Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 17, 2010 – St. John’s
The parables of Jesus were often meant to startle people, to get them to question their taken-for-granted assumptions about God or about human life, to require a decision as to which world they will live in, the old, familiar and comfortable life they’ve been living or the new world opened up by the coming of the Kingdom of God, the fundamental theme of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. I used to try to get my undergraduate students at Catholic University to recognize this character of the parables by asking them whether there were any that they didn’t like, even wished Jesus had never pronounced. They usually mentioned the parable of the workers who received the same pay for working all day long as the other workers who had worked only one hour, or the parable of the prodigal son–they thought that the older son had a point in his complaint to his father about the big party he was throwing for his younger son when he had never done anything of the sort for himself, the older son. At that point, I would remark that this unhappiness, dissatisfaction, disagreement with Jesus resembled the reaction Jesus often met in his own day and meant that those parables were aimed at them, too, today.
Some of the parables so depart from common assumptions that they work by contrast. A month ago we heard Jesus praise the dishonest steward who gained friends for himself by doctoring the book of debts owed to his master. Jesus was not, of course, praising the dishonesty of the man but his awareness of his situation and his cleverness in meeting the crisis. The message was that those who were listening to Jesus were placed by it in a similar critical situation, and they were not as aware or as decisive as that dishonest steward.
Today we have a similar parable, one that also works by contrast. A small-town judge who is not at all religious and doesn’t care about what people think of him is being pestered by a widow who, left on her own and defenseless, begs him to hear her case. If he eventually relents, gives her a hearing, and decides in her favor, it is not out of religious or human respect but simply to stop her bothering her. It’s not a very flattering picture, although not altogether unimaginable, and on its basis Jesus gives the assurance that all the more will God in his own time give an answer to people who persist in bothering him with their prayers.
In the great prayers that are gathered in the Book of Psalms there are several places in which the Psalmist sounds an awful lot like that bothersome widow. This is the plea of one of them: “Do not be silent, Lord! Be not far from me! Wake up, and be vigilant in my defense; in my case, my God and my Lord. Do me justice, Lord” (Ps 35:22-24). Another one is even more urgent: “Wake up! Why are you asleep, O Lord? Wake up!” (Ps 44:24).
I am reminded of a passage in one of St. Augustine’s sermons. He was commenting on the verse in another Psalm which says: “Then the Lord awoke, as wakes from sleep a warrior drunk on wine” (Ps 78:65). “No one but the Holy Spirit would dare to say this about God!” Augustine remarks before going on to explain: “The meaning is that when the Lord does not come to the aid of people as quickly as they think he should, he appears to wicked mockers that he is sleeping too long, like a drunk.”
If we read such passages, either in the Bible or in other writings, we should not be afraid to make our own prayers as honest as possible. Many people think that their prayers have to be in set words, in pious formulas, in traditional and reverent language. What’s true in this is that we can often be helped in putting our desires and our needs into words by making use of the biblical Psalms or of collections of Christian prayers. Sometimes we don’t even know what we really need or desire until we find it stated in some such work. But it’s also important to be honest in our prayer, and if it’s frustration that we feel, there’s nothing wrong with expressing our frustration. If we’re impatient with God, we may express your impatience. The Psalmists often did: “How long, O Lord! Will you completely forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:2) “How long, O Lord! Will you hide yourself forever?” (Ps 89:47). Think also of the moment in the Gospels where the disciples have to wake Jesus up because of the storm that threatens their fishing boat: “Don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” (Mk 4:38). And then there are the many places in which people, including even Jesus himself on the cross, cry out to God: “Why?” “My God, my God,” Jesus prayed, “why have you abandoned me?”
These are all real, all honest, prayers, and honesty is what God above all wants in our relationship with him. John Henry Newman often stressed this: the need for our Christianity to be real, not fake, not feigned, but true, genuine faith, hope and love. All those prayers I have cited were honest prayers, and, if you think about it, they all presupposed faith, came from faith, expressed faith. If you didn’t think God cares for you, didn’t believe that all things are included within his provident love, you couldn’t cry out as the Psalmist does, wouldn’t bother the judge as the widow in the Gospel does. It’s only faith and even love of God that cries out in these ways.
But Jesus himself, who gave us today’s parable, also brought us beyond it to an even deeper level of trust. In the Garden of Gethsemane, St. Mark tells us, he experienced “fear and distress” at what he was about to suffer. And his prayer was real and powerful: “Abba!” he cried; “Father! All things are possible to you! Take this cup away from me!” We can hear the fear and distress in his voice, and can recognize our own cries and those of countless other sufferers. But it is not really a paradox that in the midst of this distress, Jesus still calls upon God as “Abba,” as the one whom he knows to be his loving Father. If he is the almighty God, to whom all things are possible, he can pray to be spared his ordeal. But it is because he knows him to be Abba, that his prayer can end where every prayer should end, in humble surrender: “But not what I will, but what you will.” Our prayers too, out of the honest conviction of faith, must also include that kind of surrender to a God whom we know to be much more than that judge in the Gospel, a God whom we know to be in fact a loving Father whose will for us is always good and who never minds being pestered by his sons and daughters.