The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 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.'” And the Lord said, “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. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:1-8
What is this parable about? Luke seems tells us right at the beginning. He says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”. Easy and straightforward, right?
We are the widow and God is judge. If we pray for something long enough and hard enough, we will wear God down. He will become exasperated with us and say, “OK, OK, enough already! Please stop going on at me! What do you want? I’ll give it to you. Now, please – be quiet!”
That’s what this parable is about, isn’t it? But actually, that doesn’t sound right to me for a few reasons…
First, that doesn’t seem to me to be how prayer works. I don’t recognize it as the way I pray anyway. The thought of badgering God until I get what I want seems, if not selfish and childish, certainly bizarre.
Second, this doesn’t seem to accord with my experience of God. I don’t believe God gets so exasperated with me. That He ends up giving me what I want like a parent spoiling a child just to get some peace and quiet.
But there’s a third, more significant reason why this doesn’t seem to be a correct interpretation of this parable. It has to do with justice…Justice, after all, is the overarching moral issue of Scriptures.
This is not a parable about getting what we want. This is a parable about securing justice.
Just listen to the key phrases…The widow says, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”
The judge is called “unjust” by Jesus.
Later the judge says, “I will grant her justice.”
Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice?” “He will quickly grant justice to them…”
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a special place for widows in society: in fact, the spiritual health of society was judged, in no small part, by how the widows amongst them were treated.
Whenever God gives instructions on how society should be, he says that the rights of widows must be defended.
Whenever the prophets condemn the people of Israel for having fallen short of the standards of faith, they mention how widows are being abused and marginalized.
In Psalm 68, God is described as the defender of widows.
The Widow is the icon of all those who are marginalized, powerless and oppressed.
Now, here comes the crunch. We know that there are areas of the world and sections of society, where people that have been suffering grave injustices for years and years and years. We know that there are faithful people praying about those situations. Like the persistent widow, there is plenty of prayer going into these situations and yet the situations don’t seem to change. Is it because people aren’t praying hard enough?
God is a God of compassion! He hears the cry of the poor as a matter of course! If we took the common approach to this parable, it would seem that this is what Jesus is saying, but I don’t think that is correct.
To think about us as the widow and God as the judge who can be worn down into saying ‘Yes’ by our constant barrage of prayers doesn’t seem accurate to me. It doesn’t square with Christian experience. It doesn’t square with a reasonable understanding of God. It doesn’t square with sacred history as recorded in the scriptures. It doesn’t square with the reality of so many situations around the world today.
So what is this parable teaching us about prayer? Well, lets turn it on its head and see what we find…
The starting point, I think, is that those who are oppressed, those on the margins of society, symbolized in the plight of the widow, are crying out to be heard.
That is our starting point: the realization that there are those in our local communities, those throughout this country, those throughout the world, who are screaming out for mercy and compassion. I hear it in the cry of migrants. This week I hear it in the cry of the Kurds. I hear it in the cry of the unemployed, the homeless, the grieving, those with mental illnesses, those without recourse to medical care, the abused, the sick, the dying… All crying out to be heard.
That realization was always Jesus’ starting point in ministry and it needs to be ours as well. Securing justice and relief for those who are hurting must always be our top priority as disciples of Jesus. We need to hear the cry of the poor, the vulnerable, and all those who are powerless.
Now, if that’s true, perhaps we can begin to see the parable a different way. Perhaps you and I are not the widow at all. Perhaps we are the judge and we need to hear the persistent cry of the poor in our midst.
It is irresponsible to turn off the news. Doing so can only foster our living is a world of indifferent illusion. Do we have a right to isolate ourselves such that we do not hear the cry of the poor? Or do we have a sacred responsibility to do otherwise? Do we have a right to fashion a fantasy world that is totally defined by the satisfaction of out own needs, wants and dreams? Or do we have a God-given mandate to do otherwise? Perhaps this parable is about the cry of the poor coming to our ears and it is we who need to grant justice.
Now that is an uncomfortable thought, isn’t it? When we go to sleep tonight, when we rest our head on our pillows, the cry of the poor and marginalized in society may continue to fill our heads.
Will we sleep comfortably or will we resolve to do what we can to alleviate their suffering? Will we work to see that all the structures of our society put the poor first? If we don’t make this happen, who will? If we find that uncomfortable, let me make it even more uncomfortable for us!
In Matthew 25, Jesus says that he doesn’t just identify with the poor and those in need but that we can actually find him in the poor and those in need. Here’s what He says…“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Now here’s a challenge… Until now, we may have thought about this parable and assumed that we are the widow and that God is the judge. Actually, I think it’s the other way round… We are the judge and God is the widow, found in the poor, the marginalized and all who suffer oppression at the hands of the privileged – you and I.
And so maybe this parable is actually about God crying out to us, pleading with us to do something to eradicate the pain of all the marginalized – to eradicate His pain. In the Book of Revelation, the Risen Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”
And so here He is in this parable, in this moment, standing and knocking and pleading with us to respond to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable and those who are marginalized.
This parable has often been used to urge us to persistent prayer. Maybe there is truth in that. But possibly it can have a different message for us today.
The question is simply this: What will we do for the poor and the weak and the marginalized as we hear their cry for justice? Will we find a way to be part of the solution or will we escape into any one of the many distractions that the world offers us. If we watch the evening news, fifteen minutes of the half hour are devoted to the day’s major stories and fifteen minutes are devoted to sports. Isn’t that emblematic of the problem?
We are called by Jesus to pray and not lose heart. We must not cease praying for the vulnerable in society. And we must not lose heart that we can affect change even though all the powers of this world, big business and the government that they own, conspire to oppress, to oppose, and to undermine change.
Jesus concluded this parable by asking, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” My prayer is that we will turn our faith into action to the glory of God and in response to the cries of his people. Praying as if it all depended on God and acting as if it all depended on us. There is no faith without action for justice.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Does anyone come to mind? This 2000 year old parable is today’s bad news.
It takes each and every one of us to create an alliance and engage those local actions that will make good news for the widow a possibility for tomorrow.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
October 20, 2019