In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ Luke 18. (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)
In the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us. Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you again here at St. Michael’s. And many thanks to Brynn and all of you for your generous hospitality.
So, this morning in the lectionary, the Church offers us this story which is sometimes called the parable of the unjust judge. And this passage of the Gospel reminds me of one of my favorite stories about the religious life. Several years ago, there was a young woman who became a nun. And she made her vows and entered the convent. Now the rules of this particular Order required that she be cloistered and keep silence, although every ten years the sisters were allowed to say two words. So, for the first ten years, she was assigned to make the beds. And she changed the sheets, and washed them, and made every bed throughout the monastery. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and said, “Bed hard.” Well, the next ten years, she was assigned to the kitchen. And she peeled the potatoes and cooked the oatmeal and cleaned every pot in that monastery. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and told her, “Kitchen hot.”
After ten long years she was next assigned to clean the bathrooms. And she washed every sink and bathtub and scrubbed every toilet they had. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and said, “I quit.” And the elder nun looked at her and said, “Good. You haven’t done anything but nag me since you got here.” Contrary to that story, and today’s gospel, I don’t think prayer has much to do with nagging God.
And we may be a little confused by this parable, or by many of them. The Hebrew word for parable is mashal, which carries with it connotations of a story, or an allegory, or a riddle. And many of these parables may leave us scratching our heads, including the one this morning, but that’s their function. They’re kind of like a picture frame that is intentionally hung so that it’s not level, so that we’ll have to really think about and puzzle over what’s portrayed. These parables are meant to make us think, to examine, and to turn an idea over in our minds until we come to a deeper understanding of it. And the broader question that I think Luke wants us to look at is how do we think prayer operates, and what does faithful living look like in a fallen world?
So, let’s take a deeper look at this parable and see what it offers us. Jesus begins his story: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Oh, I’ve been to that city. And I’m pretty sure that I know that judge. I was a lawyer for a very long time, and on more than one occasion, I ran across that judge who did not fear God nor respect people. And without revealing too much about this judge, I can tell you that the county seat is Beaumont. Now, I should have known there was going to be a problem because in French the name Beaumont means “beautiful mountain.” Have y’all ever been to Jefferson County? Well, it’s not beautiful, and there’s no mountain.
Seriously, if you’ve ever met someone like that—someone who doesn’t fear God and doesn’t respect people—you know how truly frightening a person that is. And I don’t think for a moment, Jesus is trying to tell us that God is like that. The God we worship loved and respected humanity, embraced all sorts of people, prayed regularly, and his blood watered the hill we call Golgotha. I want to circle back to the contrast between God and this unjust judge in just a moment, but first let’s look at one of the other characters in the story.
When we examine the widow in this parable, we remember the biblical direction about taking care of widows because in that world they were fragile and vulnerable. And yet this widow doesn’t seem vulnerable at all. She constantly goes to the unjust judge asking for justice against her opponent. Some translators tell us the better translation is “give me revenge.” And we might re-think our notion of her as fragile when we realize that the judge is actually being worn out by this woman.
So, is Jesus actually telling us that the real secret to a rich prayer life is becoming a bother to God, pestering the Almighty until He just gives in? Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point, especially since Jesus is on the receiving end of so many of our prayers. Now, there are some folks, and a few preachers, who will tell you that if you close your eyes real hard, and give money to the church, and believe just right, God will give you anything you ask for—as if the Almighty were some sort of a cross between a celestial ATM and a divine Santa Claus. We have a name for that sort of theology. We call it “heresy.”
I think Jesus is talking to us about two things. First, he’s telling us not to lose heart. And it’s so easy in this world to lose heart. There are unjust judges everywhere. Our political discourse has been reduced to the snarkiest common denominator. And in our prayer life, help never seems to come as quickly as we’d like, if it comes at all. And if we view prayer as a transaction, we might lose heart all the more quickly. I don’t think our prayer life is like a Vegas slot machine, where if we just keeping putting in enough tokens, we’ll hit the jackpot.
I do think, however, it’s like another bible story, one we didn’t hear today but I’ll bet you know it. I think our prayer life is a lot like the story of Jacob. And you’ll remember that Jacob was trying to come back home, knowing that his brother Esau was furious with him and he’s worried that his brother is coming to kill him. And that night a man comes to Jacob and wrestles with him. And the scripture is unclear about whether Jacob is wrestling with a man, or an angel, or with God himself. The two of them wrestle all night. And although in the struggle Jacob’s hip is thrown out of joint, he tells his opponent, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Our prayer life is like holding onto God, struggling with God all night, even when we are injured in the struggle. It is a stubborn insistence on a blessing, oftentimes a blessing we do not yet understand. As Saint Paul says, we train ourselves to be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. We will wrestle all night, holding on for that blessing. We will lift up our eyes to the hills, knowing that our help can only come from the Lord. And if we remain obstinate, if we stubbornly cling to God even when our strength is failing, the Son of Man will return to find that we are a faithful people. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022