Luke 18: 1-8
I’m not sure if it was like this when you were growing up. When I was growing up my dad engaged in the then nightly ritual of dads everywhere – reading the paper. He would come home, take off his tie, find a comfortable chair, and while waiting for dinner or while relaxing after dinner, he’d read the paper.
If it wasn’t like this when you were growing up, maybe you’ve seen this in movies and TV shows from a certain time period. It really was just like that: dad in his chair, newspaper held up in front of his face, child entering the room and standing on the other side of the paper, pestering him with questions and sometimes desperately trying to get his attention. I suppose there may be something like this now, with the dad’s head bent to his electronic device, but to my mind, something about that scene is different and lost now. There was always a moment, as a child, when you finally broke through his absorption and the paper came down. There was something about the protection of the paper in its upright position that – even when you desperately wanted your dad to lower it and pay attention to you – something that was a little scary when you finally had his undivided attention.
Many friends my age have all time favorite childhood stories – the big or funny moments – that involve this scene of talking to our dads through the newspaper. And always that moment when the wall was removed.
The parable Jesus tells here in Luke reminds me of this nightly newspaper scene. The widow out-and-out pesters this judge until he relents. Though my dad was quite good at holding his ground, I am positive that there were certain nights when he relented – Yes, you and your brother can stay up half an hour late tonight – just to be left in peace to read at the end of a long day.
We don’t hear “widow” in quite the same way those first parable-hearers did. In that time women were left with nothing when their husbands died. Everything went to the deceased husband’s brothers and the grieving woman – left without mate, home, job, or means – was then dependant upon the compassionate acts of her neighbors for anything and everything. Maybe it still happens something like this every now and then, but customs and families and laws are different now. Widows aren’t automatically and categorically at the bottom of the heap anymore.
In the parable, the widow needs help from the judge to get the justice she deserves. He is her last hope and even though he was known for his lack of concern about justice, she keeps coming to him, over and over, with her request. Finally, the paper comes down and he actually says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18: 4-5). He hasn’t really had a change of heart. He just wants this pesky fly of a woman to go buzz someplace else.
After telling this tale, Jesus says, If this unjust judge could eventually be persuaded to do the right thing (even if only out of self interest), don’t you think God –who is always just – will do the same with you? (Luke 18: 6-7).
I think this is where we get into trouble. I think we often miss the message here, hoping that the parable means that if we are bothersome enough with God we’ll get what we wanted all along. This might even be true, at least sometimes, but I think it misses the real point.
Right at the beginning of the passage it reads, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18: 1). It clearly does not say “a parable about eventually getting what you want” or “a parable about making sure God knows how to run the place.” Nope. A parable about our need to always pray and not lose heart.
Sometimes I think the hardest part of prayer for us is patience, not losing heart over time. Prayer takes patience and we live in an impatient time. We are used to expecting – demanding – instant responses and promptly effective actions. We are not good at increments. We go to an hour and a half movie and say without irony, “It changed my life.”
There are moments like that. The world, in an instant looks different and we go home by another way. But often the biggest life-changers are the cumulative experiences we go through over time.
Listening to the stories of the Chilean miners this past week, I wondered at their patience and persistence. It truly seemed they used their time well underground. Maybe that sounds odd. Of course no one wants to be trapped in the pitch black with 32 other smelly people for 69 days. But listening to them I had the distinct impression that they learned things about themselves and about God that they would not have had time to learn if they’d been rescued after a day or two. Some seemed thankful for what they encountered with God during the time they were trapped. How do you suppose they pestered God from inside the earth? What must that prayer have been like?
We’re told at the outset of the parable that the judge doesn’t make sound decisions. He doesn’t care what God requires and he has no concern for other people. He himself says he granted the widow’s request so she’d leave him alone. Who knows? He could have made the same decision with or without her pestering him. He doesn’t seem obliged to make sense in his rulings.
The widow is the one who is really changed in this parable. Rather than waiting as an outcast victim to see if anyone would have pity on her, she got up every day and went to bother that judge. She didn’t accept the role she’d been asked to play. What must that have been like for her, a widowed woman with absolutely no means, to state her case for justice every day? Do you think she felt stronger and more sure of herself as this practice of pestering built up in her? Would she have carried herself differently after a solid week of making her case?
Putting ourselves in the way of a practice like prayer – letting it work on us in increments over time – changes us. Like the widow who becomes more than her marital status, when we insist on time set aside with God, it may result in “answered prayers” but it definitely changes our lives.
Sometimes I asked the hardest questions of my dad when his paper was in the “up” position, when I halfway hoped he wasn’t listening. I had something scary to ask about or shameful to confess and I stood there hoping both that he’d heard me and that I wouldn’t have to say anything more. Those “paper conversations” were one ritual that formed me and our relationship, teaching me that I have a dad who is willing to talk to me when he’s busy, who will put aside what he is doing when necessary, who wants to be part of the conversation even when he doesn’t have a ready answer for me.
I’ve also had conversations like that with God. Times when I was grieving and couldn’t say anything but would light a candle to let God know I was there in the room. Moments when I was ashamed and couldn’t figure out how to act differently. Prayers of my restless heart, longing to find the place of my true calling in this world. Days like this gorgeous day when I say aloud “My God!” in breathless thankfulness for the splendor of creation and the kiss of October air. And the ritual of this conversation, steady over time, forms me and my relationship with God.
What are you learning about yourself and about God by relentlessly going back to have another chat?
Jesus says we need to pray always and I believe him. Over a lifetime those many single prayers can start to weave into a life of prayer, a life of conversation with God. It doesn’t matter where you start or even what you say. Just make that trip to talk every day, like the widow.
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis