Weekly Bible Devotional
“Godspell: The Parable of the Persistent Widow”
January 12, 2020
Scripture for Sunday: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Notes on the Text:
The power gap between the judge and the widow is key to understanding the radical nature of this parable. The judge was the one responsible for interpreting the Law, the Torah, and was a person who worked for the powerful in society. Judges were supposed to protect the vulnerable by applying God’s word and teachings to cases where injustice had occurred. The widow represented the most vulnerable in ancient Israel. She would have been a woman who was supposed to receive mercy from society, but many times widows were neglected and mistreated by the powerful. By shifting the power to the woman in the parable, Jesus was turning the social systems of power upside down. He was reminding his followers that they were the ones with power if they persisted. Their persistence in prayer and following the way of the kingdom of God in the face of the oppressive powers of the world, had the potential to transform those power dynamics and shift them to the ways of justice and love.
The disciples and the Christian community to which the Gospel of Luke was written were struggling with an overwhelming sense of despair. The odds were so strong against them. Jesus seemed to be making many enemies along the way. The religious authorities were threatened by his message of love and justice. The Christian community of Luke was feeling the despair of being persecuted and misunderstood. The gospel was a costly addition to their lives. Against this backdrop we hear the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, knowing the importance of persistent hope in the face of evil and pain.
What is especially important to hear about this parable is how God does not give up on us. This is not just about being optimistic in life and keeping a cheerful attitude in the face of calamity. It is about a deep and abiding hope that comes from the knowledge that God is steadfast in love. In this parable we often identify God with the unjust judge. Many interpretations of this parable would look at the unjust judge as the one granting justice because of the woman’s persistence. The lesson that is normally drawn out of this parable is that if we prayed hard enough before God for what we want, then God would eventually grant it. This understanding reduces our relationship with God to supply and demand. If we demand it hard enough, God will have to supply it. It is like a child pestering their parents hard enough to wear them down to get what they want. I believe that such interpretation misses the depth of the teachings of Jesus in this parable.
If we look closely at the parable it would be hard for us to identify God with the unjust judge, i.e., to identify God with someone who has no concern for justice! It is also difficult to see God responding to a petition because of nagging without any concern for the content of the petition itself. Throughout the scriptures, in the Old Testament, we see God having a special concern for the widow and the orphan. God identifies with their suffering and their plight and demands that people take specific action to take care of the orphan and the widow because they were the most vulnerable in society. We also see how highly unusual for a woman, especially a widow with a male protector, to demand justice out of a judge in those days. A judge in those days was someone who knew the Torah Laws/the religious laws and would often use them to protect the interests of the religious leaders and the social elites of his people. This is a very radical scene of Jesus showing the disciples that persistence in faith and working for justice is the way of the kingdom. This kind of invitation is deeply rooted in God’s own action with the people of Israel of never giving up on them even when they turned away from God’s ways of love.
Our persistence in faith, service and compassion does not come from any illusion that in our lifetime all the problems of the world would be solved. Our hope comes from knowing that the work of God’s love never gives up on us. When we fail, we are still children of God. When our world fails, it is still God’s beloved creation that is being redeemed. Our hope is not attached to results. It springs forth from a deep rootedness in the ways of God’s love and justice. Whether Jesus comes back tomorrow or in a thousand years, our hope is the same!
The best way to describe persistence in the way of Jesus is “tenacity in the face of the impossible.” As I mentioned before, parables were supposed to change the worldview of the listener. They were Jesus’ preferred way of teaching because they lowered people’s defenses and then helped them see things from a different vantage point. Today’s parable is about the importance of perseverance, persistence, and tenacity. It shifts the power dynamics and our views of what is possible in our world.
At least two things work against us in being persistent in living out the gospel:
- Our fear of not fitting in: It is not easy standing up for greater love in society when it means challenging the blind spots of one’s culture. People often fear getting rejected or labeled by others.
- Our fear or fatigue when we fail: Working for the causes of love is not easy because we often fail. Big changes require long-term commitments.
When things are tough or take longer than we think to fix, we may feel discouraged, but the spiritual work is to keep going even when our efforts seem to go nowhere. Our hope and persistence have to come from the eternal source of hope and persistence.
Our prayer life is about keeping the eternal flame of God’s love and purpose alive in our hearts to light our way. As writer Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Maybe prayer isn’t the way in which we manipulate God but is simply the posture in which we finally become worn down by God’s persistence -God’s persistence in loving us. God’s persistence in forgiving and being known. And God’s persistence in being faithful and always, always, always bringing life out of death.”
Waiting for Bread and for God’s Future by Walter Brueggemann:
We are strange mixtures of loss and hope.
As we are able, we submit our losses to you.
We know about sickness and dying,
about death and mortality,
about failure and disappointment.
And now for a moment we do our failing and out dying in your presence,
You who attend to us in loss.
As we are able, we submit our hopes to you.
We know about self-focused fantasy and notions of control.
But we also know that our futures are out beyond us, held in your good hand.
Our hopes are filled with promises of well-being, justice, and mercy.
Move us this day beyond our fears and anxieties into your land of goodness.
We wait for your coming, we pray for your kingdom.
In the meantime, give us bread for this day. Amen.