By Sarah Coakley
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1)
Let us begin with the topic of prayer, the heart and soul of our life together, and yet somehow still so easy for us to neglect, avoid, or convince ourselves we are no good at. But today’s gospel reminds us yet again that we must “pray always and not lose heart”; and it does so with the aid of a simple parable of Jesus — so familiar and homely, and yet, as so often with Jesus’ parables — so brain-teasing as well. To think through the levels of meaning in today’s gospel, let us proceed in three brief stages, each disclosing fresh reflection and challenge.
First, there is the level of Jesus’ parable; for this wonderfully quirky little story surely must go back to Jesus himself, even though Luke is the only gospel to record it. Recall: it’s the story of an unjust, disrespectful judge, and the nagging, resentful widow. Is this really what prayer to God is meant to be like, then? Surely Jesus can’t mean that God is like an unjust, neglectful judge? Or indeed that prayer is like angry, resentful nagging on our part?
No, as is almost always the case with Jesus’ parables, it’s a false temptation of some magnitude to read this story as an allegory, that is, to identify the widow straightforwardly as the sort of prayer we ought to be (along with all her bitterness and resentment), let alone the unjust judge as what God is supposed to be like.
No, Jesus is teasing us with a thought that goes deeper than that, and bounces us into a more profound reflection: as in two other parables also recorded by Luke (the swindling steward in Luke 16, and the man who was in bed at midnight when asked to get up and provide food for a neighbour in Luke 11), the force of today’s parable is something like this: if X is the case in this our sinful world, how much the more Y, in the case of God’s glorious kingdom.
That is, if even a grumpy, malicious old judge will give a tedious and repetitive supplicant what she wants for the worst possible reasons — a bit of peace and quiet — how much the more (a minori ad maius) will God respond to us if we “pray always and [do not] lose heart.”
As always, Jesus starts with the uncomfortably familiar, with conditions of injustice and resentment and social fracture that we know all too well, and through his simple parable projects us out of these all-too-distressing realities into something unimaginably transcendent and unexpected and wonderful that his kingdom bespeaks: a relationship in prayer unlike any other, because it is the unique relationship with the only truly loving — and indeed supremely just — Father and Creator of all.
But wait a minute, you’ll say (and here we come to the second level of reflection): surely there must be at least one element in this parable that Jesus does intend for us to emulate literally in our life of prayer — one real, stark, take-home lesson from the brainteaser of his story?
Yes, indeed; and this Luke, the compiler of this gospel, already identifies for us in his introduction and framing of the parable, when he writes that Jesus told it because of the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” For it is of course the widow’s persistence that is core here — that’s the punchline of the story. She did not give up, despite all appearances of hopelessness. She endured. And she asked, repeatedly, for just what she desired and needed.
This then is prayer, according to Jesus’ teaching in this parable: we ask and we ask repeatedly, we say it to God, and go on saying it. We start where we are and we simply persist in asking. Whatever our agony is, whatever wakes us up in the night, whatever comes around and goes around and is seemingly never resolved — our grief or loss, the injustice or abuse we have suffered, the relationships we have marred: here it is, and not somewhere else more splendid and holy (as we fruitlessly imagine), that our life with God is formed and deepened.
It is not that we can’t pray, then, but rather that we can’t believe that the mess in our lives from which we recoil is the authentic place of prayer, the place of simply “saying it to God.” Here, and not somewhere else, is the anvil on which God is hammering out our salvation. As St. Augustine writes, late in his life, to another widow, Proba, who asks him how on earth to pray in her bereavement and grief: prayer, Augustine answers — perhaps surprising us — is simply the deep and right “desire to be happy.” We simply pray to be happy in God, says Augustine, which is why we pray and go on praying about whatever ails us. It’s this persistence, this God-bothering, that matters.
But wait a minute, I hear you saying again — and now we proceed to our third level of reflection: what if God doesn’t “hear” us when we cry out to him repeatedly, or at least doesn’t seem to hear us for long, arid periods of our lives? What if we have given up on prayer precisely because we appeared to get no answer to our agonies, no answer to “saying it to God”? Or, alternatively — a more trickier philosophical objection posed rhetorically by the third-century Alexandrian theologian Origen: what if there is seemingly no point in persistent and repetitive prayer because — as Jesus himself says in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount — God already knows what we need before we ask, and “vain repetitions” can become a narcissistic waste of energy?
These are very fine theological objections. And while today’s gospel from Luke does not set out explicitly to answer them, it does at least give us an important and crucial seed of response, which is vital too for our prayer life. Let me now say something further, at this third level of reflection, and in closing.
Here we need to know first that the whole of Luke’s gospel is predicated on a problem, a seemingly unanswered prayer for the return of Christ, the longed-for Second Coming. There has been a delay, it seems, an unexpected period for further reflection and taking stock, for growing in persistent prayer, and indeed in “faith.” This is why Luke ends today’s gospel by remarking, “And yet, when the Son of Man [does come] will he find faith on earth?”
Our whole parable, in other words, is framed by this worry, the very worry I have just expressed as an objection to persisting in apparently unanswered prayer. But when we think a bit more deeply about the parable, again at this third level of reflection, we see that Jesus’ rich little story already begins to help us out of the dilemma.
For what happens in this story is that the resolution of the nagging of the widow and the dilly-dallying of the judge ultimately changes them both, and seemingly miraculously: as Ephrem the Syrian already put it in the fourth century, exegeting this very text, “persistence” is what transforms both the human protagonists in this parable — the widow from her bitterness, and the judge from his injustice. “Let justice [then] vindicate us,” says Ephrem, “and let grace reform us”.
And once we are cured of the false allegorical rendition of Jesus’ parable to think that the unjust judge is God (as we saw at the first level of our reflection today), then there is no need at all to see God as being changed by our prayer: that would be an idolatry. Rather, by “saying it to God in prayer,’ again and again, with the persistence of the widow in the parable, it is we who are changed by our deepening intimacy with God, as we lean with ever more trust into his Providence. Think here, indeed, of the wonderful story of Jacob’s wrestling with God that we also heard in today’s lection. Through Jacob’s all-night struggle with God he too was left changed forever, marked for life and limping: a new ‘Israel’ opened up to a new future.
The bottom line of our three levels of reflection is therefore this, Luke’s own conclusion: “Pray always, and do not lose heart.” That is, pray as you can, and not as you can’t; pray always out of your particular agony; but pray, endure, and persist, till like the widow in today’s gospel both you and even your enemies like the unjust judge are unimaginably transformed in the asking of prayer. That is what we need for ourselves, for the church, for this parish, and for the kingdom of God in this place.
May we then “say it to God” with renewed persistence and faith in this season, and never “lose heart” as we seek the future of our lives together in the mystical body of Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley is a visiting professorial fellow at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne and Rome).