At first glance persistence seemsto be the key to this passage. After all, persistence may be the best way for aperson to get what they really want. Harpo Marx once experienced this truth,and ended up feeling about as much sympathy as the judge in Jesus’ famousparable. Marx was spending time in a New York hotel when a woman, who wantedhim to appear at a charity event, found out where he was. She phoned him twelveseparate times in the space of 48 hours, always with the same request.
Eventually, Harpo relented and agreed to appear. To assure hewouldn’t duck out at the last minute, she showed up to personally escort him tothe benefit. On their way out of his room, the phone rang. He ignored it. Shequeried, “Aren’t you going to answer your phone?” Quipped Harpo,”Why bother? It’s undoubtedly you again.”
Now the widow knew how to be persistent. She houndedthe judge day and night to try to get her justice. Where it says “that shemay not wear me out” the Greek is almost closer to “that she will notstrike me” The judge was worried he’d get a black eye she was sopersistent with her pleas. I’d say that was persistent!
Yet, this passage is very much a Yes, but no passagefor me. It’s a passage where it is easy to grasp part of the meaning but if wedon’t keep working with it, we’ll miss some of the more important parts. Yes itis about being persistent in your praying. That is important. Over and overagain we are told to pray unceasingly. To knock and the door will be opened. ToAsk and you will receive. But no, that is not all of what the passage is about.
The problem with that way of reading it is that wecan fall into the trap of thinking of God as a vending machine. If you insertthe right amount of faith and pull the lever of prayer the right number oftimes, you will get what you want. Simple is that. Haven’t gotten what you wantyet? Keep pulling the lever.
Yes, but what about all those people who didn’t getwhat they prayed for? The ones who still lost their jobs. The ones whose lovedones stilled died. The ones who are still estranged from their families. Whatabout them? Did they just not pray hard enough or often enough? Did they nothave enough faith to insert? Why weren’t their prayers answered?
The vending machine god isn’t a source of divine loveand grace so much as a grownup version of Santa Claus. That idea of God is onethat makes God our wishing machine. Now, I believe that God is alwayslistening. And that God does always answer our prayers. It’s just the answerGod gives is sometimes “No.” or “Not yet” or “I have abetter plan”
Rob Bell tells a story of going to the mall with hisyoung son. As they pass one of those kiosks in the walk way his son sees a toythat is a ball attached to a piece of elastic that you tie around his wrist. Hisson decides that he must have this toy and begs his father, PLEASE give it tome. I want it! And Rob tells his son “No, that’s not a good toy, it willbounce back and hit you in the face and everything will get tangled up, comeon. Let’s go.” And his son cries. “But I want it!” And Rob andhis wife are starting to walk away and the child calls “But I thought yousaid you loved me!” Rob has to go back down the mall and pick up hiscrying son and carry him out to the car.
And you might think, it’s just a silly toy, whydidn’t he just get it for his son? Well, because Rob knew something his son didnot. From the mall they were headed to the sports store across the street toget his son a kickball. You see, they had started playing kickball in the parktogether the week before and his son loved it. He had something better in mindfor his son than a crappy toy that would bounce into his face and hurt him.
We are like his son. We constantly ask God for thingsthat aren’t good for us. That aren’t right for us. And God says no. And we cryout to God, But I thought you said you loved me!! And God does love us. But Godhas something better in mind for us sometimes.
But still. We are called to pray without ceasing. Weare called to be as persistent as that widow, bothering the judge day andnight. Have you ever watched a child who is very determined to receivesomething? That is the sort of praying we are called to do, even if God mightsay no. It looks exhausting! We are called to pray even in the face of silence.
And if the parable addresses itself to prayer, thisis where it does so. The parable teaches us that prayer is work, because ourprayers for the things we most deeply need are often met with long periods ofsilence from God. Fred Craddock writes that prayer is hard work because thehuman experience is often an experience of waiting in the face of delay. Hetells of a gathering of a group of people concerned with injustice andoppression in our society. An elderly black minister at that gathering read thisparable, and in one sentence summarized the whole thing. “Until you havestood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do notreally know what prayer is.”
