By Stewart Clem
Sometimes I wonder if the disciples got tired of hearing Jesus teach in parables. It’s clear that they were often confused by this method of instruction, and I’m sure there were moments when they wanted to say, “Can you please just save us the time and tell us what you mean?”
I’m reminded of a scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, when the characters are gathered for a tea party hosted by a mad hatter. The hatter entertains the guests by offering a string of riddles, such as, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” At first, Alice is delighted, because she loves riddles. But as time goes on, she can’t make sense of anything the hatter says, and he never offers any answers. She finally declares, “I think you might do something better with the time … than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”
Jesus’ parables aren’t exactly riddles, and they always have a point. But I wonder if the disciples, like Alice, sometimes wished that their leader could just come right out and say what he means.
Jesus’ parables aren’t always easy to understand. Their meaning can be cryptic and at times the reference points can be obscure. For us modern readers, sometimes the problem lies in the fact that we’re no longer familiar with agricultural practices in ancient civilizations. Sometimes it’s because we need to brush up on Second Temple Judaism to understand the significance of Jesus’ words.
But sometimes even those things don’t help. Sometimes Jesus’ parables are just downright difficult. They’re difficult because they don’t always fit with our preconceived notions about God. Or perhaps they don’t fit with our preconceived notions about religious faith.
What are we supposed to make of the parable of the dishonest business manager, who appears to be held up as an example? What about the parable of the mustard seed, in which Jesus tells his disciples that even the tiniest faith will enable them to move mountains? Is the point of these parables to teach us that we should be dishonest in our business dealings? Or that if our faith isn’t strong enough to move mountains, then we must not be trying hard enough? The answer to these questions is no and no.
Occasionally, we find Jesus’ parables accompanied by a plain-sense explanation. On rare occasion, either Jesus himself will say, “this is what the parable means,” or the author of the gospel narrative will provide it for us. It’s almost like being given a quiz and then finding there’s an answer key attached.
In this morning’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a widow who pleads her case before an unjust judge. In ancient Israel, judges were responsible for maintaining the peace between Israelites. Widows, on the other hand, had almost no social status, since the land and wealth that had belonged to the woman’s husband would have been passed on to his sons or brothers.
The judge in the parable is entirely unqualified for the position. He’s described as having no fear of God and no respect for people (Luke 18:2). Jesus refers to him as the “unjust judge,” which should be enough to tell us just how bad he is at his job — sort of like a tone-deaf singer or a maladroit figure skater.
But the widow doesn’t just approach the judge once. We don’t know the exact nature of her grievances, but we’re told that she keeps approaching him persistently — again and again. “Grant me justice against me opponent,” she pleads with the judge (18:3).
Now, we might assume, given the way I’ve just described this parable, that the moral of the story is that we ought to be just and mindful of the needy. That would be quite consistent with the tenor of Luke’s gospel, which portrays Jesus preaching good news to the poor and seeking out those on the margins of society.
But that doesn’t seem to be the point of this parable. Rather, the point is that we should bring our needs before God with the same persistence of the widow who brings her complaints before the judge. Jesus asks, rhetorically, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” Lest there be any doubt, Jesus answers his own question: “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” (18:7-8).
The point of the parable is that we should pray — a lot. And we shouldn’t give up. Even when it feels like God isn’t listening to us, we should keep praying. How do I know this? Remember the “answer key” I referred to a moment ago: In the very first verse, St. Luke writes, “Then Jesus told [the disciples] a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” That’s what the parable is about: it’s about praying always and not losing heart. It’s right there in the text.
Now, some people are very uncomfortable with this. This includes biblical scholars, apparently. One scholar who wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Luke says that “The interpreter should resist the seduction of the parable’s introduction. Many find it far easier to worry over the health of their prayer life than to be concerned for the well-being of widows.”
In other words, this Bible scholar is worried that if you listen to what St. Luke says about the point of the parable, then you’ll be led astray. He’s worried that you’ll start to think it’s more important to pray than it is to work and bring about God’s justice in the world. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the parable is about praying and not losing heart, but apparently too much prayer will make us stop caring about widows.
It’s unfortunate that even some biblical scholars have fallen prey to the false dichotomy that we find in our culture at large. We’re told that one can either be a person of prayer, or a person of action. But not both. We see this all the time. We’re confronted by this dichotomy every time we have another mass shooting in our country. As soon as the story hits the news cycle, there’s a rallying cry. You’re either on Team “Thoughts & Prayers” or on Team “Gun Legislation Reform.” There’s a line in the sand, and you need to take a side. Prayer has become politicized.
But this way of thinking is totally foreign to Luke’s gospel — or to the rest of the Bible, for that matter. In Luke’s gospel, the same Jesus who tells us to pray always is the same Jesus who says, “When you host a dinner, don’t invite your friends and your rich neighbors; instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13). This is the same Jesus who tells the rich ruler — a man who claims he has kept all of God’s law his whole life — “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).
Now, we could just stop right here. It would be tempting to say, “Well, OK then. We need to pray, and we need to help the poor. God wants us to do both.” That would be correct, but it’s incomplete. What’s missing is the gospel.
The gospel is the declaration that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became incarnate and lived among us. But we killed him. In his death, Jesus took our sins upon him and made himself an offering before God the Father. He rose again three days later and conquered sin and death once and for all. He healed the wound of sin that had damaged all of creation since the fall of our first parents, and now he has restored us to God and to each other. That’s the gospel.
And we may rightly wonder: But what about all the sin and death that’s still in the world today? What about all the poverty, the sickness, and the injustice?
God is going to take care of that, too. He didn’t simply leave those problems for us to resolve (thank goodness). When the work of the gospel is complete, when the kingdom has fully arrived, God’s justice will restore everything that’s wrong with the world.
But just because it’s not our responsibility doesn’t mean it’s not our concern. When we pray — when we pray constantly — as Jesus tells us too, we align ourselves with God’s will. God cares about justice. He cares about the poor and the widows. And so will we, when we learn to pray.
It’s true that thoughts and prayers are no substitute for action. Prayer alone can’t put food in the stomach of someone who is hungry or put a roof over someone’s head. And, I might add, prayers are no substitutes for pledge cards, either. The Church of St. Michael and St. George depends on all our time and financial resources to help carry out the work of the gospel here in St. Louis.
But no matter what we do, we cannot stop praying. When we find that we’ve stopped praying, we find that we have started to believe another gospel. We start to believe that we are the world’s savior and that everything depends on us. And then, when we realize that we’re incapable of saving the world (or even ourselves, for that matter), we despair. This is one hypothetical answer to Jesus’ haunting question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8).
My hope for us this morning is that we will be able to answer that question with a resounding yes. Christ will find faith when he returns, because his people have been anxiously awaiting him in prayer. Like the widow in the parable, we continue to bring our needs before the Lord. The widow only had an unjust judge that she could turn to, but we have a loving Father who knows what we need before we even ask. And he has promised that he will grant justice to his children.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1995), 339.