Sunday 16th October 2016
by Revd Chris Palmer
It’s not often that the Gospel writers give us the answer so easily. Parables are usually a bit cryptic; we have to work at them to tease out the meaning. Indeed Jesus himself said that for lots of people the meaning is hidden under the story.
But in today’s parable it’s different. Luke tells us what the parable means up front: ‘Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.’ This is a story about staying committed to prayer, making that a constant in our living; and it’s a story about not ‘losing heart’, that is, not operating from a place of despair or cynicism where God can no longer reach us.
There’s three things I want to say. First, we need to have a healthy image of God. Second, prayer does often feel like a struggle. And third, prayer should be part of the pattern and rhythm of our day.
So let’s start with our image of God. The parable is rather unfortunate in that it tells the story of a mean-hearted, lazy judge who doesn’t fear God or respect people. And however much we know that the real point is just how persistent the widow is, we can’t help but feel the judge is an image of God. And the reason that’s so easy to do is that lots of us walk round with an unconscious picture of God as a mean judge who needs cajoling or manipulating into listening to us.
But, of course, that’s wrong. We know with our heads that Jesus wouldn’t portray God as a hard-hearted tyrant. The point of the parable is that if even this callous judge can be persuaded in the end, how much more is God, who is generous and loving, ready to listen to his people. It’s a technique Luke employs elsewhere too. ‘If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.’
But knowing this with our heads isn’t necessarily enough. Allowing what we assent to with our minds – our declarations of belief in God – to drop into our heart, or even more than that to permeate our instincts, so that our reaction is to trust God, is a much harder thing.
Having a healthy image of God is a gift that God himself gives. But we can put ourselves in the way of it, if we read and reflect on the scriptures with our heart and mind, if we seek God in prayer, if we actively learn about our faith, if we meet with and talk with other Christians about our journey with God – not just about our latest gadgets or the weather.
For me, the difference between having a healthy image of God in my mind and having a healthy image of God in my instincts, is about whether I will allow God to love me. Because to say, ‘God loves me’, and to let God love me are quite different. So often I think I need to prove myself to God, become worthy of him. I project onto God all my anxious worries about how other people judge me. Only when I let go of that, do I allow God to love me for who I am. But there is no other way to an instinctively healthy image of God.
Second, prayer feels like a struggle. I was interested that the lectionary links this parable with the story of Jacob wrestling with a man who turns out to be God. – a man who he thinks is his opponent, but turns out to bless him. And remember how it goes. Jacob is good for the fight, but in the end the man pulls a fast one and dislocates Jacob’s hip. And once Jacob has effectively lost, then he is open to God’s blessing. There are many battles in the spiritual life that are worth winning, against compulsions that threaten to overwhelm us – but losing to God is a good thing. That sense of being humbled and undone is the beginning of blessing.
But this helps us to see what we mean when we say prayer is a struggle. We mean that we are involved in a real and active engagement with God, in which the struggle strengthens us and trains us to be better servants of God. I imagine it’s like having a good sparring partner if you’re learning to box. And it comes from having a deep trust and confidence in God – back to our image of God – trusting that he engages in the struggle for our good and not to destroy us.
Prayer in this sense is a yearning and longing and reaching for the good that God desires for us. It feels exercising and stretching.
There is a different kind of struggle in prayer which isn’t good – when prayer is compulsive or manic, prayer of the ‘please, please, please, pretty please’ variety – as if God is open to flattery. Sometimes we even try to bribe God: ‘if you’ll only do this for me, then give so-and-so, or come to church more often…’ Obviously this type of prayer proceeds from a really unhealthy image of God. Prayer becomes fevered and random, which is utterly different from persistent; this is the kind of prayer which has ‘lost heart’ before it’s even started.
But don’t be frightened of genuine struggle with God in prayer – because he desires to sharpen our spirits through our persistent and patient engagement.
Then third, prayer should be part of the pattern and rhythm of our day. This is what it means to pray continually and not lose heart. When we plan time to pray, when we turn off our phones and gadgets and limit distractions, when we park the anxieties of our heart and mind in order to be attentive to God – then we are making a priority of for God. This is what prayer is, a priority for God; a belief that our own deepest longing is fulfilled in relationship with him.
If we only pray when we want something or in a moment of crisis, then our priority is for our compulsive agenda or to escape our reality. God still loves us, but we aren’t truly inviting God into our living, into our thinking and loving and acting; we’re just using God like an emergency plumber, whom we only want to see when we’ve got a flood. And not only won’t that work for us – but we’re missing out on the depth of relationship which God invites us to.
What is the rhythm of prayer in your day? Different times work for different people. Absolutely first thing can be good, before all the agenda of the day floods in. If you’ve got little children that might not work, though. Early evening works for others. You can put the work of the day aside and pray whilst still fresh. A small number of night owls can pray last thing at night – that only works if you’re not overcome with tiredness then. Lunchtime works for some people, if you can make space.
You might have to make some adjustments, some changes, in order to fit prayer in well. But, as with physical exercise, it is little and often and not losing heart that reaps rewards.
Jesus desires us to know and love God as we are already known and loved by God. In knowing God, we discover that he is already just, he is already helping, he is present in our turmoil before we even got there. And God never ‘loses heart’ but is filled with hope for us.