The 19th Sunday after Pentecost | By the Rev. Dr. Rob MacSwain
Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Psalm 119:97-104 | 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 | Luke 18:1-8
When I was a moody and mopey teenager, way back in the dark ages of the 1980s, one of my favorite bands was a British ensemble known as “the Smiths.” Hailing from Manchester, England, their melancholy brand of alternative rock perfectly captured my self-pitying adolescent angst. Having read about them, at age fifteen or sixteen I went into a record store and asked if I could hear some of their music. When the clerk starting playing an album, I asked her, “What’s the name of this song?”, and she replied, “What difference does it make?” At first I didn’t know whether she was being rude or saying that all their songs sounded the same, and then I realized that this was, in fact, the title of the song she was playing: “What Difference Does It Make?” And that gives you a sense of the Smiths’ pessimistic take on life.
“What Difference Does It Make?” is from their 1984 album, Hatful of Hollow, but there’s another song on that same album which poses a rather different question, titled, “How Soon Is Now?” And for some reason, whenever I hear or read our Gospel lesson this morning from Luke, Chapter 18, I think of a verse from this song. According to Luke, “Jesus told [the disciples] a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And then, after the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” In other words, if even the unjust judge granted the widow’s request just to stop her from pestering him, how much more will God answer our righteous and fervent prayers?
But in the Smiths’ song, “How Soon Is Now?”, the singer cries out:
When you say it’s gonna happen “now” Well, when exactly do you mean? See I’ve already waited too long And all my hope is gone.
In other words, like one of the psalms of lament, from the bleak perspective of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”, Jesus’ parable has come too late, because the singer has already “lost heart”. After waiting and waiting and waiting, prayers have not been answered, and hope has finally been extinguished. Therefore, the intriguing question of tensed time, “How soon is now?”—or, “When is it finally going to happen?”—is left unanswered, just like the prayers, because the question implies that there is a certain point beyond which any answer is just too late.
It must be said that, despite both the stated intent of Jesus’ parable to get us to buck up and not lose heart and the concluding confident claims of divine succor, our experience is often more accurately expressed by the Smiths and by the psalms of lament than by the Gospel of Luke. Of course, we all know that, in fact, God does not answer all of our prayers, at least not in the way that we ask them. For one thing, it is logically impossible for God to answer contradictory prayers, as when (to take a trivial example) one set of fans prays for the Yankees to win and another set of fans prays for the Red Sox to win, because even if God cared enough to intervene (which I doubt) there can only be one winning team per game. More seriously, however, sometimes it is countries or cultures in conflict rather than sports teams, and both sides pray fervently for divine assistance, believing themselves to be in the right and therefore, to quote a well-known Bob Dylan song, to have “God on [their] side”:
Oh my name it ain’t nothin’ My age it means less The country I come from Is called the Midwest I was taught and brought up there The laws to abide And that the land that I live in Has God on its side
Oh, the history books tell it They tell it so well The cavalries charged The Indians fell The cavalries charged The Indians died Oh, the country was young With God on its side
But whose side is God really on? Is it always the winning side? Always our side? God forbid! And so after five more verses taking us through the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, the threat of chemical and atomic weapons, Dylan sings:
Through many a dark hour I’ve been thinkin’ about this That Jesus Christ was Betrayed by a kiss But I can’t think for you You’ll have to decide Whether Judas Iscariot Had God on his side.
So now as I’m leavin’ I’m weary as Hell The confusion I’m feelin’ Ain’t no tongue can tell The words fill my head And fall to the floor That if God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war.
So logically God can’t answer both sides of contradictory prayers, and to think of God being on one “side” or another is often problematic. What God wants in a given situation is not necessarily what we want. Moreover, providentially God can’t answer many prayers due to both natural necessities and human free will—created realities that God has chosen to respect even at great cost, leading to natural disasters such as floods and droughts, earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as to human atrocities such as the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges or the decimation of Native Americans or what’s happening in Syria right now. Finally, in our personal experience even fervent prayers for justice for the poor, the weak, the helpless, and the oppressed are also often unanswered, at least in this life as we ask for them.
And while we can understand all this intellectually, it makes it difficult to hear such parables as the persistent widow and the unjust judge, because Jesus seems to be saying that if our prayers are not answered it is because we have given up and stopped asking. This dilemma greatly troubled C. S. Lewis, and especially similar texts such as Matthew 21:22, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive,” and John 14:13-14, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Lewis understood why such claims could not be always literally true—but then why, he asked, did Jesus apparently make them?
There is no easy answer to this question but let me offer some brief thoughts. First, even if we hold to the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation which affirms that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human (which I do), that still leaves us with a fully human Jesus with a much different experience of intimacy with God than our own. Perhaps these gospel texts bear witness to Jesus’ own sense of total oneness with God the Father, a complete identification with and submission to the divine will, and a consequent confidence in prayer that our own lived experience simply lacks. In other words, maybe these texts tell us more about Jesus and less about prayer as such.
But, second, Lewis pointed out, and Dylan’s verse about Judas also reminds us, that Jesus’ own fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup pass from him, was not answered, and so Jesus himself finally admitted, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” So yes, Bob Dylan, in the Garden of Gethsemane, God was in fact on Judas’ side rather than Jesus’ side, at least in some sense. All theologies of prayer must thus pass through this dark night of agony and bloody sweat.
But perhaps the final word here should go back to the Smiths, with the first song I mentioned, “What Difference Does It Make?” The philosopher Eleonore Stump suggests that while petitionary prayer is indeed about making a difference, it is not just about making a difference with God or the state of the world, but God making a difference with us. We should indeed “pray always and not lose heart,” not necessarily to get what we are praying for, but to remain in intimate contact with God, who wants us to pray for things so that they might happen and also that we might become friends with God. In other words, the main concern of the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge is indeed that we not lose heart, and it is in continuous struggle with God in prayer that this concern is fulfilled. So, “what difference does [prayer] make?” The difference between doubt and faith, between despair and hope, and between loss and love.