'Jesus told his disciples 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?"'
--Luke 18: 1-8
Mom! Momma! Mommy! Mother! Ma! Hey you! If there is anything I learned as a very young child it was that if I kept bugging her long enough, my mother would respond to me, and if I pleaded for something long enough she would eventually cave, giving in to my cries for attention and irrational 5-year old demands, mostly because she just wanted me to finally stop bothering her. I'm sure those of you with kids know exactly what I'm talking about. In households with multiple kids it’s even worse because then they can double-team, as my sister and I sometimes would. It’s like a war of attrition, wear them down enough and you’ll get what you want. Perseverance wins the battle when it comes to kids vs. parents.
Not me, I swear.
We talk about God as our parent, right? So if that is the case, does it mean that our relationship with God is like this? Are our prayers really just a means by which we bug God enough until God gives us what we want?
Jesus faced this issue with his disciples and gave them a parable to teach them, as Luke says, about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. In the parable a widow seeks justice from a heartless, unjust judge. She never leaves him alone, like a child pestering her father. Eventually, the judge caves, not because he fears God or has respect for anyone, least of all the widow, but because she won’t stop bothering him he will grant her request, lest she wear him down—or as the text is literally translated, so that she won’t give him a black eye! So is the point of the parable, then, that we should pester God until God eventually, out of frustration, gives in to our demands?
In short, no. What’s unique about this parable is that the judge is not meant to be a stand-in for God, but rather a contrast to God. Early Christians especially appreciated this parable because they understood what it meant to live under oppressive regimes, where those with power cared little about them and their needs. This parable offered hope that if an unscrupulous person like this unjust judge could give in to the pleas of the widow—a person, like them who was without any special social status—then certainly God would hear their cries. God, they knew, was not the unjust judge, but rather the complete opposite. The point of the parable is that God hears the cries of God’s people, and unlike a heartless judge or a parent at the end of their rope, does not answer those cries with the wave of a hand as if to say, “Now go away and leave me alone!” God’s heart is always eager to hear the cries of God’s people, no matter who, no matter where, no matter when.
Yet we cannot deny the fact that we have all gone to God in prayer and been left with the experience of the widow or the small child who has asked for something, only to be ignored. We have been faced with the questions about what we are to do when we are dealing with the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or the diagnosis of a disease. While there is a message here about the importance of perseverance, it is not about perseverance “winning the battle,” that is, wearing down God until we get what we want.
Nancy Rockwell's The Persistent Widow and the Heartless Judge
The widow is a model for all of us. She teaches us to exercise perseverance in our prayers, to never lose faith in a God who loves us through every crisis, every moment of despair. Prayer, therefore, is not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays have failed us, rather prayer must be so persistent, that each moment of our lives should be grounded in it. When our eyes open in the morning, when we’re in the shower, when we’re at work, when we’re having our meals, when we wind down the day with our families, when we lay our heads down to sleep, and all points in-between prayer is the foundation of every single moment of our lives. Imagine having a prayer life that was characterized by the kind of perseverance seen in a 5-year old desperately trying to get what they want. That’s the kind of prayer life, the kind of faith, exemplified by the widow in this parable. Persistence is the quality that should define prayer and lives of faith.
But we must also remember that the widow's request is not for something juvenile, like what I might ask my mother for at five years of age. What is it that the widow wants in the parable? It’s justice. We are given no clues as to what that means exactly—maybe she is being taken advantage of by someone since she says, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”—but we do know that her request is for that precious gift that God promises to all of God’s people: justice. The prophets of old cried out for it, and throughout his ministry Jesus does so, as well. It is God’s dream for all of God’s people. So the lesson here is not only for us to be persistent in our prayers, but to be persistent in our pursuit of justice, like the widow in the parable, knowing that while unjust powers and principalities of this world may only give in after countless hours of pestering—like the unjust judge in the parable—God, the lover of justice, is eager to see that dream fulfilled for all people. Whether it is the teenagers who organized the March for Our Lives, who are calling for justice for victims of gun violence, or Greta Thunberg, calling for environmental justice in the face of climate change, or the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, who championed justice for all Americans until the day he died last week, we have plenty of examples in our world today of folks who pursue justice in all of its forms with the level of passion and drive that we see from the widow in Jesus’ parable and who invite us to join them in that pursuit.
The students of Parkland, who organized the March for Our Lives and are calling for justice for gun victims.
So there are several lessons for us to take from this parable. The first is that we must remember that God is not like the unjust judge and is always eager to hear our prayers. The second is that perseverance must be the quality that defines our lives as people of faith, persistent in prayer every moment of every day, The third is the invitation for us to pursue justice in our own time with the same persistence as the widow in the parable. Still, there is one more lesson that I would invite us to ponder. The judge in the parable is someone with great power but who wields it irresponsibly, who does not use what he has in the pursuit of justice until this widow finally wears him down to the breaking point. Likewise, there are those of us with the means to effect real change in our communities, those of us who do wield a certain amount of power, perhaps not like the judge in the story, but power nonetheless. And so the final lesson for us in this parable is a call not to be like that judge, unwilling to use our gifts or the positions we wield in the service of others, but to remember—as the great comic book sage Stan Lee reminds us—that with great power comes great responsibility.