Pray always. Luke says that’s the reason Jesus tells us the parable of the persistent widow, who nags the unjust judge until he finally relents and grants her justice.
The point of the parable is not that we should pester God until he gives us what we want. That’s not how prayer works. That concept of prayer fits in better with the ancient approach to pagan idols who had to be flattered and bribed into doing what the believer wanted. That is not how we approach a living, loving God.
It was the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, the former Anglican bishop of Durham, who opened my eyes to a new way of understanding this parable. Bishop Wright positions this parable in context of what comes before it.
This parable is not a how-to guide to prayer. It’s not about how, but why. It positions prayer squarely in an eschatological context. In other words, it calls us to consider prayer in the context of the end times, when the world will be remade, and justice and peace will prevail. This is the vindication the persistent widow seeks.
And if we hope for justice and peace at the end of time, then we must also live in hope for today.
How many of you have seen “Gravity?”
Just after I read Bishop Wright’s reflection on this parable, I was drawn to go see “Gravity.” Imagine my amazement to find this film exploring the concept of prayer.
Did you notice? There was a lot to learn about prayer.
First of all, when communications to the ground crew goes out due to a massive explosion that sends debris from shattered satellites hurtling toward them, the astronauts still continued to talk to mission control, just in case Houston can hear them but they can’t hear Houston. As the two astronauts are drifting in space, they share their hopes and fears with Houston, never hearing a response. But they persevere.
As one of the astronauts, Ryan Stone, seeks shelter first in a Russian then a Chinese space station, she encounters evidence of prayer left behind by the astronauts of those nations who have evacuated. An icon of St. Christopher. A smiling Buddha statue.
In the abandoned Russian space station, Stone resigns herself to death. Talking to a random person she picks up on radio, who speaks only Chinese and so cannot understand her, Stone laments that there is no one on earth to pray for her soul. In fact, she says, she can’t even pray for herself, because she never learned how.
But then something happens. She thinks of her young daughter who died, and introduces her to a friend who died recently. She’s teaching herself to pray, and she starts the easy way, with people she has loved. And by the end of the film, when she is delivered through an incredible ordeal, Stone weeps as she utters her first prayer, which is also the greatest prayer there is: “Thank you.”
Praying can sometimes seem like being adrift alone in empty space and not knowing if anyone is listening. But it’s the prayer that gives us hope in just such a situation. And the Christian lives by hope, the hope for a better world that Jesus invites us to imagine by praying always.
And here is the paradox of praying always as a way of living in hope for the culmination of humanity in the peacable kingdom of the Second Coming: that as we envision that future, we bring it into existence here and now.
There are many people who are better and more faithful in prayer than I am. But this I know: that when I neglect prayer I become unpleasant and self-centered and I dwell on imaginary offenses. But when I pray, I am happier, more forgiving.
In short, prayer allows me to change the world around me, just as one day the waters of peace and justice will flow out from Jerusalem and fill the entire world.
To pray always means to live in hope.
Paul wrote to you and me in the Letter to the Romans [ch 8]: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
In an analogy similar to the courtroom scenario Jesus used in the story of the persistent widow, Paul reminds us that God will vindicate all people of good will, at the end of time and, if we let him, today. That we are not victims, but victors in Christ Jesus.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If only we pray always.
As Pope Francis said:
Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive… God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.