Annie Watson, St. Stanislaus
October 15, 2016
In this parable of the Unjust Judge (which is a great oxymoron), Jesus tells his audience “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Since I’m a woman I can say this: Jesus seems to encourage us to “nag” God in prayer.
In the parable a widow relentlessly pursues justice against her opponent, although we are never told what the opponent did. We can assume that, because she is a defenseless widow, as all widows were in that day, someone is taking advantage of her.
At first the judge refuses to help her, but eventually he gives in because he doesn't want the widow to continue coming to him and wearing him out. He has other things to do. He has other cases to resolve. He's more interested in people paying him under the table and other unethical practices that will make him rich. He could care less about this widow woman, and yet to get her out of his hair he brings justice to her.
Jesus then offers the moral to the story: If even an unjust human judge will eventually come around and help someone in need, will not the Almighty Judge do what is right at all times? Jesus is suggesting that God will answer our prayers if we are persistent.
Is that true? Does God always answer our prayers if we are persistent? Some might say, “Yes, but sometimes God answers with a ‘no’.” Perhaps it is true that God says “no” to us at times, but this is really an assumption on our part. We are assuming that the silent response to our prayers is a “no” when it could just as well be a non-response.
If we follow the wisdom of Jesus’ parable, we should ignore all the “no’s” or non-responses to our prayers and continue to nag God until God says “yes” (much like a salesperson ignores the first few “no’s” of a prospective customer).
There are many types of prayers. There are prayers of adoration or praise, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of confession. Some people practice meditation and contemplation, types of prayer that come from the monastic traditions.
But the type of prayer implied in Jesus' parable is “prayers of petition.” When we pray a prayer of petition we are asking God for something. Like the widow in the parable, we might ask God for justice. We might ask God to heal the sick or comfort those who mourn. These are prayers of petition or intercessory prayers.
Whether we ask God for something that benefits us, or benefits others, prayers of petition create theological problems for some people. For some Christians, asking God for something seems a little silly. Giving God a verbal “wish list” as if God is a heavenly Santa Claus who will give us what we pray for if we are good enough or persistent enough seems a little silly.
Why do some Christians have a problem with prayers of petition? First, if God already knows our needs and wishes, why do we need to persistently nag God about them? Don't we insult God by acting as if God needs to be reminded about these things? Doesn't persistent, nagging prayer imply a senile God?
Second, there is the reality of unanswered prayers. Let's be honest. We have all prayed for things that simply did not materialize. I'm sure we have all prayed for someone’s healing only to discover that they did not recover from their illness or injury. We have all prayed for world peace and for an end to world hunger. If we say that God has simply said “no” to these prayers, then we have to grapple with the reality of a God who doesn't seem to care about people very much.
Because of these theological problems, some people choose not to pray intercessory or prayers of petition. Even when a prayer seems to “work,” people are often surprised.
A priest stopped during his morning walk when he saw a man bending over one of the tires of his car. The rear had been jacked up, and the man was tugging at the tire muttering profanities. Then he stood up, kicked at the tire, and expressed his feelings at the top of his voice.
The priest came over to him and said, "My good man, surely there is no need for such heated profanity. Why don't you calm down and try the power of prayer. The man turned to the priest and said, “You mean pray about something as mundane as a flat tire? How do I do that?”
“I'll show you,” said the priest. “It’s the simplest thing in the world.” The priest raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Our heavenly Father, if it be Thy pleasure, help guide this man to faith and make him aware that all in the universe, from the mightiest star to the tiniest fly, is in Thy hands at all times. Let this man in true contrition of soul find that the removal of this tire is not a hard task for one with faith.”
As the final syllable fell from his lips, the tire quivered and, of its own accord, plopped off the wheel, made a short spinning clatter on one side, and lay still. The minister stared at it for a moment, then muttered, “Well, I'll be darned.” (That’s not a true story by the way …)
Do you see the problem that confronts us? Even when prayer seems to work, we have a hard time believing it. Nevertheless, I still believe we can justify prayers for ourselves and others. I still believe there are good reasons to pray. Let me briefly offer three good reasons:
First, prayers of petition feel like a natural way to express our cares and concerns. Second, prayers of petition do have a positive effect on people (especially if they know they are being prayed for). Third, whether prayers literally “work” or not, we become more intimate with God when we pray.
Those are good reasons to pray, regardless of how theologically “correct” we may or may not be when we pray. Jesus concludes the parable of the unjust Judge by asking, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"