Prayer and the Persistent Widow
Well, it's parable day again boys and girls. Parables are like Jesus' subversive little stories of an alternate universe. This alternate universe is comprised not of alternate things but of ordinary things: coins and yeast and wheat and sons and fathers and widows. Yet these ordinary things are how the nature of God is revealed in surprising, even shocking or scandalous, ways within the quotidian -- within the very ordinary. Today's (paraphrased) parable comes from Luke 18:
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"In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually being all up in my face.'''
Jesus' parables tend to be deeply engaging and really frustrating at the same time: You can meditate on them, struggle with them, enter into them, speak of them, but you just can't solve them. The best way to suck the life out of a parable is by attempting to neatly allegorize it or worse try to figure out the so-called moral of the story. Parables aren't about morals; they are about truth -- hidden, unyielding, disruptive truth. The kind of truth that simply can't be contained.
So rather than look at parables straight on, we sometimes only discover the meaning they contain for us by closing one eye and tilting our heads and looking at them sideways. It's tempting to look straight on and see the story of the persistent widow as a self-help technique by which we can get all the cash and prizes we want out of God's divine vending machine if we just kind of bug God to death through ceaseless prayer. When it comes down to it though, we know better. And when we find ourselves saying something is an "answer to our prayer," we might do well to ask what exactly is an answered prayer? Do we only think God answers by giving us what we ask for? We know that just praying hard enough or righteously enough doesn't get us what we want. We know better because even in the midst of prayer, we have seen cancer be defeated and we have seen cancer win. We've seen the powerful exploit the weak, and we've seen the weak rise up. We've seen teenagers who flourish, and we've seen the sullen reality of depression steal the joy of youth.
Yet Luke tells us that this parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge is about our need to pray constantly and not lose hope. So maybe an alternate reading of this parable is that it's yes, about persistence and prayer and hope, but maybe it's about the persistence of God. Maybe it is us who, even though we fail to fear God or care about people, are finally worn down by the persistence of a God who longs for justice. Maybe prayer isn't the way in which we manipulate God, but is simply the posture in which we finally become worn down by God's persistence -- God's persistence in loving us. God's persistence in forgiving and being known. And God's persistence in being faithful and always, always, always bringing life out of death.
Maybe the persistence of our prayer is nothing more than our spiritual exposure to the persistence of God's longing for a world of justice and beauty -- a world where we are finally no longer alone but connected to God and each other in ways that are as surprising as a parable. Ways which seem ordinary but which reveal a different kind of relationship. And to pray is to connect ourselves to this persistent longing of God.
New testament scholar Fred Craddock describes this as a process by which a person is being hammered through long days and nights of prayer into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes.
In this world we live in -- a world of western individualism and alienation -- I think prayer is radically about connection. It is to live not unaffected by what is happening in each others' lives. To pray for each other is to live not unaffected by what is happening in the blessed and broken and beautiful world in which God has placed us.
In Luke and throughout scripture we are told to pray constantly, pray without ceasing, so that we do not lose heart. And how do you pray without ceasing? Only by having others pray for you, with you. Because let's face it, who can pull off praying without ceasing alone? We all need to occasionally, you know, sleep and eat and run to King Soopers. So to pray without ceasing is not an individual sport. If anything, it's a relay race. It's what we do for each other, and it's what we do for the world.
And these prayers are like these gossamer threads connecting us to God and God's people. When we pray on another's behalf we become connected to that person through God, and we become connected to God through that person. And in these connections God gets stuff done. Not necessarily the stuff we think God should do, but the work that God is always about, which is redeeming us and all of creation. These gossamer threads of prayer, woven through the space and time of our lives, are like the network through which God sends God's own love for the world.
I started to think this week that our prayer is less how we get what we want and more how God gets what God wants. And if Jesus' final prayer for his disciples at the end of John's gospel is any indication, then what God wants for us is a kind of redemption that comes not through individualism and looking out for #1. Right before his death, God the son prayed for us to our Lord asking this about us: That they may be one, as we are one, in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
So the very prayer Christ prayed for us is one of connection. That we might know love and become completely one. None of us is alone. We are connected by prayer to each other and to God.
It hurts sometimes. But the more you see suffering and injustice around you, the more you pray, and the more you pray the more connected you are to that suffering, and the more connected you are to that suffering the more connected you are to the crucified and risen Christ. For these silken threads of prayer which connect us to God and to one another and even to our enemies are how God is stitching our broken humanity back together. So church, pray without ceasing and do not lose heart. For God has some stuff to do.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.