A well-known cardinal of the church died and went to heaven. He arrived at the very same time as a rather rough looking New York cab driver. Each man passed through the "pearly gates" and each was assigned an appropriate place among the heavenly residences. But the cardinal got a third-floor walk-up flat near the very outskirts of heaven, while the cabbie got a beautifully furnished mansion just a short distance from the very throne of God! This really upset the cardinal. He complained to Saint Peter, the gate-keeper. "I'm a cardinal, a prince of the church. I've devoted my entire life to religion, and this is what I get! : a walk-up flat in the boondocks while this cab driver gets a palace! I deserve better!"
Saint Peter listened to him for a while and then responded quietly but firmly, "You've heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You're fortunate to have made it this far, my friend. Our policy here in heaven is to reward results, not simply good intentions. So let's talk about results, your eminence. What happened when you delivered your Sunday sermons in your church? Be honest, now!" The cardinal grudgingly admitted that the people fell asleep right there in the cathedral pews. "Exactly," responded Saint Peter. "Now on the other hand, when people rode in this man's taxi, they not only stayed awake. They prayed like hell!"
How often do you and I "pray like hell?" Just what does it mean to "pray like hell?" Look at the widow in today's Gospel story. Even in Jesus' time, widows were vulnerable to scams and often taken advantage of. This widow's rights were violated : we don't know the details : but she decided to fight back mightily, to get "justice" : even from a corrupt judge who initially couldn't be bothered and dismissed her cries for help. But this woman persisted. She had an attitude! She "kept after him," the Gospel story says, badgered him so badly that he finally gave in and granted her request. I'd say that this widow in a manner of speaking "prayed like hell," wouldn't you? Jesus then drives his point home. If a corrupt judge will do the right thing, the just thing, in the face of strong beseeching, strong praying, then how much more will our gracious and loving God, our Abba God, do the right thing when we too "pray like hell?"
Of course there's a problem here, isn't there? Sometimes we aren't really praying for justice. Sometimes we want revenge, not justice. We want power and control over others, not humility. We desire things that hurt us, not things that help us. We do work and pray like hell far too often for those very things that Jesus tells us don't matter much: physical beauty, celebrity status, money, accumulating material things, having friends in high places, a "must" win for our favorite sports team! At the same time, we don't work and "pray like hell" for the things that matter most: peace, justice, thankful and generous hearts : all essential to the kind of world Jesus taught about and lived and died for.
It's a topsy-turvy world, this world that Jesus wants for us. "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first." Yes, we ought to pray like hell as did the widow in today's Gospel. But when we do pray like hell, let's make sure it's for the right stuff! The cabbie got the message. The poor cardinal got the message, but only after he died. What about us? When will we get the message?