This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 18:1–8:
Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’” The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
At what point does persistence become a vice rather than a virtue? It depends on the context — and the object of that persistence, of course. We have all had experiences with persistence that tipped over into something else entirely.
The classic example, for both parents and former children on family trips, is the constant refrain of “are we there yet?” Children have very little sense of distance, time, patience, or the limits of their parents’ tolerance, for that matter. They keep asking because they’re not driving and have no idea where they are at in relation to the start or finish of their journey. At some point, what parent hasn’t wanted to strangle their child after the nth repetition of that question or some form of it in complaint?
Even as adults, we worry that we fall from persistence into annoyance and perhaps worse by pressing our interests with others. We wonder whether our friends really want to hear from us as often as we like to engage them. How often should one ask for a date before “getting the hint”? Do we keep applying for a job at the same company when new positions come up, or will that ruin future prospects by making us look impatient and passive-aggressively scolding?
All of these suffer from similar roots, which is the limits of our own experience and knowledge of these situations. We do not know whether the employer even considered us for the earlier jobs or remember us now. We can’t know the internal assessments of others — only those signals we see, or think we see. We don’t know the roadmap or even grasp the concept of the distances involved. We suffer from knowledge so incomplete that we cannot possibly see the whole truth, and therefore cannot calculate our potential for changing anything about it.
This specific parable only appears in Luke, and is similar to another parable told by Jesus in Luke 11, the parable of the importunate neighbor. In neither case does Luke explain the catalyst for telling this parable, but it seems apparent that the question of persistence in prayer must have come up, perhaps in a manner that it has been debated ever since. Since the Lord hears all prayer, and since the Lord’s will prevails over ours, is it an insult to keep bothering the Lord with the same prayer over and over again? Is it not an attempt to demand that the Lord follow our will rather than His?
In both instances, Jesus uses the parables to insist that persistence in prayer is a virtue, as long as one is praying for justice and mercy. The earlier parable makes the same specific point, which is that mere persistence itself pays off. In Luke 11:8, one can almost hear the smile on Jesus’ face when he teaches, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.”
That leaves us with two key questions: what are we praying for, and why pray at all? Both parables show the value of the petitions, as long as they acknowledge God’s will. The persistent widow pleads for justice and mercy, which the Lord Himself promises and which all legitimate authority should recognize. She pleads for a return of a right relationship between authority and those whom it governs, to which the Lord wishes for all of us to conform. The earlier parable, the one that gives us The Lord’s Prayer, exalts the Lord and asks for only our portion each day of God’s bounty along with His protection. It is a prayer of both justice and mercy.
On the second question, let’s look at what happens in both parables when the petitions are made. In today’s Gospel, the corrupt judge gets forced to conform to God’s will through the persistence of the widow. If she had not persisted in her petitions, the judge would have continued in his corruption; instead, the judge has become an instrument of the Lord in ensuring justice and mercy. In the parable of the importunate neighbor, a similar if less dramatic change is also seen. The “shameless audacity” of the petitioner changes the heart of the neighbor and forces him into an act of selflessness, albeit begrudgingly.
The outcomes in either case are less important than the process, however. We are not promised outcomes from prayer, but are encouraged to pray nonetheless. The neighbor is not promised the food, nor is the widow promised justice and mercy from a corrupt judge.
So why pray at all? Prayer reminds us of our own misaligned perception of God and ourselves. It reminds us that we are all riding in the backseat on this journey, with no real sense of the endpoint or of the scale of the road. We are all children bleating at God, “Are we there yet? When are we going to get there? Why aren’t we going any faster?” The more we recognize that we are not in control and that we don’t know what the itinerary really is, the more likely we are to put our faith and trust in a loving God rather than rely on ourselves alone on the journey. That persistent prayer forms us to recognize others as brothers and sisters on the same journey and to have hearts more open to love and mercy for them.
That’s the moment we will have truly arrived.
The front-page image is a detail from “The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow,” a wood engraving by John Everett Millais in 1864. Currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.