Year C, Proper 24, 2010
A few weeks ago we heard the rather disturbing parable of the dishonest manager, in which we had to ask what Jesus meant when he said to make friends by means of dishonest wealth. Was Jesus telling us to cheat or to steal? How were we to understand that parable in light of what we know about Jesus?
Today we hear another of Jesusâ€™ more confounding parables, in which Jesus seems to compare God to a corrupt and uncaring judge. As in the first parable, we have to struggle to find the Jesus we know in the midst of our surprise or even consternation at what he seems to be saying.Â
It seems clear that Jesus was seeking to shock his audience in telling these parables–he knew their effect, then and now. He is trying to startle his hearers, to force them out of what we might call their comfort zone in their thinking–and into a new and richer way of seeing God in relation to their prayer.
One of my favourite movies is the Anthony Hopkins/Debra Winger version of Shadowlands.Â Anthony Hopkins plays C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame–Jack to his friends. Lewis was an Oxford professor who lived from 1898-1963. Lewis spoke up for Christian faith in an intellectual environment that was indifferent and even hostile to religion. In fact Lewis was perhaps the greatest modern Christian apologist. In his books for adults, and in his BBC radio broadcasts, speaking tours and his Narnia books he defended and explained Christianity so that people of all ages could grasp its message.
Lewis was a quietly repressed man in many ways, and did not marry until late in his life. Oddly, he first married Joy Gresham, the American woman he loved, out of friendship, in a civil ceremony that would allow her to remain in England with her children. He did not regard it as a real marriage because a true marriage was before God, and this had only been in a registry office. They never consummated this marriage and told no one but Jackâ€™s brother, Warnie.
Lewis had a reputation as the man with the answers to lifeâ€™s tough questions. One of his books was called The Problem of Pain in which he wrote that â€œPain is Godâ€™s megaphone to rouse a deaf worldâ€–meaning by that that pain serves to get our attention fully focused on God. Lewis wrote: “While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him.â€ But this is a kind of abstract and bloodless way of talking about human suffering. After Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer Lewis suddenly and painfully realized that he had fallen deeply in love with her. For weeks she hovered in agony between death and life and he was terrified that she would die before he could show her what she had come to mean to him. More than anything, he wanted to marry her, really marry her, before God and the world. And he knew that her death would cast him into an abyss of loneliness, for she was his soul mate, the love he had waited to find until he was nearly 60 years old.
Daily he rushes to the hospital, sitting at her bedside, watching the rictus of pain as it distorts her face, watching the doctor shake his head as he looks at the X-rays of Joyâ€™s diseased thigh bone, which had snapped, as Lewis says, â€œLike a frozen twig.â€ The only treatment known in the late 1950â€™s was radiation–and the cancer was so terribly advanced that hope was very frail for even a brief remission.
The Jack Lewis who was once able to write coolly and dispassionately that suffering is character-building, saying, â€œ…[W]hether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want, â€ finally knew what real suffering and real pain looked like. And he spent hours on his knees in the college chapel. There is a marvelous scene in the movie in which Anthony Hopkins comes out of the chapel, his face vulnerable, his eyes haunted. His old friend Harry, the college chaplain seeks to find some word of comfort, though he is almost comically uncomfortable in talking about feelings, or even faith, in this deeply intellectual all-male environment in which both cause deep embarrassment.
Harry says to the clearly-suffering Jack:Â â€œ[Others] can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.â€
And Lewis replies, with the honesty of desperation: â€œThat’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.â€
And this is the nub of what Jesus is saying in this parable of the unjust judge. Â We may pray, as Jack Lewis did, with great sincerity for many years. But prayer can become rote, a form, almost a habit–or even disappear from our lives completely except as we follow along with the prayers on Sunday morning. Lewis did not even realize until he was praying with passionate intensity, day and night, praying against all reason for a miracle, just what prayer was and could be–how far into the arms of God prayer could push him.
And Jack got his miracle–for a time. For a year in the movie–and three years in real life–Joy Gresham experienced a remission that allowed them to consummate their love, to travel, to parent her two sons, to be loving companions. Jack suffered dreadfully after she died–he had to learn to pray his way through that as well–but the experience of praying through her first illness helped him finally to find his way back to God after her death.
Jesus wants us to realize that in this world, trouble will come–heartache and heartbreak, loss of all kinds, griefs and anxieties of all kinds. We must learn to weather them all, as best we can, and the way to prepare is to learn to rely on God. If the uncaring judge in the parable finally gives heed to the widow because she has pestered him to death, how much more will God, who isÂ Loving-Kindness Itself, listen to our cries? We should never doubt Godâ€™s power, or Godâ€™s goodness, or Godâ€™s willingness to carry us through all the trials and tribulations we may–will!–face in this world. But we can only seize this knowledge with assurance when we have learned to pray our way to this kind of radical trust.
And this is why it is so important to learn to pray with a whole heart. Indeed, the important question for Jesus is not whether we can trust God to hear our prayers, but this: â€œWhen the Son of of man comes, will there be faith on earth?â€Â In short–God will always hear our prayers, but will we continue to be prayerful? And that is why what Jack Lewis said is such a powerful measure of our own prayer life: â€œI pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesnâ€™t change God. It changes me.â€
Let our prayer be to find our way to that place where we are so open to God that prayer flows out of us, and we may be changed, and changed, and changed again, until we are, at last, what God hadÂ hoped we wouldÂ become all along.