Pray to be heard or to hear?

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Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

Then he  told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  [Or so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face] 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Pray to be heard or to hear?
   or...  Why pray always?

God is not the judge. God is not like the judge. The judge neither fears God nor has respect for people. The parable contrasts God with the judge. "God is the one who grants justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night... he will quickly grant justice to them..."

The problem for someone reading this, unless they live in the same comfortable and insulated suburb as the judge, is that it does not appear to be true. For a First Nations person in Australia it might seem that there have been over two centuries of injustice, where although the massacres of up into the 1920's have been muted, they live on through deaths in custody, racial profiling, and entrenched disadvantage and discrimination; there are still places where "fucking abo's" is said with neither racist consciousness nor social censure.

We don’t take seriously the fact that although Luke and Jesus contrast God with the judge, there has never been a quick granting of justice to the elect of God. We live in denial of this, and it makes our faith ridiculous, unless we address it. We are not talking about selfish prayer— Lord, won't you give me a Mercedes Benz— which is unworthy of an answer. We are talking of a world where even the suffering  my congregants have witnessed to me has been stomach turning, leave alone the interminable Auschwitz and razor wire which defines our society. (I have spent time reflecting on this expression, and have decided to persist with it; Auschwitz is not the exception, it is the industrialised and organised and refined expression of our commonplace violence.) If there have been occasions where I have apologised to a congregant and walked around the room for a few moments to collect myself, then how much more should I walk away from God, and perhaps without apology. Unless there is some other way of seeing things.

Unless God cannot 'fix' the problem. Unless God would be a self-contradiction if God 'solved' the problem with the rapidity and coercion we desire.  Unless God would be the violence that is us if God forced us to behave well.  James Alison makes the point here:

traditionally we refer to spirits possessing people, and there is, in the word “possess”, a note of violence concerning the relationship between the spirit and the person possessed. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we refer to the Spirit indwelling, or inhabiting the person, words without any connotation of violence. However, please notice that the human mechanism of being moved is the same in both cases. What is different is the quality of the “other” that is doing the moving. (James Alison Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay Nine, Section 2)

True love teaches, persuades, builds up, and draws on; it does not enforce or coerce because coercion has violence at its root. God's omnipotence is not rooted in the ability to coerce. God's omnipotence  is an implacable love which will out-wait our foolishness— as with the father and the two sons of  Luke 15:11ff — will eternally forgive us, and faithfully teach us and enable us to live so that we become well, as Jesus puts it in Luke 17:19.  What this implies is that the judge does not have real power. The judge is formed in violence, his power is corrupt, and all coercive power is a corruption. It seeks to make the one wielding it one of the gods, whereas the God who is above and beyond and nothing like all the small gods, knows that true power enables, persuades, heals, teaches and draws on. True power is love.

God doesn't "lord over" the world. The power of God works in the opposite direction, from the bottom-up. God's power is the power of the cross, the power of weakness and powerlessness, the power of loving servanthood and self-giving... Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. Key those words, "the only way." In this view there is no other power but powerlessness. No other form of control than weakness. And this is the only way. There is no Big Stick, no Big Power Switch sitting in reserve. The weakness of the cross is the only way God rules the world. The. Only. Way.  (Richard Beck)

What happens if we read the parable this week from this perspective?

Mark D Davis wonders about a reversal of roles: perhaps in the original story God is the widow who faithfully persists in petitioning the unjust judge which is us, and our structures. He wonders if Luke simply could not "wrap his head around" this apparent weakness of God and misunderstood what the parable implies.  I think this is not correct. For the story implies that the judge (us) acquiesces rather than being healed or converted. The judge is not made well as in Luke 17:19, but merely gives in, in this case, for the sake of a quiet life.

