We have just heard Jesus tell a story about a widow who kept on nagging a judge until he heard her appeal for justice over a wrong done to her. To appreciate what she achieved and why Jesus chose her as an example, we need to be aware of what this widow was up against.
The word for “widow” in Hebrew means “silent one” or “one unable to speak.” In the Mediterranean world of that time males alone played a public role. Women did not speak on their own behalf. Because this widow appears alone in the story, we must assume that she has no male family member to act on her behalf. She is truly alone and, therefore, in a very vulnerable situation. Furthermore, because widows were not included in Hebrew laws on inheritance, she must be truly desperate, having lost all means of support and value in her life.
The judge in this story is not presiding in an ordered courtroom. The court of law then was located in the open air by the city gates and made up entirely of men. So we have to picture this lone widow in the middle of a raucous crowd of men, all competing for the attention of a judge who is surrounded by an array of male personal clerks. Some clients would gain access to the judge by supplying “fees” (bribes) to a particular attendant or clerk; the rest would simply shout in the hope of catching the judge’s eye and having their complaint heard.
The judge is portrayed as having ‘neither fear of God or respect for people’ i.e. no one, not even God, can make him feel ashamed. Presumably, he is moved only by bribery and this poor widow does not have the means to grease his palm. The only weapon in her arsenal is her persistence. And knowing that the entire community is witnessing this woman regularly haranguing him, the judge eventually he gives in.
He relents because he recognises that if he does not then she will ‘worry me to death’. This is a poor translation of the original text. The original Greek word is taken from boxing and it means that the widow will ‘give me a black eye’. To blacken someone’s face or give them ‘a black eye’ means to publicly shame a person. In badgering the judge every day the widow would be repeatedly shaming a shameless person to the point where, eventually, he would yield to her pressure.
What is the point of Jesus telling this story? Is he comparing God to a godless, shameless judge who cares nothing for justice?
St Luke introduces the story by saying, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart.” He uses the story to say that if the unstoppable widow can, by her persistence, win vindication from an unjust and shameless judge, how much more will your persistence get a response from a loving God?
Our Lord’s teaching would have made sense to his hearers in that ancient Mediterranean world and can still be applicable in the modern world. The widow’s experience of the justice system might not be much different for people today in many countries who do not have access to the law when they seek justice. And in our day how many people at one time or another have felt – after pleading in vain with God night and day for something – that God really is like that indifferent or heartless judge?
How should we respond to God when our prayers go unanswered? Some wags respond by saying “Well, you did get an answer but it was no.” But is that enough to satisfy any reasonable person?
My own experience of unanswered prayer is this: When I begin to ask God for something, I’m telling God what I want – either for myself or someone else. I usually don’t get it. I ask again but still don’t get it. With more pleading, I ask again … and even again … until I realise I am [literally] talking to the wall … or the ceiling … and wasting my time. And it’s at this stage that many people give up.
But if you persist in quietly talking to God then something strange happens: I find that I stop telling God what I want and come round to wondering what God wants or is going to do anyway. And as this gradually becomes clearer, I ask for the grace to cope with what God is going to do or allow to happen. I learn that despite the heartache and pain involved, I am given the strength or grace to cope … or just about cope.
In this sense my turning to God for help was not in vain … I did not get the answer I wanted but I ended up being able to say, as in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘thy will be done’. My prayer went answered … not the way I’d like – but, as I eventually try to believe, in the way that God knows best.
This is not an easy thing to do but, like a successful diet, you have to stick at it.
Holy Name, Jesmond
20 October 2019