Praying Always

When Jesus was finished speaking and looked up, his disciples looked completely miserable. James was sitting there shaking his head, a frown slowly spreading across his face. Peter scratched his head and furrowed his brow, trying to look tough even though his eyes were full of heartbreak. John just heaved a sad sigh and closed his eyes. They looked pitiful, tired, and scared, and so Jesus opened his mouth to tell them one more thing. A parable, this time, to ease their minds.

Before telling this story, Jesus had been speaking of the Kingdom of God. He had been telling his disciples all about what it would look like in the days when the Son of Man would be revealed and the Kingdom of God would come. But this Kingdom he spoke of was not the Kingdom of powerful, tiny mustard seeds or sweet yeast that leavens the whole loaf. This Kingdom of God, Jesus told them, was not comfortable or homey. And this Kingdom was not coming in any way that they could observe. People would say, “Look, there it is!” – but it would not be there. The Son of Man would come down from heaven in glory, but the disciples, Jesus told them, would not see it. They would seek and not find; they would knock and find the door barred shut against them. For the Kingdom of God would come at a most unexpected hour, a day that they would never see coming, a daythat, as much as they longed for it, they would just have to wait for. And wait for. And wait for.

And when Jesus was finished telling his disciples of this mysterious coming of the Kingdom, he looked down into their faces, into the eyes of these men who had followed him for so long and who had so much pain still to walk through, and he was moved with compassion. He saw the despair that started to take root, right there, in the center of their beings. He knew how frightening all of this must have sounded, how disorienting his words must have been to those who already had nowhere to lay their heads and no idea where this path was taking them. He wanted to reach down and mend their broken hearts, calm their anxious souls, strengthen their faith right at the core. And so he spoke to them again. He told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

In this parable, there is a judge. He is a terrible person. There is a widow. She has been slighted and betrayed. She goes to the judge for justice; he offers her none. She goes back to him, again and again and again and again and again and again and finally he gives in and gives her what she deserves – not because he has had a change of heart, but because she is just so fantastically annoying. The judge’s conversation with himself is classic: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” Or, in a slightly more colorful translation, I will give this woman her stupid justice just so I don’t end up with a black eye from all of her pounding.

On the surface, not exactly a parable to warm the heart. Not one to speak softly to your children as you tuck them in at night. Not one to inspire a painting by Rembrandt or name your church after. The Church of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, Paoli. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? But while the characters in this parable might not be people we’d ever want to have a cup of coffee with, there is comfort here, finally.  Will not God grant justice to those who cry to him day and night? Jesus asks. How much more will God do for us than this awful judge did for this woman? If even a cold-hearted, self-centered autocrat can end up doing the right thing, how much more can an open-hearted, self-giving God do for you? Ah, there is the relief. There is the lightening of the heart. There is the comfort that should make us feel better as we, like the disciples, wait to see the signs of God’s kingdom like a rainbow in the heavens. Just keep praying, just keep praying. God will answer, and that right soon. 

But as I finish speaking, I look out upon you all, sitting there in your own lives, and I imagine that I can see questions in some of your eyes. Is this really the answer, to just keep pestering God? Does just keep praying really make everything better? Just keep praying sounds like something you tell people when they’re at the end of their rope, something you say when there’s nothing left to say. Just keep praying, and God will, I don’t know, do something. But you and I know that God doesn’t always do something, at least not the something we are looking for. Just keep praying can be cold comfort to those who have been praying for a sick family member but whose cancer just seems to be getting worse and worse. Just keep praying can ring a little false to someone who has been out of work for months, whose rent is overdue, and who has to take 3 buses to get to the grocery store. Just keep praying doesn’t help much when you’re waiting for clarity in a situation that seems messier and murkier by the day. Just keep praying feels like just one of those things you say when you sit in a world where words of hatred are flung at one another with such frequency they’re like arrows that block the sun. And for all of this, we have just keep praying, just keep praying?

But if that is the way we’re thinking about praying, then we’ve entered into the parable in the wrong way. Let me tell you what I mean – we’re clear, aren’t we, that Jesus isn’t trying to equate this unjust judge with God. Right? This parable is not an allegory; the judge is not a stand-in for the Triune God. This would be impossible. God is not unjust, or cruel, or selfish. There can be no simple one-to-one correlation here. So why would we imagine that Jesus’ vision of prayer looks exactly like the actions of this widow? Why would we think that he wants us to just keep praying the same prayer, over and over? That would be praying just like the woman – one question, repeated again and again, with only one possible answer, and we’re just waiting and waiting and waiting to see when that one answer is going to come out of the judge’s mouth.

If just keep praying means only, so that my family member will be cured, or so that I will get this job right now, or so that my lover will come back to me, or so that I will never have to hear words of hatred again, then whether we know it or not, we’re actually praying to the judge, not to God. We’re imagining that God will only hear us when he wants to, only act when we’ve prayed long enough, or hard enough. But this is not the prayer of Jesus.  Jesus wants far more for us than to stoically force ourselves to keep nagging God with the same question over and over while waiting, unchanged, for the answer that we’re expecting. Jesus wants us to not lose our hearts. Do not lose heart, he tell us, and the only way to do that is to pray always.

Praying always is different than just keep praying. Praying always is about listening as much as it is about speaking. Praying always is about taking all of our questions, all of our answers, all of ourselves, all of the time, and holding them up before the throne of Grace. Praying always is about expecting that God will answer and expecting that we will likely find that answer surprising. Praying always is about hoping that there is healing to be found even if the cancer doesn’t go away, that there is help to be found even when there is no job, that there is clarify to be found for one step even if the rest of the path is cloaked in shadow, that there is love to be found, peace to be found, righteousness to be found, mercy and truth and justice to be found even while people around us are hurling hatred and grief.

Praying always is about the entire kingdom of God coming, not just one specific answer to one specific question. It is about the whole of our lives, not just one moment. It is, then, a sign of great faith and hope in the persistence our God, not a proof of our persistence aimed at God. And praying always does more than just mark the Kingdom; it is also makes the Kingdom. Because praying always means that we are changed, not just our circumstances. We are shaped, we are molded, we are transformed, every moment that we pray. We learn to love God, and to see and love our neighbor. We pray always, and in each breath of prayer we become more of who we were meant to be, and so reveal one more part – one more beautiful, unique, glorious part – of God’s kingdom.

So pray always. Thy kingdom come. Do not lose heart. For the kingdom of God has come near.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

16 October 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 19, 2016 .