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Friday, October 18, 2019

Prayer as a Black Eye - 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 18:1-8
Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, "There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
'Render a just decision for me against my adversary.'
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.'"
The Lord said, "Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"


Jesus was funnier than you think. Because the Gospels do not depict any of the times Jesus laughed, the humorous side of Jesus’ personality is often forgotten. But his parables are often quite comical, and this parable about the widow and the judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being” is one such parable. 

The central meaning of the story isn’t all that difficult to discover. Just before this passage, Jesus made clear to his apostles that the end of the world has not yet come. Thus, while they are waiting, Jesus offers this week’s parable “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” His analogy is quite simple. The old widow obtained her request by constantly petitioning the unjust judge. How much more will you obtain your requests by constantly petitioning the God who cares for his chosen ones? It’s a point that Christianity takes very seriously ― the effectiveness of constant prayer. But there’s a hilariousness to this story that needs to be parsed out, and not just because it’s funny. Indeed, its funniness also tells us something significant about Jesus and about the way God relates to us. 

Notice that, in the parable, the unjust judge was originally unwilling to rule in favor of the widow against her adversary. Notice, too, the reason he changes his mind: “I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” That is the translation the lectionary uses, and it’s totally fine. But, as one bible scholar puts it, the original Greek is comically “delicious.” Indeed, the text can be translated a number of ways. Here’s how the Sacra Pagina Catholic commentary translates it: “This widow gives me so much trouble that I will give her justice! Otherwise she will keep coming and end up giving me a black eye!” What a bizarre analogy Jesus uses for prayer! To God, the prayers of the faithful can be just as effective as sending an old widow to physically assault him. Indeed, “will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?” 

Jesus’ analogy also tells us something essential about himself. The apostles one day stumbled upon Jesus praying alone. “Lord, teach us to pray,” one of them asked, moved by what he’d seen (Lk 11:1). We might expect Jesus, when he teaches us about prayer, to offer some impenetrable insight about contemplation. I mean, he’s God ― why shouldn’t pure white light come from his mouth? Perhaps we expect him to offer some koan ― “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” ― that will reveal to us the true nature of prayer only after years of brutally disciplined meditation. No. The Son of God instead compares your prayers to a cranky old widow physically wailing upon a judge until she gets her way. You can practically see the black handbag flying through the air, one scholar has commented. What a bizarre and, quite frankly, humorous image. And, for Jesus, this is the nature of prayer

Jesus uses human images because he is ordinary, even while he’s extraordinary. He is human, real, and funny, all while being God. When he speaks to us, he doesn’t blast our minds with something incomprehensible, but teaches us about the nature of prayer with a gritty and goofy analogy. And if, in fact, this brutal widow exemplifies prayer, then you should really let God have it; give him a black eye with your prayers. As Jesus said, “I tell you, [God] will see to it that justice is done for [you] speedily.”

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