Well, we finally hear a parable from Jesus that vindicates a nagging woman! Often called the Parable of the Unjust Judge, this story could also be called the Parable of the Faithful Widow—or the Parable of the Importunate Widow. Whatever we call it, we are called to focus on praying, persistently and in faith, measuring ourselves against the highest standards.
However, German theologian and professor of Near Eastern studies Joachim Jeremias writes that the parable of the Unjust Judge is not a lesson on how to pray. Likewise, he feels it is not based on what most people see as the central figure in the story: the widow. He posits that Jesus’ interpretation shows that he intended to direct attention to the figure of the judge.
So, which is it? And why did Jesus tell this particular story? Jeremias points out that Jesus himself gives the answer to that question in Luke 18:7-8a: “He expected his hearers to draw the conclusion from the judge to God: If this inconsiderate man, who had refused to hear the widow’s case, finally gives heed to her distress, and that after long delay, only to rid himself of the incessant pestering of the plaintiff, how much more will God?”
Or, as a certain 13th Century Cistercian monk tells the story about a lay brother who was once heard to pray to Jesus (apparently trying to twist his arm) “Lord, if thou will free me not from this temptation, I will complain of thee to thy Mother!”
Here is a totally unsympathetic character—a crooked judge, no less—(Jesus always knows how to turn up the heat in his parables, doesn’t he?) who could make mincemeat of anyone over whom he wields his power. Then we have the wronged widow, who comes into his courtroom every day to inch her way under his skin. She nags the judge, who couldn’t care less about her plight, into deciding on her behalf. By literally wearing him out, the clamoring widow gets justice for her cause.
Taken within its own dramatic terms, the story doesn’t sound all that strange. What is striking is that, on the lips of Jesus, this scene out of Palestine’s version of “Judge Judy” makes some crucial and even startling points about prayer.
First it says that everyone who comes to God in prayer must do so personally. The fact that it never mentions the widow having a lawyer is no accident. How could she afford one? No one has to mediate for her and present her claims before the judge. She deals with this unpleasant tyrant face to face. It’s a personal confrontation.
This is the truth that Jesus wants his disciples to understand: God is an unmediated Presence, approachable directly by the individual person. At any time, any place, in whatever is of concern to us—God offers us the right to be heard.
Second, the parable teaches us about chutzpah in prayer. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book Jewish Humor, chutzpah is one of the few Hebrew words to gain wide acceptance in English usage. It means, literally: “insolence” or “audacity.” However, in Hebrew it has an overwhelmingly negative connotation, epitomized by the story of a man who murders his parents and then begs the judge to take pity on him because he is an orphan!
But when Yiddish borrowed the word “chutzpah” from Hebrew, it assigned it a more positive connotation, meaning “guts bordering on the heroic.” So, does one therefore need to raise eyebrows in prayer in order to be heard by God? Is that what Jesus wants us to get from the parable? Does God have to be cajoled, nagged, and nearly tricked into answering prayer as was the crooked judge? I don’t think so. In Matthew 6:7-9, Jesus says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases toward God…your Father knows what you need before you ask” (Matthew 6:7-8).
Yet I also believe that prayer is sometimes more than Phillip Brooks’ wispy explanation: “Prayer in its simplest definition is merely a wish turned heavenward.” This thought lacks chutzpah. It raises no eyebrows. It has little to do with “guts bordering on the heroic.” Is there another way, concerning the matters of prayer and faith? I suggest three thoughts for consideration.
First, when the things you pray for mean as much to you as the things about which the widow endlessly bothered the judge, power in prayer happens. The asking, knocking, and seeking, in other words, are for us, not for God. But we have to believe, and we have to have great love. We have to care enough about that for which we are praying, so that our love for the person, thing, or situation has gripped our hearts to the point that our desire is in sync with that of God’s.
When I was in my 20’s, I heard the following phrase and it radically changed my relationship with God and my prayer life: “Prayers that are in line with God’s will and God’s purposes originate in heaven.”
In other words, praying with God’s love in your heart becomes agreeing with God, and is a desire to see “God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done.”
Second, I think that God is bound to answering such prayers, or God would not be God. God is not so capricious to suddenly change God’s mind and say, “Oh, I don’t think I care about the poor anymore, so I won’t answer people’s prayers for the poor.” Or, “I don’t think justice is important anymore, regardless of all the prophets who died, with challenging the people’s need to give justice, on their lips.
