Persistence pays off. Jesus tells this story of a widow who incessantly petitions a judge to give her what is her due. he widow’s persistence pays off. The judge grants her justice just to get her off his back. The message that is added to the parable focuses on the persistence of the widow, not so much on the attitude or action of the judge. We, like the widow, are to be persistent in prayer, in lifting up our petitions to God. Not because God is like an unjust judge who will grant our wish to keep us off the divine back. “Will not God, who is so much more gracious than this judge, grant justice to God’s chosen ones?” And quickly. The answer implied in the text is a resounding “Yes!”
The focus of this parable and the passages we’ve read for today is on persistent prayer. Prayer is understood here in a broader sense than asking God for something you want or need. Habakkuk’s prayer is a protest. “How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help and you not listen?” This protest to God comes from the experience of suffering, from encountering violence and injustice. Habakkuk cries out to God and waits for a response.
This waiting is the key. Habakkuk is not a whiner, mumbling under his breath something God can barely hear and then going about his business as if nothing happened. “Who me?” I didn’t say anything.” No, Habakkuk lifts up his complaint and waits. “I will stand at my watch post. I will keep watch to see what God will say to me.” Habakkuk is persistent in prayer, not only lifting up has complaint, but waiting and watching for a response.
There is no direct evidence of a tangible reward granted Habakkuk for his persistence. His wish is not granted, so far as we know. Still, he is blessed with trust and joy in the midst of trouble. “Though the fig tree does not blossom,” he writes, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” “God, the Lord, is my strength.” Habakkuk’s faith, his trust in God, is his reward in the midst of troubles. His ability to cry out to God, “How long, Lord?” Is a blessing. Troubles do not magically disappear, but he draws strength from the one who hears his prayers, who stands with him in his trouble.
Prayers are more than just asking God for something. Praying is done more often than when we are silent, with our head bowed and our eyes closed. I can’t imagine Habakkuk silently whispering, “How long, Lord?” I’m sure his was more a gutteral burst of frantic energy, “How long, LORD!” The Bible provides us with a wide range of prayers in the Psalms. From the desperate pleas, “With my whole heart I cry, answer me, O Lord,” to the bursting exuberance, “O, Lord, how I love your law,” to the challenging questions, “How can young people keep their way pure?” All these within a single Psalm.
If prayer is to be persistent, it must be the prayer of the whole heart, the whole self, not just the part we find most appealing. Persistent prayer includes the bowing down and the crying out. The wonder. The anger. The sighs and grunts and groans too deep for words.
God’s Spirit moves us through the stages of prayer from the words on our lips, the familiar prayers, to the sighs, grunts, and groans too deep for words. We move towards deeper union with God to whom we offer praise and protest, winding up in a place of wonder, of marvel, of awe.
It took a lot of courage for the widow to speak out against injustice, especially to such a powerful judge. To be persistent, standing and waiting for an answer to the question, “How Long?” Her persistence pays off. How much more so with God, who has shown himself merciful and kind, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
“How long?” the cry of Habakkuk.
“How long?” the cry of Jesus.
“How long?” the cry of all who suffer and believe God great enough to endure the suffering, to remain faithful to us, to suffer with us, as we watch and wait.