I find something much more powerful in James Alison's Jesus the Forgiving Victim. (Henceforth: JFV)

The problem with Alison's work is that it almost sits in another paradigm. From the perspective of some traditional faith expressions it can seem he is saying that Luke, if not Jesus, is a Girardian theorist. But he is speaking from a radically different perspective to our popular understanding of ourselves as independent beings.  And from that perspective— I am being reshaped by it— many New Testament stories look quite different.  Alison would never say Jesus understood Girard, but he claims that Jesus had a different "intelligence"; he understood himself, and us, with a depth that others have also recognised but which Girard has described in more formal and systematic terms.

I struggle intellectually to grasp some areas of Girard's description of us, but I am shocked by the way he and Alison describe me; I have been seen.

I am not an independent self-directing 'I.' It is a given in Alison's thought that “we desire according to the desire of the other.” He says

it is not the "I" that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the "I". The "I" [— me] is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships which pre-exist it and one of whose symptoms it is." (JFV 9:1)

This is a great reversal of our usual self-understanding. It is almost a paradigm shift; that is, something which takes a crisis for us to begin to see, and which will remain incomprehensible without that precipitating crisis. It threatens the root of our self-understanding as independent beings. And that's the point. We are not independent beings. We depend upon, and are formed in,   God. Or we depend upon and are formed in and by the culture in which we live. Alison hammers this home:

there is no alternative to being run by the regard of another. It is not the case that we can strip off the false selves given us by the social other, and that there, underneath it all, radiantly, will be our true self, untrammelled by the social other.

No, we always receive ourselves through the eye of another. The really hard matter of prayer is learning to receive ourselves through the eye of Another other. For what on earth is it like to be looked at by Another other? What does that “regard” tell us of who we are, and who we are becoming? (JFV 9:6)

It occurs to me before we go on that if we remember the scandal of the Romanian orphans under Ceauşescu's regime we see that the lack of the regard of another damages us. We do not form properly.

Here is what he is describing:   Our deep biologically selected instinct is to stay alive. Fear of death drives us to alliances of safety in a violent world. I was formed in my learning to desire the desires of my parents who had the power of life or death in my earliest consciousness; grasping at them I began to learn who "I" should be.  And I was formed according to the desires of teachers who could grant me a pass, or fail me, and who could protect me at school, or abandon me. I became... by imitating all of those people.

In Year 10 life began to come together. It was as though I stepped into a startling freedom from the alienation and bullying which had controlled me until then. And at the end of the year, I tried to describe to the teacher I recognised had somehow enlivened me, the grief I felt to learn that he was going to another school. As we stood under the white cedars waiting for the closing assembly— I was almost in tears— he said, "You will be alright. You are not like some of these kids"— he indicated a bunch of boys bickering for control of their group. In that moment I knew I was regarded well.  I had the regard of someone who looked upon me with favour. He was like a god to me; he was giving me life. I wanted what he wanted. As a year, it had been life giving, but that moment was the most life giving moment of all.

What Alison is saying is that as humans we cannot be... without the regard of another. We are contingent, created beings, and we will either be as someone who desires according to the regard of God, or we will be constituted and formed and driven by the demands of some other person or group. 

A social group has power over us because we know, deeply and instinctively, that without it we are nothing— we have no being. Without the regard and the defence and protection of an other— preferably of a group other— we are alone, vulnerable, and the obvious scapegoat when things go wrong. We may never have heard the word "scapegoat," let alone learned the theory of the scapegoat, but we know what it is because our culture is formed through the violence which maintains a certain order via the scapegoat.

Where does prayer fit in all this? Even if we say the judge is not God, prayer for things, even prayer for justice, too often implies that God needs to be badgered. God needs somehow to be convinced. God needs us to show we are serious. However I look at it, there is not a God who creates and gives that which is good, but one who inevitably ends up sounding like "If you pray..."  What kind of father would I have had if I needed to say each day, "Please give me food?" But my parents would get up every day and put the porridge on and slice bread for the toast; they never needed to be asked.

