Tricky Jesus 5 - Pestering Prayer
Children have an amazing ability to pester you to get what they want. They work by a process of sheer attrition – they repeat their request so many times, and with so many variations on pleading and whining and bargaining, that eventually you're ready to stick a fork in your eye just to get them to stop nagging, and from your position of grovelling, beaten, on the floor you end up giving them what they're asking for. We would all probably agree that this isn't very skilful parenting. And yet there are some texts in the gospels that would seem to indicate that this is how our Father/Mother God is with us, and that pestering is the nature of true prayer. I've been asked to have a little ponder on these texts, as they offer a view of prayer that does seem pretty contrary to what we might imagine the prayer of a transformed heart to look like.
Here's the first:
Then he told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart.'There was a judge in a certain town,' he said, 'who had neither fear of God nor respect for anyone. In the same town there was also a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, "I want justice from you against my enemy!"For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, "Even though I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person, I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face." ' And the Lord said, 'You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?'
There are some things that I think we need to do with passages like this - passages that cause us to go 'huh?' First, we remember that Jesus told oral stories, and that that it's the writers of the gospels who have framed the story with an introduction or an interpretation, turning the story into a teaching. Often what we understand these stories to mean is influenced – and not always in a helpful way – by what the gospel writers wanted their communities to understand, rather than by what Jesus' story may have been doing in its original context. So when we come to these parables that raise questions for us, the place to start is with Jesus' parable itself, not the preamble or the 'therefore.' So we start with the characters and the images, rather than what the parable is supposed to mean or teach. After that, we can look at how Luke has framed the parable – its context within the gospel and also what we can determine of the concerns of Luke's community – and so notice what Luke has made the parable mean. And finally I think that we relate the parable to what we see, hear and know of Jesus from the whole of the rest of the gospels – his wider teaching, his practice, and his life.
When we've done all these things I think we might feel like we can come to a sense of what we might take from the parable for ourselves today.
So, let's look at the one I just read out, 'the parable of the unscrupulous judge and the importunate widow.' Let's shelve Luke's intro that this is a parable about prayer, and his conclusion that this all has a bearing on the question of God relieving the unjust oppression of God's people. Let's look at the characters in the story. There's an unjust judge. He has no fear of God and no respect for people. He wants to ignore the widow, but he doesn't like the idea that she might get uppity and 'slap him in the face'. So he does what she wants. The other character is a widow. This should ring bells for us. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, and in Jesus' teaching, who is God on the side of? The widows and orphans...those without means to protect themselves in the world. She is seeking justice, and even the unjust judge recognises that her cause is just. The story establishes that she's not acting out of whim or vengeance. When I hear this story, I don't find within it any suggestion that we are meant to think of the unjust judge as being God, or being anything like God. Nor do I think that we are necessarily meant to see ourselves as the widow unless we're identifying with her marginal or vulnerable situation. Luke's community may have made this identification, but on the whole the needs and desires that move most of us to prayer aren't in this category of a need for justice.
To me, this is a simple snapshot of how this world often works – it reveals the meannness of people, including those who are meant to care for the least, the courage of people with nothing to lose, and the way pestering wears people down in the end. In our day, Jesus might have told a story about a solo mother trying to interact with the IRD over the telephone. I do not find this to be an exemplary story about how God is, and how we should act in relation to God. I simply don't believe that Jesus is setting this parable up as an image of good relationship, or setting out a pattern for how we should pray.
It's similar to another story Luke records:
He also said to them, 'Suppose one of you has a friend and goes to him in the middle of the night to say, "My friend, lend me three loaves, because a friend of mine on his travels has just arrived at my house and I have nothing to offer him;" and the man answers from inside the house, "Do not bother me. The door is bolted now, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up to give it to you." I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it to him for friendship's sake, persistence will make him get up and give his friend all he wants. So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.'
