Year C: Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Parable of the Persistent Widow.
Then he told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’ The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
- Where do you struggle with being persistent in prayer, do you ever get disheartened?
- When have you experienced the “power of prayer ”? Is this always in answer to a petition or are there other ways prayer is powerful for you?
- How would you describe the kind of faith that Jesus, the “Son of Man” is looking for on earth? What does His kind of faith look like?
- What is the connection between your prayer life and to being an agent of God’s justice in the world?
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
The vocabulary of this parable mirrors Luke’s tales of the friend in the night (Luke 11:5-8) and the gardener whose unremitting activity of cultivating and fertilizing the fig tree is described with the same vocabulary as our widow’s persistent “bothering” (Luke 13:6-8). Some would take this reading to recommend novena upon novena, or an injunction like “A few more rosaries and the Blessed Virgin will surely talk Jesus into doing what we want!” Even aside from the fact that Jesus didn’t give his mother special treatment, this can’t be what Jesus was teaching — not the Jesus who said, “When you pray, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
The persistence Jesus is talking about here has to do with something other than multiplying words. The phrase that the New American Bible translates as “without becoming weary” has to do with the idea of not succumbing to discouragement. In other places, it is translated as “do not be remiss” (2 Thessalonians 3:13) or “do not lose heart” (Ephesians 3:13) or “let us not grow tired of doing good” (Galatians 6:9). We get the sense that Jesus himself was disheartened with the progress of his mission when he finished this parable with the question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Humor was obviously part of Jesus’ antidote to the doom-and-gloom attitude that the world’s trials can engender. Not only did he tell a story to delight an audience that knew all about officials who sought nothing beyond their own advantage; he used the story to awaken their creativity. This is the classic tale of the underdog who wins without losing integrity or stooping to the level of the antagonist. It is an example of turning the other cheek, which is actually turning the tables so that the stakes are different. She got justice not by convincing the judge of her cause but by making his apathy so uncomfortable that doing the right thing was obviously in his best interests. Additionally, as a Gospel-inspired solution, it was in his best interests not just in the sense of getting her off his back but also in moving him toward the possibility of understanding the value of justice and coming to appreciate it.
This is where the power of prayer comes in. When Jesus tells us to pray without losing heart, he’s inviting us into his own spiritual process. We say we believe in the God of Jesus, the God who has a plan for human history. That belief implies that history is on the way to a fulfillment beyond what we can imagine. Only prayer opens us to God’s horizon. Praying without ceasing is an imitation of Jesus, who was constantly attentive and open to God’s options for the future.
Today’s scriptures are directed to people who feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. They remind us that if God is for us, the size of an army doesn’t count any more than lack of social standing. These scriptures call us to pray because praying is the only way we can open ourselves to allow God’s Spirit to act with power and creativity through and among us.
Wearing Down Injustice
Conventional religiosity loves to turn this parable into a teaching on perseverance in prayer. It immediately envisions people petitioning God for a specific purpose and not getting what they want. They are tempted to give up. But if they keep importuning, God will relent. So the message is: don’t lose heart, turn up the volume. God caves in with persistent petitioning.
This popular interpretation sunders what the parable struggles to keep together. Personal spirituality and social justice are two sides of the same coin. Praying to God is for the purpose of effecting social justice. God answers the cry for justice by giving justice into the hearts of the ones who cry. In this way the ones who pray will endure because they will be grounded in God.
That is, if the ones who pray manage to pray always. “Always praying” means the channel between God and the human person remains open. Divine energy will not periodically spurt and then dry up. Rather, it will be a steady, empowering flow. Therefore, the ultimate source of the energy that wears down injustice will be coming from the boundless source of the passion for justice.
“Praying always” is only possible if the ones praying are widows. As a literary character, the widow in herself is a powerless figure. She has no resources of her own to rely on. If she manages to wear down a hard-as-nails judge, the surmise is that she has had help. When the powerless who seek justice take down the powerful who refuse to give it, a careful investigation will undercover the hidden agency of God. The energy of wearing down is mediated through the widow, but it does not originate with her. It is the result of her communion with God made possible by her continual praying.
This combination of praying always and not losing heart is further developed in the Gethsemanyiscene (Luke 22:33-53). The injunction, Pray that you may not come into the time of trial,” bookends this episode. In the Garden, Jesus stays awake in prayer, but the disciples have fallen sleep. As Jesus prays, an angel visits him and takes on the role of a masseuse, strengthening him for the upcoming contest until his sweat becomes as “drops of blood falling down on the ground.” This praying is necessary for Jesus to persevere in the mission he has been given.
When the crowd comes to take Jesus away, the disciples, who have not prayed, resort to violence. They cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest. But Jesus, who has prayed, restores the ear. The disciples have yielded to temptation and become as violent as the men who have come to arrest Jesus. But Jesus has not yielded to this temptation and continues to reconcile enemies. The key is that Jesus prayed always, allowing God’s peace to suffuse his heart and inform his actions.
This is a significant addition to the “how we are to pray always and not lose heart.” Not to lose heart means more than merely persevering in the face of difficulties. It is more than not giving up. It is coming forward with love and being faithful to the ways of peace. The temptation in wearing down injustice is to become more unjust than what we are attempting to wear down. We win on the terms the unjust judge sets. We fear God less and respect people less than he does, and so we can overcome him with more violence than he is able to muster. However, we can resist this temptation when we integrate our hearts into the heart of Jesus. He is the relentless widow who prays always until his heart becomes the heart of God.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.