Focus reading Luke 18.1-14
One of the things Alison and I like to do when we go down south on holidays is to go down one or two caves. I think my favourite is the Jewel Cave near Augusta – that’s the one with the marvellous reflection of the stalactites across the lake – isn’t it amazing that this other world exists just a few metres below the surface of our everyday world? What I find even more amazing is that these limestone caves are carved out over hundreds of thousands of years just by the gentle dripping of groundwater through the rock – the slight acidity of the water gradually dissolves the rock and carves out a space, then eventually the roof overhead can’t support the weight so it collapses –the cavern gets bigger, and the water dripping through the rock forms stalactites and stalagmites – and that’s all it is – just the gentle drip-drip of water literally dissolving tonnes of solid rock.
So in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is telling his disciples that prayer is like that. Prayer is like the gentle persistence of water that wears away stone. The widow is like the water, in Jesus’ day to be a widow was to be utterly powerless, and so all she can do keep on pleading – she is a picture of persistence that is assertive at the same time as it is humble – and the judge of course is like the stone, he is stony-hearted, he cares for nothing and nobody. So in this story the widow’s persistent naming of injustice overcomes corruption and self-centredness.
I like the point that gentle persistence and the refusal to accept injustice has its own integrity and strength. There’s something here to think about, when we get dispirited about living in a world where self-interest rules, where sometimes it seems the voices urging compassion and generosity and justice get drowned out. The widow is a good model for us, and I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus talks about faith in the same breath as holding up this example of a person who cares passionately about justice.
But - how is this story a good analogy about prayer? Because, what is Jesus telling us here? that God is like this corrupt judge? That when we pray, we have to wear God down by going on and on about things until we get what we want? This seems like a peculiar image of what the relationship between me and God is supposed to be like. In verse 7 Luke has a go at working this out, presumably he has got this story that Jesus told, and in verse 6 and verse 7 he puts in some interpretation. According to Luke, this isn’t an analogy, but a contrast – it’s not the sort of parable where Jesus says ‘the kingdom of God is like this’, but the sort where Jesus says ‘if it’s like this in real life, how much better is it when the one you’re praying to loves you, and wants to give you good things – when the Judge isn’t corrupt but just and merciful’. If even this corrupt judge can be worn down, well, God is going to rush to help.
So that makes it better? Are your prayers like that, no sooner do you ask, then – ‘poof’!? Actually, there’s still a problem with the analogy, isn’t there? If this is what you believe the relationship between you and God is like, then I think there’s still a problem. For two reasons. One, because it’s exactly the same as the relationship between the widow and the corrupt judge, it’s just a difference of degree. But the deal’s the same, it’s still the deal where we’ve got to pray hard and pray often, the logic’s still, ‘look, if we all pray for this then God will answer us’, the power of prayer is that if we bombard heaven then God can’t refuse us – and the problem with this is that it thinks of prayer as a string of demands, that there are some things that God is getting wrong in running the universe, so we need to correct the course, issue a few instructions because unless we let God know that we’re really serious about wanting these things, then God unfortunately is going to continue getting it wrong, keep on looking the other way. The other thing that’s wrong about this image is that just occasionally God doesn’t give us what we want. Or is it just me?? Even when the thing that you’re praying for is just and good. Even when lots of people are praying for the same thing. Have you ever had the experience of praying for something that matters a great deal and feeling that you’re not getting any response at all from God? Just silence and darkness? If so, you’re not alone. The anonymous 14th century English writer of the handbook on prayer called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ and the great 16th century Spanish mystic known as St John of the Cross who describes prayer as the ‘dark night of the soul’ tells us that’s what prayer is. The tradition of centering prayer counsels us to sit in silence and open ourselves to the presence of God that we experience as absence.
Except, what if the silence and the darkness of God, that people who pray know all too well, is pregnant with possibility like the drop of water gradually forming on limestone stalagmite underground in the Jewell Cave, slowly building up until it’s ready to splash onto the limestone of the cave floor? What if God isn’t like the limestone rock, massive and rigid but bit by bit getting worn away, what if God is more like the insignificant but persistent drop of water?
You see, I started wondering – what if we pick this parable up and look at it the other way around? What if we take the characters off the page and look at them, and see who they remind us of? This judge, the one who cares about nothing and nobody, the one who’s corrupt and ready to take a bribe, the one who’s just out for himself even though he’s supposed to be there to hand out justice. The one who’s set rigid in the concrete of his own selfishness – who’s that? Does that sound like God? Or does that sound like you and me? Does that sound like the world we live in? What about the widow, the one who comes humbly and persistently, so gently you sometimes don’t even notice she’s there, the one who loves justice so passionately that she’s prepared to take umpteen dozen knockbacks, the one who wears you down by speaking the truth and pointing out the difference between what the world is and what it is meant to be? Does that sound like you? It doesn’t sound like me. Or does it sound more like God? What if you and I are the stony-hearted judge and God is the widow who keeps bothering us, who keeps on hoping that we will notice what she’s saying and that we’ll have a change of heart. Does that sound more like what the relationship between you and God is really like? It does to me.
Because if this is really what it’s like, then it tells us some very important things about prayer. It tells me that when I’m busy working out my list of instructions for God, when I’m telling God what to do, if I think that God is silent that might be because I haven’t been listening. This widow doesn’t have a very loud voice. You see, Christians all too often believe prayer is about us telling God what we’d like God to do. It turns out the other way around - that prayer is about God whispering to us what God would like us to become. It turns out that God might need me to be quiet and listen, that prayer might be about opening up to God everything that I am and everything that I’ve become, and letting God show me the difference between that and what God made me to be. That the one who needs to be worn down turns out to be me, not God. God’s compassion, and God’s justice is a given, it is gently trickling, if you like, in the groundwater of the universe – it’s maybe me who is the hard granite rock that gets in the way, that needs to be worn smooth so the water can flow around me.
That’s one thing. That prayer is about listening to God, and noticing where God is, and letting God flow into the cracks and crevices of our lives. And the second thing is that what gets changed in prayer is us. If our prayer is authentic, what gets changed is us. I heard a story about a congregation who prayed for years that God would bless their parish by sending new people to them – and of course new people did come from time to time, they’d sit in the pews and nod and smile – and then they’d drift away again. So the congregation thought about it for a while and asked themselves what they really should be praying for, and then they started praying that they would be changed into a community that was ready to include new people, new possibilities and new ideas.
That’s a riskier prayer, because it means we have to give up on the idea of being a rock – that things will always stay the same, that we’ll always be in control. Instead, we need to ask God to reshape us, to make us more responsive, open and oriented towards the future. Like water, in fact, flowing with the imperceptible, life-giving movement of God’s Holy Spirit.
Now, that’s a prayer!