In a certain city there was a certain judge who did not fear God and who did not care about people. In that same city, there was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding, “Give me a ruling of vindication against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I’m going to give her a favorable ruling, or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down!”
― Jesus (Luke 18: 1-8)
You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.
— Marian Wright Edelman (b. 1939)
In a late night session on February 7, 2017, during Jeff Session’s confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General, just weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the United States Senate voted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren after she read comments made decades earlier by Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King that criticized the civil rights record of Senator Sessions. Warren was censured because Senate Rule XIX prohibits ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” To silence her, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led a party-line vote that forced Senator Warren to take her seat and refrain from speaking. McConnell later said “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
That phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” became a rallying cry for the women’s movement that had been ignited by the election of Donald Trump. Writer Valerie Schultz wrote in America: the Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, “It is a phrase we women embrace because persistence is what we do.”
We women persist. Isn’t that our job? Throughout history, we have persisted in our quest for respect, for justice, for equal rights, for suffrage, for education, for enfranchisement, for recognition, for making our voices heard. In the face of violence, of opposition, of ridicule, of belittlement, even of jail time, nevertheless, we have persisted.
In the parable sometimes called “The Unjust Judge” but more accurately titled “The Persistent Widow,” Jesus tells the story of a woman who persisted and persevered. Usually the parable is interpreted as an allegory about prayer and that is the way Luke’s gospel presents it.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
In his conclusion, Luke makes a comparison of the lesser to the greater. He has Jesus say to his listeners that if an unjust judge can become worn down by repeated pleas for justice, then don’t lose heart if God seems immune to your prayers. Just keep praying.
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.
Yet, as scholar David Buttrick (1927–2017) once wrote, “The notion that, repeatedly, we must bang on the doors of heaven to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer.”
But there is more going on here than prayer. Parables are not allegories. The characters do not stand for someone else. The judge is not God. The widow is not us—although, of the two characters, she is the one we most identify with. Rather, a parable is an imaginative metaphor in story form that is meant to startle us, to raise questions, and to challenge our conventional thinking. This is not an allegory about prayer; it is a tale about a flea biting a dog.
It is a spare tale, without much detail or background on the characters. We are told that the judge dwells in a city and thus may be a member of the urban elite. Nothing apparently shames him (neither God nor other people). Tradition characterizes him as unjust, but the parable itself does not state that, although Luke’s conclusion does. We are not told that the judge accepts bribes or is partial to the wealthy, though both of those may be true. The legal system of any domination society is rarely a guarantor of justice to powerless, marginalized people.
The widow is often a powerless person in a first-century society, no longer having a male protector in a patriarchal system. The Torah regularly states that three groups of people fall under God’s special care—widows, orphans, and resident aliens—because they have no male or clan protectors. According to Deuteronomy:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. (10:17–18)
These tangible benefits do not miraculously appear out of the heavens. God demands a society that will provide sustenance for the helpless. Further, Deuteronomy includes this threat:
Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. Let the people say ‘Amen!’ (27:19)
The prophetic poetry of the Psalms proclaim that the Lord (Yahweh) is a lover of justice:
The Lord is righteous, he loves justice. (11:7)
The Lord loves righteousness and justice. (33:5)
The Lord loves justice. (37:28)
The Lord is a lover of justice. (99:1, 4)
Rooted in this ancient belief that God seeks justice for those who are weak and helpless, Jesus calls his followers to “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s justice” (Matthew 6:33). He encouraged this pursuit by saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Clarence Jordan (1912–1969) humorously translates it as, “They will have plenty to chew on.”
So the widow seeks justice, and one would have to believe from the Hebrew Bible that God is on her side. We don’t know if this particular widow is young or old, but she lives in a time when few lived beyond the age of thirty except for the very wealthy. We don’t know whether she is rich or poor. If she too is a city-dweller, then she is most likely not a subsistence farmer like the majority of peasants. She also has the luxury of spending time pestering the judge, which is not something many poor people can do while trying to survive. We are told that she keeps coming and coming, but does that mean she is continually coming to the court, or does she also approach the judge in the synagogue, on the street, or at his home? Her behavior would be considered shameless and brazen in that culture. She may be weak, but she is clearly not helpless. She is feisty and tenacious. And she has the audacity to continually harass the judge for the justice she desires.
We don’t know what the legal matter is all about. Is someone trying to take advantage of her? Is it about inheritance or a land dispute? Scholars point out that instead of seeking “justice”—as is the normal translation—the Greek word actually indicates that the widow is seeking “vindication,” or even “revenge” on her adversary.
And the judge finally gives in to her persistence. She simply wears him down. The Greek verb translated as “wear me down” is actually a boxing term meaning to “beat me up,” “strike me in the face,” “give me a black eye,” or “beat me black and blue.” He probably means this metaphorically rather than literally. He is simply tired of the persistent demand and so he gives in. When the widow gets justice it’s only because she would not retreat, she would not back down, and she would not give up the fight. She was determined to get what she came for.
It is hard to make value judgments about either of these characters. Is one good and the other bad? In this parable it hardly matters. Instead, the parable is about persistence. It is all about not accepting being ignored or rebuffed or overlooked or silenced. It is about struggling against a system that is at best indifferent, and where the law is frequently unjust to the marginalized.
Most of Jesus’ parables are about some aspect of the kingdom of God. Scholar Bernard Brandon Scott (b. 1941) says that this persistent struggle is a viable metaphor for the kingdom of God:
The kingdom keeps coming, keeps battering down regardless of honor or justice. It may even come under the guise of shamelessness.
This is a story about kingdom tactics. Weak and powerless people must keep striving for justice until the system gives in. Because, as Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) said,
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.
This parable calls us to become troublemakers and disturbers of the peace on behalf of the kingdom of God and social justice. Theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) wrote:
Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.
Clarence Jordan commented on this parable:
There are times when causing trouble is the witness we must raise for the sake of justice. There are times when the depth of our concern for something will cause us to overstep the bounds of a common law and order for the sake of a higher law and order. I do not believe that Jesus wants us to literally bruise the body politic, but Jesus uses strong language to make his point: what is just in God’s eyes is more important than standard operating procedure in the eyes of our culture.
If an allegory is needed to help explain the parable, then don’t look for God in the role of the indifferent judge. Rather, God should be seen in the character of the persistent widow, always seeking justice. That is more likely to be where God is found in the struggle between justice and the law.
As for prayer, well perhaps we should look to ourselves as the real answers to our prayers. Countless people pray daily for God to change conditions in the world. Their prayers often may sound as if they are reminding God what God’s job is (to bring peace among warring nations, to bring healing to the sick, to be with those who suffer, etc.). They want to put everything in God’s hands and let God deal with the mess we have created here below. This kind of prayer often allows the petitioner to sit passively aside, waiting for God to act, ignoring the reality that the God of love works through us and as us in the world. Our hands, feet, and voices speak for God in the world. The power we call God can only work through us in the world. It not appropriate, nor is it realistic, to ask God to do things in the world independent of us. God has set the task of justice before us. Let’s get on with it.
Rather than asking God to act, our corporate prayers should instead ask for empowerment to do these things ourselves. We should pray that we will have the courage to take actions against war; that we will take the time to comfort the sick with our own presence; that we will work to create systems of justice that will alleviate poverty and hunger; and that we will dedicate our lives to transforming our communities, nation, and the world toward love, compassion, and justice.
Phillip Brooks (1835–1893), a Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop, suggested that prayer should be to empower us to the tasks that lie in front of us.
Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger [people]! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks.
Don’t lose hope. Keep up the struggle. Pray if you must, but always protest, resist, and persist!