Like all of Jesus’ parables, his stories of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) and a person who repeatedly knocks on a friend’s door at midnight (Luke 11:5-13) contain a “hidden” meaning. I am reluctant, even with the help of commentaries, to try to interpret this deeper meaning about prayer and the relationship of asking, seeking, and knocking to receiving, finding, and opening. I have too many questions about prayer in general (and am also shy about the possibility of committing heresy): Do our prayers somehow change God’s mind? But isn’t God unchangeable and impassible? Do our prayers merely change us? Do they simply give us a better “perspective,” cultivate psychological equilibrium, build our character? Does the timing of our prayers matter for a God who is outside of time? (I once attended a philosophy colloquium on the topic: “Praying for Things to Have Happened.”) While I have a desire to know the answers to such questions and can appreciate the subtle debates, I know that mystery will continue to veil much of prayer. It is part of the Christian tradition, however, not to let mystery be an impediment to action. At some point, we may need to be satisfied with the classic Sunday school answer: “Jesus.” Jesus prayed. Jesus told his followers to pray. And, in these parables, the message close to the surface is that we are to do so persistently.
In his classic book on prayer, Presbyterian minister George Buttrick writes that on the issue of prayer, “as always [Jesus’] deed and word are an indivisible flame” (35).* In less eloquent expression: Jesus “walked the walk.” Jesus prayed in solitude and with friends, he prayed in routine days and in crisis, he prayed at his baptism and in the desert, he left the crowds to pray and he prayed before choosing his disciples, he prayed on the Mount of Transfiguration and he prayed after the feeding of the five thousand, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and he prayed on the cross, he prayed, “until prayer became the climate of his days. The saints said that ‘to work is to pray,’ and they believed profoundly that ‘to pray is to work.’ Jesus said in the language of deeds that ‘to live is to pray,’ and that to pray is to live’” (36). If Jesus prayed, shouldn’t that be good enough reason for us to do the same?
Still, we might ask what one “gets out of” prayer. If we ask what Jesus got out of prayer, Buttrick replies: “The answer might be, ‘Calvary!’” But on a much deeper level than the question suggests, Buttrick says Jesus enjoyed the ultimate Friendship in prayer. And we too enjoy friendship with God in prayer. By telling his followers to pray, Jesus directs us to what is, according to the classical Christian tradition, our highest good. And he directs us not only to our own good, but also to the good of others, to a friendship as deep as family that overflows from our friendship with God. The Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father.” Of this beginning, Buttrick writes: “we are children of one home, and cannot pray well until we try to trace the Father’s likeness in every face” (34). And as we are told in the Sermon on the Mount, we are to trace this familial likeness in faces we do not think resemble our own, even in the faces of our enemies. Extending friendship that far, beyond any earthly breaking point, is only possible through the power of prayer. If that kind of friendship is possible (and it must be possible because Jesus commands it), how much more should we carry “everything to God in prayer!”
Returning to the parable of the widow and the late-night knocker, Buttrick says that while “These two parables are in some respects difficult to construe…. the requirement of persistence in prayer is unmistakable” (33). But “Why this demand?” he asks. Is it because “nothing cheap is easily gained?” Or because prayer is a “great art” that takes rigorous training and more than casual asking to receive its treasures? Is it because persistent asking (and perhaps many refusals) may purify our desires? Or is it because “prayer is a friendship?” And friendship requires persistence: “We do not make friends by nodding our head to a man across the street once a month.” Friendship with others and so also with God, says Buttrick, “grows of oft-repeated meetings, contacts, self-givings, and mutual trust” (33). It grows out of intentional activities within each other’s presence and the dispositions that result from the frequent repetition of those activities.
Friendship with God is not possible without the habit of prayer. Our highest good is not possible without the habit of prayer. If we believe this to be true, how should we then live? It is a good question to begin the school year. As we journey together, let us follow our Lord in his word and his deed by persisting in prayer. In our next CCEC post, we’ll look at specific ways to build this best of all friendships.
*Buttrick, George. 1942. Prayer. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press.