This week’s Gospel selection from the Revised Common Lectionary:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “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 coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” –Luke 18:1-8 NRSV
Some time ago I came across the following story from Illustrations for Biblical Preaching by Michael Green (whether it’s literally true or not I’ll leave to others; I use it here, of course, to make a point):
There was a tavern that was being built in a town that had previously been dry. In opposition to the tavern, a group of Christians began an all night prayer meeting and asked God to intervene. Lightning struck the tavern and burned it to the ground. The owner then brought a lawsuit against the church holding them responsible. The Christians hired a lawyer and denied responsibility. In response to this unusual scenario, the judge said, “No matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear. The tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not!”
The kind of prayer we’re talking about here is of the “gimme this, gimme that” variety–or, to put it rather more respectfully, prayers of petition. By the way, the four other main types of prayer are adoration, expiation (seeking atonement), love, and thanksgiving. By far the most common type of prayer is petition. That, naturally, says a lot more about the nature of human beings than the nature of God.
Compare that to the story told in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark in which a father comes to Jesus on behalf of his seriously ill son. The father’s “prayer” was “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Jesus honored that prayer and healed the man’s son.
And so what are we to make of this little story in Luke 17 about a persistent widow and a judge? The temptation once again is to allegorize it: the judge being God and the widow demonstrating to us the importance of persistence in faith and action. Yeah, that could work, I suppose. But it makes just as much sense to say the widow represents God, who is eternally faithful and persistent in regard to us divinely created humans (the judge here is our stand-in).
There’s certainly no shortage of preachers in the media proclaiming how God is just waiting around to shower blessings on those persistent enough to ask for them. To extend that prosperity gospel, God wants us to be abundantly blessed with material goods but we’ve got to ask to seal the deal.
Or maybe our problem is that we get too easily hung up on prayers of petition and forget there’s four other kinds–prayers that may well be of great value in the long run. There is a natural human tendency to wait until the last minute, when the situation turns into crisis mode, to ask God to get us out of whatever fix we (or those close to us) have gotten into.
I keep coming back to the father in Mark 9. Of all the things he could have said (and we might say in similar situations) he offered, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” On the surface that’s oxymoronic: Either one believes or not; how can it be both? How can one say “Heal my son” and “Thy will be done”? But we do. After all, the way Jesus taught his followers to pray included both “Give us this day our daily bread” and “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
To pray always means to live constantly in a close relationship with God, to engage in some kind of ongoing conversation. Probably, words won’t be spoken out loud or even consciously and silently “thought.” It’s a way to remember that God is always near, always there to experience with us whatever the world throws at us. Prayer is not, therefore, a last resort when everything has failed.
But like those Christians in the story of the burned-down tavern, we should expect that it works, too. It can be a recognition that injustice triumphs when a prayerful people decide to focus on something else. Powerful stuff this thing called prayer.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.