29th Sunday (c) 2016
A friend of mine told me a story that happened to him a long time ago, when he was thirteen years of age; today he is over seventy. His parents asked him to go to town to buy something. Just as he was boarding the bus his native village, a local businessman who loved to gamble on the horses asked him to put on a bet: £5 to win and £2 for a place on a horse called ‘Blue Butterfly’; it was running in a big event in the afternoon. The horse odds were thirty-three to one. The winnings would come to around £200, which was a lot of money in those days. A few hours later, my friend was at a counter in the town when he heard the race on the radio. ‘Blue Butterfly’ was flying at the head of the field and the money for the bet was still in his pocket. In panic, he started to pray, ‘Please Lord don’t let him win! Don’t let him win!’ But winning he still was, streaking towards the finish, kicking his heels up at heaven. My friend prayed and prayed again. The winning post was coming closer with every stride. Then with fifty yards to go and another anguished burst of prayer, a wall of horses came sweeping into contention and in a final flourish of short heads ‘Blue Butterfly’ was fourth. My friend breathed a huge sigh of relief. He looked round but there was no one to share his deliverance with except God. And He thanked God very much.
This is a nice story because it has a happy ending. The trouble with prayer is, or can be, that so often, it doesn’t appear to have a happy ending. How often have we prayed for someone we love to get better and they haven’t? Often we don’t pray for ourselves, or if we do it is sometimes half-hearted, but when someone we love needs prayers then we pray with all our might. Many people go to Church, light candles, ask the priest to say a mass for this person’s intentions, and ask other people to pray, good people, people who are known to live good lives. And yet, how often it happens that even these prayers are not answered.
Jesus knew this very well, this is why he told us the parable we just heard in the Gospel. It begins with the words, ‘Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never to lose heart.’ I presume he did this because, like us, his disciples had prayed for things but their prayers were not answered, or at least, they did not appear to be. This is then why Jesus told the parable. He saw for himself the difficulty with prayer and the tendency to give up when prayers weren’t answered.
The parable is about a widow who is seeking justice against her enemy. Now we don’t know anything about this woman. We don’t know if she was god fearing or even if her case against her enemy, as she called him or her, was a just one. No, the attention in the parable is focussed on the judge. In his case we learn he wasn’t a good judge. We are told ‘he had neither fear of God nor respect for man.’ Indeed, later Jesus would call him an ‘unjust judge.’ The woman gets what she wants because she keeps pestering the judge; she shouldn’t have to do this but in this case, because he wasn’t a good judge, she had to. And we see why he listens to the woman, not because it’s his job but because she would persist in coming to him and worry him to death.’ In some ways this parable has a modern ring about it.
Jesus uses this parable to encourage his disciples, and through them, us, not to give up in prayer. Clearly in my experience it is still a problem today as it was in Jesus day. People need to be encouraged not to give up. There are, of course, reasons whey people stop praying, or don’t ever start in the first place. Perhaps the main reason is a sense of self worth, or to be more precise, in the eyes of God a lack of self-worth. There is the false belief that God does not listen to their prayers because they are not worthy; they are bad people so why should God listen to their prayers. And so such people go to a holy person, as they see them, to a priest or nun and ask them to pray for them, with the tell tale words, ‘God will listen to your prayers’, in other words, he won’t listen to mine.
But this woman who kept going to the judge, we don’t know if she was a good person or not; just that she wanted justice. What Christ stresses is that her prayers were heard because she did not give up. Christ makes the point in the gospel that ‘will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them?’ In other words, Christ is saying, no matter who you are, even if you are not the best of Christians, when you pray to Him for justice your prayers will be heard, though you may have to wait.
But why not straight away? Because in the very process of praying we are putting our faith in God. We are saying to God, I believe that you want to do this, I believe that you can do this. This requires perseverance, and it deepens our faith. We should never give up because our prayers do not appear to be heard; we should continue to pray, in the certain knowledge that the Lord always listens to our prayers. He is not like the unjust judge. He listens because he loves us and wants to give us justice.