Luke’s Gospel is sometimes called “the Gospel of Prayer” because in it Jesus prays at the most important moments in his life and because it contains two substantial instructions devoted to Jesus’ teachings on prayer (11:1-13 and 18:1-14). In the first passage Jesus offers a sample prayer (the Lord’s Prayer) and gives encouragement to be bold and persistent in prayer, since God really wants to answer our prayers. The second prayer instruction reinforces the theme of persistence in prayer (today’s passage) and insists on the importance of humility in prayer (next Sunday’s text).
Luke introduces the parable of the persistent widow with the comment that it illustrates the need to “pray always without becoming weary.” Today’s Old Testament reading from Exodus 17 exemplifies that teaching in an almost cartoonish way. As long as Moses keeps his hands raised (presumably in prayer), Israel’s battle against the Amalekites goes well for them. When he puts down his hands, then Israel begins to lose. So Aaron and Hur come to Moses’ assistance, keeping his hands raised until evening. By that time Amalek has been defeated and Moses’ prayer has been answered. Here persistence in prayer is taken quite literally, even comically.
Today’s parable from Luke 18 features two characters: a widow and a judge. In the ancient world a widow was among the most defenseless and powerless persons; unless she had adult sons who were influential, a widow had no social standing and no political power. The other character is a judge, who in this case is an opportunist and a pragmatist, without respect for God or other people. One might imagine that nothing good could ever come from any interaction between them, but when the widow brings her case before the judge, she prevails. She prevails not because she is influential or powerful and not because the judge is honest or compassionate. Rather, she prevails only because she is persistent. She keeps after the judge and finally wears him down. Because the widow will not take no for an answer, the judge decides to give her what she wants in the hope of getting rid of her. The point of Jesus’ parable is clear. If a defenseless and powerless widow can wear down a corrupt judge through her persistence alone, how much more can we expect that God, the just and merciful judge, will hear our prayers and answer them positively if we persist?
How can we pray “always”? When we hear the word “prayer,” most of us instinctively think of formal prayers like the Lord’s Prayer. And we should, since formal prayers are integral to Christian spirituality. There is another way of thinking about prayer in Christian life, however. It is the effort to make our whole life into a prayer—that is, to pray always. This kind of prayer involves offering all that we are and have and do to the service of God, calling ourselves into the presence of God at various times during our day and making all our personal encounters and actions into a kind of prayer. This form of prayer means bringing all our successes and failures, joys and sorrows, and highs and lows to God in prayer. This habit of prayer, of course, needs to be complemented by formal prayers. But the combination of the two can add up to praying always.
The reading of Scripture has often been the starting point for both formal and personal prayer in the Christian tradition. Today’s selection from 2 Timothy insists that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” In this context “Scripture” would have meant the Old Testament, since the New Testament was still being written. Nevertheless, we can take the opportunity offered here to consider the place of Scripture in Christian prayer and spirituality. Scripture reveals to us that God the creator and Lord of all is the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture describes our history and religious heritage as the people of God; it provides us with the language and theology of prayer. Scripture serves as the repository of human wisdom and teaches us how to live wisely and justly. It also points us to Christ as the key, so that what is hidden in the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.
For those who are serious about prayer, today’s Scripture readings provide good advice about both content and style. Scripture, both the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) and the New Testament (especially the Gospels), offer valuable starting points to prayer. The parable of the persistent widow encourages us to be bold and persistent in our prayers of petition. The challenge to pray always can open up for us a habit of prayer that encompasses our entire life.