And third, when we ask, seek, and knock, and continue to do so, day after day, month after month, year after year, we are making ourselves radically present to God. And the more sincerely and deeply we are present, and don’t let go, no matter what, the more power of God is released in our lives.
According to French theologian Teilhard de Chardin in The Divine Milieu, “God must, in some way or another, make room for Himself, hollowing us out and emptying us, if He is finally to penetrate into us. And in order to assimilate us in Him, He must break the molecules of our being so as to re-cast and re-model us.”
I think de Chardin is right. I share with you a very personal experience that I shared with you in the past that illustrates this thinking. When I was in seminary, I fell madly in love with someone who I thought was my soul mate. But, we never entered into a romantic relationship. He was called to become a monk. I tried as hard as I could, in sobbing prayer and discipline of mind and affection, to get over this over the course of several months, but to no avail. My heart was broken.
Once every semester “quiet day” came up. This particular semester, after about seven hours of prayer, meditation, reading the scriptures, in total silence, I found myself walking back to the seminary chapel, about 2 in the afternoon. It was empty and completely quiet. The afternoon light was streaming down through the large Gothic stained glass window of Jesus, surrounded by his disciples.
I knelt and prayed out loud before God, “God, why did you have to break my heart? Haven’t I given everything to you?” (I had given up my business, my home, my three darling cats, all kinds of possessions and lifestyle.) I waited, and finally in my mind the words came, “because you said I could.”
I sat back on the pew, stunned, and realized that a few years before when I was in discernment over the priesthood, I had in some crazy fit of love for God, said, “Lord, you can do anything you wish with my life, including breaking my heart, if it suits your purposes.” Hmmm…I had egg on my face.
“Okay, God,” I continued. “That may be so, but now I am so broken that I can’t get it together again. You need to heal me. And, please help me understand why this was necessary.”
And at that moment, as if on the beams of light streaming from Jesus in the stained glass window, I saw a vision and heard in my mind at the same time, “Because I wanted to give you a new heart.”
The vision was that of a heart, not the Valentine’s Day stylized red heart, but an actual organ—but it was white. It moved down this sunbeam to my body. I stopped crying, and an eerie peace came over me. The pain was gone. My grief ended that moment.
Was my prayer answered in that my beloved decided to choose me instead of going to a monastery? No, and I didn’t want that. But God had done something powerful and life changing for me, and for my future as a priest, as one called to love God’s people as a mother loves her children.
I thought of this incident as “spiritual open heart surgery,” but something else happened about six months later that added another dimension to what had taken place that day. I had to have a physical because I would be going to Africa on mission for two months, and the time there would be very physically demanding. The program had to make sure I was physically fit enough to handle it.
As the doctor listened to my heart, I told him that I had a mitral valve prolapse, which had been discovered about 15 years earlier during a physical. He couldn’t hear it. I said, “Well, let me bend over, and then listen, because supposedly, that’s when its sound is the loudest.”
Again, he said, “I don’t hear anything, and my equipment would be more sensitive than what was used then.” Finally, after really working at this, he said, “I’m telling you, Eileen, you don’t have a mitral valve prolapse!” And at that moment, I found myself thinking back to the day of my prayer in the seminary chapel.
The spiritual open heart surgery had a physical component. My heart defect had been healed. I had never asked God to heal it, but I learned that day that God doesn’t do anything halfway when we are willing to go all the way. We can never outdo God. I prayed then, and I have prayed ever since, that God will always surprise me.
In prayer, and shall I say, even in wrestling in prayer with God, as did Jacob, not letting go, fighting with God if necessary—and I have a confession: I do fight with God, and I encourage you to do so as well—in fighting with God we come closer to the Divine, closer to God’s own heart and purposes, and we are transformed.
And, transformed, in whatever form it takes, we are then able, as was Jacob, to be instruments of God, to participate as partners with God, co-creators with God, in the very prayers we offer—incessantly like the widow, with chutzpah, in faith and in great love. Amen.
*Exegetical and example text sources: Synthesis, Proper 24, 2007, “Culture for EL and RCL,” by SEA, and “Postscript for EL and RCL, HKO.