strengthens Christ and followers to persist in prayer that we learn from this parable. A characteristic so opposite of the unjust judge we must not miss it. I believe it is so transformative that it is the very characteristic that can sustain us on our darkest days and also create a joy in us so rich it blesses others. Let’s not miss this.
(Read Luke 18:6-8)
God Is a Just God
Christ is clear. The unjust judge is nothing like God because God is a just God. And he will see that his children get justice.
How is this connected to prayer?
Let’s first address that when we pray, we often feel that something is not right, and we are appealing in prayer to God’s sense of justice, that he would bring justice and order to the world and our lives by squashing evil, sin, and anything that pulls us from goodness.
We desire a God that is just and a world that is just—and yet it is far too easy to think of all the examples where God does not appear to be just. I call this tendency my inner lawyer. This inner lawyer rages at the amount of unfair realities many people and dear loved ones are currently battling. While its been a lovely sentiment that we are children of God and pray to a caring and just God, but then what about all the ways in life this doesn’t seem to align with reality.
When you get the phone from the doctor
When you don't get the job
When your significant relationship is tainted by betrayal.
When the college you dream of doesn’t accept you
When the anxiety and depression seem to never be going away.
How do we reconcile this chasm of brokenness that saturates our world and every life here while also confidently saying God is caring and just—worthy of praying to and doing our lives with?
Jerry Sittser, author of A Grace Disguised, wrestled with this same need for more from God in light of his mother, wife, and four year old daughter dying in a car accident when they were hit by a drunk driver. Four years after losing three generations of dear women in his life he reflects on his years of prayers and shares that ultimately he has come to this conclusion, “I have come to realize the greatest enemy we face is death itself, which claims everyone and everything. No miracle can ultimately save us from it. A miracle is only a temporary solution. We really need more than a miracle.”
When I first read this quote I was deeply shaken, yet comforted, because while this is direct, and blunt, Sittser voices that what we need most. God to promise us everlasting justice. If God grants us our prayers while on earth to avoid pain and sickness in this world, and yet everything still ends in death and there is nothing else ahead, then God has not brought ultimate justice to the world he has created, he has played some sick joke.
Therefore, the ultimate fulfillment of what we yearn for in our hearts, the greatest need we have is justice. A justice that is so powerful that it defeats our ultimate enemy of death itself. A justice that cannot be reversed. A justice that cannot be taken from us. A justice that restores and makes things right.
This justice is attained by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Where God himself, out of sheer love for you, displays his character of care and justice by dying on the Cross to then raise again, defeating the power of death over our lives. Friends, because of Christ, death no longer has the final word—life does. Life as it were intended to be. The glorious reality that all tears, pain, suffering will be swallowed up into everlasting life and pure joy. It is the resurrection that assures of God's justice. It is the resurrection hope that will sustain us when our present reality is disheartening—because we know how our story ends and we know who our Father is.
So how is God's justice connected to prayer—because of the resurrection, we can pray and never give up knowing that every prayer we plead for will never be in vain—life will win.
So what is the spiritual reality that Christ is inviting his disciples and each of us to in the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge? It is that unlike the widow and the judge, as followers of Jesus we can confidently persist in prayer, knowing that we pray to a father who is caring and just—guaranteeing that life will have the final word.
Jesus ends with a final question “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This question can feel heavy. However, there is grace abounding.
When this question of keeping your faith in God feels daunting or too heavy to carry, take heart that our faith in Christ is not meant to be done in isolation by our own strength—but with a community of believers.
Sittser, who I mentioned before, explains how after his horrible loss he did not have enough emotional energy to verbally pray or sing at church. However, he continued to show up on the Sundays he could and sunk deeply into the belief that he was a part of a church that was holding faith for him. So now after years of healing and processing, when he comes to church he says that he chooses to sing extra loud out of the belief that he is singing for at least five friends in the room who cannot at that moment. What a gracious, communal view of our faith. If that is you today, you have a compassionate place here.
Brothers and sisters, as followers of Jesus may we confidently persist in prayer, knowing that we pray to a father who is caring and just—seeing that life will have the final word.
May we do this, like the young believer, who confidently, simply muttered her heart to her Father no matter how many words—as we walk into our work. As we order our coffees. As we talk with our families. Let us live lives saturated with prayer.
Like Christ, in his agony who rested deeply in the unshakeable truth that the father deeply cares. So when storms come, disappointment rages, loss breaks, our hearts are steady that we are not abandoned.
Like Sittser, who ultimately found his greatest, most ultimate need being resurrection. May we live with the assurance that life has the final word through the destruction of death and the resurrection of Christ and all his followers.
Lastly, may we confidently persist in prayer as a church family. Who sees the brother or sister who needs encouragement and chooses to reflect the care of the father to them in their time of need. May we be a church that sings today on behalf of our city who needs the hope of resurrection life.
Rachel Koch served as the High School Ministry Resident and Pastoral Intern at Greenwood Community Church (Greenwood Village, CO).