Here we have a story of someone who wants to fulfil his legitimate obligations to give hospitality, being contrasted with another person who is too tired and comfortable to fulfil the obligations of friendship. Again, the encouragement here is to pestering – being a squeaky wheel, a pain in the butt, until you get what you want. This is another example of how things usually go – an image of the world we habitually live in, not a picture of the Kingdom of God. The man who can't be bothered getting out of bed and unlocking his door to his friend is not meant to be a depiction of God, and therefore I don't think we are being invited to persist like the friend knocking on the door.
Both of these stories are anti-parables – they are demonstrations of how God is not, and how the flow of love and justice in the Kingdom of God doesn't work by withholding on the one hand and pestering on the other, but by generosity and gift on the one hand and trusting receptivity on the other.
It is possible to make the case that Jesus is saying 'if even unjust or inhospitable humans can respond to the persistence of others, how much more swiftly will God respond to us when we come to God repeatedly with our requests.' This would be in line with what follows on from this second parable in Luke 11 – that if a son asks for a fish a human father wouldn't give him a snake, and so if even human fathers know how to meet their children's needs, surely we can trust God to give us good things when we ask for what we need. This is probably true as far as it goes, but the question about the nature of 'persistence' remains – if God is so much more responsive to us than a human parent, or judge, or friend could ever be, then why would Jesus need to advocate persistence? My feeling is that the whole discourse of 'pestering' belongs to the world of the anti-parable, the world as we usually experience it, and not at all to the world where God knows what we need, and where God's will is always to provide what we need (which, of course, is not always the same as giving us what we want.)
Of course, persistence is an important value in our own lives – to achieve our goals and to be disciplined to grow in the ways that God is calling us toward. I'm not intending to be anti-persistence as such. And, there are many situations in the world where ongoing injustice might cause us to cry out day after day for peace or freedom – to say with the psalmist 'How long O Lord?' This is the prayer of solidarity and longing and lament that in my view needs to keep being offered. But in neither of these cases is it appropriate to frame prayer as some kind of attempt to persuade or badger God to change things, as though repeating ourselves is going to be the key to transformation.
Very briefly then, because I want to get on to looking at what the gospels actually do teach about prayer, why does Luke frame this parable about the widow and the judge the way he does?
The chapter that immediately precedes this parable ends with some teaching about the 'coming' of the kingdom of God, and then the 'Day' of the Son of Man. It seems to me that in Luke's community of faith, there was some discouragement, a sense of being neglected by God because they eagerly anticipated the end of all things and the throwing off of the shackles of empire, but these hoped for endings weren't happening. I personally read this framing by Luke as a way of interpreting some of Jesus' teachings to help make sense of this delay. He wants to offer some encouragement to keep on being faithful and calling on God.
Feel free to disagree with me and find it scandalous, but what it seems like to me is that here Luke has gone to the source material of all of Jesus' stories and teachings, and chosen one that fits the needs of a community longing for justice and needing to know that they could still trust God. Do with that what you will.
The reason why I feel I can question whether this parable really is Jesus teaching his followers how to pray, is the way it clashes with other explicit teachings on prayer in this and the other gospels. In chapter 11, there's a small narrative episode where Jesus 'was in a certain place praying and when he had finished one of his disciples said, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught the disciples.' And so Jesus gives them what we have come to know as the Lord's Prayer – a very simple framework that has to do with the dynamics of God's realm: giving honour to God, longing for the revealing of God's kingdom in our midst, trusting in God's provision, forgiveness and protection. This is all to do with giving up our own strategies and ideas for a good and safe life and stepping into the alternate realm that I've been talking about for the past several weeks, where God is for us so we don't need to be for ourselves.
In Luke, this Lord's prayer teaching segues into the story about the person who bangs on his friend's door for the three loaves and is sent packing until he persists. But in this chapter, neither Jesus nor Luke says 'go and do likewise' – instead the teaching segues again into the real point. Which is that we are invited to come to God with the confidence that, unlike the scenario in the parable, our heavenly Father is always ready to give what is good to 'everyone' who asks, seeks, and knocks.
