29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
October 20, 2013
William G. Carter
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?"
Jesus frequently spoke in parables. It was his preferred way to preach and teach. He would tell a brief story that had some punch in it. Then he would sit back and let the parable do its work. A few people might get the point and smile knowingly. Others would not get it. To them, the parable would sound like an interesting story, perhaps even a little odd. Until people receive ears that hear and hearts that understand, they simply will not get it. Just like the rest of his life and his work, the parables of Jesus reveal and conceal the presence of God's kingdom. They invite us into a whole new world, a world as Jesus sees it. The invitation is there. Our spiritual work is to understand what he's talking about.
But the parable we just heard sounds different from many others. It describes a scene that most of us can readily understand. Jesus said, "Once there was a widow who didn't get satisfaction from the law court. Even though she had to deal with an insensitive judge, she kept knocking at his door. Every day, knock, knock, knock. Every afternoon, knock, knock, knock. Every night, knock, knock, knock. She kept knocking, morning, noon, and night. Eventually she wore down the judge and she got what she wanted."
I think we can picture that scene, don't you? It's a scene that takes shape in a hundred different ways every day.
"I called last week for an appointment. How can you say he's not in?
"This is a Thursday; he never comes in on a Thursday."
"But I had an appointment."
"No, you couldn't have had an appointment. This is a Thursday."
"Well, I've been trying for days to get through to him."
"I'm sorry, but he's a very busy man. You can leave a message."
"I've been leaving messages for the last two weeks. When can I speak to him?"
"Leave a message today, and I'll see that he gets back to you."
"No, he hasn't gotten back to me yet. What time do you expect him back?"
"This is a Thursday. He doesn't come in on a Thursday."
"When will he be back?"
"I told you, this is a Thursday."
"But I talked to someone two days ago. They set up this appointment."
"Well, you didn't talk to me. I wasn't in the office two days ago."
"Listen, don't you have a record of your own appointments?"
"Actually, no. We've had problems with the computer."
"Can I make another appointment? It's absolutely essential that I talk to him."
"No, I'm sorry, we don't set up appointments on Thursdays."
"Well, I'm going to have to insist . . ."
On and on it goes. Knock, knock, knock.
We don't need anybody to tell us the meaning of this parable. Here's a woman who had lost her husband. In addition to her grief, she suffered some difficulty at the hand of some opponent. She turned to the legal system for help. According to the Jewish law, the system was inclined in her favor. Widows and orphans got special treatment, since they had no other advocates. So she took her case to court.
Unfortunately, she happened to be assigned the only judge in the world who didn't care about the law. Not only that, he didn't care about God, he didn't care about people, so he certainly didn't care about her. Maybe the only thing he cared about remaining the judge. So the widow started a little campaign of her own. We can assume she knew the law was on her side. So she grew aggressive, even a little bit pushy. She interrupted his golf game to plead her case. She pestered him when he was dining on veal and capers. She banged on his door when he was sound asleep. Knock, knock, knock.
Finally, like a lot of the characters in the parables Jesus tells, the judge had a little conversation with himself. He said, "Self, that lady is wearing me out. I'm going to give her justice, but not because I care about God nor anybody else. No, I'm going to give that widow justice before she gives me a black eye."
Now, we don't need anybody to tell us what this parable is about. But we do need someone to tell us why this is a parable about prayer.
That is Luke's introduction, after all. Before he paints the scene, he has already placed a frame to go around it. Luke says, "Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray." It joins a number of passages in Luke's gospel that intend to teach us about prayer. Only in Luke do the disciples ask, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus taught them the Lord's Prayer. Another time he said, "Imagine a friend came to you at midnight, begging for bread. What would you do? What would God do?" Then he added, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you will find; (and remember the rest?) knock, and the door shall be opened to you." Jesus taught us to pray with confidence, and honesty, and a clear sense of need.
But he didn't teach us how to annoy God, to wear out God, to get God to give us what we want. On the surface, to call this parable a teaching about prayer is, in my mind, to water down the meaning of prayer. We don't pray to God as if we were widows who kept bothering a judge who tried to ignore us. We pray to a God who knows us, a God who loves us, a God who names us as daughters and sons. We pray to God as an act of trust. As we pray to God, we trust in God. And trust doesn't keep going knock, knock, knock. If you trust somebody, you speak your peace and let it go.
A mother was talking to her teenage son one night.
"I thought you were going to the homecoming bonfire."
"I did. Brian and I were there."
"When I stopped by I didn't see you."
"Well, it started to rain. We stuck around for a while."
