Tell It Slant, VI: The Audacity of Prayer
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. —Luke 18:1
Do any of you know William Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure? Probably not. Critics call it one of Shakespeare’s “Dark Comedies,” and it’s probably not performed all that often because it is more ‘dark’ than ‘comedy.’ Some of the action takes place on death row, and some of it in a brothel, and many of the characters are a little bawdy even for the Elizabethan stage, let alone for delicate, twenty-first-century Methodist ears.
The play is set in Venice, where a corrupt magistrate named Angelo administers the law. Angelo is not nearly as angelic as his name implies. “This outward-sainted deputy,” says Shakespeare, “is yet a devil. His filth within being sounded, he would appear a pond as deep as hell.”
Judge Angelo has sentenced a young man named Claudio to death. I don’t have time to get into why, but there Claudio sits on death row. Claudio’s sister Isabella is one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and respected women in Venice. Claudio asks his sister to plead for mercy before Judge Angelo’s frightful bench.
The Judge takes one look at Isabella and is hopelessly smitten. He tells Isabella that he will release her brother Claudio from death row if she will have sex with him. Isabella, however, is a virgin and chaste as a nun. She refuses the bargain. “More than our brother is our chastity,” she tells the crestfallen Claudio on death row. Ouch. Poor Claudio.
This play is terrifying. It’s dark, but it’s also a comedy, so—spoiler alert—everybody lives happily ever after, including Claudio on death row, and Angelo, the corrupt magistrate.
Measure for Measure is a Gospel-shaped story; if you love Shakespeare, it would make great devotional reading for a week or so; if you don’t love Shakespeare, don’t get near it.
So the point is that Jesus was neither the first nor the last to tell a story about a powerless woman pleading her case before a corrupt magistrate. He himself was mining a rich vein of literary tradition that was already ancient when he came along in the first century, and since he told his terse little tale, storytellers have been putting it on the page and the stage over and over again. William Shakespeare stole the plot for Measure for Measure from Jesus.
The way Jesus tells the story it goes like this: in a certain city there is a widow in desperate straits. Why is she in trouble? Best guess is that she was homeless. Widows in ancient Palestine, you see, weren’t legal heirs to their husbands’ estates; all property left behind fell to the man’s family of origin. But the widow did have the right to live in his house until she remarried. Perhaps her father-in-law or brother-in-law had thrown her out of what had been her own home. Jesus knows widows, you see. His mother was one.
It is this woman’s misfortune to appear before an unscrupulous judge. He neither fears God, says Jesus, nor respects people. He does not care what God thinks; he does not care what people think. In my mind I keep seeing Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in that film It’s a Wonderful Life.
She appears as a plaintiff before this judge. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she pleads. But she does not have a prayer. She is a woman—strike one. She is a widow—strike two. And she is alone—strike three. So, here we have the plaintiff, a penniless widow from the South Side, going up against Mr. Potter. Here we have Atticus Finch going up against a 300-year tradition of race relations in the American south.
She has nothing, except her persistence. This is her only chance. It’s win this case, or starve. He throws her case out once. She comes back. He denies her suit again. She comes back again. And again. And again.
She waits for him outside the courthouse at the end of the day and follows him to his car. She appears at his favorite watering hole at lunchtime and bends his ear while he’s trying to eat his lunch. He looks out his window at 10:00 in the morning, and there she is on the street corner holding a sign, “Judge, give me justice or give me death.” She phones and gets him out of bed at 3:00 in the morning.
And pretty soon she is winning this war of attrition. It comes down to whose patience will unravel first. And he can’t win, because her life depends on it. Finally, he says, “This impertinent female is getting on my nerves. She’s worse than a migraine. I don’t give a flying leap about God or justice or this blasted woman, but this woman is a royal pain in my… neck, and if I don’t give her what she wants, she will drive me insane.”
If it was Jesus’ goal to keep us off balance, he succeeded. High five for Jesus. Why, for God’s sake—why, for God’s sake—would Jesus, trying to teach us what God is like, tell us a story of an unscrupulous, unprincipled judge, and say, “God is like that—sort of”?
I gotta tell ya, this is not the way I would have told this story. This is how I would have told it: ‘In a certain city there was a kind and compassionate judge, and a certain widow came to him saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ And the judge said, ‘Good woman, nothing would make me happier than to grant your suit, but my hands are tied by the laws of the State of Illinois.’ She went away disheartened but kept coming back until the judge was so filled with pity that he went back to his study and ravished the law books until 3:00 in the morning until he came up with a brilliant legal maneuver which did justice to her and the law and everybody was happy as a pig in mud.”
Well, that’s the way I would have done it. But Jesus is not in the habit of running his parables past me before he publishes them, so we must take account of the story as it stands. Why an unjust judge? Two things to remember: This is a story of contrast, and a story of comparison. God is like and unlike the unjust judge.
Jesus says, “God is unlike this Judge.” God is more than the unjust judge. Listen to the way Jesus wraps up his little story: “And will not God grant justice to God’s children who call to God night and day? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”
This form of rhetoric is called “From minor to major” or “from lesser to greater.” “If even an unscrupulous judge eventually, almost by accident, gets around to doing the right thing, how much more will God answer the cry of God’s children?”
