Whatever Happened to "Importunity"?

Text: Luke 18:1-8
Date: Pentecost XXII (Proper 24) + 10/20/13

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Are you getting a little sick of hearing that phrase begin every sermon for this whole year, today for the 49th time? (Don’t worry there’s only five more times till the end of this liturgical year). That’s what “importunity” is. It is to make urgent requests to the point of becoming annoying.

In the 1611 King James Version of the parable of the friend at midnight requesting some bread (Luke 11) Jesus explains saying, “I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him [what he asked] because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth” (Luke 11:8). The ESV has “impudence” or rudeness. The word literally means lack of shame. Today’s Gospel is about much the same thing. It is a parable, St. Luke tells us right up front, “to the effect that [you] ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

In much the same way as when, (you will remember) Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager, saying, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness” (Luke 16:8), so today our Lord uses the somewhat surprising example of an unjust judge, the opposite of the God of mercy, to make His point.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” Now that doesn’t sound so unusual, does it—especially in our day of religious pluralism and even atheism? How many judges after all these days have found it to be unconstitutional to have the Ten Commandments displayed in a courtroom or a Christmas nativity scene on any public land? If the Bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom then what does it imply is the result of lack of fear of the Lord? To not be a respecter of men would be a good thing as is historically portrayed by the statue of Lady Justice with a set of scales in one hand to measure the strengths of a case’s support and opposition, a double-edged sword in the other hand symbolizing the power of Reason and Justice, and a blindfold over her eyes representing objectivity, without fear or favor of a person, the blind justice of impartiality.

But what do we see? Examples abound in our day of men and women in law and government who demonstrate that they neither fear God nor respect people. What role does political favoritism play in today’s Supreme Court for instance? Wouldn’t that be an apt description of a Karl Marx, a Joseph Stalin, an Adolf Hitler or any tyrant? I wonder if the image Jesus had in mind of His unjust judge was a man whose dark eyes reflected an empty soul, a man of no emotion of compassion or objective substance of law but only of a deep anger, anger at God and anger at anyone who would get in his way? It’s spelled P.O.L.I.T.I.C.I.A.N. (dot com!)

Regardless of the depth of the judge’s depraved character, a widow of his jurisdiction pleaded with him for “justice against [her] adversary.” We don’t need to be told what injustice was involved. Whatever it was this judicial ingrate refused to act in her behalf. It is almost humorous that Jesus even has the judge confess out loud his lack of fear of God or respect of persons. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” The point is how much more will the God of mercy, love, compassion and grace give justice, give the appropriate, saving answer to the pleas and petitions of the people He has already made His own?

For example, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it over and over and over again. It fulfills different purposes at different times. And we pray specifically these two requests, “Thy kingdom come” and “Forgive us our trespasses.” “Thy kingdom come.” “Thy kingdom come.” “God’s kingdom comes all by itself without our prayers,” says Luther in his small catechism. Then why pray? “That by the grace of the Holy Spirit we may believe God’s holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” God does not tire of us asking for His kingdom, His rule in our lives because He wants us to share His godliness “here in time and there in eternity.”

“Forgive us our trespasses.” “Forgive us our sins.” Do not look at our sins or deny our prayer because of them. We pray this over and over again because we cannot rid ourselves of our sins and fear God’s judgment over them. We know that we are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. But we keep asking, pleading for forgiveness because we know God to be the merciful, long-suffering God of grace, the God of our salvation.

Jesus’ final words say that the continual, incessant prayers of a Christian are a sign of the importunity of faith. Faith prays. Sometimes in words we speak with our lips. Sometimes in the silence of our mind and heart. But most of the time faith prays without our even knowing, even lifting a hand or uttering a word. Faith prays because faith possesses the Holy Spirit of whom blessed Paul the apostle says:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
You know the will of God revealed in His Word, the Bible. Faith prays in alignment with what God has revealed is His heart and will for us.

And not only the Holy Spirit but also Jesus Himself pleads our case before God the merciful judge, as it says in the Book of Hebrews, “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).

You ought always to pray and not lose heart. We need to hear this because none of us prays as he ought and we all lose heart and are easily discouraged. But the Law way is merely to make you feel guilty which only makes things worse. The Gospel way is the way of faith which, fed by God’s word and sacraments, is always active and living and encouraging. Jacob’s name changed to Israel or wrestler with God. The widow pestered the judge to get him to act. The God of mercy “takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 147:11).