Who is the Persistent Widow?

Luke 18:1-8

As for me, my dealings with judges have been limited.  It is only twice that I have been required to sit in the witness stand or to stand before a judge and offer my experience or perspective on the matter before the court.  Several other times I have found myself sitting in the gallery in support of family or friends.  In those times I have found myself in court, things have always been calm, orderly, and in control.  In all those times I have found myself hyper alert, afraid of miss-stepping or miss-speaking in the presence of such powerful authority.  Even so, while I have always been deeply invested in the outcome of whatever was before the court, I have never felt myself in the apparently desperate position of the widow Jesus describes today.

Now I imagine things worked a little differently back when Jesus described the persistence of the widow in today’s parable.  Evidently, there was no court docket to ensure that only one case appeared before the judge at a time.  Or that limited the time or times when a case could be presented.  Or perhaps it was simply that the widow’s situation was so desperate that she was ignoring all the rules which most people would have observed.  After all, what did she have to lose?  She was already living on the margins — already, because of her station in life, without public voice and perhaps without actual means of physical support or sustenance. Whatever else may be true, the cause she was so persistently pleading must have been a matter of life or death for her or for someone she loved.

I find it interesting in today’s parable that Jesus chooses two people who are on such extremely different ends of the social spectrum.  For instance, why does he choose to offer a widow who is so persistent in her pleading?   Wouldn’t someone else whose situation was not so precarious do just as well?  Or are you and I to identify with the widow in some real way?  Are we to think of our lives as that vulnerable  — as that dependent on the good favor of one in power — in this case an unjust judge?

And why is it that Jesus describes the judge in the way that he does?  Why is it necessary that the judge “neither feared God nor had respect for anyone”  and who, in this telling, actually claims these nefarious qualities as his own?  Given this, I find it difficult to hear this story as one which somehow describes how we are to relate to God and yet it’s also hard not to, given the interpretation Jesus offers as he begins by urging us all to “pray always and not lose heart.”

It could be that this is Jesus’ way of recognizing this world for what it is.  Perhaps he is simply pointing out that there are many of us who are without means or voice or security and maybe he is even saying that, in some ways, that may well describe some or all of us even now. And maybe in this short story he is acknowledging that there are powers in this world which appear to consider themselves all powerful without any felt need whatsoever to recognize that we are all in this together, regardless of station or means or potential.  Who are given more power than they deserve and who are not likely to implement ‘justice’ in any real sense of the word. Oh, yes, there are people like this in the world who often will only  listen and respond if they are badgered into it.

Only again, that doesn’t sound much like the God I pray to.  Indeed, I was privileged this last Friday to spend some time in conversation with some preaching students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.  I told them that I was stumped by this particular parable for when I read it at face value, it makes no sense to me.  Since when do we have to badger God to get what we need?  And how could God be compared to one who had so little regard for anyone or anything else?  As I posed my struggle, one in the back row raised her hand and said, “Oh, but is God the judge or the pleading widow in the story?”

 It still wouldn’t be a perfect analogy, but in some ways that works a little better for me.  I can see Jesus being that persistent in our behalf, can’t you?  I know that God — particularly as we meet him in Jesus —- was willing to go up against all kinds of disrespectful, unjust powers for God’s beloved people.  Indeed, Jesus did so to the point of suffering and death — and still he kept praying.  And the outcome of those three days alone should be enough for all of us who follow him to keep praying and not lose heart when we find ourselves in situations which in large ways or small mirror that. 

I don’t know for sure if Jesus means to say that God is like the judge or the widow in this story, but I do know this.  God loves us with a desperate kind of love which did and would go up against all sorts of powers to secure our welfare.  I also know that sometimes those powers can seem unrelenting and that sometimes the pleading has to go on a long time before they finally relent. 

And so I also know this.  If you and I are called to identify with the widow, then we also are to pray like this: we are to keep asking, to not lose hope — regardless of how long it takes.  Because the promise is that our pleading will be answered and our hope will not be in vain.  No matter how it seems today…

  • So what do you think?  Is God like the judge or the persistent widow in the parable Jesus offers today?
  • Why do you think the widow doesn’t give up?  Is it because she doesn’t have anything to lose and has everything to gain?  Is it because of great love and desperate hope?
  • What does this parable teach us about how and why we are to pray?  How do Jesus’ words here inform or shape your own praying?