Then Jesustold them 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?
During this time of economic uncertainty and anxiety, something we all have in common is an awareness of the plight of the small business owners around us. It may be the restaurant around the corner, our neighborhood car repair shop, our dependable barber or salon owner, the local dry cleaner… the list goes on and on. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the need and de-sensitized at times when there’s just so much to be concerned about. Journalists have tried to help by putting a personal face to the barrage of information, and I’ve been touched by a local television station’s featuring of one particular proprietor as he strives to care for his family, his employees, and his business. The nightly news has chronicled his struggles with getting a small business loan. Time after time he has been rejected, but he diligently keeps on pursuing assistance, never giving up in his efforts to save his company. This young husband/father/entrepreneur reminds me of the widow in today’s parable.
Luke’s selection of this parable is interesting in that its meaning can prove difficult to decipher. There are more than a couple of ways that scholars have interpreted it. Just consider the characters.
Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson. John Pilch, a biblical scholar and professor, tells us that the “word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ In the patriarchal Mediterranean world, males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.” So this “silent one” is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it’s because she is familiar with a Hebrew scriptural law stating that only the case of an orphan can be considered less than that of a widow. The widow, being so close to the bottom rung of the social ladder in Jesus’ day, probably wouldn’t have had the possibility of justice in a decent courtroom, and she ends up in the courtroom of a terrible judge, a narcissistic judge, giving her little chance of winning. She only has one weapon: her ability to pester. And she certainly uses that weapon. In verse 5, where it says she “bothered” him, the ancient Greek means to literally give someone a black eye. She was stalking him day and night, irritating him with her pleas.
When we read the parable, it is tempting to identify the judge with God. Many commentators who write on this text do just that. We are the widow. God is the judge. But immediately this allegorical attempt comes up short, because the judge is an unsavory persona if there ever was one. The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt was chatting with her preaching students, and one of them asked, “Oh, but is God the judge or the pleading widow in the story?” Now, that is an interesting take, and one that does have biblical antecedents. In Hebrew Scripture we often find God pleading with God’s people to turn and return to the ways God intended. The story inspires interesting character analysis, to be sure, but the point may not be so much about the characters, but about the spiritual discipline of prayer, as exemplified by the widow.
Tom Long once preached on this passage and talked about Leonard Bernstein’s innovative rock, blues and jazz theatre piece Mass: “I think that the most troubling and disheartening language for contemporary people in the liturgy is not the credo — the I believe in God. I mean there is a sense in which even people in a skeptical age can say, in a gaseous and vague way, ‘I believe in God.’ No, the most troubling part of the Mass was Let us pray. Because when the words are uttered, ‘Let us pray,’ that vague and gaseous God must come into focus, and bets cannot be hedged. We enter into communion and communication with this God and no other, and it raises all the questions: Is there a God? Is there a God who hears? Is there a God who answers?”
Ted Purcell is a retired Baptist minister in North Carolina who summed up his lifelong journey with the meaning of prayer in this way, “I used to think that monks and nuns took the easy way out by joining intentional communities and spending all their time in prayer, separate from the “real world.” Fifty years later, I am absolutely convinced that those prayers hold the world together.” I pray because I believe that the church at prayer is the church in action. I believe, with Karl Barth, that to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of this world, and of our lives. Today, we need that kind of understanding more than any other time in our lives. We pray because prayer helps us understand the world and our place in it. We pray because it connects us with other sisters and brothers who are also struggling. We pray because it is the hope of a God who doesn’t give up on us.
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes about why she makes her son go to church every Sunday against his six-year-old will. She writes, “The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, who practice their faith. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.” May God help us to be that kind of people. Let us pray . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
How do you feel about Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts on prayer: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”?
How do our prayers shape us spiritually, individually and/or collectively? Could this difficult time possibly be an opportunity for Christians to shape our world with an awareness of God’s love? If so, how?
You may have been impressed, as I was, by Woodland’s decision not to accept the offer of the government’s PPP relief funding so that our more needy neighbors would have access to the assistance. Offer a prayer of gratitude for the faithfulness of your fellow members and for our Church Council and its leaders.
A Prayer attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta
O God, we pray for all those in our world who are suffering from injustice: because of their race, color, or religion; for those imprisoned for working for the relief of oppression; for those who are hounded for speaking the inconvenient truth; for those tempted to violence as a cry against overwhelming hardship; for those deprived of reasonable health and education; for those suffering from hunger and famine; for those too weak to help themselves and who have no one else to help them; for the unemployed who cry out for work but do not find it.
We pray for anyone of our acquaintance who is personally affected by injustice. Forgive us, Lord, if we unwittingly share in the conditions or in a system that perpetuates injustice. Show us how we can serve your children and make your love practical by washing their feet.