In fact, framing Matthew's rendering of the Lord's prayer, Jesus tells his disciples 'In your prayers do not babble as the gentiles do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them; your Father knows what you need before you ask him.' Here we have a clear invitation to trust God's all-seeing good will and personal care, and the reminder that prayer does not rest with us and our words. It's not about twisting God's arm or finding the right technique to wrestle what we need out of a withholding God. Using many words – and presumably using them again and again – doesn't alter two foundational realities: first, that God is always for us, as a loving Father who says yes to the truth of who we are, and second, that we cannot dictate outcomes to God – prayer is more about changing us than changing God or our circumstances. When we look at Jesus responding to people who came to him with requests for healing and freedom, we see immediate and loving action. He didn't send people away to see if they'd come back the next day, and the next and the next, and so 'test their faith'.
The gospels depict Jesus spending much time in private prayer, and in fact privacy was one of Jesus' encouragements to his disciples when teaching them about prayer. 'Go into your inner room and shut the door.'
This is not saying that corporate or public prayer is not important, but that the main prayer of a disciple is the prayer of quiet 'being' with the Father, attuning to the One who centres and grounds our life. Other forms of prayer come out of this primary prayer. We don't know what Jesus did when he went up mountains to pray, but I suspect he didn't spend whole nights saying lots of words his Father, planning his church growth strategies and asking God to get on side with them, or pleading with God for this or that person's needs. I suspect that his way of praying had as much to do with rest and homecoming as it did with discussing the family business. We do know that some of these prayer times transfigured him, which suggests that they were less about brass tacks and more about being in relationship, opening to the transforming presence of God.
We do have a privileged glimpse into one very painful event of prayer just before he opened his arms to receive the violent hatred of those that killed him. Seeing his time coming, Jesus brought his fear and his deep 'I do not want this!' to his Father, pleading to have the cup taken away. In Matthew and Mark's version of events he did this three times – not, I believe, because he thought that being persistent and repeating himself would change anything outside of himself, but because once was not enough to receive what he needed to go through the pain he foresaw. In this very, very human process, we see Jesus involved in an inner struggle, each time coming to the place of acceptance of God's will, before being assailed once again by what I imagine was an intense temptation to opt out, and a desire for an almighty power to reach in and make things different. Instead of changing the external events, however, the Father gave Jesus the strength to be himself – his trusting and forgiving self – throughout the ordeal.
In my view, all these examples of teaching about prayer and actual praying within the gospels sit with difficulty alongside any theology of prayer that says it's important to persist in asking for what we want, demonstrating our faith that God will bend to our view of how things should be. Any parable that seems to be saying that is, I think, open to question.
So if it's not about pestering, what can prayer be for us?
From the example and teaching of Jesus we can see that prayer, more than any particular set of words or techniques is a posture – a stance of trust, humility and longing. Trust that God is 'for us' and is just and good and loving. Humility because we are limited and contingent and cannot make our lives turn out how we want by exercising our own strategies of control. And, even if we could – there's no saying that we would make good lives or a good world by always getting what we think we need. Prayer acknowledges these limits and invites God into the space where our human efforts are not enough.
And longing, because prayer looks at the world through God's eyes and aches for the broken things and sees things in their potential wholeness and loves all it sees. Prayer is about moving through our lives in this state of trust, looking for God in the ordinary corners of the day.
Particular times or events of 'praying', when we sit down 'to pray', are about creating the space for God to form real prayer in us...getting us past our fearful, ego-based wants, our hubris and our self-centredness and instead nurturing true qualities of trust, humility and longing in us. Specific times of prayer are about learning how to live prayerfully. And they are about relationship – not nagging or pestering, like a child that doesn't feel listened to or like its needs aren't being met. In prayer we are invited to bring ourselves and our desires and our confusions and our ideas with as much honesty as we can muster into the light of God's presence. Some of our desires, confusions and ideas will be resolved in ways that bring us joy and then we may say our prayers were answered. And at other times we will be asked to go on living through unmet desires and persistent confusions and we may have our ideas changed or ruined and then, we may also say that our prayers were answered. Because the answer always has less to do with what the circumstances are, and more to do with how we are formed to meet whatever we may have to face. This formation does not come about by pestering a withholding God, but in learning to trust the love of God, which is nearer to us than our breathing.