Having recently celebrated over thirty years of marriage, I can finally say that I have learned a couple of things. (And, I received confirmation of this fact from my wife.) First, when Stacy says that she doesn’t want dessert, what she really means is that she doesn’t want dessert at that exact moment. Instead, after I have artistically eaten 90% of my chocolate-laden treat, leaving a final, perfectly balanced bite, she is permitted to lay claim to the remainder of my dessert. You can verify this with my children. She has the same power of imminent domain over the final bites of their desserts as well.
Second, I have discovered the true meaning of the “Mother’s Maybe.” Used by mothers across the generations, this seemingly neutral response cleverly provides a child with the subtle hope that the “maybe” can be transformed into a “yes.” Furthermore, a child knows that the only way for this magical transformation to occur is to not upset the fragile armistice of the “maybe” by bugging, pestering or otherwise annoying mom. Kids have this innate sense to know when aggressively pushing the “maybe” will only result in a definite “no.” Herein lies the brilliance of the “Mother’s Maybe.” For example, if the kids want to stop for ice cream on the way home from practice and mom has already decided against their proposal, employing the “Mother’s Maybe” will provide a peaceful, leisurely drive, while allowing their short attention span to work its magic. “Maybe” quietly becomes “no” due to a lack of interest. In case you were wondering, there’s a “Wife’s Maybe” as well. And, in my experience, it is even more effective.
Sometimes, I wonder if God employs a similar approach to the “Mother’s Maybe.” Instead of a clear “no,” does God simply wait for us to stop asking? When met with a prolonged silence, should we assume that the answer is “no,” or “not now?” Or, does God take a less manipulative approach? Are we the ones who are missing God’s answer? After all, we have seen that the foundation of prayer is not based on the nature of our requests to God, but the necessity of our relationship with God.
I believe that Jesus addresses the question of the “Mother’s Maybe” in a collection of parables designed to take us beyond our desire for simplistic answers. We start with the story of a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” (Luke 18:2) This is probably a statement that you want to avoid placing on an election campaign poster. Apparently, the judge in this story does not care about God or the laws he is supposed to uphold. Living in the same city, there was a widow who repeatedly sought justice from this unfit judge. As a widow in the first century, she lacked power, leverage or influence. On the one hand, we have a judge with the power to interpret justice in whatever capricious manner he sees fit. On the other hand, we have a widow, with few, if any, rights or status.
David, meet Goliath.
Despite her powerless circumstances, should our widow expect justice? Absolutely. Israel was founded upon the principles of justice and righteousness based on God’s instructions. In fact, God’s Law demanded that there were special protections made for the outcast and the widow. Widows, orphans, the poor and the oppressed mattered deeply to God.
But this judge was guided by a different moral compass. What mattered to God did not matter to him. So just where was north located on the judge’s moral compass?
“For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” (Luke 18:4–5)
This judge is not going to help the widow because it is the right thing to do. He still doesn’t respect God, and he definitely doesn’t respect her. So what changed? Why does he decide to give her justice?
“so that she may not wear me out…”
She is being persistent. So we just assume that the judge is growing tired of her persistence. But growing tired is not really what “wear me out” means, at least not completely. In the Greek text, this phrase is more akin to the Southern version of “wear him out.” This Greek phrase means to “strike under the eye.” The powerful judge is worried that this lowly, powerless widow will give him a black eye in the public eye.
This might come as a surprise to a 21st century American, but what ultimately motivates this judge? The polling data. Even though he doesn’t respect individuals, he does care what the public thinks. Perhaps he is concerned about his legacy. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to look bad in the press, or to be shamed by his peers. Either way, justice does not motivate the judge, selfishness does. He is only responding to her because it keeps him from looking bad.
So, what is Jesus’ point with this story? I can understand seeing ourselves in the same position as the powerless widow when compared to the power of the Creator of the Universe. That would make sense. But, does that also mean that Jesus is comparing God to the judge in this story? Why would He draw a parallel between God and an unjust judge? That doesn’t seem to fit.
There is a similar parable in Luke 11. Just after Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells the story of a man whose friend had come to visit him in the middle of the night. For the sake of this story, let’s call him, Tom. Tom’s pantry is bare, and the all-night grocery stores are still two millennia away from being invented. So, Tom runs to his neighbor to ask for food for his guest. In this period, hospitality was not just a matter of convenience or kindness. In many cases, showing hospitality was a matter of survival. If you were unwilling to offer hospitality for a guest, you were not only a poor host, but you also faced public shame and a black eye among your neighbors.
Arriving at his neighbor’s house, Tom pounded on the door and shouted, “I have a guest who just arrived and I have nothing to eat at my place. I need your help!” Roused from his sleep, the justifiably grumpy neighbor replied, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” (Luke 11:7) His refusal seems reasonable. It is late, everyone is in bed and, to be honest, Tom should have been better prepared. But, this is not how Jesus ends the story…
I say to you, even if he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, because of the prospect of him being shamed, he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Luke 11:8)
So Tom’s neighbor will not help his friend simply because he is his friend. Instead, he will help because his friend he doesn’t want to be shamed. That doesn’t sound very friendly or hospitable. Instead, the cranky neighbor sounds a lot like the unjust judge.
Now, neither of these stories paints God in a very favorable light. In the first story, God is a self-centered judge who only reacts to the most recent polling data. And, in this story, God would prefer to stay in bed, rather than help a neighbor in need. In both cases, the judge and the cranky neighbor are shamed into doing what is right. They are more concerned about how they will look to others than actually helping. Is Jesus inspiring us to annoy God until our prayers are answered? Are we to take an opposite approach to the “Mother’s Maybe?”
Let’s go back to the story of the unjust judge. After telling the story, Jesus tells those gathered:
“Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. (Luke 18:4-7)
Jesus is telling us that if a self-absorbed judge will grant justice to protect his legacy and popularity, and a cranky neighbor will finally get out of bed to avoid being shamed, then how much more will God - who actually wants to hear from you - answer. When you ask, seek and knock, how much more will God listen, respond and provide. God is the polar opposite of the cranky neighbor and the unjust judge!
So, what is Jesus ultimately getting at with these parables? Look at how Jesus ends this story.
And yet…. (Luke 18:8)
Despite the fact that God:
will “grant justice to his chosen ones…”
will not “delay long in helping.”
will “grant justice quickly…”
God still wants to hear from us. God has promised to listen to us. And yet….
And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
Faith and prayer. These are not unrelated concepts. Faith is not a mental ascent to a statement of beliefs. Faith is not simply adherence to a tradition. Instead, Jesus is asking if He will find people who are willing to trust God enough to ask the important questions, seek trustworthy answers and knock on God’s door for help. Prayer is not a ritual, requirement or routine. Prayer is founded upon a real relationship and based on faith. Prayer should be our first option, not where we turn when faced with a lack of options.
These parables are not about God, they are about us. They are about our willingness to trust God. If even an unjust judge will grant justice out of purely selfish reasons when persistently asked…
If a cranky neighbor will get out of bed to stop a neighbor from persistently knocking…
Then why would we hold back when it comes to trusting God, who has bankrupt heaven, to have a relationship with us? Why would we hide who we really are when God already knows everything about us… and still wants to have a relationship with us? The simple answer is we shouldn’t.
Will Jesus find faith on the earth when He returns? I don’t know. But, I pray…that he finds it in me.