The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Prayer Saves Lives?

Is Jesus tying faith to our persistence?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Luke 18:1-8

For Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 29

I beseech you therefore brethren and sister by the mercy of God, to hold on a minute. Back up a little bit. The Gospel text for this week is very good. There is plenty of meat chew on (or tofurkey if you prefer). But somewhere between Week 28 and Week 29 the world ends. The Lectionariers kind of left that part out.

Just in Time for Halloween

The pericope between the Healing of the Ten Lepers and the Parable of the Persistent Widow starts with Jesus being addressed, almost casually, “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisee when the kingdom of God was coming.” It ends with the creepy, just-in-time-for-Halloween, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

In between the corpses and the questions, Jesus tells his listeners that it could be just a matter of days before lightning will flash, just as in that days of Noah, and a flood will come and destroy them all. And like the day Lot left Sodom, it will rain fire and sulfur from heaven and destroy them all. This seems like, maybe, some important contextual information?!?

In the Face of Doom

In this week’s reading, Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples in the face of impending doom. He tells them a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. The message turns out to be more about persistence in prayer then about comfort. Both the parable and Jesus’ interpretation seems to be covering the same ground he did in Chapter 11 with the parable of the friend at night.

So why don’t we say we already talked about this stuff and tear into all the great stuff that comes before it. A lot of really interesting and hard questions could be asked about people disappearing from their beds at night and the corpses and the vultures. Why not preach on Luke 17:20-37 instead? Or at least try and tie the two pericopes together.

The Hardest Question

If we must stick with the lectionary, here is my hardest question: Is Jesus tying faith to our persistence? In the Healing of the Ten Lepers, Jesus ties faith to gratitude, but persistence and gratitude are both actions initiated by the individual. Given my particular theological slant, I have a hard time seeing faith as the result of the action of an individual and not the sole action of God. So, is Jesus really saying that persistent prayer equals faith and that faith will save me from being snatched away—or being left behind?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Dana Runestad says:

    See Luther’s commentary on the third article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…

    See Kimberly Bracken Long’s pastoral perspective in “Feasting On the Word” for the Lucan pericopes in chapter 17 and 18.

    All this depends your perspective. I begin with the understanding that faith itself is a gift, and as such is not a commodity but a posture, an attitude, a disposition, a lens through which we see life, what we do and who are.. Faith begins with surrender. (Surrender may be a human action, but it is an action of letting go in order to rely on God,and also happens by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.) Gratitude is exercise that strengthens faith. It immediately puts ourselves out of the center and puts God there. Prayer is whatever we do to maintain an awareness of God-centered reality. It’s unwrapping the gift.

  2. I come from a different theological community– United Methodist– and so an Arminian and Anglican rather than Reformed perspective on the question.

    And from that angle, I would say, “Yes, Jesus is tying together faith and persistence in prayer.”

    But let me come at this from yet another angle– that of neurology (but also confirmed in scripture)– to suggest why this may be significant.

    What we persist in thinking or doing over time becomes “wired” as a neural network in our brains. That means the more we do it, the better we get at it, because we’re no longer having to “think about it” as much. It becomes incorporated in our whole brains, our whole bodies and so, one might say, our whole being– and not just in our prefrontal cortex, or “working memory.” Working memory is great for what you’re focusing on in the moment– but it’s also very, very slow and inefficient relative to other forms of memory.

    So if faith– and in the story, faith in the justice of God in the reign of God– is indeed to imbue our whole selves, persistence in practicing or playing out in our minds or confessing the Truth is exactly what it takes, over time, to make that happen.

  3. Julie Klock says:

    Another Lutheran perspective here but I read that it is possible to persevere because of faith. The gift of faith also brings the gift of hope – even when there is no reason to be hopeful. The widow’s faith caused her to believe that there was hope of justice which fueled her persistance (which wore the judge down!) Enlightened by the Spirit indeed!

  4. Robin Walker says:

    Another Anglican viewpoint here:

    I don’t think it’s a question of “either/or” but “both/and.” Faith is indeed a gift of God, and one of the signs of that gift is surely a desire to pray without ceasing. Persistence in prayer, on the other hand — however motivated — has a way of reshaping the faith of the one praying. As we pray “thy will be done” we are participating in the reforming of our wills in a God-shape rather than a me-shape.

  5. Grant says:

    Do we have the idea that faith is docile? Do we think that we must simply take abuse without a plea for our rights? Does being a Christian mean that we must passively receive injustice without any response? Do we believe that aggressive cries for equity and fairness are only for those without faith? Should we just wait patiently on God and keep silence? Will the parable of the importunate widow in Luke 18:1-8 give us a different perspective? Is aggressive faith an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms? Perhaps not. Maybe appropriate, aggressive requests are perfectly acceptable to God. Possibly we don’t have to sit passively by while the world abuses us. Jesus commended a persistent widow for aggressively demanding justice from an uncaring judge. Should we not likewise persistently and aggressively ask God in prayer for his intervention?

