A Surge of the Heart
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Harries shows us how prayer lies at the heart of all we do.
Luke especially records Jesus telling us stories, parables, involving some disreputable characters. On recent Sundays we have heard about the manager who was commended because he continued swindling his boss big-time even as he was being disciplined and sacked. We have also heard about the foolish shepherd who abandoned the 99 sheep to the wolves and thieves and went off to look for the wayward lost sheep. We have heard about rich fashionable glutton who would not spare even the leftovers for poor Lazarus lying outside, his body oozing with sores. Today we have the unjust judge who, we are told, respects either God or his fellow citizens.
Jesus tells us today’s story is to encourage us to pray continually and to never lose heart. So let us think about the story a bit. The widow in the story keeps coming along to the judge and demands that he deal with her case. He just can’t be bothered for whatever reason. But the widow turns up again and again. She is going to grind him down with her persistence. So he relents and deals with her case, he does justice, presumably in her favour.
Jesus’s listeners would have known the prophets and the law, at least vaguely, and within both, justice for orphans and widows in particular was a constant theme. So a good judge, for Jesus’s listeners would have been the judge who dealt rapidly and promptly with cases brought by widows, whatever the merits of any individual case. Justice done late can lack integrity, and for people of little power or wealth, people of low social standing, delayed justice can often involve great hardship. The prophets were right on this long ago. Even today we only have to open the newspapers or listen to the news to learn of long delayed cases of justice where the little people have suffered great deprivation and pain for years, while the rich have enjoyed their often ill-gotten gains.
Jesus points out the words of the unjust judge as he is finally stirred into action; “I must give this widow her just rights”. Yes he is a judge and must do so, though this perhaps begs the question of who, if anyone, is monitoring the competence of his judicial administration.
God is indeed our judge, as well as our Creator. He judges well, and with mercy. This is our faith, and on the Sundays to come as the year draws to its end we will confronted again and again by the certainty of judgement, and with the certainly of God’s mercy to those whose sins he forgives. So the simple moral of today’s story is to be persistent in prayer. But how do we persist in prayer? And what is prayer anyway?
St Therese of Lisieux wrote “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned towards heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy”. She picks up the whole Christian tradition, that prayer is a response in faith of love. The Holy Spirit is the living water, given to us by Jesus, who dwells in the heart that prays. So prayer is our being caught up in the divine life of God. It is a manifestation of our mystic union with God. So petitionary prayer, asking for things, like “Please heal my daughter who is sick” are an important part of our life of prayer, but should not be the whole of our prayer. Prayer as contemplation, as communion, as praise and thanksgiving, as blessing and adoration, as requesting forgiveness, should all part of our rich prayer life, as well as the prayer of petition. Christian prayer is multi-layered and has varied aspects. If we consistently ignore many of these aspects, then our prayer will lack a certain depth.
Prayer, given that we naturally are social beings and are redeemed as a new people should involve the prayer of the Christian community, pre-eminently but certainly not exclusively the Mass, but also, for example, the divine office, the meditative reading of the Scriptures, the rosary, prayer in groups. Prayer should be part of our daily living along with work in its various forms. If our work, family life or leisure are not done in humility, compassion, integrity and the seeking of true peace, then we will find it difficult to set aside moments of prayer. Temptations and distractions will soon destroy any quiet integrity of such fragmented and rootless moments. To pray constantly is to live a Christian life humbly before God, seeking to love our neighbours as ourselves. By doing this, our will becomes aligned with the divine will and our prayer is constant. This is faith on earth.