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It would be easy to think that this parable is saying something about winning, something about how to wear down our opponents—the unjust justices and uncaring presidents of the world. It would be reasonable to conclude that the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is all about getting what we want—that Jesus, like seemingly everyone else, really cares about results and outcomes and bottom lines.
It would be so easy to go down that path, to read the story as the sanctification of nagging, a primer on persistence, a meditation on the connection between faith and justice.
And maybe that is why Luke prefaces the parable with his own interpretation, why he he gives us the moral of the story before we’ve even heard the story: to make sure we will be able to connect the holy dots.
Or maybe Luke and the rest of the people in his church had just had a bad week, a rotten month, a discouraging couple of years. Maybe all the injustices of the world and the cruelty of the powerful were starting to get to them, beginning to wear them down.
Maybe Luke and the other members of First Church Antioch had endured a spell of really bad, almost unimaginable news. Maybe their recent past was something like ours—when, in addition to the ever-more-heartbreaking news about migrant families being torn apart and detained by our government, there was the constant stream of cruel, racist, and false statements by our president as he attempted to justify his administration’s inhumane policies. Maybe Luke and the other followers of the Jesus way were starting to feel a little beaten up—as if the sucker punch of the Supreme Court’s upholding of an anti-Muslim immigration and travel ban was followed by the news that the highest court in the land would soon become even more hostile to the rights of immigrants, queer folks, women, and labor unions. Maybe, just when they were starting to recover from the most recent round of persecution, they received word of still more violence—something like five journalists shot dead.
Maybe things were so bad that they had all but stopped praying—because what good difference did it make, anyway? Maybe a long string of defeats had left them feeling discouraged. Maybe they had been working hard and long to defy the authorities and overcome evil—and yet they didn’t have much to show for it and there was no end in sight. Maybe they were feeling tired and wondering how long they could keep going. Maybe the future seemed so bleak that they were on the verge of losing heart and giving up.
Not that we can relate to those circumstances—At. All.—not that we know anything about what any of that would feel like. But …
At least we can be thankful to Luke—on behalf on those first Christians and all—for the exegetical cheat sheet he left his listeners:
“Then,” he says, “Jesus told the disciples a parable about”—get this—about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
As if there is some connection between prayer and hope. As if faith is the assurance that another world—the realm of God—is possible, and the truly faithful will not settle for anything less. As if speaking out against injustice is like praying. As if working for justice is holy. As if prayer involves not only waiting for God to do something but also preparing the way with our actions. As if staying silent in the face of injustice is like not praying, and not praying is like surrendering to the way things are, and surrendering is like losing heart.
As if losing heart is much worse than losing itself—whether the loss involves a game, a love, a dream, whether the loss is of health or home, connection or a legal case.
As if the way to not lose heart is to keep on praying, keep on protesting, keep on loving, keep on demanding justice, keep on persisting and persevering, keep on knocking on every closed door because we know—we know, we trust—that even if no one is willing to open those doors, our knocking will eventually break them down.
As if the surest way to make sure we are not overcome by evil is to overcome evil with our collective good—goodness that goes so far as to feed our enemies when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty. As if the only way we can be that good is if we are persevering in prayer, praying always, making room for the Spirit to transform us and work through us. As if the best protection against losing heart is to keep asking for what we need, even when the odds are against us, even when justice seems impossible, even when we are unable to imagine a scenario when the system changes, the immigrants are welcomed, the poor are lifted up, families are reunited, and our hurt is healed.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am the obnoxious widow—arguing furiously and endlessly on Facebook with people who defend family separations and detentions, going to every vigil and protest and demonstration to state my case.
I don’t know about you, but other times I’m the hard-hearted judge—so worn down by the injustices of the world, so exhausted by my failures to make a difference and my frustrations with how other people do things that I don’t even want to listen anymore, that I am tempted to turn my back on it all.
I don’t know about you, but there are times when I fear that I have lost heart. Times when I go to a demonstration and I don’t feel encouraged, times when I hear the same people saying the same things, and I want to scream, “Stop talking at me and, instead, listen to my outrage, hear my despair, give me a forum to express my fears, remind me that I am not alone in my convictions.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I need to pray more—with my life and my body as well as my words.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be overcome by evil. I don’t want to lose my heart.
I don’t know about you, but I take heart from the life of Jesus, the one who never gave in to earthly powers, never gave up on God’s goodness, and, though he suffered and died, triumphed in the end.
I take heart, too, from Lucio. If you wonder how a person in his situation does not lose heart, I can tell you (and he will tell you, too): He prays—a lot. He gives thanks—all the time. He persists in faith and perseveres in prayer. He does not let the injustice of the judge—or the cruelty of the president, the perversity of the U.S. immigration system, or the inhumanity of I.C.E., and his separation from his family—determine his behavior. He just keeps believing in the rightness of his cause and the greatness of his God.
The widow went to the judge and, when she didn’t get what she wanted, when she didn’t get what she needed, she kept coming back. She kept demanding justice. Even though she knew, and everybody knew, the judge didn’t care (it was printed right there on the back of his robes for all to see). The judge was a jerk. Even though widows were, traditionally, weak and vulnerable. She. Just. Kept. Bothering. Him. She would not stop.
And, so, finally, the judge relented—not because he had changed but because she had worn him down and, frankly, she was making of him a laughing stock.
If a powerless widow could force an unjust judge to do justice, then how much more will our Heavenly Parent—who loves us with an unending, unwavering, extravagant love—hear our cries and come to our aid?
And how much more will we pray?
Here ends the lesson on our need to pray always and not lose heart.