I’ve always felt a certain amount of ambiguity regarding petitionary prayer. There are numerous instances in the Christian Scriptures where petitionary prayer is recommended to believers. For this reason alone, it is incumbent on believers to turn to God with their needs.
Unfortunately, petitionary prayer can be too easily misunderstood. It’s very easy for petitionary prayer to degenerate into the sort of whiny, covetous complaining one hears young children direct to their parents while shopping, particularly in the aisles where candy or toys are found.
I am convinced that we should request God’s daily help in making progress in the life of faith. I am equally convinced that the substance of our requests should be more inspired by the nature of eternal life than by the nature of life in this world. The parable in today’s Gospel is an instance of Scriptural teaching on prayer than can be too easily misunderstood to apply to one’s consumer desires.
Today’s teaching on prayer, and the parable associated with it, convey Jesus’ conviction that one should pray unceasingly and with profound trust. (Lk 18:1) The parable uses the unusual example of a corrupt judge who considers himself too busy to address the needs of an inconsequential member of society. Luke’s Gospel contains several parables that use examples of self-serving behavior to teach about the life of faith. Last month, for example, we read the parable of the dishonest steward. (Lk 16:1-13) The Gospel was not suggesting that we imitate the dishonesty of the untrustworthy manager but rather, that we use the opportunities that come our way to bring honor to God. Today’s parable is similar to the one about the untrustworthy manager insofar as it does not recommend that we imitate the judge’s callousness but rather, that we imitate the widow’s hope that God protects the powerless.
Jesus draws our attention to the widow’s hopeful expectations by saying, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:6-8) We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that this teaching about prayer is encouragement to ask for material goods or social power.
Today’s teaching about prayer is a reiteration and amplification of Jesus’ teaching about prayer that follows the Our Father in Luke’s Gospel. After responding to his disciples request for instruction about prayer, Jesus asked rhetorically, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:11-13)
The Our Father and its related teaching are strictly eschatological, that is, end-of-the-age references. The several so-called “petitions” in the Our Father are references to the Last Day, Jesus’ return in glory, and the Resurrection of the Just. When Jesus instructed his disciples to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” he was referring to the perfection and completion of God’s will to redeem the universe. The remainder of the Our Father addresses this same theme.
Today’s Gospel reading does not contain as many eschatological references as we see in the teaching associated with the Our Father, but it is very clearly eschatological in nature. The theme of justice, for example, that is the center of the story line of the parable is a reference to final judgment and Divine recompense for the faithful. In order that there might be no mistake, the Gospel author concludes this teaching with a direct reference to the Last Day when Jesus poses the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8) This teaching about prayer is oriented toward, and inspired by, the hope of resurrection when Jesus returns in glory.
There are some obvious reasons for using petitionary prayer to request Divine intervention for our material needs. There will remain, however, two compelling reasons for being suspicious of such prayer. First, the kinds of material goods that are often the substance of petitionary prayer are the same kinds of material goods we can obtain by our own efforts. The world presents opportunities for us to obtain money, fame, success, and the like; for these material needs and desires, we need look no further than the opportunities that come our way today. Second, it should be very clear to us that even the most valuable material goods are only temporary. If you’ve forgotten this lesson, take a moment to look at the photos in the media of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian.
For reasons such as these above, I suggest that the primary goal of petitionary prayer is to obtain what we cannot achieve without God’s help, that is, our eternal salvation. The hope that inspired the widow in the parable to pursue justice for herself is not the sort of hope that one can find in material wealth; it is, rather, the sort of hope that only God can provide.
The forgiveness of sins, and an eternity of peace with God, are gifts that are not given by the physical universe; they are gifts that only God can bestow. For this reason, Jesus’ teaching on prayer is built around references to his return in glory and the Day of Resurrection. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? I think he will find faith on earth – in the hearts of those whose hope is in God alone.