Jesus taught many lesson by using parables. The Gospel reading for this Sunday, a parable, contains three very short sections: an introduction to the parable, the parable, and a concluding short comment. This parable points to some truths beyond the events in the story. Sometimes this teaching is called“The Parable of the Widow’s Persistence.” It is unique to Luke and is part of a longer section on prayer. Although the section begins as a parable about prayer and not losing heart, it broadens to also become a teaching about justice. It ends with a question.
The technique used by the widow to get what she wants reminds me of a technique used by my cat, Molly. Molly asks, and asks, and asks until she wears me down. She (the widow or Molly) is often granted what she wants “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
Both Molly and the widow were in very vulnerable positions. Molly was dumped in Central Park in Pasadena. She came to me through the Humane Society. The widow had been dumped on society for all her needs of justice and support. We don’t know about her origins.
In Jesus’ time widows were in a very difficult position. A widow was entirely dependent on others. When a woman lost her husband, she lost her source of income, protection, and shelter. If she had no other family, she became homeless. She had no voice in the workings or decisions of society. We don’t know the nature of this particular widow’s complaint or need, but because of it, she was driven to seek relief and help. She went to a judge.
Verse two introduces us to a person who was not fit to be a judge. He didn't fear God nor did he have any respect for fellow human beings. His description is repeated in verse four, emphasizing his unfitness for the task.
The judge seemed to make his own rules and administer them in ways that suited his own needs. Even though he held a position that required wisdom, he did not seem to use it. The unjust judge gave in to the woman’s pleas because of her persistence – just to get her off his back. A judge functioned as the final arbiter of a situation. There was no jury, no court of appeal. The judge in the parable was a law unto himself and had no sense of accountability to persons or to God.
We know that this particular judge was not very respectable. We are told that he “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” It appears the judge was more worried about what people thought of him than about matters of real justice. Not even a deserving widow was likely to get a good hearing from this judge. The judge ultimately made his decision in favor of this widow to stop the widow from being a bother to him. The judge depended on maintaining some sort of reputation in order to continue being a judge. A possible translation of what the judge feared was that the woman was “giving me a black eye" or was about to damage his reputation.
Ultimately this parable is not about courtrooms and judges and poor widows. It unfolds to be about persistence in prayer and faithfulness in living. Today’s Gospel reading becomes a teaching on the importance of persistence, particularly persistence in prayer, and persistence in faithful living.
We are reminded that the primary effect of prayer is not on God, but on us. God's love is already unconditional, his justice perfect, and his compassion is without limit. God recognizes our needs even before we do. It's not God who needs to change; it is up to us to get in line with God's program. Prayer helps us “line up.”
Today’s parable commends persistent prayer and action on behalf of God's justice. If an unjust judge grants vindication or help because someone pesters him or “something” meows in his ear, how much more will God vindicate God's people and creation in the end? Our Gospel lesson becomes a story about continuing to pray and trusting God, even when it seems there are “no results.” Pray even when it feels like and looks like the Windows of Heaven are shut up tight and God either cannot or will not hear a plea.
Prayer is our declaration that we don't want to be a closed universe, dependent only on ourselves and our own solutions. Prayer expresses our desire to open our lives to God.
Jesus tells us that God works on a different time schedule than we do. It is easy for us to get discouraged if the “Day of the Lord” that the Hebrew Scriptures promise seems never to come. But even by its very name, we should know that the timing of its arrival is up to God. Sometimes we need help remembering that.
And let's not pound so hard on God's door that we don't hear God's gentle knocking on our own!
In a strange way, God is a little like the widow - unrelenting, persistent, assertive. God hasn't given up on us, even when we have acted as though we "neither fear God nor had respect for people." So there's hope, not only for the widows and orphans and sojourners of this world, but for us.
Jesus invites us to be persistent in our prayers – not because God is disinclined to answer us unless we make a lot of noise – but because God is faithful. If God is faithful, then shouldn’t we also be faithful? God is the good judge. We might state today's comparison "If even the most unjust of judges will finally relent to the ceaseless petitions of a defenseless widow, then how much more will God -- who is, after all, a good judge -- answer our prayers!"
And so this parable of the widow and the unjust judge is not just a parable on how to pray, not so much a parable on steadfastness in prayer, but it is also a parable on trust in God to grant justice and to bring vindication to God's people.
The parable suggests that a sign of faith will be a willingness to persist in prayer. We see in the widow who persists against all odds in her fight for justice “succeed” against the powerful judge. Advocating for justice is messy work, Jesus seems to say, and a process that may be long, wearisome, and frustrating. Yet we are not to lose heart we to keep on praying, pestering, and persevering.
The question is – are we willing to engage with God? Will Jesus find us faithful? That is, will we be continuous in our prayers, continuous in our engagement with the living God?
God is faithful to God’s promises. God has made a covenant and remains true to it. . God will keep God's promise. God is trustworthy. Wait for the Lord. And as you wait, wait trustingly, not with despair.
In the parable, the widow goes to the unjust judge time and time again and gets what she seeks only because the judge wants to be rid of her. With God, the widow can go time and time and time again and will get God’s full attention every time. God wants to talk with her. When we go to God in prayer, no matter how persistent we are, God will always be there to listen and to give counsel. In fact, God wants us to go back time after time to appeal to him for help. A deep and meaningful relationship with God is built over a lifetime of such meetings with Him, it is not just a “quick fix” for instant gratification.
Some requests may be refused, not because we are not loved, but because we are loved and there is something else that better for our good. Sometimes we would be unpleasantly surprised if our prayers were literally answered. We must pray and then do our best.
The parable concludes with the question: Will God find faith on earth? This reminds us of the need for patience in prayer. We need to seek God’s will rather than seeking simple answers to our own prayers. There is great wisdom in waiting for the right time and trusting God’s wisdom to respond to our deepest needs on the timetable that is best for us. God knows us and wants the best for us. There is nothing better. Amen.