This is one of my favorite time of the year. I’m not fond of the temperatures getting cooler, and the color of the trees is something I always enjoy, but it’s the baseball playoffs that I look forward to. I love the drama of two teams locked in struggle, second guessing the managers and pitchers, wondering when the routine of scoreless innings is going to break for one team or the other, and hopefully the team that I’m rooting for. I love the late inning confrontation of pitcher and hitter, when every pitch has significance and it’s a question of which man is going to outlast the other. The player who can keep his focus is the one who succeeds.
Today’s readings speak a lot about persistence, but as usual, the parable that Jesus tells has an unexpected twist. The set up is something we can relate to, a public official who is much less than honest. To Jesus’ audience, he is an impossible person: judges in those times were chosen to be representatives of God’s justice and the community. Sure, they all weren’t honest but like today, it doesn’t seem conceivable that anyone would be so blatant about it. The widow who comes to seek her rights is exactly the kind of person that a judge is supposed to help: they were charged with protecting the rights of widows and orphans particularly, and the Old Testament is full of the prophets reprimanding the rulers of Israel for falling down on their duties. The widow should have to be wearing the man out with her cries for justice: even if he were dishonest, this would be a case where he could keep up appearances that he’s really doing his job. The reason the corrupt judge would give in doesn’t make sense. We men are very careful about being perceived as wimps, and to say that a judge is afraid that a widow is going to punch him in the eye (which is exactly what the original language of the Gospel says) is like saying that I’m afraid that a sacristan is going to beat me up if I don’t do what they want me to.
In many parables, there is usually one character that is the God character, and with this one it’s hard to imagine that a corrupt, unfeeling judge can be compared at all with a loving God who knows us better than we know ourselves, who cares for us and who is eager to provide us with what we need. There’s also a problem with imagining a God that we have to pester into giving us what we want: the danger is that we might confuse God with Santa Claus. To say that if we’re good and we ask enough, we’ll get anything we want, seems to fit a trip to visit a man in a red suit who’ll be in the shopping malls a little over a month from now. We know that God doesn’t give us everything we want, and there are things that we need that God doesn’t seem to be working on at all. So where do we go with this?
What if we turn the tables a bit, and imagine that God is in the role of the pestering widow and we’re the corrupt judge. We have an obligation to be Christ’s representative, to be about the work of compassion and justice in the world. Our inclination is to want to do what we want, without respect to anybody else and to find a way to whitewash our desires so that God won’t disapprove. The small voice of God reminding us of what we should be doing can be a bit painful, persistent, and it’s easy to be afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t listen to that voice. Sometimes we do the right thing with a lot of reluctance, but that’s our nature, particularly when God is wanting us to something we’re not too wild about doing.
Put in this light, what role does prayer have? Once again, we can confuse prayer with sitting on Santa’s lap: if we want something, we pray for it; if we don’t want something, then we don’t pray. Why pray, why bother with presenting our needs to our loving God if he already knows our needs and is working on them without our asking for them?
I don’t have an easy answer, but I’d like to suggest two things. One, in praying we have a chance to become aware of our needs and hopefully the limits of what we can do about it and what God can do about it. A great piece of advice on work and prayer that I’ve heard is: work as if everything depends on you; pray as if everything depends on God. It’s worked for me as a musician. Secondly, prayer is a way that God has of working on us. I’m not talking about prayer where we’re asking for something, or even saying anything particular to God, but where we’re just trying to create a space to just be in God’s presence. When we can stop the busy-ness around us and be comfortable with the quiet it gives us a chance to focus on what God is and where we really are. That kind of prayer can transform our lives, change us in fundamental ways, help us to see what we haven’t been able to see before.
This table that we share is another such opportunity. We are here as a people who persistently get together to let God work on us through the Word and through the Body and Blood of Christ. It takes a long time, we have to stay with it and not give up, like the widow doesn’t give up with the corrupt judge. We have to stay focused like a pitcher on the mound who has seen 5 strike three’s fouled off and come up with another unhittable strike, or a hitter who has fended off one nasty pitch after another looking for one he can drive out of the yard or bloop over the shortstop’s head. God is going to get us sooner or later, God is going to persist beyond any point we can imagine to name us who we are and call us to do what we should do. When do we give in?