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The prayer of nagging

30 November, 1999

Fr Oliver Treanor looks at the parable of the widow and the unjust judge and draws out its meaning for us in our life of prayer.

Jesus recommended nagging as a good way to get what you want out of his Father. If you nag him enough, he suggested, the Father will gladly give you all you ask before long. For God has a low resistance to anyone who harps on and on at him. And Jesus should know for he is his Son.

It is a curious way to think of prayer but it is the way Christ presented it to his disciples. In the parable of the poor widow and the unjust judge, for example (Luke 18:1-8). She lived in the same city as he did and would come to his door every day in person to get a legal judgement from him against those who were harassing her. If she had lived today he would probably have phoned him as well, written to his secretary, faxed his office, even intruded on his golf.

But because she was not important, he did not give her much attention. He had more lucrative cases on his desk, more prestigious decisions to consider. Had he been a conscientious man, his sense of right and wrong might have persuaded him to help her. But he was not. He didn’t believe in God and cared little for what others might think.
On the face of it her chances were not good. Who else was there to plead her cause? She didn’t know the kind of people who can pull strings.

One resource
And yet she had one resource, this crafty pensioner, one asset which was greater than any other. Determination. Once she got a notion in her head she would not rest until it was resolved. So she made a nuisance of herself.

What had she to lose? She did not mind if he was driven to the brink of exasperation. All she wanted was her legal rights – and she was determined to get them. So she nagged and harped and called and pleaded and begged until he was sick of her.

Finally he could ignore her no more. ‘Maybe I neither fear God nor regard man,’ he said to himself at last, ‘yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’

‘Consider what the unjust judge says,’ counselled Jesus, ‘Will God not vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily’.

Never lose heart
The thing about the parables of Jesus is, they are so logical! So utterly credible. What he says in this instance about intercessory prayer makes sense. If God is truly our Father, how could he refuse his children anything? Even imperfect parents will give in to their demanding offspring if only to get peace.

Jesus indeed made the point once before in Luke’s Gospel to a crowd of men who had gathered to listen to his teaching. ‘What father among you,’ he said to them, ‘if his son asks for a fish will give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children
how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’ (Lk 11:11-13).

He needn’t have said any more. He was speaking a language they could understand. They were convinced by an argument that matched their own experience.

But he did say more. ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.’

Sometimes the message has to be spelled out for us, even though we know it makes eminent sense. And in the story about the nagging widow, ‘he told them this parable to show the need to pray continually and never lose heart’ – the voice of St Luke chipping in to make sure we got it the first time.

Why do we all need reminding and encouragement in prayer? Because we are easily put off. If our requests are not answered straightaway, we give up; if other people stop praying, so do we; if we don’t hear God’s voice, we think he doesn’t hear ours.

Think again
Think again, urges Jesus, and the gospel repeats his advice like an echo down through the ages: think again, think again. Has there ever been anyone who petitioned persistently and walked away empty? Do you imagine for one moment then that you are going to be the first?

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 1998), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.