To listen to some in the world today, prayer is easy.To listen to some, prayer is the way we get our spiritual goodies. Or to listento others, prayer is the way we get our material goodies. Or for others, prayeris the answer place, where God clearly addresses all of our questions andplaces our souls forever at ease. This goes back to the whole idea of a vendingmachine God.
Maybe I’ve missed something, but I’ve neverexperienced prayer in that way. Prayer has always cost me more than it’s given.And, to my knowledge, prayer has never yielded me a car or a wad of bills or aparking place at the mall. And call me crazy, but prayer has always generatedfor me more questions than answers. I’ve never quite grasped the notion ofprayer as the divine vending machine.
Prayer for me has always felt more like wrestling. In prayer,I have often felt like Jacob, who wrestled with God, struggled with God,through the long night until the break of day. That’s why the people in my lifewho have taught me most about prayer aren’t the ones who have all the answers.The people in my life who have taught me the most about prayer are the ones whohave practiced hopeful and confident prayer in the face of God’s silence.
And in the face of that silence, there is stillinjustice in the world. People still suffer.
The dilemma for me in this passage is that nearly twomillennia after its telling the poor and oppressed are still calling out forrelief. Yet they don’t seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice andcompassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If one reads this parableas it has always been read, as a counsel to relentless prayer, there willalways seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes adifference. Always those people whose prayers go unanswered no matter how hardthey’ve prayed. Unless Jesus is talking about deferred compensation – the kindof “pie in the sky by and by” thought – then, frankly, the claim forpersistence isn’t very convincing…or at least not always
Don’t get me wrong. I believepersistent prayer is very important, even when such prayers are not answered inthe ways we think best. Even when God has a kickball in mind for us instead, itis important to be unrelenting in our prayers. Not only because of the changesour prayers may elicit in God’s mind, but for the changes such prayers can workin our own hearts and minds. As Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistenceis a key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before Godwill open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way ofgetting to your door.”
Buechner’s comment set me to thinking that maybethere’s more to this parable than we have sometimes seen. What if Jesus offeredthis parable not only as a call to prayerful persistence but also as a reminderto the church of the importance of securing justice for the poor and theoppressed in their midst? Alan Culpepper says, “To those who have it intheir power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan and the strangerbut do not do so, the call to pray day and night is a command to let thepriorities of God’s compassion reorder the priorities of their lives.”
What if we stand this parable on its head and hear itas a testimony to the persistence of God, who wants us to grant justice toGod’s chosen ones who cry out day and night? Might this parable speak to theresolute, persistent, unrelenting, determined One who keeps knocking on ourdoor, challenging us to respond, pressing us to accept God’s claims, urging usto work for the good of neighbors in need?
So, I wonder: if this parable offers a mirror for ourlives, then maybe the face many of us will see when we peer into that mirror isthe face of the judge who, as Jesus said, “neither feared God nor hadrespect for people.” Is that not who we are in this story? We are not toidentify with the widow, pressing our claims and pleas upon God. We are thejudge, ignoring the persistent cries of the widow in our midst.
Oh, it’s not very flattering to read the parable thatway, to be sure. Who wants to be characterized as the hard hearted one? But,then, in the parable the judge does eventually reach the tipping point, andeven if not for the best of motives and more from self-interest, does grant thewidow what she wants. What she wants, of course, is justice and a fair shake.It’s what the outcasts of the world most often want and we know – because wehave heard it over and over again from the Torah and the prophets and Jesus -it is what God wants for them as well.
Maybe the good news in this story for thenon-outcasts – for the rest of us – is that God is like the widow -unrelenting, persistent, and assertive. God hasn’t given up on us, even when wehave acted as though we “neither feared God nor had respect forpeople.” So maybe there’s hope, not only for the widows and orphans andsojourners of this world, but for us. Maybe there is hope that we will tend tothe shame we feel and allow it to break through our resistance and press us toopen doors to those who knock persistently.
Maybe there is hope that we willhear their pleas at last and use our voices and our power to help shape reliefand reconciliation and fairness in this world. Maybe there is hope for us. Ibelieve there is. More importantly, I believe God believes there is.
“Behold,” says Christ, “I stand at thedoor and knock.” Maybe today we’ll open the door. And what a good day thatwould be…for everyone!