At worst, prayer becomes something by which we, formed by the social other, seek to manipulate God into giving things desired by the social other! I find it helpful to be confronted occasionally by a particularly sharp description of this dynamic by Alison:

God, or the gods, are a sort of celestial Las Vegas slot machine, full of amazing bounty, but inclined to be retentive. So prayer is the art of conjuring this capricious divinity, by exactly the right phrases, repeated exactly the right number of times, into parting with some of its treasure. As if the priest were a particularly expert puller of the slot-machine handle, one who could ensure that three lemons, or five bars, line up and so manipulate the divinity into disgorging its riches.

What this presupposes is a pattern of desire where we are subjects who are in control, and God is an object who must be manipulated...

He goes on to say

What Jesus is teaching is exactly the reverse of this. In Jesus’ picture it is God who is the subject, who has a desire, an intention, a longing, and who knows who we are and what is good for us; and we who are capricious and somewhat inert slot machines who are always getting our handles pulled by the wrong players. In this picture it is precisely because our Father knows what we need before we ask him that we must learn to pray: our Father’s only access to us, the only way he can get to our slot-machine handle, is by our asking him into our pattern of desire. (JFV 9:7)

In other words the heart of prayer is learning to see that God has regard for us. Prayer is about desire, learning to desire well, and learning to desire wellness— Luke 17:19, again. Prayer seeks justice and transformation through, first of all, the transformation of ourselves into just beings, who are just because we are formed by the desires of God for us.

In this image, the judge of the parable is an almost immovable "concrete block" which is laid down in me by the social other and which blocks my desire. "In fact, as part of our socialization we acquire a voice or set of voices which seem to be completely impervious to anything." (Alison FGV 9:5)

I understand this most clearly from a 'thunderstruck moment' a few months ago as I was talking with a friend about my reticence around dance, and suddenly remembered something:  As a teenager— I suspect it was in Year Ten, I happened to see a modern dance concert on TV. I was a farm boy; I understood the mechanics of sex, so I understood that the dance was making some fairly explicit sexual references, although I had no real erotic awareness at the time. It was dance itself which was being transformed from the excruciating embarrassment of high school social nights, which my parents insisted I attend, into something much deeper. In that movement there was freedom and power. There was disciplined abandonment to the deep reality around us.

I called my Mum into the TV with some excitement, and at that moment she saw only the sex, and said gently but firmly, that this was making something public which ought to be kept and hallowed between two people who loved each other.  And in that moment of my mother's regard, for she truly loved me, and I desired her love, I shifted my desire to what she desired, and closed my heart to the deep reality which had spoken to me, and to the God who wished me to desire freedom and abandonment in God's love and creation.  And to this day I cannot dance. At my son's wedding a week ago, I marvelled and rejoiced at the abandonment of the folk who danced. I stood at the rear of the room, bouncing a bit to the music, but could not join the dance.

The thing about the regard of another is that it makes life, and being, 'effortless.' In the regard of my new teacher in Year Ten, my pained and repressed life blossomed into effortless joy by comparison. And my mother's regard and desire meant I shut my heart to dance and to an avenue into God's love with no effort at all, aware for decades that dance disturbed me, but blind as to why.

And that is just one judge, one voice, sitting in my head, impervious to reason and justice and love.

In the sections of Jesus the Forgiving Victim which I am expounding, Alison also works with the notion of praying in secret. 

 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)

The room in that text is the ταμει̑ον

the room, in an ancient Middle Eastern house, which was totally enclosed inside a building, with no windows. The purpose of such a space in a culture which had neither central heating nor refrigeration was to ensure that perishable food stored in it would be less susceptible to extremes of either cold or heat. It also meant that once you had shut the door from the inside, you could neither see out, nor be seen. (FGV 9:3)

Praying in secret causes a "dislocation." It removes 'me' from the social other which is teaching me to desire, and whose regard and its desires 'I' covet in order to be safe and to know who 'I' am. Indeed, the isolation of praying in secret allows me a distance from the impervious blockage within me, and perhaps even a way around it.

