PRAYING WITHOUT BECOMING WEARY
The Sunday Gospel for Oct. 17 is the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge. Here’s a reflection that I wrote some time ago on this little story.
Sometimes I have the impression that the Lord is in no great hurry to answer my prayers. Judging from the number of parables about bridegrooms who are delayed in coming, and masters who go off on five-year journeys, it would seem that the earliest Christians, too, had a similar experience of waiting impatiently on the Lord. No doubt they lost heart at times, wondering if he was ever going to keep his promise to return on the clouds of heaven.
Luke, knowing the impatience and discouragement of his little community, has Jesus warn the disciples that the end may not come any time soon: "The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it" (Luke 17:22). The gospel writer follows this saying immediately with an especially powerful little story about perseverance in prayer. "He told them a parable on the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary" (Luke 18:1).
THE PARABLE OF THE WIDOW AND THE JUDGE
The story concerns a corrupt judge and a certain widow.
The judge is part of a judicial system which is rife with bribery and corruption, and which favors the rich and powerful over the weak and the poor. The widow, on the other hand, is in a particularly vulnerable situation, since a woman in those times derived her status completely from her husband. She has no welfare system or Social Security to fall back on, but has to fend for herself as best she can. This is the background, then, for the clash between the widow and the judge.
This particular widow, Jesus tells us, came to the judge demanding her rights. The verb "came" is in the "imperfect" tense, which is Greek's way of showing continued repetition: "she kept coming and coming." We get the picture of a woman constantly badgering the judge until she gets what she wants. The image grows more forceful as the story continues.
Despite the fact that he "fears neither God nor man," the judge finally decides "because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me" (Luke 18:5). This sentence is much more picturesque in the original Greek. It starts with the expression "yet because this widow keeps causing me trouble (kopos), I will give her justice." Kopos, "difficulty, toil," comes from a root which means "chop, hack." It's fun to imagine this powerful judge feeling that he's getting chopped and hacked by this strong-willed little widow!
The second half of the sentence follows with another comical image: the judge decides to rule in her favor "lest she finally come and strike (hupōpiazō) me." This verb is used to describe fistfights. Paul applies it to his own spiritual self-discipline: "I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train (hupōpiazō) it" (I Corinthians 9:27). He toughens his body the way a prizefighter does, by striking it repeatedly to get it in shape. Hupōpiazō is actually a combination of hupo, "under," and ops "the eye," and means literally "to strike below the eye." This is what the judge is afraid the pesky widow may do to him -- sock him in the eye!
This three-sentence parable paints an unforgettable picture of a completely powerless person managing to get her way with a mighty judge. Then Jesus draws the lesson for us: "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" (Luke 18:6-7)" "Who call out to him" is a present participle in Greek: "calling out to him day and night." Once again we have the image of constant, ongoing, relentless asking.
My study of hupōpiazō has had an impact on my own approach to prayer. Recently, as I started to bless myself at the end of a few minutes of praying, I felt a bony elbow jab into my ribs. "Hey! Why are you stopping so soon?" rasped an old woman's voice. "You're just getting started!" I sat there mute and mystified. "I'm telling you, go back and ask again!" She was so upset with me that I was afraid she was going to haul off and hit me. "Then after that," she went on, "go back and ask again. Keep asking!" I did go back and ask again. She's returned several more times since then to push me into being more tenacious and persistent in my praying.
Just this morning she stopped me, right in the middle of my prayer. "Listen! Do you really want what you're praying for? Because you sure don't sound like it! You're just rattling on, only half thinking about what you're saying. You ask that way and expect God to answer you? You've got to be kidding!" I just sat there stone-faced, knowing that the widow, as usual, was right. "You've got to throw your whole heart into it!" she continued, "Don't be shy -- that never gets results. Maybe try getting a little loud. You know -- make a scene, let him know you're serious."
St. Benedict's approach to prayer in his Rule for Monks reflects the widow's approach: he usually connects prayer with tears and compunction, and advises us to pray without ceasing. Little by little I have been learning to pray more passionately myself, borrowing a bit of the widow's fiery enthusiasm. I'm not sure how much this kind of praying changes God, but it is certainly changing me. Although the parable does not say that the judge and the widow ended up being good friends, I am sure that if I just keep trying to "pray without growing weary," I will end up in a closer and livelier relationship with God, the just Judge.
-- Most of us have been taught to pray to God tentatively, and to add at the end of our petition some statement like, "However, Lord, if you don't want to grant my request, that's fine too. I will gladly accept whatever it is that you decide to do." How does this laid back, seemingly indifferent approach square with the widow's forceful approach, which was recommended by Jesus himself?
-- Are you comfortable pestering God passionately and repeatedly with a particular request? Do you ever pray that way? If so, what do you pray for? What do you do if your prayer is still not answered?