One Christmas when I was about 10 years old, I asked for a kitten for Christmas. I was starting to understand who Santa really was and I kept badgering my parents to let them know that all I really wanted for Christmas was a little white kitten. At that time my dad wasn’t too well, and we all had allergies. We’d had outside cats, but I wanted an inside kitty. When Christmas Eve came, I was disappointed because it didn’t happen. Sometimes that’s how it is with prayer.
We want to be in control. We want to believe that God will intercede at our urging and do what we want God to do. And then we blame God or blame ourselves when that doesn’t happen. God’s response to our prayers seems random. Annie Dillard calls it “God sticking a finger in, if only now and then.” (Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York:Knopf, 1999). God is regularly given credit for finding a new job, selling a house for a profit, the outcome of a baseball game, a good parking place even. Super Bowl champions thank God for the victory (though we hear little form the loser’s locker room on the subject.) A winner of the lottery may God credit for the $295 million dollar jackpot. In the Old Testament in 1st Chronicles 4:10, a man by the name of Jabez is remembered as the one who prayed, “O that you would bless me and enlarge my border and that your hand might be with me and that you would keep me for hurt and harm!” On that basis some 21st century Christians were persuaded that God has unclaimed blessings for us and God wants us to be selfish in our prayers, asking God to make us wealthy. Huston Smith, historical theologian, says of this “prosperity” gospel, “When the consequences of our belief are worldly goods. . . Fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not pander to its desires.” (Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 45.
And so we today let’s look at the story of the widow and the unjust judge in what is probably Luke’s shortest parable; Jesus’ description of it is simple and to the point. It is a parable on the necessity of praying always and not losing heart.
Traditionally, a parable is a story where each character in the story represents something else. Parables can have many interpretations. Parables were used by Jesus to protect him from persecution by the authorities. His masterful storytelling engaged the people he was trying to teach and eluded the authorities who were out to get him. Jesus was a master of this genre of storytelling.
And so as Jesus travels with his disciples toward Jerusalem, we read the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. At first the message seems simple, the theme is prayer, and the characters one-sided. The judge represents God and the widow represents humanity. And we get it. We are supposed to “pray without ceasing” and eventually we will get what we want need from God.
But there’s a couple of problems for me with this interpretation.
The first problem is the woman. We don’t know enough about her. She is like the person who comes up to you in New York City and asks for money. You don’t know her circumstances and what she really needs. Maybe she’s a panhandler or a thief. We do not know in fact that the woman is the story has been treated unjustly. Luke gives no further evidence. How can we know that her complaint has merit? In real life, she might seem like an annoying spoiled child and who wants to reward a child for pestering us? Are we to pester God with our needs until God gives in? Is the goal of prayer simple to wear out an exasperated God? What kind of relationship is that with a God who is our heavenly parent who loves the world, who loves us?
The second problem for me is the image of God as an aloof non-listener. Is God immune our cries as the judge is to hers? Is God like a distracted or uncaring parent who ignores the needs of too many children? Do we truly believe that God loves us, that God loves all creation? Why would God ignore her and then ultimately grant her request without even reviewing her claims?
And yet this parable is about prayer. Sometimes we pray for years for something and we don’t get it. Why do our sincere prayers go unanswered? The standard answer is “God said no.” Or some people say, keep praying because “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” We just have to persevere and eventually God will respond to us. This brings up issues of when we pray, what we pray for, how we pray, and whether we are praying correctly. When we’re at the end of our ropes, when we are desperate, lonely, in despair, rejected, out of control, helpless or broken in spirit or body, overwhelmed by sin, our own and others, we pray.
When don’t we pray? We fail in prayer when we have it made and we’re on a roll, or when we’re just too tired, or when we feel that God doesn’t care about us. We fail at prayer when we don’t believe that we live in the mercy and care of a God who loves us.
Storyteller Megan McKenna has a unique take on this familiar parable. (Parables: The Arrows of God, Orbis Books, p.98-112) In the past this parable has always been interpreted with God as the Judge and us as the widow. But McKenna identifies the widow in the story as Jesus, compelling us to let him into our hearts. And then she identifies us as the judge, refusing to listen to Jesus’ plea. In her interpretation, it is God who is always in our face, begging, pleading, cajoling us to respond as we should. God is the widow crying out for justice to us. She asks, “Why would Jesus tell a story about prayer using his Father as a corrupt, uncaring, insensitive Judge when he talks about his Father more in the widow’s terms: patient, faithful in spite of our responses, loving, concerned especially for the poor, the widow and the orphan through history? This is a parable about not losing heart when we pray continually. It is about being open to Jesus who wants to live within us and our daily lives. Such openness to Christ’s seeking is a necessity for discipleship and work for justice and surviving in the world gracefully.
The story turns everything upside down. God is after us! God is always after us and has been all through history, never relenting, always finding new ways to catch up to us. If the judge is the type of those who are powerful and care neither for God or human rules and laws, then we are the judge and God is the pleading widow. God is found in those crying out for justice. God is always seeking to connect with us.
Everyone is called to conversion in this parable, no matter who we think we are in the story or who God is. We are called to pray without losing heart because God doesn’t lose heart but keeps pursuing us. We are called to let God into our hearts. Please pray with me that we may respond to God’s persistent pursuit of us, that we may live in unity with God this day and always. Amen.