Do you spend time each day praying? I’m not going to ask for a show of hands since guilt is something I’ve found to be unhelpful when trying to establish a routine. I used to dread going to the dentist because I knew someone was going to ask me how often I floss. I don’t want to do that to you. I will make some assumptions though. I’d guess that there are some here that don’t spend time in prayer. There will be some who have a set ritual of prayer that they follow carefully. There are also going to be those who pray as a response to something, either good or bad, a prayer of desperation, or celebration.
What if I asked you what prayer is? I bet we’d get a pretty diverse set of answers for that question as well. Some might say that prayer is something done intentionally at times set aside from other distractions. Maybe some of you are more like me who most often pray when doing something else like going for a walk.
Maybe the toughest question though is, “ what do you expect from prayer?” What does it give you, what effect on the world do you believe it has? If you say “prayer works” I ask you, “how?”
Today, we have a parable about the need to pray and to maintain hope in times of trouble. For the disciples, they’d been told that Jesus would soon be arrested and murdered but there was also the talk of the resurrection – not only of Jesus but the world as it enters into the new age that Jesus and the prophets promised. This isn’t a time though to dwell in our own misery or get lazy because the age to come is soon – no, Jesus is coming – look busy!
Specific to this parable though is to be busy praying. Jesus tells us about a widow who’s trying to find justice. Widows at this time and place had it hard. Often a girl was married in her early teen and often to a man far older than she was. Since these men were older and men often died younger than women anyways, being a widow was the unfortunate fate of far too many women. Too often, with their husband also died their wealth, family, and position in the community. Even those that were left some kind of inheritance were often taken advantage of by less than scrupulous judges and scribes. This is likely what Jesus was talking about in Chapter 20 when he accuses some of the authorities of devouring the homes of widows.
The widow of this parable is not taking this injustice lightly though. She knows the judge is crooked. Likely everyone knows he’s crooked. It would be unprofitable for him to keep this secret because those in power need to know that his palm can easily be greased.
The widow also knows that there is only one option at her disposal; only one tool in her belt to gain the justice she deserves. She can nag, and pester, and complain, and annoy. She’s going to make sure that it’s more trouble for the judge to not help her.
Do you ever take notice of political cartoons? They have a way of making us laugh but at the same time pushing us to pay attention to some kind of issue. This is kind of like what Jesus is doing here – he’s describing a 1st century Palestinian political cartoon. Here’s this powerful judge being beaten into submission by this poor widow. The image is so ridiculous that it must be meant with a tongue planted firmly in Jesus’ cheek, but then again, the problem is so pertinent, so familiar to his listeners that the laughter would be a bit bitter.
The message though is clear. Prayer, sometimes persistent, nagging, bothersome prayer is what the world needs – it’s what’s going to lead us into the age to come. And if that horrible corrupt judge will listen to the pestering of this widow, how much more will our loving, forgiving, grace filled God listen to our prayers!
But again, how does that work? Is it really like Facebook posts that claim that God needs 1000 likes to intervene on behalf of someone someone who’s sick? Will God really answer our prayer for good weather on pick-nick day but then not stop a hurricane that flattens a city and kills thousands? What if God doesn’t take side in war? What if God doesn’t care who wins the Oscars? What if, and I don’t want to scare you here, what if God really isn’t on the side of the Riders?
How we talk about prayer really says a lot about what we believe about God but also ourselves. If I pray for a friend to get over an illness, what do I expect to have happen? Am I drawing God’s attention to this person? Does God react with, “Woh, I didn’t know Henry was sick! Thanks for letting me know!” How does this fit with an all knowing God. Does God know about my friend but is just waiting for enough prayers to take action? How does this fit with out belief in an all loving God? And if I think that I have the power to alert God to anything or that I have so much influence that I can change God’s mind, aren’t I placing myself above God? I am after all thinking that I am more aware of the condition of my friend or more loving than God because I care more about my friend.
I don’t think this is how God works. I think when it comes to prayer, we’re sometimes getting God mixed up with Santa Claus. By now, maybe some of you are getting a bit uncomfortable with the direction this is going. Maybe some of you are getting up a good head of steam to tell me after church, “well when I prayed for my Aunt May…”. And I hear you. If I was a smarter minister, maybe I’d just avoid these difficult topics.
But don’t worry, because I’m absolutely not saying that prayer is useless but maybe instead, we might want to think about it in a different way. What if when you pray for your Aunt May, God already knows her condition and is just as concerned as you? What if God rejoices in your prayer because it’s a sign that you also care, maybe you even care enough to listen for what might come next.
In our parable, it’s so often been assumed that this widow is setting an example for us. If we could be like the widow and pester and nag God, we too might have our prayers for Justice answered. But what if, we’ve got this backwards. What if the Judge does not represent God in this parable but instead, God is the nagging widow coming to us, the ones who would rather not listen and have to be pestered into submission. What if this parable is telling us that God is praying to us to set aside our corruption, our complacency, our closed minds, closed ears and closed hearts. What if this parable is telling us to please take notice of God who is going to always call us to justice whether we like it or not.
So maybe when we pray, we should think of it more as a conversation. If I pray to God for my friend in the hospital, maybe God is saying, I’m worried about her too – maybe you could go there and remind her that I love her. When I pray that the poor are fed, maybe God is answering – I’d like that too; what are you doing to break down systems that ensure poverty and desperation? Maybe when we pray that our church will grow, maybe God is saying back tot us, “that would be great; I’ll bet your neighbour would find a faith community helpful at this time in his life. Maybe you should invite him.”
I believe God is praying to us all the time. It’s a prayer of love. It’s a prayer of adoration because we are after all a part of God’s own beautiful creation. But maybe God is also praying to as a prayer of petition, begging us to do the work Jesus has called us to do and has instructed us to do. So maybe in our own prayers to God, we should maybe offer God our silent listening ears.