The key words in this form of rhetoric are “how much more.” God is more than the unjust judge. From lesser—the judge—to greater—God.
God answers prayer. Right? Paul Auster tells the story, a true story, about a 73-year-old woman who was so afraid of flying that she often suffered an anxiety attack. Sometimes these panic attacks were so bad she couldn’t breathe.
Then her very elderly mother falls ill and there is no choice but to get on a plane to be with her. To minimize the discomfort her husband buys her a ticket in first-class, and her seat is in the first row. She gets on the plane for the flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. When she settles into her seat she feels the panic welling up within her and she almost runs off the plane before they bolt the door. She decides to say a prayer. It went like this: “Please God, help me, and do it now. Right now!”
As she sat there gripping the armrests with her eyes shut tight she hears a commotion across the aisle in first class. A young man and a young woman are escorting a very old man to his seat. The old man takes his coat off and stows it away, but carefully arranges a rakish scarf around his neck. His back is toward the panicked woman, but after he sits down he turns toward her and gives her the most beautiful smile. It was George Burns. Maybe you remember the title character he played in one of his last films: Oh, God, 1977. God showed up. The woman says she’s never been afraid to fly again.
So in his little story Jesus means to give us a contrast—God is often so much more than an unjust judge—but also a comparison—sometimes God seems like an unjust judge. Dwelling beyond suns and stars, hidden by the darkness of eternity, with purposes a thousand sermons would fail to fathom, God has ways we know nothing of. Even Jesus, at Gethsemane, had to plead before the bar in what must have seemed to him a kangaroo court. Jesus knows that sometimes God is just gone.
Jesus knows what it’s like, because he’s been there where that impertinent widow has been, and he has these same questions. And the only advice Jesus can give them is this: “Trash modesty! Throw caution to the winds! Hound God night and day! Do not let God rest!” Storm the gates of heaven, roust the Judge out of bed at three in the morning. Courtesy and circumspection are overrated. Forget your manners when you pray. Not “please,” not “sir,” just “Give me justice!” Now is the time for audacity. Now is the time for impertinence and unmitigated gall. Be insolent, says Jesus.
A reporter goes to Jerusalem to cover the unrest in the Middle East. She is looking for something emotional and positive and of human interest. She pokes around a little bit and someone tells her about an old Jew who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time.
So she went to check it out. She goes to the Wailing Wall and there he is! She watches him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turns to leave, she approaches him for an interview.
“Norah O’Donnell, Sir, CBS News. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall to pray?”
“For about 50 years” he said.
“What do you pray for?”
“For peace between the Jews and the Arabs. For all the hatred to stop. For our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”
“How do you feel praying for 50 years?”
“Like I’m talking to a fricking wall.”
The world is very sad and very broken and sometimes it seems as if it is being administered by an absentee landlord or a corrupt magistrate.
I don’t know about you, but I am just reeling from the events of this week. My inner being is as riven as America herself. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to pray. What should I pray?
“God, forgive my country for slavery, America’s original sin, older than the nation itself, perpetrated for 300 years; will we have to atone for it for another 300?”
“God, help me to understand what it must be like to be a young black man in our cities where you get gunned down for a broken taillight.”
“God, help me to understand what it must be like to be a police officer, sworn to protect and defend, perpetually in harm’s way, a difficult job under the best of circumstances, now next to impossible under withering scrutiny and towering rage.”
Or maybe I should pray, “God, get me off my knees,” because prayer is an entirely inapt and inept response to our agonies. This isn’t God’s problem. God has given us everything we need for a happy, harmonious existence: a land of fecund fields and a landscape littered with precious minerals and multiple pockets of energy and a noble if checkered heritage of virtuous convictions.
So maybe my ‘prayer’, if that is what you want to call it, should be pointed not vertically at God but horizontally to my neighbor. Maybe I should exit my pampered cloister and reach across the chasms that divide to enlarge my universe of sacred obligation: to my black neighbor, or to the new arrival to our shores who doesn’t yet know the language, or to the police officer who isn’t sure how to do his job just now.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to pray. But in some of the most beautiful words in all of scripture, St. Paul tells us that God is not an unscrupulous magistrate who will grant our petitions only after we pester God interminably, but a loving father who comes out to meet us while we are yet far off.
God yearns to gather up our incoherent stuttering into something meaningful. “God’s Spirit,” says St. Paul, “helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought. But that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
The great Canadian preacher Maurice Boyd remembers that when his daughter was four years old, she used to love banging away at his old manual typewriter. She couldn’t read yet, but she used to slip a sheet of paper into the typewriter and start composing her masterpiece of random letters, and when she’d almost filled a sheet of paper, she’d roll it out of the typewriter and take it over to her father and say, “Daddy, what does it mean?”
Prayer is like that. We take our incoherent thoughts and our stuttering prayers and our comprehensive sufferings to God, and say, “Father, what does it mean?” We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
Sometimes it seems like we haven’t got a prayer. Or have we?
William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act III, sc. 1.
Mary Ann Garrett, in I Thought My Father Was God, ed. Paul Auster (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001), pp. 177-178.
Maurice Boyd, in a sermon titled “Take the Meaning,” preached at Chautauqua Institute.