by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“As long as Moses held up his arms, the Israelites kept winning.” Exodus 17: 8-13
“Once there was a judge in a certain city who neither feared God nor respected any human being. A widow in the same city kept coming to him and saying: ‘Give me a just decision against my opponent.” Luke 18: 1-8
One of the things that fascinates me about those of us who regard ourselves as card-carrying Catholics is that we seem to have little difficulty accepting Jesus as divine and, at the same time, are hesitant to accept him as fully human. Maybe we are not fully convinced by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews who asserts: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weakness, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.” (Hebrews 4: 15) One aspect of Jesus’ personality that we can easily overlook is that he had a sense of humour, and it’s on display in today’s gospel-reading in which, after giving the meaning of the parable he was about to tell, he begins: “Did you hear the news about the widow who gave the judge a black eye?” He went on to explain how the poor woman was so frustrated at being ignored by the judge that she took to him. And the judge himself admits: “I care little for God or man, but this widow is wearing me out.” (The literal meaning of the Greek phrase that Luke puts in the mouth of the judge is: “She keeps hitting me under the eye.”)
The judge who describes himself as “caring little for God or man” is not accustomed to taking backward steps for anyone, but by giving into the widow he gives us an insight into her fired-up determination. She is more than determined. She is feisty, belligerent and wants more than impartial justice. She wants to emerge from her tussle with the satisfaction of vindication and triumph. As far as the judge is concerned, the widow is a pest who bludgeons him into acceding to her demands. However, there is no indication that the judge feels even a scrap of compassion for her. So, Jesus is certainly not suggesting that the judge is a figure to be admired.
What he is saying is that if the persistence of a very vulnerable widow can force an unjust judge into delivering justice, how much more will the God of compassion and justice reach out to those whom he loves endlessly and unconditionally. I suggest that Jesus is also making the point that prayer and action go hand-in-hand. Genuine prayer to God eventually leads us to get clear in our minds what God wants for all of humanity. As a consequence, our prayer will lead us to make efforts to bring justice to the poor and powerless who, all too often, are discounted and even entirely forgotten.
God, we know, has a passion for justice and a preference for the poor. We know, too, that the Christian community to which we belong has a priority for social justice. In that context the persistent widow is a model for us. Her passion in confronting the unjust judge is both inspirational and admirable. The manner in which she confronts the judge pressures him to deliver justice to her. There are times when being faithful to Jesus and his Gospel calls us to raise our voices in protest in the public forum, in situations where our civil leaders and politicians will learn that we are not prepared to be silent witnesses to the kind of injustice that saps the life out of people who have been pushed to the edges of society.
Hidden in this story of the widow and the unjust judge is the clear message that authentic prayer, the basic meaning of which is to stand in the presence of God, allows God to see us for who we really are – needy, vulnerable, open to being assessed – but also capable of being God’s agents of justice, mercy and compassion. One of the psalms reminds us that “God hears the cry of the poor”, of orphans and aliens and vulnerable widows. We are called to be the ears of God and to do something constructive in response to what we hear.
This parable challenges us to prove in action the kind of people we claim to be when we assert that we are followers and disciples of Jesus. We are all familiar with prayers of intercession and petition, prayers in which we ask God for any manner of thing. The kind of prayer that is central to this parable is a prayer in which we acknowledge our preparedness to give willingly to God whatever in our hearts we discover God is asking of us. In case we have forgotten, the prophet Micah reminds us: “What God requires of you is this: “Act justly, love goodness and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6: 8). Walking humbly with God calls us to accompanying God wherever in our world God’s presence is most needed. – among the poor. If we fail to do justice, do we not distance God from us?
The punch line in today’s gospel-reading, is to be found in the very last sentence where Jesus asks: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?” (Luke 18: 8) Jesus is voicing his doubt about everyone who claims to be his disciple, asking if all his efforts have come to nothing. While the story of the judge and the widow compels us to stop and look at our world and its endless succession of injustices – at its prison systems, its power abuses, its exploitation of the poor, at its neglect of first nation peoples – in its conclusion it turns its focus on those who make up the community that claims to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. We belong to that group, and we are being pushed to ask ourselves if we will be found wanting. The answer will be “yes”, if our prayer does not lead us to work for justice for those who are being denied it.