“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” -Luke 18.1
To look around the world today, it’s very easy to lose heart. People are drowning as they cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats to Europe. A once-fine Syrian city is being bombed into rubble. An oppressive and irrational dictator in North Korea has increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. Oh, and the foundations of American democracy appear under threat by an unhinged demagogue who caters to our worst instincts.
In that frame of mind, I went to church this morning and heard a parable from Jesus—a parable that is told so that Jesus’ followers do not “lose heart.” Just what I needed!
But at first glance the answer seems depressing. Apparently, what I need to do not to lose heart is to pray. The parable is about a widow who badgers an unjust judge who finally grants her justice. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18.7) That’s it? In the face of all the truly frightening things in the world, the answer is to keep asking God for justice? God’s justice depends on my asking for it? It can seem an inadequate response.One of the primary concerns of the author of the Gospel of Luke is prayer. Jesus is frequently depicted as being at prayer. This parable about prayer appears in no other gospel. And prayer is linked with one other central concept: the kingdom of God. That’s most obvious in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus tells his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom, but there are other places where the connection is made. Shortly before this parable about prayer, Jesus tells his followers not to look for the kingdom of God “with things that can be observed… For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17.20, 21) And how does the kingdom of God come to be among them? By the kind of fervent prayer that is described in the parable of the widow and the judge.
Our common views of prayer seem to involve a person (or people) sitting around (often in silence) and asking God for various things. I don’t think Luke would recognize this. For Luke, prayer is active and engage, an activity in which followers of Jesus come into contact with the world. Prayer is the activity by which the community of Jesus’ followers comes to see the kingdom of God in their midst.
Next week in church we’ll hear another parable about prayer, about a righteous Pharisee and a sinful tax collector. The former prays standing up in the temple, the latter throws himself on the floor. This parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18.9) It’s a reminder about prayer: the prayer that brings about the kingdom is the fervent prayer (like that of the widow) of those who know their need for God’s mercy (like the tax collector). The values and virtues of the kingdom of God are brought about by humble and fervent prayers to live according to precepts Jesus taught.
In the midst of a deeply uncertain and terrifying world, I want not to lose heart. The answer Jesus gives me is to pray. How do we pray? We work for the kingdom in our midst. How do we work for the kingdom in our midst? We pray.
How do the prayer practices of a Christian community you’re associated with reflect the unease and tension which so many of us experience in the world today?