This morning, at the end of the service at St. Martin’s–the day shelter where I lead morning worship, a man came up to me and asked in a rather plaintive tone of voice, “Is Jesus saying that if we just pester God enough, we’ll get what we ask for?” Then he went on to say, “I don’t get that parable. And I don’t much like it either.”
This is a hard parable. I’ve wrestled with it all week long. Finally, at long last, I’m beginning to hear echoes in it. Echoes of my mom. Echoes that help me with this hard teaching.
Mom spent years preparing my brother and me to live without her. She knew just how close she had come to death and she didn’t expect to survive our childhood. She was determined to help us through the hard times she was sure would come our way.
Mom’s way of teaching was stories—stories of her own hard times, stories of how she got through them, stories of her praying her way through the hard times of her life.
Mom taught us how to pray—not by saying, “When you pray, pray like this” but by sharing with us the prayers she prayed. She had two prayers. Her “candle-in-the-dark” prayer was a simple one. Just a verse from her favorite psalm. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” Because we knew her story, because we knew that for three years before she even turned thirty she lay in a hospital bed hovering between life and death, we knew she knew what walking through the valley of the shadow of death meant.
Mom’s second prayer was always preceded by an explanation. I think she wanted to drive the point home. Over and over she would tell the story of her lowest point. She’d been in the hospital for over a year. The sun-lamp treatments and bed rest had not helped. The tuberculosis had spread from her lungs to her intestines. She weighed but seventy-six pounds. She couldn’t even get out of bed. The way mom told her story, it was not until she prayed the words, “Thy will be done” and handed her struggle over to God, that she turned the corner to recovery.
I think with this parable of the persistent widow Jesus is pulling what my brother and I call a “Jane.” Already he and his disciples have encountered heavy fire. Jesus knows what is awaiting him and them in Jerusalem. He knows the trials ahead. And so he tells them a story. A story of a woman left alone without anyone to care for her, support her or advocate for her. A story of a woman whose own friends and relatives are scheming to take from her what little she has. It’s a story of a woman who knows she does not walk alone; a woman who knows that at the darkest moments God is with her. How else could she make all those trips down the road to the unjust judge?
This is not a parable about pestering God. Jesus is not saying that persistence in prayer is like the widow coming again and again before that unjust judge until he grants her request. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is up to in this story or in his other teachings about prayer. I think he is saying something else. I think he’s doing something else.
I think he is trying to teach his disciples how to get through the hard times that were sure to be a part of their lives. I think Jesus, like my mom, was trying to teach the disciples how to grow that mustard seed into a full-blown faith that would sustain them through the darkest days of their lives. For what is prayer but an on-going conversation with God who walks at our side?
On the night before he died, Jesus led his disciples to the Mount of Olives. He urged them to pray, and then he went off to pray by himself. This was his prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” Luke then tells us, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.”
Pray always and do not lose heart for prayer opens portals through which God and God’s angels come to us in our hour of deepest need. Amen.