  6. Brad Harris says:

    I have struggled to find credible resources in post modern analysis for such difficult texts. When Jesus tells a story to encourage persistent prayer, it need not be thought the results are intended for private or personal gain at all. The metaphor of the unjust judge invites us to see prayer as a lifestyle into which we gladly enter and which entails a trust in the results of prayer based upon the faith of the whole church. From this point of view, westerners might think of this text as advice on getting your way. Forget allegories, and think of this as a story about prayer. Prayer is a lifestyle chosen by people embracing the faith. Within this lifestyle there many subtle, rich and unexpected victories. It is not a place for people to frequent who are bent on sectional advantage, or magical manipulation of the universe. I doubt Jesus is encouraging perverse narcissism.

  7. Brint Keyes says:

    I can’t provide as intelligent a theological analysis as others, but a real-life parallel speaks to me. If my teenager wants to borrow the car, and I have the car keys, then he will pester me unceasingly until I 1) give him the keys or 2) tell him in very explicit and forceful terms that I will not give him the keys. Apart from these two results, he will continue to ask me, because 1) he REALLY wants the car keys and 2) he knows that I’m the ONLY one who can provide them to him.

    From this, it seems pretty clear that, if one does NOT present one’s concerns and desires to God constantly, then either 1) one does not believe that God has the power to grant one’s request (i.e., God doesn’t really possess the car keys), or 2) one really isn’t sincere in one’s prayers (i.e., you didn’t really want them anyway).


  8. David S says:

    I keep thinking about Luther’s Small Catechism’s explanation to the Lord’s Prayer – especially the idea that God’s anem will be God’s Kingdom will come, God’s will be done, even daily bread happens “without our prayers” – thankfully I might add. But my prayers, never-the-less, tune me into the gractious activity of God and make be less the spectator and more an active collaborator in all that God’s up to.

  9. Rev. Russell says:

    Brint, I like that you are reading this in a way that invites/encourages/requires relationship. God knows what we want, that we want the keys to the car, but it is a very different kind of interaction if we are granted the keys. After a while, maybe we don’t even know if we want them. Requesting/supplication is about a relationship of intimacy and not dispassionate exchange. But, even given that–why do we have to keep asking? Being persistent? If we communicate our desire to God once, why is it neccesary to keep doing it? Unless persistence is understood at continuity. I wonder what the Greek is there?

  10. Rev. Russell says:

    No one wants to talk about the corpse and the vultures and the destruction of everyone?

  11. Rev. Tim says:

    Ahh the relationship between prayer and faith. I once received this bit of wisdom from a former pastor: “If a call committee wants to ask a really tough question, they will forget social issues and ask what you ‘think’ about prayer”

    There seems to be little doubt that faith is much more relational than substantive in nature. Faith does not have an independent existence but lives in (and makes possible) relationships. Faith is always initiated by the one in whom trust is put. So called “blind faith” is what I would term a “gamble”. Faith in God is not a gamble. It is based upon something. That is why Luther is adamant about human inability to create faith.

    Yet “the faith of me”, which is not a possessive faith (unfortunate English translation problem), is still a part of me. It moves me, it prods me, it changes me, it kills me and raises me back up again to unseen possibilities. So although I do not see Jesus “tying” faith to either thanksgiving or to persistence, I do see that both thanksgiving and persistence are components of faith. They are manifestations of the deep relational nature of trusting in someone. I think Jesus makes some of his points “via negativa”. God is certainly not the unjust judge and yet how many times do we trust in God and God’s faithfulness as persistently as we trust in God wannabees?

    Now the question who is our “opponent” and what “justice” (vengence/punishment) are we expecting from God? That might be the most difficult part of this pericope.

  12. Richard Hamm says:

    Sorry, not really interested in the last part of the questions regarding body snatchers or vultures, but the first part got me thinking-persistent prayer and faith. I’m not a persistent prayer-er, but it got me to thinking who probably are the people persistent in praying-those people like the widow, the oppressed, the forgotten, those taken advantage of by the powerful. Perhaps I’m not a persistently praying person because I don’t experience persistent, relentless poverty, injustice, abuse, neglect, and oppression. (we may think, wrongly! that we don’t need God as much as those people. My guess is that when Jesus returns, he will find genuine faith in those just mentioned: who most need Jesus to return.

  13. Fr. Will says:

    I appreciate the shared perspectives especially regarding the way we’re “wired” and that faith is about relationship.

    From my perspective acting on faith requires that we give up something of ourselves and our control. As we express our faith persistently in prayer we yield more and more to grace and rely less and less on ourselves. Ultimately when the Son of Man comes he will find one of faith who is relying on God’s grace and fully yielded. The widow thus becomes the model of how we can come to experience grace even from the unjust and implies that grace will be found in greater abundance from a just God.

  14. Roy Askins says:

    In response to the “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” question, here are some thoughts. In the Greek, vultures can also be translated eagles. If you remember the standard of the Romans was an eagle. Perhaps you’re getting the picture now, but think crucifixion. Where the corpse of God hangs, there the eagles of the Romans shall gather.

    If this is the crucifixion, it has very significant implications for understanding the coming of the Kingdom. In other words, it’s not only or even primarily a reference to the eschaton, but rather the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.

    Just some thoughts.

  15. Seyite says:

    In a nutshell, i would say the demontration of faith and continuity in prayer simply goes with individual relationship and understanding of God, which also revolves around the sovereignty of God. Faith affords us to walk, trust and repose on Him and His unfailing words. It gives us the peace and strength to tarry in His presence when praying. However, being God, He still responds and makes everything beautiful in its TIME.

How do you read?