“Then he told them a parable about the need to pray always without becoming weary” Lk. 18:1
That’s been the traditional explanation given for the point of today’s gospel story about “a judge … who had neither fear of God nor respect for people… and a widow who kept on coming to him saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy.’”
Unfortunately, all too often the judge in the story has been presented as the God-figure. Consequently, in our usual dramatic portrayals, God is tacitly the one who is slow to listen to the pleas of a poor and vulnerable widow – a woman without a husband, without status, without income, without security, without anything.
According to this frequent depiction, God only relents and grants the woman her claims because she begs and pesters until he loses his patience and reluctantly gives in.
But there’s a problem with the picture painted by this rendition of the story. The judge, the God-figure, does not come across as admirable, much less someone we would want to emulate.
For instance, the story tells us that he neither “feared God nor respected any human being.” Beyond that, the sense we get is that God is someone to bargain with or pester until he’s worn down and finally acquiesces.
But, as one writer suggests, perhaps there is another way to reflect on this story.
“Why not see the widow as the image of God, not the judge?” he asks.
If we follow this approach and envision the widow as the God figure, it becomes possible to arrive at a whole new meaning for this parable. From this perspective the message is still about the importance of persistence, but from an entirely different viewpoint.
The persistent one is still the widow. And she now – often against all odds – keeps resisting injustice, keeps renouncing discrimination, keeps opposing bigotry in all its dimensions.
The widow takes on the role of a “Rosa Parks” – a person who persisted against all odds until justice was achieved.
When considered from this point of view, the original meaning of the gospel passage is maintained, and now persistence becomes the constant and consistent commitment to doggedly seek justice wherever it is being denied.
Practically speaking, it’s a story that insists we refuse to relent in our requirements to provide our children with adequate education and health care. It’s a story that challenges all of us to demand that our prisoners are treated with respect, our soldiers are given appropriate health care, our elderly are able to have adequate pensions, and our planet is respected as a God-given gift.
It’s a story about persistently hungering and thirsting for justice.
However, the problem is that, throughout human history, multitudes have begged God to grant relief to those who are burdened with pain and sorrow.
And yet injustice remains. Bigotry persists. Peace seems hopeless.
Consequently, many lose heart. They find that perseverance amidst the reality of repeated and unrelenting horrors is one of the greatest challenges that human beings must face.
In his famous “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed …. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” (See Dr. King’s book Why We Can’t Wait)
Today’s gospel story ultimately becomes the Christian answer to the painful reality of justice delayed and justice denied. Specifically, God’s master plan for a kingdom of justice and peace will eventually be accomplished. In the end all will be well.
Meanwhile, you and I are called to “pray always without becoming weary.” For one of the most important and the most challenging of all virtues remains the same one featured in today’s gospel story:
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.