Scriptures for today are Here.
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature this week – a surprise, unconventional win. Hearing about his win reminded me of a cell phone I had years ago, back when they first let you choose a song for your ringtone instead of just a ringing sound. On my phone, there were about 10 songs to choose from, and being a priest, I thought it was funny to choose Dylan’s song, “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To be honest, like a lot of Dylan songs, I actually have no idea what that song is about. But what it reminded me of was one of my ordination vows – all Episcopal priests take a vow to “persevere in prayer.” And that song has always reminded me of the poor widow in this parable in today’s gospel, banging on the door of the unjust judge, demanding justice till she got it. When I vowed to persevere in prayer, I believed that’s what I was vowing to do – to bang on God’s door without relenting, praying without ceasing, asking and demanding and challenging God to bring justice and healing to this world.
But I’m not sure about that any more. Because there are some odd things about this parable, and for me it takes some work to understand it. Here is an unjust judge, who neither fears God nor respects anyone else. Lacking love of God and love of neighbor, which Jesus says are the two great commandments all of us should follow, the natural result plays out in his treatment of others and his abuse of power in this world. This judge has no interest in granting justice. He’s in it for himself. He doesn’t care about whatever request the widow is bringing before him.
Which is a real problem in the Bible, because all through the Bible, both Old & New Testaments, but especially in the gospel of Luke – widows are code for the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and the most defenseless people there are. And therefore, for the Bible, widows and the other two classes of people often named alongside them – orphans and aliens – are the most to be protected, the most to be helped and supported. Because in the upside-down land of the Kingdom of God, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The Bible says so over and over.
Another thing to understand is what “justice” means in the Bible – not what we often mean, which is punishing the guilty – but something more like fairness, like building a world where everyone can live with abundance and no one is poor or oppressed or lives without respect or regard for their needs. That’s what Jesus describes when he talks about the Kingdom of God – a world of perfect justice. Jesus’ message seems to be clear – for this poor widow demanding justice, it is her persistence that gets her case finally heard. The judge says, in our English translation that we heard today, “Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice.” Literally, in Greek, she’s not just bothering him, she’s giving him a black eye – hurting him personally and professionally, ruining his reputation, embarrassing him in front of others. So to protect himself, he finally gives in to her demands.
So – Is this how we’re supposed to act toward God? Is God an unjust judge who can’t be bothered to listen to us unless we get so embarrassing that God finally has to send us away? Is God like an inattentive parent who finally gives the kid a cookie just to make him be quiet?
Well, no – the argument isn’t that God is like that – the argument Jesus makes here is, if the unjust judge could finally grant justice, how much MORE would God, who is NOT an unjust judge, grant justice to God’s children, whom he loves and cares about? If we read this parable as an analogy, then God is the just judge who will listen to all the unfortunate widows who come before him demanding justice. Our persistence in prayer will mean that God will listen to us.
Well, but immediately some problems present themselves. Doesn’t God already know about whatever problem we’re bringing before him? Isn’t God motivated to love and grant justice to God’s beloved children, with or without our persistence? Is prayer some sort of test, where if you do it enough, you ace the quiz and get an A?
And furthermore, no matter how much we pray, isn’t there an incredible amount of suffering and injustice in the world that hasn’t yet been relieved? Isn’t God supposed to care about every sparrow and every grain of sand (another Dylan song, but Dylan is quoting the Bible)? What’s God up to, up there? Why isn’t God listening to all our prayers? And what does prayer accomplish, anyway?
I was listening to an interesting interview on NPR the other day that helped me. (Unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the interviewee, so I can’t give proper credit.) The interviewee was a psychologist, a family counselor, who said that during this election season, he has seen a noticeable increase in unhealthy, hateful, angry, immature behavior between married couples. The interviewer said, you mean when couples disagree on the election? The psychologist said no, they may be in absolute agreement on the election and the candidates – and it makes no difference which candidate they’re supporting. The problem is that this election has made a lot of people angry at whichever candidate they’re not voting for, or some issue, or some group of people, and so people on both sides of the election are carrying around a low level of anger.
In the same way, if something happens at work that makes you angry, or on the way home someone cuts you off in traffic and you’re still on edge about it when you get home, you are more likely to snap at the kids, or the dog. He says the same thing happens if you’re driving, and either you hear some news on the radio that gets you riled up, or you are listening to a song you love and you start singing along at the top of your voice. Then suddenly you look down and realize you’re going 15 mph faster than you should, or you find you’re tailgating the car in front of you. That’s because the excitement of the song or bad news or whatever got your heart beating faster and your muscles tensed up, and it moved you from adult brain into your emotional brain. And when you are in your emotional brain, you react to things emotionally, you lose some of your adult judgment, you start tailgating or you snap at the kids or you have blaming, angry, emotional arguments with your spouse. He says that low level of anger many people are carrying around has caused them unconsciously to lash out at people around them in immature ways.
The interviewer asked, how do you correct this if you realize it’s happening to you? The psychologist said, you have to consciously move yourself from your emotional brain into your adult brain. Your adult brain is where you act in mature ways. Where you control your emotions, where you keep your anger where it belongs and don’t direct it at your spouse and kids, where you move into the area of nuanced understanding and mature judgment and values. So how do you lift yourself into your adult brain? He says you do it by thinking about your values, by making plans, by thinking about things in complex ways, by asking yourself, this thing I’m angry about, what can I do personally to make this better?
Which brings me back to prayer. That, I think, is exactly what prayer does for us. Prayer lifts us away from our emotional brains into the realm of values, of nuanced judgments, of caring about our neighbors and loving God – the exact things the unjust judge was unable to do. Prayer connects us with something greater than ourselves; prayer requires us to think about what God wants from us and not just what we want from God. Prayer reminds us of God’s demands for justice and compassion.
Prayer changes us. As Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace, “…prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you cannot imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been.” Or, as Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistence in prayer is a key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way of [God] getting to your door.”
Which is maybe reversal of everything we think about prayer: maybe prayer is not a matter of us knock, knock, knocking on God’s door – maybe prayer is a matter of opening the door to the God who is always knock, knock, knocking at our door. Maybe God is the one banging on our doors, demanding to be allowed in.
Maybe God is actually the poor widow coming to us continually, demanding justice. It’s not out of reach to believe it. We do tend to automatically put God in the “powerful” slot in these parables, and read them allegorically so that we think God must be the judge. But remember that God is the one who came to us in Jesus, a poor peasant in an insignificant country who was incredibly vulnerable to the unjust powers of this world from the day he was born, who was ultimately given a humiliating and painful slave’s death on a cross.
So maybe this parable means the opposite of what we think it means – maybe God is the poor widow and we’re the unjust judge, and God is banging at the door of this unjust world and asking us to take action to help the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, those without power.
Years ago, I remember seeing a cartoon: a man is praying to God about the world’s suffering, begging God to do something, saying, God, why haven’t you acted? God replies, that’s funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing.
So maybe we should read this parable in both ways. Yes, we should pray because God will hear. And yes, Jesus is telling us to persevere in prayer because that is what opens our minds and hearts to God’s action in our lives. Prayer is what takes us into the higher parts of our brains and our hearts, taking away our fear and anger, our tendency to lash out at those we love when we’re upset, helping us live with calm and compassion and love. As we pray, as we continually open our hearts to our God, we open a pathway for God to come to us: Knock, knock, knocking at our doors, asking us for justice, and giving us strength not only to love our neighbors, but to bring justice to this world, so that we and all our neighbors can live with abundance.