By Br Julian McDonald cfc
“There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say: ‘Give a just decision in my favour against my adversary.‘” Luke 18, 1-8
We have all met in one incarnation or another the persistent widow of today’s gospel parable. She’s the woman who has battled pharmaceutical companies for decades seeking just compensation on account of birth defects to her son caused by thalidomide administered to her during her pregnancy. She’s the parent who has badgered school administrators to reinstate her daughter who was expelled for some infringement of school rules. She’s the husband who has repeatedly confronted inflexible and intolerant bureaucrats in the health-insurance company over their narrow-minded interpretation of his wife’s medical insurance policy. She’s the distraught widow who is badgering the funeral-fund administrators who will not cover the expenses of her husband’s funeral even though he had paid dues of two dollars a week for the last sixty-four years.
The parable about the widow and the unjust judge is a puzzling one, and becomes more puzzling as we dig into it, despite its brevity. Essentially, it’s a parable about the need to pray and not to lose heart. But it also explores the link between the quality of our prayer and the depth (or shallowness) of our faith. To launch into exploring this parable, let’s read a delightful story from the Hindu tradition:
A long time ago, the good and just emperor, Abaka called together his servants and invited them to join him for a day’s hunting. This he did fairly regularly as a way of getting away from the affairs of state. On this particular day, however, he had had no success with the hunt, and his dream of returning home with a good deer for the evening meal was quickly fading. Almost before he realised, the time for prayer arrived and the whole party was soon kneeling on the grass, their heads touching the ground. Despite his best intentions, Akaba’s focus was not on Allah and his prayer. His thoughts were divided between the challenges of leading his people and his hope that Allah, the Compassionate one would send a prize deer in his direction. Elsewhere in the forest, an elderly woman was beginning to worry about her husband, who had been away for much longer than she had anticipated. Just as Akaba and his servants were beginning their prayer, the woman, unable to contain herself, rushed off to search for her husband. Without even noticing, she came to where the men were all praying and, as she ran by, she tripped over Akaba. Quickly, she picked herself up and hurried on her way. A little upset, Akaba finished his prayer, got to his feet and ordered his soldiers to go in search of the woman who had stumbled over him and rudely departed. In the meantime, the elderly woman had located her husband and found that he would need her assistance to get back home. However Akaba’s servants soon found her and dragged her back to apologise to the Emperor. He, in turn, warned her to be more careful in her searching. After all, he was the Emperor, and she hadn’t even seen him. She responded in a flash: “And what were you doing on the ground in the first place?” “Saying my prayers!”, he replied. “You mean to say that you were saying your prayers, kneeling on the ground, facing east, with your head touching the earth, praying to the Great Lord of the Universe, and you noticed that I fell over you? I was searching for my husband, whom I love dearly, and so I didn’t notice you, but if you said your prayers better, you would be more attentive to the Lord of the Universe, and not even notice when someone falls over you.” The Emperor listened to her intently, and was rather embarrassed. In fact, he presented her with some gifts and sent her on her way with her husband. After that, whenever anyone asked him how he had learned to pray, he said that he had been taught by a simple peasant woman who loved her husband dearly. It was she who had taught him what prayer really was.
Now pause for a moment and ask yourself how you think of the widow in today’s parable. Almost certainly she was no shrinking violet. Nor was she some feeble, old woman, stalking the judge with the aid of a stick and calling after him: “Now, you listen to me, young man!” If the judge himself is to be believed, the widow was neither feeble nor hobbling. In fact, he was afraid for his safety. The original Greek (hypopiahdzo) translates as “give me a black eye”, “hit me in the face” and “wear me out”. It is used in the New Testament in only one other place, where Paul describes himself as “boxing as though beating the air” (1 Corinthians, 9, 27).
The widow is sparring for a fight and the judge proclaims himself to be a godless man who cares about nobody. Neither judge nor widow is particularly attractive. So neither is being held up to us as role models for living our lives. And I cannot for one moment accept that the parable is suggesting that prayer is meant to be pestering God the way the widow pesters the judge. Let’s not think it is telling us to set about wearing God down until God gives in and does what we want. And it’s not exactly a Gospel value to ask God to deliver us vengeance (a more accurate translation of the word the parable uses for justice) against our adversaries and opponents. Moreover, surely it’s wide of the mark to believe that God would really answer our prayers just to shut us up.
So, I want to suggest that this parable is not about God at all. Rather, it’s about us and our hearts and what moves us to pray. It’s not a parable about who God is and how God operates in the world. It’s about who we are and how we might nourish our spirituality through prayer.
Note how Luke introduces the parable: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18, 1). Just a few verses later, Jesus ends it by bowling us over with a seemingly unrelated question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth” (Luke 18, 8)? And let’s not overlook the reality that faith in biblical times was measured by the quality and extent of one’s care for orphans and widows – even those widows who did not give rogue judges a moment’s peace. So this parable is an object lesson in how to work and pray with heart and perseverance, and to reflect on what genuine faith looks like in Jesus’ eyes.
Finally, a few thoughts on prayer and faith as they are presented in today’s parable. There have been times when I have asked myself why I need to persist in praying. The truth is that when I really persist with prayer, investing myself as fully as I can, something actually happens in me. I get a better sense of who I am and a clearer sense of the God to whom I know I belong. I come to see what really matters in my life and why. And surprisingly, there are times when good things happen, even if they are not what I’m praying for at the time. But, I would be less than honest if I were to suggest that there are not times when my efforts at prayer don’t leave me lost and bewildered. There are times when I feel that my prayers just bounce off God’s wall of silence. There are times when I know that what I am praying for is a matter of justice for people who are being crushed, and I ask myself why God does not seem to be listening. I find some consolation in telling myself that prayer, like God, is another mystery. And persistence in prayer is difficult. And then I get pulled up short with Jesus’ sobering question to all of us today: “Will I find faith on the earth?”
Perhaps the most consoling thought out of all this is a frequent reminder from the Psalms that we have God for our keeper, a God who neither slumbers nor sleeps, a God whose persistence in chasing after us never slackens or ceases. Perhaps the widow and God do have something in common after all.