Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ”And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8 – NRSV)
This parable – and the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican that follows – is unique to Luke.
The parable is probably told to the disciples. On the face of it, we might find it difficult to see how this parable can enlighten us on the “need to pray always and not to lose heart”. Yes, there is the obvious example of endurance or persistence. Perhaps it is a little clearer if we allow that the parable is probably told as a humorous story: “Don’t get too anxious about prayer, just do your best, stick at it and your very perseverance will yield results”.
We also should remember the context – soon after the destruction of the temple and the sacking of Jerusalem, many people were killed, the Christians find themselves a tiny and threatened minority, perhaps even rejected by their families and fellow villagers. Widows were typically among the marginalized in normal times. The plight of the widows is now a powerful symbol of all those who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
Some commentators argue that v.1 and vv.7-8 do not belong with the parable. Fitzmyer for example writes: “(T)he connection of vv. 1–8 to the foregoing instruction is tenuous, and the relation of vv. 1, 7–8 to the parable proper may be looser than we realize. The parable proper includes at least vv. 2–5 and has been derived by Luke from his source “L.” Verses 6–8 form various conclusions or applications of the parable, and they too seem to have been derived from “L” (see p. 84). Verse 8b, about the Son of Man finding faith when he comes, is almost universally regarded as a secondary addition made by Luke to the preceding verses. …. I prefer to regard vv. 2–6 as the parable proper” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J. The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1175-1176).
their need to pray always and not to lose heart: The meaning of “always” here seems to be a general one rather than a literal one. In other words, “Live a prayerful life”. Prayer should be an ongoing feature of the life of Jesus’ disciples until the Son of Man comes – see 17:30. It seems reasonable to relate this call to prayer to Jesus’ earlier instruction in which he taught them to “pray like this: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread” (11:2-3). This stated purpose of the parable does not match the conclusion in v.8, suggesting that “the parable’s original setting is lost to us” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1178).
a judge: The precise nature of the local legal structure and procedure is not known. In any case, the details around the judge are not significant to the meaning of the parable. Otherwise we might be thinking that Jesus is comparing his Father to the unjust judge!
a widow: “As she is depicted in the story, the widow is seen as a helpless woman deprived of equity and as a plaintiff in some lawsuit. Was she one of those whose ‘houses’ were being devoured (see 20:47)? She fits the OT picture of the widow to whom justice is often denied. See Exod 22:22–24; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Mal 3:5; Ruth 1:20–21; Lam 1:1; Isa 54:4; Ps 68:5; recall the OT implication of disgrace which was often associated with widowhood. This makes her but another example of the ‘outcasts’ about whom Jesus’ message is concerned at this stage in the Lucan travel account. ….. Note also the prominence of widows in the story of Luke-Acts (2:37; 4:25–26; 7:12; 20:47; 21:2–3; Acts 6:1; 9:39, 41). Cf. Mark 12:40 (= Matt 23:14), 42–43. As OT background for this parable, one may read Sir 35:12–20” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 11788-1179).
Life is tough. Life is messy. The intensity varies of course, but the toughness and messiness are part of existence. The temptation to lose heart and give in to one or other of the many escape routes available to us all – escape routes that are of course no escape – is never far away. Perseverance is needed. In fact, our best possibilities only grow with perseverance – integrity, faith, love.
In today’s Gospel – Luke 18:1-8 – Jesus reminds the disciples of this with a story. Jesus conjures an image of a selfish person, intent on building and protecting his own kingdom, someone who has no regard for justice or the needs of others. A “successful” man who has dealt cleverly with the toughness and messiness of life at the expense of truth. A victim of this man’s selfishness and lack of care is a widow – one of society’s outcasts, someone deprived of power and authority. But she bothers the selfish man into submission by her perseverance! There is a comical side to this story. And therein lies one clue to perseverance: A sense of humour!
Clearly Jesus is not holding the selfish and unjust judge up as some kind of example of the way God behaves. That would fly in the face of the repeated and consistent revelation that God is a God of justice and mercy. Nor should we assume that Jesus is promoting mere grit-your-teeth stubbornness or blind and wilful effort or manipulation of others by making a nuisance of yourself. That would be an unwarranted and shallow interpretation, also out of tune with the rest of the biblical revelation which calls for love and truth, justice and compassion. Rather, given all else that is said about fidelity in the Bible – of both God and the people – we can reasonably assume Jesus is in fact promoting commitment and fidelity in the face of the toughness and messiness of life and the temptations to lose heart.
Realistic expectations are a good basis for perseverance. So too is healthy community involvement. Unrealistic expectations are obstacles to perseverance. So too is individualism. The essence of our perseverance as disciples of Jesus Christ is succinctly summed up by St Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). A loving relationship with the Lord is the surest ground of perseverance.
There is plenty of evidence in the Scriptures that those first Christians struggled frequently with this issue of perseverance. For example, in the Letter to the Hebrews – which is almost entirely given over to addressing the crisis of Christians losing heart and/or faith in Jesus as the Messiah – we read: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2).
There are many factors that test our perseverance these days in both society and Church. Persevering can be hard to justify at times. What keeps you going?