"I was there when it was raining. Where did you go?"
"We didn't go anywhere. We stood there in the rain."
"Then how come I didn't see you?"
"Well, we got wet, and Brian's mom said we could have a ride, and . . ."
"I didn't see Brian's mom there. Where was she standing?"
"Well, I don't remember, and we were getting wet, and . . ."
If you trust somebody, you don't keep going knock, knock, knock.
What does all of this knocking have to do with prayer? What does the insistence, the aggressiveness, the hovering, the "in-your-face" attitude, the constant bang, bang, bang - - what does all of that have to do with trust and the life of faith? It's hard for me to make a quick connection. But if there is a connection, it has to do with persistence, with perseverance, with digging in and sticking with it. True faith doesn't have to go knock, knock, knock, because we believe in a God who can be trusted. At the same time, true faith never gives up, never abandons hope, never loses its focus.
Fred Craddock tells about serving his first little church out in the mountains of Tennessee. When he arrived and began his ministry, this rural congregation was having a contest. They were trying to pick appropriate artwork to put behind the pulpit to give a focus to things. Maybe they thought the new minister was already out of focus. Whatever the case, they needed something on the wall. The winner was a little girl, Mr. Hickey's daughter. She had cut out of an old Life magazine a picture of a bulldog, and glued it to a piece of paper, and then written underneath, "Get a bulldog grip on your faith." She won. For weeks, Fred preached beneath that bulldog. For those mountain people, many of whom could not read, many with children of uncertain families, many people unemployed or living in broken-down shacks, that was the picture of faith. Fred says, "I don't care where you are or how tall your steeple, it comes to that."
Faith grabs hold and never lets go. Prayer hangs on and never gives up. And you know as well as I do, that there are a lot of times when you feel like throwing in the towel. You see a lot of institutions that don't seem to work anymore. You see good people who fall to pieces when their loved ones die. You see a society infected by injustice, where wicked people prosper and life seems so unfair. And you really don't know how you can go on believing, much less praying. And maybe that's why Jesus tells this story about a woman who had everything going against her, and yet she kept going knock, knock, knock.
And how striking, too, that Jesus told this parable as part of a speech where he teaching about the kingdom of God. Some Pharisees asked, "Jesus, when is the kingdom of God coming?" And he said, "It's not obvious, but God is already ruling right here." And the disciples interrupted him and said, "Where is the Son of Man to reveal that God is ruling over heaven and earth?" and Jesus said, "That's a dead question." Then he tells this parable: the widow begs for justice, and the judge ignores her. So she keeps begging until finally he breaks down. If that’s how a corrupt judge responds, how much more will a holy God do for all of you?
And yet, when the Son of Man is finally revealed, will he find people who have kept praying, "thy kingdom come"? That's the question, because the prayer of the widow, the prayer for us, is really the prayer, "thy kingdom come."
It takes time to get the prayer right. We pray for a lot of other things. We pray for parking spaces. We pray for good weather. We pray for good grades in school. We pray for a lot of things that in the grand scheme of the universe really don't matter much. It takes time to learn how to really pray. It takes a lot of time and a lot of knocking.
I think of Reynolds Price, a novelist from the south, recently departed. At a medical checkup, he discovered he had cancer. A ten-inch-long tumor was wrapped around his spine. He was never a religious man, but he began to pray. And he said, "I well understood that the vast majority of human prayers get No for an answer, if any answer at all." Yet he kept praying, knocking on every door, rattling every window, pursuing every option. In time, medical care both countered his tumor and took away the use of his legs. The content of his prayers had changed over the course of his illness and healing. At first, he said, prayer was a shameless begging to be made well: "O God, give me my health back." In time, however, his perspective changed. Price began to pray, "O Lord, give me life as long as I have work to do, and work as long as I have life." (A Whole New Life, p. 76) It took a while, and a lot of knocking, but his prayers changed.
The one thing you have to say about the widow in this story is that she was absolutely sure what she was praying for. Over the course of time, she knew the one thing that really mattered was justice. She wanted a whole new world of fairness and trust and neighborly relationships. That's what she wanted.
Jesus says, "All of you, listen up: won't God grant justice to his people who cry to him day and night? Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (12:32). We trust that. We pray for that. We persevere, and work it through, and try to discover what that means.
"The kingdom of God is among you," said Jesus. "There's a whole new world of justice at hand. And God is going to give it to those who cry to him day and night."
And so, night and day, we pray, "thy kingdom come." Thy kingdom come. In the meantime, Jesus says, "Hang on and keep knocking."
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.