Reading Luke 18.1-11
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Jesus told them a parable about how they should pray always and not lose heart. The parable is this story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow.
In the parish office this week we prepared for an experience that we feared might be the sort you find in the writings of Franz Kafka. We were due to have a new phone system installed. Three different people had contacted us, each with a different job number; several bills had arrived, most wrong; and over fifty emails had tumbled into the inbox of our administrator, Teresa. What would the day itself be like? In the event the engineers were really helpful.
It is a feature of sophisticated, modern societies (at least among their more secure citizens) that your life may not be under active threat but you feel yourself to be on the wrong end of impersonal forces – the state, the large corporation – of a system that is indifferent to you. It may not be that the people you speak do don’t care, it’s that they want to be helpful, but can’t quite see how the system will allow it.
It’s a strong theme in humour, which is always a good guide to what ails us in life. In the seventies we had Monty Python’s ‘New Gas Cooker’ sketch, in which a growing line of men in brown coats stretch back from a suburban front door, debating the significance of ‘a pink form from Reading’ and gas pressure in Twickenham. With the nineties came Victor Meldrew’s ‘I don’t believe it!’ in the face of some bureaucratic incredibility, and the noughties brought Little Britain’s Carol, behind the desk in the hospital, or the bank or the travel agent, and ‘Computer says No.’ Now, there’s sometimes a vein of snobbery here – clever people poking fun at people whose jobs are less interesting then being in comedy – but they also touch on a frustration we all share.
This aspect of life also breeds its own kind of courage. Alongside the instant bravery of the moment of crisis, there is the relentless pursuit of truth and justice – think of the parents of Madeleine McCann, the families of the Hillsborough victims; think of Doreen Lawrence (who has just entered the Lords) – not losing heart, never giving up. So Jesus’ story of the relentlessly dedicated woman seeking justice has a present-day ring.
In the parables of Jesus the main figure usually shows the character of God: God as the extravagant sower of the seed, God as the long-suffering father of a wayward son. So, here, are we to see God as the judge who frankly doesn’t give a damn? Well, be honest: doesn’t God sometimes seem like that? I say ‘seem’: sometimes it’s not as it seems, sometimes it’s us. We are all in danger of practical atheism, believing in God, but going through whole days as if God did not exist. And if I go for long periods without consciously recalling the presence of God, it should be no surprise if God seems absent when I do eventually pray. Sometimes, though, you do persist in prayer, but the prophet Isaiah’s words sound painfully apt, ‘Truly to are a God who hides himself.’
This parable, of course, is set up as a parable of contrast. Stick at praying, it says, because if this persistent widow can eventually get change out of a judge who doesn’t care, how much more will your prayers bear fruit with God, who does care? The fruit of experience for many of us, though, is that prayer – answers to prayer and growth in the life of prayer – often seems to involve a lot of time and delay. Why is that? If it’s not because God is indifferent, then what is the reason?
Let’s go back to our everyday experiences of delay. No doubt our bureaucracies of state and business, and indeed the church, could do with some customer-focussed smartening up, but what kind of place do we want to love in, in the end? There are places in the world where (for some at least) things get done quickly – and they are usually authoritarian or corrupt, or both. In places that try – most imperfectly – to be honest and fair and to give people a say, many things do take time.
Now it seems that what God is so mysteriously trying to do among us may be something like that: to allow a world to emerge in which there can be creatures capable of genuine freedom, creatures who are free to choose, free to do wrong or just get it wrong. For God, that means not always overruling the course of things, it means giving us space and time in which to be ourselves and not be overwhelmed by the omnipotence of God. The God who creates this has to be a God who waits as well as a God who acts.
I know someone who in his early adult years could be consumed by anger. It destroyed his rather short marriage. He prayed to be released from that anger. He kept praying, and did not lose heart. Eventually, it was lifted from him, ‘Like the morning mist,’ he said. But why was the night so long? What was God doing all that time? This side of heaven we’ll never know, but perhaps God needed to wait until things in his life and the lives of those around him came, like stars, into the right constellation. Perhaps only then could the gift God longed to give truly be a gift – something he could freely receive – rather than a change imposed. Perhaps only then could he be set free from his anger and still be truly free.
Pray always, says Jesus, and don’t lose heart. Pray in the knowledge that the God we pray to is not indifferent to us. Pray in the knowledge that when praying seems to involve a great deal of waiting, then God waits with us. Pray in the knowledge that, whenever we do pray (or try to), we each take our unique share in that labour of love that God is taking all of history to perfect.
A God who hides himself Isaiah 45.15
God as the sower Luke 8.5-8, Matthew 13.1-9, Mark 4.1-9
God as the father Luke 10.15.11-32