Persisting in Prayer
October 17, 2010
(Proper 23. Year C. Genesis 32, 22-31; Luke 18, 1-8)
Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it.
I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”.
You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!
This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.
This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for man. He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt. A contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.
On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone.
But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate. A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.
And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.
The introduction to the parable tells us that is about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.
But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.
Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray.
The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.
But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.
So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, (the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die). And now it is coupled with a question about prayer.
Many of us have problems with prayer. For many, perhaps, the picture we get from the Old Testament reading, of Jacob struggling with God all night, and ending up battered and wounded, is a fairly accurate picture of our experience of prayer. For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end they give up.
Prayer, and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address. But in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.
It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.
It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.
It is not a one-way conversation. Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.
Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what he expects us to do to help resolve it. We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest and darkest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.
Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. it is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’. We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.