“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1).
Persistence is a virtue, at least when it comes to prayer: the set up for Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge makes it clear that prayer requires perseverance and constancy. According to Jesus, even an unjust judge, one who doesn’t care at all about the people who are demanding justice, will be forced to grant justice if the petitioner is persistent. If the unjust judge can be roused to action in this way, how much more likely is it that God will act if we continue constant in prayer? Make yourself a nuisance, then, with God, and your prayer will be heard!
In St. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, we’re told that Jesus went up on the mountain specifically to pray, and that it was while he was praying that “his face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Lk. 9:29). Here, prayer is transformative, and Jesus himself set the example. Jesus also taught his disciples to pray, and gave them a model of prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven”: as we say in the Lord’s prayer, found in slightly different forms in two of the Gospels. When Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Lk. 11:9), the form of the words is imperative. In other words, not “if you ask” or “if you seek” or “if you knock,” as if it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to ask God for help, but an actual command to ask and seek and knock.
So far, so good: Jesus shows us how to pray, he teaches us about prayer, and he commands us to pray. But the parable of the unjust judge teaches us something else about prayer, in a backhanded fashion. As Jesus tells us to be persistent in prayer, he also warns us against discouragement.
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk. 18:1). To lose heart is to give up; to become so discouraged that one stops persisting and finds something more rewarding to do. In other words, we’re tired of unanswered prayers; we’re tired of crying out to God and getting nowhere! We’ve made our prayer so loud and so often that we’re sick and tired of God not listening! In the worst case, losing heart is a form of despair, where disappointment and a sense of failure becomes so acute that hopelessness overcomes hope.
Now, in case you think that Jesus didn’t know about this himself, or that his advice here was simply theoretical or hypothetical, remember the story of Gethsemane. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). Jesus, on the night he was arrested and handed over to death, continuing in prayer despite discouragement. Then, Luke’s Gospel tells us, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Lk. 22:44). “In his anguish,” it says; “by thine agony and bloody sweat” it says in the Prayer Book. Jesus knew what he was talking about, knew it intimately and existentially, when he taught them they should continue in prayer and not lose heart.
We need to expand our understanding of prayer. Prayer is not a transaction, where one person asks a favor from another, or (worse yet) demands payment for a service. Some people approach prayer this way, as a way of getting what they want from God. If we approach it this way, discouragement is bound to follow. Remember, “not my will but yours be done.” We turn our will over the God’s will.
Prayer is not a transaction, but a relationship; one that requires trust and faithfulness. Again, the Lord’s prayer begins with a claiming of relationship in Jesus’ name, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” In prayer, the relationship is between a human being and the One who himself is the ground of all being, the Creator of us all. We persist in prayer because we have faith in the One who is faithful to us, no matter what comes our way.
Jesus ends the parable of the unjust judge by asking whether when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth. Prayer expands our capacity for faith, opening us up to receiving God’s will for us. It overcomes our hopelessness, as faith in Jesus’ resurrection conquers despair and disappointment. Prayer makes us attentive to the surprising things that God is doing, in us and in our world.
You all at St. Anselm’s have been wearing yourself out in prayer during this time of transition, but that prayer is transforming you and your community. God will not fail to hear it. Be constant in prayer, and look for God to do surprising things.