What is this parable about? Jesus told this parable to his disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart;” at least that’s what Luke tells us this parable is about. But I’m not so sure this is a parable about prayer.
Does Jesus really mean that we are supposed to nag God? Is that what it means? Does it mean that if we harass God enough, if we beg long enough, if we keep asking for something often enough, God will finally give in and give us what we want?
I don’t think so. I think this is a parable about something else and the key to what it’s about is found in a phrase in our lesson from Jeremiah that is also repeated in the Second Letter to Timothy. Twice in this short piece from Jeremiah, the prophet writes (on God’s behalf) “the days are surely coming…” And the author of this letter to a young bishop giving him advice on how to do his ministry uses the phrase “the time is coming.”
Could this parable be about the time, the days that are coming?
There are two clues in Luke’s Gospel that it just might be. The first is a missing word!
Our Gospel lesson today comprises the first eight verses of Chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel. But the people who edited our book of eucharistic lessons left our the very first word. Your bulletin insert, which copies the lesson as shown in the reading book, indicates that the first word of verse one is Jesus … but it’s not! The first word in the eighteenth chapter of Luke is Then.
When a lesson, a paragraph, a sentence begins with the word then, that usually suggests that the words that come before it are nearly as important as the words that come after it. So we ought to look at Chapter 17 as we try to make sense of this first story in Chapter 18, don’t you think? If we did that, we’d discover that Jesus tells this parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow in the context of a conversation with the Pharisees.
The Pharisees have come to Jesus and asked him a question. “Jesus,” they said. “You’re a smart guy. Perhaps you can tell us. When is the Kingdom of God coming?” Jesus’s answer is typically ambiguous, at least in the Greek Luke was writing in. Some translators say the Greek words in Jesus’s answer mean, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a personal thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that the individual is spiritually growing or spiritually mature. Other translators say the Greek means, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a community thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that our relationships one with another and with the world around us are spiritually authentic. Of course, the beauty of New Testament Greek is that it can and probably does mean both of those things!
So Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God is, in some sense, already here. Then he turns to his closest associates, the disciples, and says, “But it’s also not here yet….” And goes on to warn them that they really don’t want to be around when it arrives! The “day of the Son of Man,” says Jesus, is going to be really unpleasant. And then … then is when he tells this parable.
This isn’t a parable about prayer at all … it’s a parable about the Kingdom of God which Jesus ends with a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
But the parable must have something to do with prayer! So let’s consider two questions. First, how does God answer prayer? Second, why do we pray?
Note that my first question is not, “How do expect God to answer prayer?” I can tell you that … we take it for granted that God is going to answer our prayers in the way we have packaged for Him. We give God multiple-choice test with three answers: “Yes,” “No,” or :Wait.” We do that every time we make a petition, as we will do in our prayers of the people in a few minutes:
“God, there are some people who are sick and need to be comforted and healed. What’s your answer? Yes? No? Later?”
“God, there are some people in danger because of that stupid war over in the Middle East. Keep them safe, OK? What’s you answer? Yes? No? Later?”
“God, there are some people who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Shield them in their joy! What’s your answer? Yes? No? Wait?”
Of course, we only ever acknowledge it when God says “Yes” to our prayers. I was recently with a friend whose mother just came home from the hospital. We were talking about what a miracle that was because she had been very ill and not expected to survive. “Isn’t it wonderful,” he said, “that God answers prayers? Praise God for that.”
I wondered if he would still have said “Praise God” if God’s answer to the prayers for his mother’s healing had been “No.”
But God doesn’t answer our prayers with a “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait!” God’s answers in another way … but before I get to that, let’s consider the other question.
Why do we pray?
We do not pray to tell God about something God doesn’t already know. We do not pray in order to give God advice. We do not pray so that we can convince God to do something he wasn’t going to before.
We pray to conform our will to God’s. That was what Jesus taught his disciples when they asked to teach them to pray, “Thy will be done.” That was the prayer he exemplified in his own life, especially in the Garden at Gethsemane when prayed, “If it is possible let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but thine.”
And that, the reason we pray, the confirming of our lives to God’s will, is why when God answers prayer the answer is most often not “Yes,” or “No,” or “Wait.” The answer is most often “You”:
“God, there are some sick people who need comforting.”
“Oh … You! You take care of them.”
“God, there are some people in danger in that war.”
“Oh … You! You find a way to work for peace.”
“God, there are some people who are hungry.”
“Oh … You! You feed them.”
“God, there are some people having birthdays.”
“Oh … You! You go celebrate with them!”
Which brings us back to the parable.
A way to understand parables is to ask ourselves two things. Where is God in the parable? And where are we in the parable? In this parable, there are two characters. Which one is God? Is God the unjust judge who has no regard for anyone not even himself? That doesn’t seem very likely, does it? So that must mean God is the widow seeking justice. And if God is the widow, then that must mean ….
Prayer is about God transforming our lives. And like the widow seeking justice, God can be something of a nag until that happens. But if we go to God constantly in prayer, and if our prayer is made with the intent that we seek to conform our lives to God’s will, then the question with which Jesus ended the parable will be answered in the affirmative. We will be people of faith.