I’m back! It’s been a while since I posted. If you read my Monday Meditations regularly, I am sorry for not being there for you this past month or so, and I thank you for your patience. A few days in the hospital to finally resolve an infection (not my first trip there this year) led me to give in and take a break. When I was well enough to work, I was facing a deadline in preparing to lead a clergy retreat.
So this is the first of two Sundays in Luke chapter 18. For a good long while Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary has been hopping and skipping through Luke’s “teen” chapters, bypassing stories which, at least in some cases, will be heard in other gospels in other years.
What we find in Luke 18 is examples of Jesus’ priority on prayer. If you read all the Gospels with your eye tuned to this issue you see it a lot:
- In both Matthew and Luke he taught versions of what we call the Lord’s Prayer.
- After a hard day’s teaching and healing he would go up the mountain alone to pray.
- Before sending his disciples out to a life and ministry he prayed for them for an entire chapter.
- In his darkest hour he went off to Gethsemane, with his three closest friends, to pray.
This passage is a little bit different. In the midst of various teachings, both in sayings and in actions, he moves to the topic of prayer. As Luke put it, he wants them to know that they should
pray always and not to lose heart.” (Luke 18:1, NRSV)
So we know from the outset that he is trying to solve two particular problems:
- Christ’s disciples should be praying all the time — but he knows they don’t, or won’t.
- Christ’s disciples should pray with confident and joyful hearts — and again he knows that they don’t or won’t.
Any reasonable interpretation of what follows can’t decrease our practice of prayer or our joyful confidence in prayer.
So he gives them this parable. It’s a “Once upon a time…” sort of story, not one of his usual “The kingdom of heaven is like…” stories.
Once upon a time, then, there was this judge. The judge was pretty rotten. (A narcissistic megalomaniac perhaps?) Cared nothing for God. Cared nothing for people. Cushy job with all the perks, but he was all about himself.
Notice that Jesus has no praise for this government official: he’s not fit for office, only willing to do the objectively right thing if it is helpful to himself.
What the judge lacked were two essential qualities of a good judge: reverence for the God under whose authority he served, and concern for human beings, created in the image of God and beloved by God.
The judge is despicable, really.
He’s quite the opposite of someone living as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, according to the rules set by God’s Word and God’s character.
One day, before this judge, there appears this widow. She has few social advantages. But beyond being a widow, she had a problem. Her only recourse was the courts.
She pleaded her case. Day after day she hounded the judge for justice.
The judge didn’t care a bit about her, but she was making his cushy job a misery. So he gave in.
The widow got what she needed against all odds. She was so determined to get justice that she was willing to annoy a rotten judge into submission.
The story itself is about the ways of the wicked. It was a corrupt system — but the widow got justice anyway. And that’s good. It was justice for the poor.
But here’s the deal. There are two ways of interpreting this parable — two distinct ways of walking away with a meaning that applies to our Christian lives.
- One I would describe in technical terms as “the WRONG interpretation.”
- The other I would say is “the RIGHT interpretation.”
(Or at least ONE right interpretation — most passages have more than one good and true and helpful thing to teach us.)
The common (but unhelpful) takeaway
Many Christians walk away from this parable with a very unhelpful (and I would say incorrect) interpretation.
I have observed Christians (including myself at one stage of my life) who thought that this passage was telling us that in prayer we need to wear God down to get our way.
We know our need, and we know only God can meet it. We think that Jesus is teaching us perseverance: keep asking till God gives in.
Taking this stance sometimes gets people the name “prayer warrior.” I believe that moniker goes back to the late 19th century and Andrew Murray — at least I couldn’t dig up any earlier published use of it.
But if we are going to be prayer warriors, we need to examine carefully who we are fighting against, and who we are fighting for.
I say this because, under the influence of this parable, it sometimes sounds like Christians are trying to fight against God. Belligerently we take up a wrestling stance, ready to grab God’s leg and toss him to the mat. We are going to get our prayers answered, even if we have to fight long and hard in prayer.
When that happens, it seems like people have taken the wrong idea from this parable — as if we think God is the unjust judge.
But Jesus isn’t saying God is at all like the unjust judge
The other (far more helpful) takeaway
The other way of interpreting this parable takes Jesus framing material seriously. Remember: the parable is fiction — illustrative fiction. Before and after the story, Jesus gives us explanation about its meaning. That’s what we need to weigh most heavily in our interpretation.
At the beginning, he tells us that this is about not losing heart — keeping a joyful perseverance in prayer.
Then at the end, he says,
Listen to what the unjust judge says.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?
Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:6-7 NRSV
It is a contrast, not a parallel, between the judge and God.
- The judge does NOT show what God is LIKE.
- The judge shows us what God is NOT LIKE.
The questions are rhetorical. If such a rotten judge can be convinced to act, how can you doubt that God, who is loving and kind and generous (and who, by the way, has “chosen” you to belong to him forever) will “grant justice” to you.
Just in case you didn’t spot the fact that the questions are rhetorical, Jesus says it plainly:
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” (Luke 18:8 NRSV)
Why then the statement at the end that God’s chosen people “cry to him day and night”?
Not because we should press our case till God relents— as if we should be like the widow before the judge.
Rather because we do present our needs day after day, night after night.
Life is hard, much of the time, and we do cry out day and night. Jesus is telling us that we should not lose heart when we call out. Instead, we should know that God is listening with love and compassion, eager to help — unlike that judge in the story.
So very often, what we ask in prayer is totally legitimate. We are sick and we need healing, or we are adrift and we need guidance. Maybe we are unemployed and need a job, or we’re lonely and need a friend, or a mate, or both.
Whatever the case, we need not come to God with a chip on our shoulder, ready to press our case against a stingy and unjust judge.
The God to whom we pray is not, in fact, a nasty judge, irreverent toward divine authority and dismissive of people in need. The one we pray to loves humanity and pours out grace upon grace, on both the good and the evil. We speak to a merciful God who loves us.
How different it is for us than for that widow. We can stand before God knowing that we are heard by someone good and loving.
We call out today, and we will keep calling out as we as long as we have needs, because prayer is exactly where we should express the pain we feel. We call out knowing the God to whom we pray loves us so much that he wants to hear our pain, and is eager to answer with grace.
From time to time I offer online classes on prayer, using my award-winning book Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. If you would like me to notify you by email when the next class is open, click here and sign up. (Hint: This could be very soon if I can get my act together…)