In movie The Shashank Redemption, prisoner Andy Dufresne is put in charge of the prison library. Every week he writes a letter to the state legislature asking for funds to buy books for the prison library. After six years with no response, he receives several boxes of books and records, a check for $200 and a note requesting that he stop sending letters to the legislature. Andy’s response is to start sending two letters a week!
Like this vignette from the movie, Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow is a humorous story of perseverance and hope.
My late friend, the Rev Thomas John Carlisle wrote a treasure trove of prayers on biblical characters. Listen to his “Vindication” which ponders this parable:
Why did Jesus
Tell this story?
What was he trying
Or did they try
to find a proper moral—
one more pious
than this obscure vignette
seemed to portray?
Sine Jesus said it,
why not be satisfied
with what it clearly
for the poor
because of her
to her cause.
How persistent are you in prayer? Do you keep praying about matters that are near to your heart and to the heart of God, like justice, healing, peace and reconciliation? Or, do you assume God's will is otherwise if your request isn't granted quickly? The third of the prayers that don’t work is the prayer that quits. That is why did Jesus tell this story.
One of the most attractive –and frustrating – elements of Jesus’ parables is how recognizable his characters are. I find myself often having to apologize for their behavior, wishing Jesus would cast a more well-behaved lot.
But Jesus seeks to reveal the wisdom hidden in everyday life, not the religious nuggets reserved for the pious and polite. It’s also striking that, for all the ways we gloss over the difficulties of faith, Jesus never shies away from them. Here he is speaking plainly about the reality of unanswered prayer, laying the blame no on lack of faith or proper verbiage, but lack of persistence. In effect, we quit! Yet when our prayer seems ineffective, Jesus encourages us to harass God.
This parable is situated immediately following instructions about the return of Christ, implying that there will not be a gradual buildup, but as he notes elsewhere, it will go down like a “thief in the night.” Luke has been offering the faithful a word about remaining faithful in the meantime, clinging to Christ when there are no signs and the odds are stacked against the truth of the gospel. With this story, the faithful are lead to “always pray’ and “never lose heart.” For sometimes faith looks like persistence, like the sheer force of will.
The woman in this story is denied justice, likely because the judge neither fears God nor respects people. But she will not rest. Her request is simple, let justice be served. She is not asking for special treatment, or exceptional judgment. She is asking him to fulfill the work he has been called to do. In the end, he relents, not because he has a change of heart, but because he realizes that this woman is not going to quit.
We have to be careful when we read a parable. We are to take from it what Jesus intends, and not over think it. Jesus is not telling us that God is a spineless magistrate, unwilling to fulfill his heavenly duties. As he does in other places, Jesus shows us that even fallible human beings get it right sometimes. If bad judges can deliver justice with enough encouragement, the Righteous One of Israel will most certainly not fail.
Are our prayers, as mine, too often bound to their results? If I don’t receive what I’ve asked, I wonder if the prayer was effective. Do you find yourself wondering if prayer brings about real change? We may not openly doubt their efficacy, but the adage “prayer doesn’t change things, it changes us,” has become an easy escape to explain away mind-bending puzzles about prayer and reconcile traditional Christian practice with contemporary reality.
The power of this story is that it’s not one of the widow’s midnight annoyances that is somehow more productive than the others, it is that she shows herself determined and confident that justice will be done. That despite her reality, God will provide, not the justice she deserves, but the justice God promises. Her belief is not in her own actions, but in the justice that she seeks.
This story, then, is about the stewardship of prayer, tending to the unspeakable gift God has given us—to knock on heaven’s door!
Jesus wants his followers in a constant state of courageous prayer, not because it is more effective, but because they so fiercely believe in the justice they seek for this broken world, and in the power of God to deliver it.
Listen again to Carlisle, this time the poem is entitled “Finally.”
would not give up
Justice was served
despite his long disservice.
In the end, the story is about such persistence. And it is a message of hope. The widow was in a situation in which she was powerless to act. Only the judge could bring relief. Her persistence shows that she never gave up hope that justice would be done.
In real life, justice is not always done, but like the widow, we must fight on anyway in the hope that God will change human hearts. Or maybe we’ll just wear them down.