Sunday, October 16, 2016

pray always and never lose heart

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is interesting to note that ever before he recounts today's parable, St Luke tells us the purpose of it. Our Lord tells it to remind his disciples of their need to pray always and not to lose heart. And he uses a curious, and indeed in many ways rather amusing parable to do so, that of the unjust judge.

Then as now there was a perception that public officials were not always to be trusted; and that a bribe could make sure that a person got what the wanted even if the law wasn't on their side. And that wealthy and powerful people would always get a more sympathetic hearing from those in charge than the poor or those on the margins. And a widow in ancient times tended to be a pretty powerless person. So what are the chances that this judge who, as he says himself, fears neither God nor man, will give her the justice she seeks? Indeed, the Greek here would be better described as vengeance – so possibly someone much higher up the pecking order of society is the one who has done her wrong, and serious wrong. A judge as unjust as this would in the normal course of events give this poor woman short shrift indeed. But this widow is not one to accept things as they are. She decides to be persistent. She will continually demand her justice until it is given to her.

And as a result the judge decides he must give her justice, not because it is the right thing to do, but because of her persistence, because it is in his own best interest. Most English versions render his reasoning as because he fears she will wear him out; the original Greek is better put that he worries that she will give him a slap in the face. So Jesus presents us with the rather humourous image of the judge being fearful that he will be given a thump by a little old lady!

And the point that Christ is making is clear. If a corrupt human judge will give justice in the face of persistence, how much more may we expect that God will be just to those who persist in their prayers? But that does not mean that we are to think of prayer as a way of getting whatever we want. Just as a good parent will not give their child something that is bad for them – or, indeed, something that it is not in the best interest of the whole family that they should have – neither will God give us something that does conform with his will … God will not give us something that is evil … and neither will the answer he gives us always be one that we can easily understand. This is important; for just as a few weeks ago when our Gospel spoke about faith being able to achieve the seemingly impossible, we had to note that the failure to gain what we desired did not necessarily imply a lack of faith; so to when we pray and we do not gain the precise thing it is that we prayed for, or our prayers are not answered in the exact manner that we hoped for, it does not necessarily mean that we have failed to be persistent enough.

We may think of many examples from Sacred Scripture where the person who prayed did not get what they wanted. Moses did not want to be the one to lead the Chosen People out of Egypt; and he argued strenuously with God that He should choose another. But, as we all know, God did not. Many other prophets told God that they were not the ones to be his messenger; and yet there were the ones that God spoke to his people through. You may recall how Jonah first ran from God, trying to avoid doing what God required of him; and then even after he asked God's pardon and went to Nineveh as God desired to call the people of that city to repent of their evil ways, he still camped outside the city hoping that they would not repent so that they would be destroyed – something that did not happen. 

In the New Testament, when St Paul journeyed to Damascus we may well imagine that he was praying for the success of his mission, which was to root out Christians in that city, arrest them, and bring them to trial and death. God did not grant his request – which is something that does not surprise us, but no doubt came as a great surprise to St Paul at the time … particularly given his own great persistence in attempting to destroy this new Church of Christ's followers. And then there are the prayers of Christ himself when he endured his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. He prayed for many hours, asking the Father to take this cup from him – the cup of his suffering and death. And that was not to be. But note how our Lord phrased his petition. He said to the Father if it was possible; and he also said not my will but thine be done … echoing the words of his blessed Mother, who said in response to the message of an angel 'be it done unto me according to thy word' … and his own words in the prayer he taught his disciples 'thy will be done.'

Prayer is not about telling God what to do. Sometimes, quite reasonably, we will be upset by the answer our prayers receive. We do not win the lottery, things do not go the way we want in our lives, a loved one is not cured of some dread disease. And Christ tells us to pray always and not lose heart. That is because prayer will help us to have faith in God, to trust in his will, to be sure that all will be for the best even if we do not always understand. Prayer will help us live with the fact that even though we do not always know why things must be as they are in this life, we trust we will understand in the next. Our Gospel reading ends with some other words from Christ – his question as to whether when he comes again will he find faith on earth? Prayer will help us to be among those who are found to be faithful when he comes again – which is why he calls us to pray always and never lose heart. Amen.  

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