Our Gospel reading is another one of those parables that can blow your mind. Jesus tells us to pray like a widow who harasses a judge until finally he gives her what she wants just so that she will stop bothering him. Apparently our prayers are supposed to irritate God into submission. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that!
What immediately comes to my mind when I hear this parable is all those times I had to walk through a mall with my children when they were young. They would ask for a colorful plastic toy. I would say no. They would ask again. I would again say no. They would ask yet again. Now I am getting irritated, but I try to be patient because I am in public and I don’t want to embarrass myself. I tell them no, and I tell them not to ask again. They wait about thirty seconds, and then ask again. I can’t take it anymore, so now I have to decide, do I kill them, or do I give in? Neither option is great.
So what does Jesus teaching us in this parable? Well, there are a few things he is NOT teaching.
Jesus is NOT saying that God is an unjust judge. Jesus routinely calls God his loving father, and he teaches us to do the same.
Jesus is NOT suggesting that we can irritate God into doing our will. On the contrary, Jesus teaches us to submit our will to God’s. Our prayers should always end with the line Jesus himself prays on the night before he died: “Father, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Jesus IS teaching exactly what Luke tells us he is teaching, that we should pray always in the confidence that God hears our prayers.
Here is a little context, that I only recently learned. People in the ancient world related to their gods and goddesses primarily by sacrifice. You might add a prayer if you wanted a favor from one of the gods. But sacrifices were more important.
That was also true for Jews who lived near Jerusalem. If they wanted something from God, they would go to the temple, offer the appropriate sacrifice, and hope that God would bless them.
But Jews could only offer their sacrifices in one place—at the temple in Jerusalem. Regular sacrifice was not an option for Jews who lived a long way from Jerusalem. What could they do instead? Pray. For Jews outside of Jerusalem, prayer—not sacrifice—emerged as the normal way to relate to God.
Jesus grew up in Galilee and spent most of his public ministry there. Galilee was about ninety miles from Jerusalem. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents did sometimes go to the Jerusalem temple on pilgrimage. But it can’t have been more than a few times in a year at most. When Jesus was growing up, prayer would have been more important to his family than sacrifice. When Jesus began his public ministry, prayer would have been more important than sacrifice to the people who heard him. But that was unusual in the ancient world and different from Jews who lived in Jerusalem.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is getting close to Jerusalem. The people Jesus meets in this section of the Gospel were sacrifice people, not prayer people. And so Jesus tells them our parable. Jesus wants them to know that prayer is the single best way to cultivate their relationship with God. Jesus wants them to pray always. And Jesus has to make that point in a really memorable way.
Two thousand years later, we need to hear the same lesson. We are not sacrifice people. But like the people of ancient Jerusalem, we don’t live in a prayer culture.
Prayer is officially prohibited in a lot of places, but that is not what I mean. Lots of Christians claim they don’t know how to pray. For many people, life is so busy that it is hard to imagine spending significant time in prayer even if they knew how. And when we do try to make time prayer, distractions still get in the way.
Our vestry met last Tuesday night. When I tried to pray the next morning, so much Church business was whirring around in my head that I couldn’t concentrate. It wasn’t a great prayer day.
And so Jesus tells our parable. Jesus tells us to pray with the kind of persistence and fervor a powerless widow uses when she is seeking the justice she so badly needs.
What might that look like in our lives, our lives as we actually live then? Five things are important.
First, we need to spend some time each day in prayer. For me, mornings are best. When I first wake up, I pray at my little home altar. I do the same right before bed, but my night prayers are shorter because I am usually tired. I use forms from the Book of Common Prayer. That is what works for me. Different things will work better for others. But we need to spend some concentrated time with God each day. Jesus is clear that it is the best thing we can do for our relationship with God.
Second, we can be honest with God. We can say what we are really feeling. God can take it. God knows anyway. We can acknowledge in our prayers that we are hurting or angry or confused. Look at the Psalms. They are the prayers of ancient Israel, and they are full of complaints!
No matter what we say, no matter how ugly it might be, God hears us with love. And just knowing that God hears can be a comfort. It doesn’t make our problems go away. But it can help us deal with them more faithfully.
Third, we don’t have to get fancy. One writer sums up all prayers in four words. Please. Thanks. Sorry. Wow! Technically we call those prayers of petition, thanksgiving, confession, and praise, but I like her way better. It reminds us that prayer is not super-technical. Prayer is about the real wants and needs of our real lives. The point is not to be eloquent. The point is to bring our wants and our needs to God.
Fourth, prayer is about listening as much as about speaking. Hearing God’s still, small voice is not easy. We have to practice listening for it. That may mean sitting in silence. It may mean reading passages of Scripture or some other devotional book and asking the question, what is God saying in this to me? We do both when we do contemplative prayer next Sunday. No doubt there are other ways to listen. The main thing to remember is that prayer is a conversation, and we shouldn’t do all the talking.
Finally, prayer doesn’t only happen on our knees. Virtually everything we do can be a form of prayer. Walking in the park or doing the dishes or going to a meeting or whatever. We just have to offer up what we are doing to God. If we begin an activity by asking Christ to be present and end by thanking Christ for being with us, the whole thing becomes a form of prayer. That is good news for busy people.
I come back one last time to our reading “about our need to pray always and not to lose heart.” My prayer is that we can pray with the fervor and persistence of the poor widow in Jesus’ parable. And I pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan