Wilfrid Harrington OP examines some Gospel parables which are centred on the theme of prayer and sees what lessons we can draw from them. The Israelite was a person of prayer – the Old Testament evidence is impressive, compelling. It is to be expected that among the new people of God prayer will have a […]
Wilfrid Harrington OP examines some Gospel parables which are centred on the theme of prayer and sees what lessons we can draw from them.
The Israelite was a person of prayer – the Old Testament evidence is impressive, compelling. It is to be expected that among the new people of God prayer will have a central place. Jesus himself prayed to the Father, prayed out of his dependence and his need. Jesus taught us to pray, taught us how to turn in trust, to an Abba. Jesus prayed: and there is example. We pray: and there is response. It is to be expected that not a few of Jesus’ parables have to do with prayer.
Friend at midnight and unjust judge (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8)
It has long been recognised that women figure more frequently in Luke than in the other gospels. Twice he has parallel parables, for men and women: Lost Sheep/Lost Coin (15:4-7, 8-10); and here, 11:5-8; 18:1-8. The Friend at Midnight is peculiar to Luke. In the context of Lk n:I-13, a synthesis of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, the parable has to do with persevering prayer. Originally, in the setting of Jesus’ ministry, the parable would have made its point through the conduct of the one who is being importuned. Verses 5-7 should be regarded as one rhetorical question: ‘Can you imagine that if one of you had a friend, and he should come to you at midnight and say to you, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a journey has come to me and I have nothing to set before him”, that you would answer, “Go away and leave me in peace” -can you imagine that?’ The answer must be an indignant denial: ‘Impossible! Of course not!’ In that case, Jesus tells his hearers, you cannot imagine that God will reject the plea of one who calls upon him. With the suggestion that God might, in any way, be like this boor (‘Do not bother me’) we are in line with the daring familiarity we find in Jeremiah and Job and elsewhere in the Old Testament.
In Luke’s setting the focus is on the one who pleads. He has come, in need, to a friend. The situation was urgent. A friend had called unexpectedly, and he must be given hospitality. The other friend, though roused from sleep at midnight, ought to have appreciated the gravity of the situation. In the interest of the story he showed himself insensitive to the normal eastern feeling for the claim of hospitality. Very well, let the pleader keep up his pestering; he will be given what he wants if only to get rid of him! When we recall that this is a teaching on prayer to God we can savour, also in this new setting, the daring of it. Even when the emphasis is switched to perseverance, the implication is still there that God is one who must be worn down. And the Christian should take heart from the fact that the Lord could present such a visage of the Father, if only to insist that he is wholly other.
Luke makes clear his understanding of the parable of the Unjust Judge – also proper to him (18:1-8): the disciples should pray at all times and persevere in it (see 1 Thes 5:17). In reality, like the Friend at Midnight, the parable originally had a different emphasis. The judge is, in v.6, characterised as unjust; the Old Testament refers often to the helpless widow. It is implied that the widow has right on her side, but this judge was not interested in the rights of a penniless plaintiff. If he is to give a judgement in favour of anybody it has to be made worth his while to do so.
Jesus would have asked his hearers to contemplate, if they would, a God cast in the image of the unjust judge. Could they really imagine that he was remotely like that? The widow, aware that she cannot pay the bribe expected by this venal judge, has no recourse but to pester. If she makes enough of a nuisance of herself he will grant her request merely for the sake of peace and quiet. What a bold picture of prayer to God this is! The parable is rounded off with an a fortiori. If this cynical judge will, in the end, yield to the importunity of the persistent widow, surely it is to be expected that God, who is not a judge at all but a loving parent, will yield to the importunity of his children! He will not delay. As always, the problem is not with the constant God; it is with his inconstant creature. Is there the faith that will support this confident and persevering prayer (v.8)? Each Christian must answer for herself or himself.
The Pharisee and the tax collector
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector does fit neatly into the ministry of Jesus. Both characters are drawn from life: the righteous one and the outcast. And the parable is spoken as a warning to the righteous (Lk 18:9). So often the Pharisee of this parable has been called a hypocrite. It is an error which clouds the pathos of the parable and blunts its impact. The sad fact is that the man is sincere and his claims are true. He is scrupulously honest, a faithful family man, a meticulous observer of the Law (as the tax collector by definition is not). The law enjoined only one fast a year (on the Day of Atonement) but he, a pious Pharisee, fasts each Monday and Thursday. And, far beyond the demands of the Law, he gives a tenth of all his income. He is sincerely convinced that he stands right with God. After all, he has done what he ought to do, and more. He can truly thank God that he is not like other people. The snag is that his ‘prayer’ is not prayer at all. That is why it is not heard.
It is this sort of person and this attitude Paul has in mind in Galatians and Romans. He has seen with clarity (for he, too, had been a convinced Pharisee) that one for whom the heart of religion is observance may feel that one can earn salvation. What one must avoid and must do is clear. If one is faithful, then a just God cannot but justify one. Such an attitude blunts the fact that salvation is gift. That is why the Pharisee could not recognise God’s gracious gift in Jesus. And it is because the ‘sinner’ had no such illusion that he could instinctively see the gift for what it was. There is nothing mysterious in the fact that Jesus was a ‘friend’ of tax collectors and sinners’ nor that this was scandal to the’ righteous’.
It is important to realise that, in the gospels, the Pharisees, for historical and polemical reasons, get a bad press. They are cast as legalistic rigorists with little respect for people, with contempt for ordinary folk. This is less than fair. Paul was proud of his pharisaic past (Phil 3:5). But he had come to recognise the danger that observance might become a way of earning salvation.
There is wry point to the story of the good lady who, after a Sunday morning homily on our parable, was heard to remark: ‘Thank God, I am not like that Pharisee.’ For ‘pharisaism’ is not only a late Jewish phenomenon. It is endemic in the Christian Church and has proved a hardy growth. The self-righteous Christian is not a rarity. Regular churchgoing and certain pious practices may seem to set one apart and guarantee salvation. Always, of course, it is a case of ‘these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others’ -but the ‘weightier matters’ of justice, mercy and faith are what religion is about (Mt 23:23-24).
The tax collector was a man bereft of hope, though not without faith. He had been robbed of hope by the righteous, so thoroughly branded an outcast that he had come to regard himself as such. If salvation depended on meticulous observance of the Law, as the Pharisees maintained, then he had no chance at all. But he cannot bring himself to accept that God is like that. Hoping against hope, he dared to come to the temple of God. And his prayer is the most moving of prayers. It is a prayer that should sound an echo in our hearts, a prayer that should spring, unbidden, to our lips: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ This is the prayer that God listens to and answers – ‘this man went down to his home justified.’ The second half of v.I4 (‘for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted’) explicitly lifts this parable out of the ministry of Jesus, away from any narrow conflict of Pharisee and tax collector, and turns it into a lesson for Everyman.
The unmerciful servant
Prayer is an indispensable feature of Christian life. But it is truly prayer only when it finds issue in Christian praxis. The tax collector had prayed: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Lk 18:13). That is not the end of the matter. Just as Ben Sirach regards the forgiveness of our neighbour as crucially important for right relationship with God (‘If one has no mercy toward another like oneself, can one then seek pardon for one’s own sins?’ – Sir 28:4), so Matthew underlines its significance for the early Church. Our passage forms the conclusion of his ‘community discourse’ (chapter 18). Though he had to face the uncomfortable fact that an unrepentant brother or sister might have to be excluded from the community (Mt 18:15-20) he wants to ensure that his word on relationships within the community will end on the resounding note of forgiveness.
Peter had suggested that if a brother were to offend him he would be prepared to forgive up to seven times. Jesus rather deflated him by declaring forgiveness to be wholly open-ended (‘seventy times seven’, 18:21-22). The point is driven home by the parable 18:23-34. The disparity between the two sums mentioned in the parable is gigantic – ten thousand talents is an almost unimaginable sum. A debt impossible of payment is written off almost casually, by the king, and the man was not even sacked. Yet, one who had been shown such mercy cannot find it in his heart to remit a paltry debt. Not only that, he will not even give his fellow servant – his social equal – reasonable time and opportunity to repay.
The parable is a thinly-veiled allegory. The ‘servant’ is the sinner; his situation is hopeless. The ‘king’ is a merciful God who freely and lovingly forgives any sin. Luke has painted the warmer picture of a prodigal Father and wayward child (Lk 15=11-24). The reality is the same in either case. Like the younger son in the Lucan parable this man, too, is forgiven with no strings attached. Faced with a cry of desperation the gracious God was moved with pity (Mt 18:27). But when the recipient of such forgiveness cannot find it in his heart to be merciful, the master is angry (18:34). Response to God’s gracious forgiveness cannot be payment of a debt that is already fully remitted. It is, instead, warm thanksgiving for the blessing of such forgiving love. And the story in Matthew underlines again that sin, as God regards it, is man’s inhumanity to man – whatever shape that may take. Our abuse of others (and of ourselves) is an affront to the loving Father who counts us as his children. Jesus clearly understood this because he knew his Father.
It is no surprise, then, that Jesus linked prayer and forgiveness: ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses'(Mk 11:25). An unforgiving spirit raises a barrier to mercy. Salvation is a gift, freely and lovingly offered. The only proviso is that one be willing to receive. And one who will not extend mercy does not recognise mercy for what it is. To put it another way, one who will not forgive has not understood God’s forgiveness – has not really known God. How can one truly pray to a God one does not know?
He could no longer bear
The aggression of sparrows,
The din of crows in the trees;
And no pity remained in his heart
For the starlings tcheering on the lawn,
Unkempt and hungry after their journey.
He began to berate the God of Birds
Until walking by the sea at Kilcoole,
Two swans came towards him,
White and suddenly on the water.
– Pádraig J. Daly