‘Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart.” Luke’s parable of the widow whose pestering finally won her a hearing from the reluctant judge does not, at first sight, seem to promote a particularly mature understanding of prayer. We are not, after all, children completely centred on our own needs. Neither would we wish to understand God as so remote from our lives that nothing short of tedious repetition will attract his involvement.
As the parable unfolds, it does, in fact, distance itself from this model of prayer. The whole point becomes: if the widow’s constant prayer won the hearing of an indifferent judge, how much more will the prayers of the faithful unite us with a loving Father?
The fundamental question is not so much the manner in which we pray, since we all pray differently. The purpose of the parable is to invite us to pray continually and never lose heart. But what can this “praying without ceasing” possibly mean? We cannot all live a life of contemplative prayer. There is much to do, and, in most lives and families, all too little time in which to do it.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel prayer was seen as the foundation of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is frequently described as passing the night in prayer, and especially preceding the most significant moments in his ministry: immediately before his baptism, as a preparation for choosing the 12 Apostles, and not least in the Garden of Gethsemane. Such prayer was a conscious communion with the will of his Father, thereby ensuring that what followed expressed Father and Son in perfect unity. Such prayer expressed the fundamental need of his humanity not to stand alone, but to be united with the Father and draw life
Prayer for us, as for Jesus, is at the heart of our relationship with the Father. Life teaches us that any worthwhile relationships can never be taken for granted. Such relationships are sustained only by a generous attentiveness to the other. In our relationship with God such attentiveness is prayer, an openness that is centred on God, rather than our own preoccupations. Many human relationships wither when daily demands overwhelm our availability to others. We can presume that we know and are known by God, and yet, in terms of prayer, the time surrendered to him, we have become strangers in his presence.
This surely underlines what Jesus meant when he exhorted his disciples to “pray continually”. In the life of Jesus there was both prayer and action, and the balance between the two brought them into perfect harmony. Jesus, sharing our humanity, made the time both to experience and draw strength from his communion with the Father. Therefore all that followed, consciously and unconsciously, became an expression of his prayer, his communion with the Father.
The strange narrative of Moses extending his staff in prayer and blessing over the Israelites, who
had come under attack from the Amalekites, carries the same important message. It was not a simple choice between prayer and responding to the immediate threat. With the simplicity of an ancient narrative both are essential: the prayer represented by the raised arms of Moses and the struggles of Joshua on the battlefield.
We are unlikely to find ourselves on a battlefield, but, in life’s many struggles, we are tempted to neglect prayer for action. When this is carried to extremes we could well find, when the action is over, that what we fought for has died within us. Could it be that Jesus intended his instruction “pray without ceasing” as a safeguard from this danger in our own relationship with him and with God his Father?