Carey MacDonald joined Fine Art America on October 6th, 2012. This painting by Carey MacDonald depicts a worker trying to break the ice around a ship which has stalled in the midst of a snow storm. He is keen to get moving again with his ship and will persevere until he does so!
Thomas Aquinas describes the virtue of perseverance as 'persisting in good for a long time'. So it must be directed towards the good. This means that the persistence in our reading today was not just a strategy of the widow for personal achievement. It was oriented towards the good: the judge became just.
1Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’. 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming’. 6 And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”
The Parable of the persistence of the widow is introduced as a Parable about prayer and not losing faith. It ends with a question about faith. It focuses on the necessity of persistent prayer and the need to actively rely on God as we wait for the end, even though life in this world continues to be rife with injustice.
Jesus starts by telling his Disciples that the Parable He is about to tell is about praying “always and not losing heart”. The Parable itself, however, focuses on a widow dealing with a judge in a corrupt justice system.
Luke twice tells us that the judge in this tale is someone who neither fears God nor respects people and Jesus himself characterizes the judge as “unjust”.
Regardless, the widow repeatedly comes to the judge in pursuit of justice. She tells him to “grant me justice against my opponent”. Despite her plea, though, the judge does nothing. He refuses to act because he is not willing and so he does not respond at first.
Response of the Judge
The lack of action of the judge is especially appalling, in this context. In the time of Jesus, a widow had no support unless she had adult sons to help her. They were considered among the most destitute of society, alongside other vulnerable groups such as the poor, orphans, and foreigners. Groups of people such as these were in precarious social and economic positions and as such, provision was made for them to help ensure they didn’t fall victim to exploitation.
Yet while the social status of the widow certainly rightly places her among the concern of Luke for the “lowly”, the widow in this Parable resists the exploitation to which she is being subjected.
Like other widows before her, this widow takes matters into her own hands. Her persistence and call for justice are such an annoyance to the judge that he characterizes her as a troublemaker who is trying to take on the system that was in place at that time.
In other older versions of the Bible, humour was infused into this scene by Luke. Images could have been conjured up of a lowly widow browbeating and possibly pummelling an arrogant and unwavering judge. But as New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer points out, the humour in this scene is not one of comic relief. Instead, the humour pokes fun at the powers-that-be, “lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like”.
Like our political cartoons today, the Parable of Jesus encourages us to laugh at those who wield their power unethically. We laugh, though, in order to challenge such figures, and ultimately, to offer a different way.
Commentary of Jesus on the Parable
After delivering this short (and punchy!) Parable, Jesus offers a few concluding comments that touch on the character of God and the nature of faith.
He uses the words of the judge as a jumping off point to speak about God’s own deliverance of justice, which God dispenses to those “who cry out to him day and night”.
But while Jesus compares God to the judge with this transition, the real point of comparison is one of contrast: God is in fact not like this reluctantly responsive judge. God does not need to be badgered into listening, and when God does respond, God does so willingly. If anything, God is more like the widow in her own relentless commitment to justice.
The Widow as an Example
The widow, though, is also an example of how followers are to be oriented toward God. Jesus returns to this emphasis on the behaviour of believers with a concluding rhetorical question that brings us back to his opening statement about prayer and not losing heart.
Here Jesus says: “I tell you, [God] will quickly grant justice to [those crying out]. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This final word also recalls his earlier prophetic comments and points to other places where Luke indicates that the Son of Man will only return after an extended delay.
By ending on a question of whether He will find faith at his return, Jesus raises several additional questions for us: ‘How do followers not lose heart and maintain the faith given that Jesus is not returning as soon as many would like?’ ‘How are we to act if God’s justice is not delivered according to our own timetable?’ ‘How do we go on in the face of injustice if God’s ultimate justice only arrives “suddenly” at Jesus’ return?’
In response to such questions, Luke maintains that we are to act like the widow. We are not to wait quietly for the return of Jesus and accept our fates in an oppression-ridden world. We are instead to resist injustice with the resolve and constancy of the widow. As Jesus explains elsewhere, prayer is not a passive activity but one that actively seeks God and pursues the will of God. Like the widow, we are to persevere in the faith, crying out to God, day and night. This is what persistent prayer looks like.
On reflection, this is a beautiful Parable. It is ultimately about not giving up! We can be prone to despair sometimes and wonder why God does not answer our prayers. After a while our mind can go into overdrive trying to work out why God has not responded:
• Have I done something wrong? Is that why God is not answering my prayer?
• Am I not praying in the right way?
• Do I need to strike a bargain with God for Him to answer my prayer?
• Is God just not listening to me?
• Has God abandoned me?
We can go into a state of confusion, frustration, and panic. What is going on?
Indeed, after the two World Wars, Church attendance dropped off dramatically. This was of course understandable as many wondered why God had permitted such atrocities. Why had God not answered their prayers for a speedy end to the war to keep their loved ones safe? It did not make sense in the light of the words of Jesus: “I tell you; he will see that they get justice, and quickly”. No, there could be no God.
And yet, when faced with the “silence of God” in such suffering, there were those who persisted, like the persistent widow, because Christ told us to be persistent and so we persist in our prayer. We may not get answers in this life, but we persist in our prayers as instructed to do so.
Luke clearly understands the difficulties of the Early Christian Communities, particularly the marginalised, and stresses the need for persistence and perseverance in our faith. Difficulties and challenges in life continue to batter us today and we have to either let them get the better of us and to abandon belief in God or to be persistent and hope that “all will be well in the end”.
“I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
May he not suffer your foot to slip;
may he slumber not who guards you:
Indeed, he neither slumbers nor sleeps, the guardian of Israel.
The Lord is your guardian; the Lord is your shade;
he is beside you at your right hand.
The sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will guard you from all evil; he will guard your life.
The Lord will guard your coming and going,
both now and forever”.
“There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being”.
How do I understand the gift of the Holy Spirit of fear of the Lord?
How can I be more intentional about seeing the image of God in each person I
I think about the difficulties I might be facing at this time.
Have I lost hope that God will hear me?
Can I bring them to God now, knowing that He is attentive to what I have to
Do I feel I can trust Him?
How am I to pray amidst the incessant noise and clamour of modern life?
Sometimes His words are spoken aloud, and sometimes with the silence of tears, but He is always present with us. Our Lord is never far away, and we are never alone.