Here we have a lesson about perseverance in prayer. The point of the story is not that prayer is nagging God for what we want. Nor is it meant to teach us that God is like the judge in the parable – worn down by requests and coerced to respond.
The key to understanding the meaning is found in the description of the judge as corrupt and unjust. Since God can be neither, we must understand Jesus to be saying that if even an unjust judge responds to the persistence of the widow, how much more will God listen to our prayers. God truly wants to hear our needs and respond generously. Didn’t Jesus say: “Ask and you shall receive?” Jesus is telling us that God wants us to be like the persistent widow, staying in relationship with God, confident that God hears and answers prayers. And He understands how easy it is to lose heart. He asks: “Will such faith, the faith of the widow, be found when the Son of Man returns?”
A beginning of the answer to the question appears to be that the Son of Man will find faith, but it may be in unexpected places, as it has been in the Gospel — not among the religious professionals or the ones certain of their own righteousness, but among the outsiders, the unlovely, the unclean, the ones certain of their sinfulness.
The parable suggests that a sign of faith will be a willingness to persist in prayer, as we see in this widow who persists against all odds in her fight for justice against the powerful judge. Another sign may be in what we pray for: daily bread, the Holy Spirit, the coming of the kingdom, justice.
In his gospel, the evangelist Luke portrays widows as vulnerable but at the same time prophetic, active, and faithful. The widow of this parable is forceful enough to get the justice she demands even from an utterly unjust judge.
If we could read the Greek version of this parable, we’d get a glimpse of Jesus sense of humor. Now by “Greek” I don’t mean the language we refer to when we say “It’s all Greek to me.” In the Greek Scriptures the judge gives in to the widow because if he doesn’t he fears she may give him a black eye. Jesus uses a metaphor from boxing to make his point about the need to continue in prayer. Be as persistent as a boxer in the ring when it comes to prayer. Jesus gives a second teaching in the parable. If an unjust judge answers the pleas of a widow how much more will God answer our prayers. We just don’t know WHEN. Remember the words of the prophet Habakkuk? “The vision still has its time and will not disappoint.” God takes the long view … knows what is best and we may sometimes have to wait until we’re, as they say: “on the other side of the grass,” where we’ll understand that all along God knew best.
Luke seems to be very much aware of the real danger of giving up, of losing heart when we suffer injustice. Luke is saying that if we pray hard enough and if we don’t lose heart, God will give us justice, right? Well, does God? Is there justice in the world? In our country? In our local communities, and (sadly) in our churches? We have only to watch the evening news or read the day’s headlines to learn of multiple cases of brutality and injustice.
Could it be possible that God’s justice looks different than our justice? Good question. Yet, somehow I trust that God gives us a righteous sense of justice–especially if it is a selfless sense of justice–one that is concerned with others. Look at our widow. What does she do to obtain justice? She is persistent. She is stubborn. Perhaps we should call her attitude a kind of “holy stubbornness.” She doesn’t give up – she doesn’t lose heart. She keeps knocking at the judge’s door.
Now, I believe I don’t have to explain “stubbornness.” Some of us had it sprinkled on us in our cradles! We can prettify it, call it by another name, whatever we want: high principles, perseverance, tenacity, determination or just plain pigheadedness. Yes, we seem to be naturally endowed with the “great gift of stubbornness” and the only thing God has to help us with is to learn how to be stubborn for the right causes — God’s justice. In that case we may talk about a “holy stubbornness.” That happens when we start not only to pray our prayers, but when we start to live our prayers. In other words, we put our actions where our words are. Victims of poverty, injustice or violence don’t want to hear about God’s commandments, about moral values, about self-denial, or even about justice.
Luke is right: it is easy to lose heart and go with the flow rather than go against the current. It takes more than a petition at Mass to make our prayers effective. Think of all the corporate commitment action opportunities we are offered. When we support our petitions with a donation to Christmas for the residents at Heritage, attend the Sunrise Prayer Vigil, write letters asking for legislative action on behalf of the poor, make a donation to the Soup Supper or volunteer at Daystar.
You may ask, or be asked: “can prayer move God’s arm?” Jesus turns this question back on us today and concludes his parable with the question: “Will the Son of man find faith when he returns?” In other words he is asking: “Can prayer move your own arm? Are you willing to put your actions where your words are?” God always has relied on his children–people like you and me–to usher in His Kingdom. God will give us strength, God will empower us, but we still need to stubbornly live out our prayers for justice. The first reading reminds us we don’t have to be alone in our entreaties. One of the beauties of living in community or being part of a faith community is that, like Moses’ (in tomorrow’s first reading) – we have friends who “hold our hands until sunset” – we have the prayer support of many others. Are our prayers effective? The answer lies squarely with us: “it depends on how effective we help make them.”