“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” From the very beginning of our gospel lesson, Luke tells us what this funny little parable is all about: persistent prayer. That message sounds simple enough, but once we hear the actual parable, the realities of persistent prayer sound like a lot more work than most of us care to think about, let alone do. The parable today is about an unjust judge, who has no fear of God or respect for people, who is constantly harassed by a widow demanding justice. The translation we hear today says that the judge finally decides to give the widow her way because he does not want the widow to wear him out by continually coming. But the literal translation of the original Greek is a little stronger. One translation reads that the judge gives the widow her way for fear that the widow will “slap me in the face.”[i] Another translation reads that the judge gives the widow her way because he does not want to “end up beaten black and blue by her pounding.”[ii] There is something about these more figurative translations that help us see that when Jesus says the disciples’ prayers need to be persistent, he means knock-down-drag-out, stubborn-headed, unrelenting, radically-vigilant persistence.
I don’t know about you, but most people I know do not approach their prayer life with this kind of rigor. Many people who keep up this type of persistence for any amount of time eventually lose heart, finally concluding that prayer just does not work – or they are not praying the right way. For those who have prayed without ceasing for months and years only to watch a child, a spouse, a friend, or a mother die, may have begun to question whether prayer is not just what people do to fill the time – not an effective means of healing. And for those who have faced horrible atrocities, who can find no sense in a world that abuses, oppresses, and starves its people, may have given up not only on prayer, but on God too.
I remember the first time Scott and I tried to get pregnant. We had been trying for almost a year, when I finally brought the subject up with my spiritual director. I had not wanted to talk about the issue, but I think my distance from God was too obvious for the spiritual director to ignore. When she pushed me on the issue, asking whether I had been giving my pain and suffering to God, I admitted to her that God felt dead to me. I had nothing more to say to God because, quite frankly, God felt absent from my life at the time. When I shared that sense of absence in my life, my spiritual director suggested another way. She suggested I start praying through Mary instead. My first reaction to her suggestion was rage and indignation. How insensitive could this woman be to suggest that I, unable to conceive, try praying through a woman who was able to conceive without even trying?! Though I left my session angry with my spiritual director, a few days later, I gave her suggestion a try. Two things stuck with me about that experience. One, Mary now holds a very special place for me in my faith and prayer life. Two, what I realized was that my spiritual director never suggested I stopped being persistent in prayer. She simply suggested prayer in a different way.
In some ways, I think we lose this understanding of persistence when we hear Jesus telling us to be like a woman who will physically fight her way through prayer. We imagine Jesus telling us to keep doing the same thing over and over again until that thing works. But I do not think that is exactly what Jesus means. Staying persistently in the prayer relationship is essential, yes. But that does not mean that relationship does not evolve and change over time. I think about that widow in our parable today. I am guessing that her approach with the judge was not the same everyday. I imagine her starting with the traditional way of begging for justice as anyone would. But when she is refused, I imagine her trying everything else possible. From just being a constant presence as the judge was judging other cases; to interrupting the judge’s walk to work in the morning; to following behind him on the way home, pleading her case; even situating herself at a nearby table at his favorite lunch spot – maybe even loudly pleading her case in front of other people, so as to embarrass the judge in front of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps this is what the judge means when he says the widow is wearing him out.
If we think about the widow’s persistent actions, they are not all that different from the actions of God with God’s people. As our Thursday morning Bible Study group works its way through Genesis, I have been thinking about the persistent pursuit of God toward God’s people. Adam and Eve sin, and yet God stays in relationship with them. The whole earth falls into abominable sin, and even after flooding the earth, God forms a new covenant with humanity. God’s people break covenant after covenant, and God continues to pursue them. God’s people disrespect, dishonor, and disparage God, and yet God tries again and again to redeem God’s people. God is so persistent in God’s relationship with us that God even sends a Son to redeem us from our sinful ways – allowing Jesus to die on a cross for us. If the widow is the consummate example of persistence in prayer, she learned this persistence from the God is ever pursuing us.
So how do God and the woman do it? How do they manage this kind of vigilant persistence? I think what both of them experience is that they are changed in the process. We have heard many times in scripture how God changes God’s mind – how the flood leads God to vow to never destroy the earth again, or how the argument of Abraham makes God tone down God’s judgment, or how the repentance of the people of Nineveh changes God’s mind about punishment. I imagine the widow is changed too. With each attempt at convincing the judge she must have become more and more bold. In the story, she is transformed from a woman who is likely powerless about her own future and the future of her orphaned children to a woman who is almost feared by a powerful judge. She is transformed through her persistence.
That transformation is what happens in the life of persistent prayer. “Repeated, habitual prayer gradually tests and sifts what you believe is really important and what is of ephemeral value.”[iii] I think about the many times I have prayed and prayed over a particular issue, fully aware of how, when, and why I wanted God to intervene. But slowly, over time, my prayer about the same issue changes. I may go from wanting a particular outcome, to being willing to accept a positive outcome, to accepting the defeat and being open to God’s will, to simply wanting God to be present in the midst of it all. That is why persistent prayer is so important. Our one-time prayers or our perfunctory prayers do not really open us up to God. Those rote prayers are just our lips moving without our hearts being equally moved. But when we are persistent in our prayers, constantly evolving our conversation with God, constantly amending our approach toward God, constantly leaning on others to inform our prayer life, slowly our prayers become transformed, leading us to that God who responds to the deepest, most vulnerable versions of ourselves.
I remember a story of a seminarian who studied at General Theological Seminary. Desmond Tutu was on campus and the seminarian was excited to watch Tutu in action. He was happy to see Tutu join the students and faculty at Morning Prayer. Later, on his way to class, he noticed Tutu in the chapel again, praying on his own. That afternoon, he saw Tutu in the chapel once more praying. He watched this pattern again and again over three days. Finally, at evening prayer one day, the seminarian got up the nerve to approach Tutu and ask Tutu how he ever got any work done when he spent so much time praying in the chapel. Tutu’s response was simple, “Oh I could never do any of my work if my work were not first rooted in prayer throughout the day.” This is the kind of persistence in prayer Jesus invites us into today: prayer that takes us out of ourselves, transforms our desires and actions, and reshapes our relationship with God. Jesus’ instruction to the disciples is the same for us: pray always and do not lose heart. Amen.
[i] New Jerusalem Bible.
[ii] The Message.
[iii] Maggi Dawn, “Prayer Acts,” Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 2, October 2, 2007.