According to John Shea, renowned theologian and professional storyteller, the parable of the Persistent Widow found in Luke 18:1-8 violates rule number one of good storytelling. The author of the Gospel of Luke tells us the moral of the story before telling us the story itself. It reads “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” With this unconventional start, Luke prematurely shows his hand so to speak, which is a big storytelling no-no because usually once an audience hears what the meaning of the story is, they tune out.
But let’s not. Let’s suppose that there’s a purpose to Luke’s apparent gaffe and figure out what that purpose might be. Our story begins with a description of a judge who is bad news. There is no appealing to his good side because he doesn’t have a good side. When Luke tells us that this judge does not care and has no respect for God or any person, Jesus’ first century listeners would’ve understood with just this one line that this man did not have a single redeeming quality.
Then in comes a humble widow. In the painfully patriarchal society of the first century the widow is the most vulnerable of all people. If a woman didn’t have a man in her life – no husbands or sons – then she had no means to support herself. She was not permitted to own property and could not legally inherit anything, so often when her husband died she would be both homeless and poor without any means of income. In fact the Greek word used in the New Testament for widow literally means “one who has no voice” which was true for most women in Jesus’s day, but for none more than for the widow.
So this lowly, powerless widow comes to this tyrant of a judge seeking justice and the gospel story tells us that for a long, long time the judge simply ignored her pleas and was unwilling to help her in anyway. But the widow is persistent. Relentless. Her persistence is not a secret weapon or a tactic that she even believes will work – it’s simply all she has. She has no money. No political power. No special gifts of persuasion. Her determination is literally all she’s got. So even after the judge dismisses her case time and time again she just keeps showing up and speaking her truth and eventually it works. The judge caves. But what is noteworthy is that the widow’s persistence doesn’t change the judge’s mind or make him care in someway about her plight and the injustice that she has suffered. His heart remains hard and we know this because Luke is sure to remind us by placing us in the mind of the judge as he thinks to himself “even though I neither fear God or respect any human being, this widow is really getting to me and that I fear she will eventually come and strike me.” The more literal translation reads “I fear she will give me a black-eye” which in ancient times was a turn of phrase that meant she will damage my reputation, kind of like how our contemporary expression of “having egg on our face” does not literally mean having egg thrown in our face but rather means that we are embarrassed or made to look foolish in someway. So the judge is not worried that the widow is going to haul them off and slug him. He is not worried that this woman is going to harm him by force of physical violence. Rather the judge is concerned that this woman with her persistent courage to speak her truth and fight for justice will expose him for what he is – a hypocrite. Shea says the judge “wants to be seen and known as just on the outside even though he is not comitted to justice on the inside.” Not unlike our system today we expect our judges to be fair and wise have a strong character and the courage to do what’s right. We are disgusted with judges who can be bought or bullied by corporations or politicians. So too in the first century. So this widow is like an Erin Brockovich of ancient times and thanks to her tenacity and relentlessness, justice is won.
But what about those who apparently don’t get their prayers answered no matter how steadfast they are? We all know good, God-loving and serving people out there who have prayed without ceasing for their sick child to be healed or their loved ones not to get hurt, suffer loss or die and yet despite their prayers these bad things still happen. Does this parable say to us that they didn’t pray correctly or enough? That they weren’t persistent enough in their prayers? Of course not. It would be cruel and wrong to interpret this parable to say that they just didn’t do it right.
We can’t manipulate God into doing what we want by saying a certain amount of prayers. God is not some puppet under our control. God does not have some big Excel spreadsheet that he keeps score on like “Oh, Lisa said three Hail Marys today…pretty weak. Guess she has some car trouble’s coming.” So maybe Luke tells us the point of this parable upfront because he fears we will make this big mistake of identifying the judge with God and us with the widow and then we would understand the moral of the story to be that if we just wear down God with our prayer we will get everything we want and this is just bad theology – both immature and potentially harmful.
Luke wants to be perfectly clear right from the get-go – this story is about what keeps us strong in the face of injustice. Even if we win one battle there are countless others coming at us daily. That’s just the way life is and this can get to us and wear us down. So what does Jesus advise to keep us from growing weary, throwing in the towel or becoming bitter? How did this widow muster the energy and willpower to keep fighting?
This is why Luke opens by saying “this story is about the necessity for the disciples to pray always without becoming weary in the face of injustice.” This parable instructs us to call out to God in prayer day and night without ceasing because our prayer keeps us connected to our source – to the source of all strength, justice and goodness. Our prayer is our link to our creator – to Jesus – so that we may be sustained in times of trouble. It is our connectedness to God that allows us to courageously and persistently speak our truth in the face of monumental abuses of power in our upside down culture and warped structures and not lose heart or hope.
Prayer is the communication that keeps us nourished. Through prayer we open ourselves up and connect to this power of God that saves, transforms and sustains us – and THIS is the power that makes us a threat. This is the connection that makes the Body of Christ a formidable foe that ultimately will prevail against the evils of the world. The widow wins because through prayer she is given a kind of divine resilience – a remarkably high threshold for discouragement – that unnerves the judge to the point that he gives in.
This parable tells us that our persistence in prayer does not remove all our pain and obstacles in life. Everyone suffers. But through our persistence in prayer, our connection to God is strengthened and we are sustained in times of trial.
A closing quote. Perhaps a bit antiquated, but the image just stuck with me this week.
“Make time to pray. The great freight and passenger trains are never too busy to stop for fuel. No matter how congested the yards may be or how crowded the schedules are, no matter how many things demand attention from the conductor.” – M.E. Androssfor
Much of this reflection is based on the brilliant work of John Shea in The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers