Let the Scriptures Speak
Will not God then do justice to his chosen who call out
to him day and night? (Luke 18:7)
That widow in Jesus’ parable who kept badgering the judge to vindicate her cause—think of what she was up against. As a widow in the Ancient Near East she is without resources. Since the court of law (the city gates?) was entirely a male realm, we are to picture her as a lone woman amidst a noisy crowd of men. An oft-quoted description of Near Eastern litigation describes a raucous crowd of clients competing for the attention of a judge, who is surrounded by an array of personal clerks. Some clients gain access to the judge by supplying “fees” (bribes) to a particular clerk. The rest simply clamor. The fact that the woman is alone suggests that there is no male available in her extended family to plead her case. She is very much alone in an intimidating situation.
But if God is, as a matter of fact, not a corrupt judge unreachable through appeals to justice and compassion, why the need for persistence?What is more, the judge is described as one who neither fears God nor is he capable of shame before men. Presumably, he is moved only by bribery (the sort of judge implied by Amos 5:10-13), and this woman is either unwilling or unable to use that means. The only strategy available to her is persistence—which finally gets through to the irreverent and shameless judge. The more recent New American Bible translation (1986) does justice to Luke’s language in describing the frustration of this official: “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me [literally, ‘give me a blow under the eye’].” He knows the woman is not going to give up; so he gives in.
There is no question regarding the point of this story. Luke introduces it, after all, by saying, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” But if the woman is supposed to be an example of how to pray, why does Jesus take the risk of paralleling God with a godless, shameless judge? This startling way of making a point is an example of what rabbis called qal ivahomer (“light and heavy”)—an argument that reasons in this way: “If it is thus in the ‘tight’ situation, how much more in the ‘heavy’?” Jesus uses this ploy elsewhere, for example, in another teaching on prayer, when he asks, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:11). In other words, if the unstoppable widow can, by her persistence, win vindication from an unjust and godless judge, how much more will your persistence get a response from a loving God?
But if God is, as a matter of fact, not a corrupt judge unreachable through appeals to justice and compassion, why the need for persistence? It may be that, from the human side, some situations simply require our involvement in prayer of petition over an extended time. The classic example of this is the prayer of Monica, the mother of the gifted but errant young man that the Church would eventually canonize as Saint Augustine.
In his Confessions, Augustine acknowledges that it was the persistent prayer of his mother that facilitated his adult Christian conversion. His description of his own pre-conversion lifestyle portrays what we today may have good reason to identify as a sexual addiction. For example, in Book 8, Chapter 11, he writes of hearing the voice of Continence saying to him, “Why do you stand on yourself, and thus stand not at all? … Cast yourself trustfully on him [the Lord]: he will receive you and he will heal you.”
His conversion entailed not simply a decision to act differently but a healing from that addiction. Such things take time. In Augustine’s case, it required the lifelong prayer of a famously persistent mother.
At this moment in our national history, we are being forced to recall another gifted and flawed man and another sort of Monica, presenting a kind of epiphany of our national need for healing in a variety of ways. A case can be made that we are seeing patterns of individual and collective addiction—sexual addiction, an investigative and legal process that outran its original purpose, a practice of partisan politics that lost a sense of the common good, and a media industry and public that indulged in frenzied feeding on the whole spectacle. But is it not possible that there is also a deeper call here to a persistent prayer for national healing?
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University