Text: Luke 11:1-13; Luke 18:1-14; John 14:13; 15:7; 16:23; Acts 2:1-21
For many if not most twenty-first century Christians, prayer is magic. “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am; and whatever you ask in my name, I will do for you” (John 14:13, 15:7, 16:23). Along with the magic goes persistence, as described in Luke’s story of the widow and the exasperated Judge (Luke 11:1-13), and in the story of the neighbor who pounds on the door in the middle of the night demanding help (Luke 18:1-14). Traditional Christianity affirms that with God all things are possible if we pray in the name of Jesus; but progressive, twenty-first century followers of Jesus’s Way who embrace the reality of twenty-first century cosmology know there is no God out there or up there who will intervene to overthrow the laws of the physical universe no matter to whom we pray (St. Anthony, Pope John 23) or in whose name. But suppose that the heart of the Gospel of John (chapters 14-16) is an illustration of John Dominic Crossan’s definition of a kenotic God – whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death. When living in the absence of justice is a living death, as has been and continues to be so, prayer becomes the purposeful alignment of individual mind and spirit with the forces of justice and life.
Jesus’s promise can be reclaimed for twenty-first century minds by revisiting the Prologue.
In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom. The divine word and wisdom was there with God, and it was what God was. . . . The Law was given through Moses; mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One. No one has ever seen God; the only son, close to the Father’s heart – he has disclosed (it).
God is defined as “divine word and wisdom,” revealed to everyone in the life and teachings of Jesus. John says, echoing the apostle Paul, “the Law was given through Moses; mercy and truth came through the Anointed One.” So the very nature of God is seen to be not the easy justice of retribution and pay-back, codified in human law. Instead, God’s “grace” (“charis” in the original Greek) comes through the life and teachings of Jesus. Charis can be translated as “grace” or “mercy.” The problem is that both words have been cheapened, reduced to “feeling sorry for” someone or allowing someone to “get away with murder.” What is far more difficult is to realize that God’s justice is distributive, and includes mercy as compassion, and brings with it a transformation of thought. Justice-compassion (mercy, charis) is the work of establishing or restoring God’s radical fairness: water into wine.
John’s Jesus possessed within himself the confidence in the nature of God as distributive justice-compassion that eliminated any anxiety about death, whether physical or metaphorical. The judgment that is expressed regarding those who do not believe that to encounter Jesus was to encounter God is simply the statement of a fact of life: Those who do not love one another, who hate others, and do not live in distributive justice-compassion will suffer the consequences. They will not experience the peace that Jesus says he will leave behind. “What I give you is not a worldly gift,” he says. The world with its systems of injustice and greed is not interested in creating systems of justice and sharing. To create such a world requires a radical abandonment of self-interest that few are willing to attempt.
In Luke 11, the writer tries to demonstrate how God answers the prayers of the righteous. But the historical Jesus was actually talking about three very different conditions or ideas: God’s imperial rule (as opposed to Rome’s); hospitality; and trust. In the “Lord’s prayer” (also found in Matthew 6:9-15), Jesus probably said only the first two lines: “Abba-Father, may your name be revered. Impose your imperial rule.” Luke’s Jesus likely did tell the story about the friend demanding assistance in the middle of the night, but it’s about hospitality, not how God answers persistent prayer. The Complete Gospels translation has Luke’s Jesus say, “I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet you will get up and give the other whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to.” God’s answer to persistent prayer has nothing to do with it. The point that Luke misses is people acting with distributive justice-compassion from the essential hospitality that assured that life could be lived in such stark times. Luke’s Jesus probably did also tell his followers “Rest assured: everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, and for the one who knocks it is opened.” But again it’s not about petitionary prayer to an interventionist God. It’s about trust in living out the ongoing work of restoring God’s distributive justice-compassion. Jesus likely said it to reassure those who went out as he did into itinerant ministry.
In chapter 18:1-14, Luke’s angry Jesus berates the community that doubts whether God will deliver justice comparable to the Empire, where judgment is awarded to the one who is most politically persistent. Jesus’s words are a bitter joke that is totally misconstrued by the gospel writer. Luke forces the parable to be an illustration of faith (belief) that God will answer prayer. But Jesus is actually talking about the corrupt Roman judges who rewarded judgment to those who screamed the loudest and threatened their reputations the most. If Jesus were to tell the joke today, it might be about the U.S. criminal “justice” system, which blames black people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then acquits their vigilante killers; and treats racist taunting by white children as “pranks,” barely deserving a reprimand, but tries as adults for attempted murder the outraged black children who retaliate.
In their commentary the Jesus Seminar scholars write, “[The corrupt Judge] decides in [the widow’s] favor to be rid of her. He wants to avoid being harassed, perhaps to avoid having his honor or reputation beaten black-and-blue (such is the implication of the Greek term used here) by her continual coming to demand vindication.” It is not the nature of the “kingdom of God” that our wishes will eventually be granted if we persist in our petitions. That is the expectation of the citizens of Empire, which demands loyalty and piety not integrity, and retribution not distributive justice.
When prayers in Jesus’s name go unanswered, and when unrelenting “knocking on heaven’s door” produces no result – even when bargains are offered (“I’ll stop smoking”) – instead of confronting the possibility that God is not going to intervene, the failure is treated as a “test of faith” that “God has a better plan for me.” But the transformation of human thought is far more powerful than petitions to a discredited god. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, first given by John’s Jesus, descends in tongues of flames on the Christian community gathered in Jerusalem. They are empowered to tell the story of Jesus in every language of the known world. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Paul proclaims, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The imagery of fire represents the outpouring of the presence of sacred being and of creative power. No magic is required.
1. Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. HarperCollins, 2004, 288 ff.
2. Miller, Robert J., ed., The Complete Gospels,4th Edition. Polebridge Press, 2010, 209.
3. Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 368.