Pray Always

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 18:1-8.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Pray always and never lose heart.” And he drove the point home by telling them a parable.

So far, so good. We get what the story in our passage from Luke’s gospel today is supposed to be about. But as the story unfolds, as we really look at the parable Jesus tells, it looks less and less like a good example of the way to conduct one’s prayer life. Taken at face value, the parable does not give us a very flattering portrayal of the way God responds to prayer — or, for that matter, of the way we ourselves are inclined to pray.

Jesus says, “In a certain city there was a judge” — well, a judge in name, at least. This “judge,” we are told, does not have any fear for God or any respect for people. This “judge” does not care at all about building up right-relationships, which is the root concept of justice in the biblical tradition. This “judge” might be legally, externally empowered to decide cases or pronounce punishments; but he certainly does not seem to be inwardly capable of interpreting and representing God’s righteous will for God’s faithful people. This judge, we are told, is in fact a contradiction in terms, a walking oxymoron: he’s an unrighteous decider of what is right, he’s an untrustworthy trustee of God’s truth, he is an unjust judge.

So the first character in Jesus’ parable about prayer is hardly someone we would want to associate ourselves with. Is the second character any better?

Jesus continues the story: “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to the judge and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.'”

Okay, this sounds promising. Widows are usually sympathetic characters in the Gospels, especially in Luke, since Luke’s Gospel is especially concerned for the poor and the marginalized, like an older woman left to fend for herself with no husband to protect her in a patriarchal society. We might expect this widow to be someone we could connect with. But the text soon gives us some signals that this widow might not be so charming, either.

She comes to the judge saying, “Grant me justice.” But the word she uses for”justice” here is an odd kind of word. It’s an edgy kind of word. It’s kind of like the difference in English between the words “vindication” and “vindictive.” It seems this woman is less interested in building up right-relationships than she is in getting the judge to slap down someone she doesn’t like.

She is also persistent. She keeps on coming to the judge, over and over and over. The judge is afraid she will exhaust him, literally use him up, by her continual complaining. The picture we begin to get of this widow is of a vindictive grouch who is accustomed to badgering people who get in her way until she gets what she wants.

So on the whole the parable is not a very pleasant picture: a cynical and self-serving magistrate, holding at arm’s length a vindictive and pestering widow, until her nagging finally wears him down and he judges in her favor (whether or not she’s right or wrong!) just to get her off his back.

And this, Jesus says, is what it is like to pray to God.

Excuse me? God is like a corrupt and uncaring public official? We are like vindictive badgering pains in the neck? Praying is like pestering God until God gives us what we want just to get rid of us? Excuse me?

This whole picture seems patently absurd. Which of course is what tips us off to the fact that this whole picture is really pointing us to something deeper.

Because what Jesus is doing here is using an ancient teaching technique called “arguing from the lesser to the greater.” Basically this means saying “If something can happen even in the worst-case scenario, then how much more likely is it to happen in the best-case scenario.” So it is in this parable: Jesus is saying “If even an unjust magistrate will grant judgment for a vindictive pest, then how much more will the true and righteous and loving God grant right-relationships to faithful people who pray for them day and night?”

And that’s the key to it: Praying always, crying out day and night, for right-relationships. In this gospel Jesus calls his disciples — and that means us — to reach out to God, and in the power of God to reach out to the world, to build up right-relationship. Right-relationship in society, which is justice. Right-relationship for mutual well-being, which is peace. Right-relationship among each other, which is compassion and love. Right-relationship within ourselves, between our ideals and our actions, which is righteousness. Right-relationship with our time and talent and treasure, which is stewardship. Right-relationship with God, which is communion. Jesus calls us to pray always for these things.

And the beauty of it is that praying for right-relationships is itself the first step in making right-relationships. Here the praying and the doing are not two separate things, but are two complementary movements of one single spiritual activity. To pray is, in essence, to open ourselves up to the indwelling of God’s Spirit; and the indwelling of God’s Spirit is the essence of right-relationship with God; and right-relationship with God in the Spirit is what empowers and impels us to create right-relationship with everything else.

That’s why Jesus says God is quick to grant justice to those who pray: because praying for right-relationship is itself the first granting of right-relationship. And because God is quick to empower us for right-relationship, therefore, Jesus says, we can pray always and never lose heart.

You see: It all comes together. Even though the parable itself may seem strangely unpleasant, the whole package, the whole meaning, comes together as a call and a promise about the power of prayer for right-relationship.

And where does that call come to you today? Where can you pray for right-relationship in your connections, in your self, in your world? And how can you, with God’s help, build up right-relationship in the people and the places you can touch?

May God grant us justice when we cry day and night. And may we be found faithful, living God’s justice, living right-relationships, throughout all God’s earth. Amen.