This is because isolation discombobulates us. We lose track of who we are supposed to be.  I think faith; that is, trust in Jesus, is to trust that when we pray in secret, when we let ourselves be discombobulated by isolation, we will hear what Alison calls "Another other," God, who will teach us a new desire.

An aside: I wonder how much our endless screen time and socialisation is not so much that it helps us deny the pain of life, as that it keeps reminding us of who 'we' are.  It keeps us in the loop of being socialised and formed. Without it, we are not sure who 'we' are; we begin to lose track of who we are.

I learned to desire solitude from my father, who was a traveller. He was never happier, I think, than when he was walking the farm or on a long car trip.  So I was well suited to the solitude of cycling.  I note that when I came back to cycling as an older man (no more need to transport children etc) my spiritual life blossomed. I spent hours each week in solitary commutes along the creeks and empty back streets away from the highways which direct us and form us. Isolated away from the noise, I was discombobulated, and recognised very quickly that I was able to see life quite differently. I was being reformed, and re-socialised even before I became conscious of it.

Prayer is to be like the powerless widow who persistently articulates her desires in the face of the judges of socialisation, the "impervious... voices" which tell us to be silent and to be whom they desire us to be. Prayer is to be like God, persistent and implacable in our voicing of desire, in our small voice which society seeks to drown out, so that we may learn to discern the God who has regard for us. And if we isolate ourselves for prayer, we can begin to hear ourselves— and God— above all the other noise.

Alison uses the image of the small boy who prays for chocolate pudding tomorrow and is told by the voices— his parents— that this is an unworthy prayer; "a smelly little desire." (JFV 9:4)

It would appear that “Your Father who sees in secret” doesn’t despise our smelly little desires, and in fact, suggests that if only we can hold on to them, and insist on articulating them, that we will actually find for ourselves, over time, that we want more than those desires, but we really do want something with a passion. In other words, he takes us seriously in our weakness and unimportance, even when we don’t. If we learn to give some voice to those desires, then there’s a chance over time that we may move through them organically until we find ourselves the sort of humungous desirers who throw ourselves into peace work in the Middle East, or into famine relief in Bangladesh, or even into being the sort of missionary for whom the Holy Father wants people to pray in May. But we’ll be doing so because we, who start from not really knowing what we want, by not despising our little desires, and learning to articulate them, have discovered from within that this is what we really want. And in our wanting will be who we come to be.

This is where the slow creation of justice occurs. Not because God does not care, but because we are slow to learn, in a world chock full of noise which wants to teach us something else— coerce us into something else, and slow because God is care-full to love us into being rather than forcing us, which would be an injustice. And it leaves us with the constant question of theodicy: what kind of God makes a world like this? To which I can only find one unsatisfactory answer: this is the only kind of world there can be if there are to be loved and free human beings.

I quoted Alison at some length above the previous paragraph because I sense that he answers the pain and disenchantment and loss of energy which the issue of theodicy and suffering raises for me. It is as I have learned to desire non-retributive, un-coerced justice, and as I have learned to desire the enabling of all people (even at the cost of my privilege, and even for the people who do me injustice) that I have regained energy and hope and joy in living.

Praying always and not losing heart, which is where the text begins, allows us to be reformed and healed and made well. My strong sense is that this is something given; it is not 'me' who does it. I discover 'me.' I am formed. I am no longer, as Alison says a "symptom" of pre-existing forces. (JFV 9:1) I am the apple of God's eye, the one Being who does not need me for his own survival or safety, but who simply loves me. And, slowly, this is not merely words, nor whistling in the dark of my existential fears, but becoming an experienced reality.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 18:1-8 - The Cost and Consolations of Hope (2010)
Luke 18:1-8 - Knocking on Heaven's Door (2013)






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