29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Luke 18:1-11.
AIM: To encourage persistence in prayer.
In 1961 the author, Joseph Heller, enriched the language with the title of a best-selling novel, later made into a film: Catch 22. The phrase designates a hopeless situation. An example would be a worker applying for a job who is told he cannot be hired until he joins the union. When he seeks membership in the union, however, they tell him he cannot join until he has a job. Like the widow in today=s gospel, he is stymied. Both are in a catch-22 situation. The woman=s hopeless situation is compounded by the judge=s cynicism. AHe respected neither God nor man,@ Jesus tells us. The judge, in other words, could not be moved either by considerations of duty or by threats to his reputation.
We need not think of the widow in the story as old. Women married in their early teens in Jesus= day. This widow may well have been young. Her repeated appearance in court indicates that she was also vigorous. Young or old, however, widows in Jesus= day were among society=s weakest members. It was a man=s world. Women were the property of men: of their fathers until marriage, thereafter the property of their husbands. In a subsistence economy without any social safety net, a woman whose husband had died was vulnerable and destitute.
The widow in Jesus= story is the victim of a corrupt system. An Aopponent@ is withholding her sole means of support C the remainder of her dowry, perhaps, or her inheritance. If she is unable to vindicate her rights, she will starve.
Faithful to the age-old maxim that the squeaky wheel gets the most grease, she comes to court every day and makes a scene. At her first appearance the court officials doubtless explained to her that she could not be heard until she paid the usual fees. Since these went straight into the pockets of those demanding them, we would call them bribes. When the widow told them she was too poor to pay, they ignored her. Yet still she came. Those hearing Jesus tell the story recognize an impasse. Given the character of the judge, and the woman=s poverty, they expect no resolution. Some problems, they realize, are insoluble.
Now comes a surprise. After days, perhaps many weeks, the widow suddenly achieves the breakthrough she has almost ceased hoping for. Without realizing it, she has found a chink in the seemingly impregnable armor of indifference with which the corrupt judge has covered himself. Consistent to the end, not out of any sense of justice but simply for his own convenience and to silence this public scold in his courtroom, he gives in, hears the woman=s case, and quickly grants her what she has so long sought in vain.
Jesus= description of the judge=s thought processes would have caused mirth in the hearers. AThis widow is wearing me out,@ he reflects, and resolves to settle in her favor Aor she will end by doing me violence.@ This is the language of the boxing ring. The picture of one of society=s weakest members pummeling with her fists a man of virtually unlimited power, with others at his beck and call, is laughable. To recapture the story=s effect on its first hearers we might imagine a television skit in which an actor portraying the President of the United States ignores the verbal assaults of a homeless bag lady C until the woman hits him over the head with her bag, which turns out to be a water bomb that leaves the Chief Executive dripping wet.
The story=s impact comes from its reversal of expectations at the end. A judge who neither fears God nor cares for what others think of him comes to fear a poor widow. A petitioner without power, both as a woman and because she has neither husband nor money, turns out to be anything but powerless. Her power lies in her persistence.
Like all Jesus= parables, this one describes conditions in God=s kingdom: a state in which normal worldly expectations are reversed. Where God reigns, Jesus is saying, victims claim their rights, often in surprising ways. And in God=s kingdom victims obtain their rights. The weak and powerless are powerless no more. Wherever God reigns Mary=s words at the news that she was to the mother of God=s Son are fulfilled: the proud are confused in their inmost thoughts; the mighty are toppled from their thrones; the lowly are raised to high places; the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent empty away. (Cf. Luke 1:51ff)
For the story=s original hearers the use of a corrupt judge to illustrate God=s goodness was so shocking as to require an explanation. Jesus supplies this with his two rhetorical questions: AWill not God then do justice to his chosen who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long over them, do you suppose?
At once Jesus answers these questions himself C and then puts a further question to the story=s hearers, ourselves included: AI tell you he will give them swift justice. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?@
Most of Jesus= parables involve a similarity between the central figure and God. In this case the story turns on the dissimilarity between the corrupt judge and God. It is a Ahow much more@ story. If even so depraved a judge as this one grants the petitioner her request in the end, how much more will God grant the prayers of those who ask him for their needs. God, Jesus is saying, is not like the corrupt judge. It is not difficult to get his attention. God is always more ready to hear than we to pray. God is approachable.
What is the point of praying, however, if God knows our needs before we do, and better than we do? When we ask God for things in prayer, are we trying to change God=s mind? If that were the case, God would be like the corrupt judge. And the point of the story, as we have seen, is that God is not like the corrupt judge. How does prayer work, then?
To that question there is no fully satisfying answer. Prayer, like everything to do with God, is a mystery: not in the sense that we can understand nothing about it, but that what we can understand is always less than the whole. One thing is certain. Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. It opens us up to the action of God in our lives, as the sun=s rays open the flowers to their life-giving warmth and the nourishing moisture of dew and rain.
Prayer also reminds us of our need for God. How easily we forget that need, especially when the sun shines on us and things go well. Then we start to think we can make it on our own: by our cleverness, by luck, by pulling strings, by hard work, even by being so good that God will have to reward us.
We need to be reminded again and again that we can never make it on our own. No matter how clever we are; no matter how much luck we have; no matter how many strings we pull; no matter how hard we work or how hard we try to be good. Even when we have all these things going for us (and which of us has?), we still need God. God is the missing ingredient in life: the one without whom life is meaningless, without whose help all our striving, conniving, planning, struggling, and praying still fall pitifully short of the goal.
AWill not God do justice to his chosen who call out to him day and night?@ Jesus asks at the story=s conclusion. The answer is obvious. Of course he will! First, however, God wants us to Acry out to him day and night.@ He wants us to pray and to keep on praying, even when it appears useless C because God seems to answer only with silence. Perseverance in prayer strengthens our desire and deepens our faith, very much as sustained physical exercise strengthens the muscles, heart, and lungs.
expresses this well: AGod wants our desire to be exercised in prayer, thus enabling
us to grasp what he is preparing to give. ... We are small and limited vessels
for the receiving of it. ... We shall have the greater capacity to receive [God=s gifts], the more trustfully we
believe, the more firmly we hope, the more ardently we desire.@ St. Augustine
St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, says the same in a slightly different form: AHoly desires grow with delay: if they fade through delay they are no desires at all.@
God always answers prayer, though not always at the time, and in the manner, that we want. Halfway through my 89th year I am grateful to have lived long enough to be able to thank God for answering some of my prayers: ANot now@, and others ANever.@ Nor will God keep us waiting until we bid high enough for the things we need. All that is certain. One thing alone is uncertain. Do we truly believe in a God who hears and answers our prayers? Do really trust him? Or is our real trust elsewhere? In our own cleverness, in our good luck, in the strings we can pull, in our hard work, in the bribes we try to offer God in the form of prayers and sacrifices and good works?
None of those things is certain, Jesus tells us. There is certainty only in God. He alone can satisfy our deepest desires. Hence Jesus= final, insistent question: AWhen the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?