A priest was at a boxing match. At the introduction of the contestants, one of the boxers approached the ring wearing a rosary bead round his neck. As the gong sounded to start the contest, the ‘devout’ boxer added a triple sign of the cross. Seeing this boxer’s manifest devotion, the man sitting next to the priest turns to him and asks: “Father, will that help him?” “Yes,” replies the cleric, “if he can box” (James Gilhooley). Now, that’s the true nature of prayer.
Jesus is teaching us about prayer in the famous story we heard today. A judge who would always get swayed by bribes and favoritism was coerced to pass a just sentence with no bribes. And this, by a widow who simply was a relentless pest. Lacking the socio-economic clout to influence the judge, she decided to pick her battle, telling herself: “I’ll hound him non-stop until he sees the need to deliver justice.” I like a little stubbornness in people; it can be fun and exciting. The cold, insipid, complaining, persecution-complex types are just not fun. This lady could have chosen to cry, “why me, why me? ...misfortune, misfortune,” but chose not to drawn in self-pity. She rather prayed, “why not?”
You’ve probably received those annoying phone calls where the marketer at the other line pesters you to buy a product, switch your cable network, internet or phone service. Years ago, when I was chaplain at the Newman Center of the University of Tulsa, I was about leaving my house for an engagement at TU when the phone rang. At the rectory in Sapulpa where I lived then, the phone will always announce a caller’s name. If it says, “Caller Unknown” or “1800-number,” I would ignore the call. But that day, the name announced by the machine was Ben S. I said to myself, this could be a parishioner calling for sick-visit. Do you know what? The lady who called kept me on the phone for the next 10 minutes pestering me any way she could to buy health insurance. I didn’t hang up on her because I was taught that it’s rude to do so. All she succeeded in doing was keep me late for my appointment.
Now, let’s look at this parable. What’s Jesus telling us? Is he suggesting that if we honestly need something from God, we’ve got to hound Him until we wear Him down? Or conversely, we just send a tweet or an iMessage to God and expect our request by same day FedEx? Either way, it wouldn’t seem like we’re communicating with the One who is All-knowing, All-loving, All-good and All-powerful. Like everything though, prayer has certain ground-rules.
First is our faith. We have to believe in the power of God to grant our prayer, and not program ourselves for a plan-B should He, by our reckoning, delay. James Tahaney once said, “It isn’t our prayer that God hears but our confidence.” Second is what we bring with prayer. We’ve got to use our own hands and feet and intelligence to give God a helping hand. Thus, one who prays for a good job would have to search for it, send applications and resumes, pray, and then wait. Sr. Ruth Fox was right that, “if we’re praying to move the proverbial mountain spoken of in Mtt 17:20, we’ve got to remember to also bring a shovel.” The boxer opening this reflection can hardly expect God’s help if he hasn’t trained well and maintained a good physical shape. Third is our expectation. Let’s face it: we shouldn’t expect to receive everything for which we pray. Nothing in life works that way. For example, the lady who called me to buy insurance would never in a millennium have got a positive answer from me. If she knew I was a priest and that priests are on a group insurance, she would have spent her 15 minutes more profitably. So, if I can reasonably turn down another’s request, why can’t God do the same to me? God indeed answers every prayer, but sometimes He’s going to say no. That’s why Jesus taught us to say, “Thy will be done.” Finally, after doing all we can and have to, we must, like Moses, keep our hands lifted up in prayer, supported by the Church (signified by the rock on which Moses sat and Aaron and Hur steadying his hands on either side) in steady combat of prayer and praise.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo