There are two characters in Jesus’ parable: polar opposites no matter how you look at it. First, there is the judge, “neither feared God nor respected any human being.” He was in it completely for himself and made his decisions in court all on the basis of what would get him more power, more money, more control. Even worse, he dismissed any responsibility for the Divine mandate to care for the widow and the dispossessed. Of course he didn’t care for them; he didn’t fear God and had no use for such unproductive justice. The judge was also honest about himself; at least you can say that. Whatever façade he put on in public, he took off in private. He knew who he was and what he was about. And he seemed to have no problem with any of it.
Enter the other character, stage left. A widow. As such, she had no husband to act as her lawful entity in a court of law. And widows didn’t have the kind of money lying around to pay some big lawyer. All she had was an adversary, a case, and a claim that justice be served. Not much to have on your side in a certain city where the judge was in it totally for himself and neither feared God nor respected any human being. But, the widow had one other possession—an unquenchable will, a stubbornness really. So after being brushed off by the judge when she first came to his court—after all, what could she do for him in the way of money or power?—she gave it much thought and prayer that night. “What should I do tomorrow?” The answer was clear—she would do the only thing she could, go back to court and plead her claim for justice again. And she did. No new evidence, no different legal strategy. Just the same plea the next day and the next and, yes, the next. “Render a just decision for me against my adversary.”
On day two of this courtroom drama, you would probably think the judge was a bit surprised to see the widow woman in court again. After all, he had dismissed the case yesterday and the ruling was final. He had acted that way in the face of claims for justice so long, it was routine. “Case dismissed,” he announced, and that was that. But here she comes again! Didn’t she hear him the first time? Is she kind of dense? Doesn’t understand the way things are done in this court? So maybe the judge is surprised when she returned that next day. But she only has the same pathetic appeal for vindication and so he dismisses her out of hand a second time. But then comes the third and the fourth and, well you know what is going to happen on any given day when court is in session,…and so does the judge. Yep, there she is again. Here she comes. There is that same plea for justice. And every time, for a long time, the judge issued the same ruling: “Case denied.” It probably even got a bit humorous for the other officers of the court and the regulars whose idea of entertainment was to listen to courtroom pleadings. After a while, they would know just when the judge would cut in on the widow. “Render a just decision for me…” “Case dismissed!” And they would glance at each other and smile. But everybody came to one unavoidable fact: Tomorrow she would be back.
After this had gone on for a long time, they judge had a little conversation with himself, an honest conversation. “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,” and he adds, “lest she give me a black eye.” And he does, finally, for no good reason except to avoid being worn out and given a black eye in public opinion, act justly. Maybe just this one time in his entire life, he is a righteous judge. No evidence of any real conversion—he probably still doesn’t fear God or respect any human beings. But he does vindicate the widow against her adversary. Against all odds, the widow has gained a real hearing for her case and has been judged rightly. And even less likely, through her unwavering persistence, she has now brought the judge to this one occasion where he does act justly. She has spoiled his (up to this point perfect) record of unjust judging. At least this once, he is among those in Israel who are to care for the widow and the fatherless and the alien within the gates. Still probably doesn’t fear God. But he has acted in accordance with God’s ordinances,…once.
So we are as surprised as the onlookers in the judge’s courtroom. Wow! This widow, this mighty widow has prevailed. And we start to think of times when there are other unjust judges or politicians or public officials. And on the other hand, there are the dispossessed, the ones who have no power to get things done or have justice served. Sometimes, the only recourse is to reenter the parable and play the part of the persistent widow, entering stage left every day. During the days of the military dictatorship in Argentina, those deemed a threat to the regime would simply disappear. They would not show up for work or come home and would never be seen again. And this was the favorite tactic of the brutal people running things. But then, after a while, the dictators noticed that the widows of the disappeared ones gathered silently in the square, gathered every day. In silence. Soon, the cases began receiving national and even international attention. The widows did not disappear and those with all the power knew they would be back the next day and the next and the next. When democratic government was restored to that wonderful land, it was in no small part due to those persistent widows. They gave a black eye to the ones in power,…and it was indelible. So there are times when the powerless have only the recourse of the persistent widow in our Lord’s parable. After all, she called everyone’s attention to the judge’s injustice and she gave him a black eye. In the end, he acted justly at least on one occasion.
But St. Luke tells us that this parable of Jesus is about prayer and, the Evangelist implies, about the character of God. If even this judge finally comes to a place of desperation and acts justly, will God, the only Righteous One, be slow to answer our prayers? Clearly, we are to immediately provide the correct answer to the question: “Yes, our God is the polar opposite of this judge and will answer speedily to the prayers of his chosen ones.” So on one hand that may mean that we do not come before our compassionate and righteous Father with the same old laundry list of things we want for ourselves and those close to us. See, because our God does care for the poor ones, the widows and outcasts, our prayers always need to include intercessions for these the powerless. So the church teaches that the Prayers of the Faithful direct the assembly toward “those burdened by any kind of difficulty.” Our prayers together, our petitions, will not remain solely focused on ourselves, precisely because of the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. So we pray for Brazilian miners and those with AIDS and those who suffer in the conflicts in the mid-east. We do not pray to an unjust judge kind of God. There is a parody of prayer that draws the boundaries too narrowly. It goes,
God, I pray for me and my wife Ann,
Our son John and his wife Fran.
Us four, no more. Amen.
No, that would be prayer to an unjust God who does not care for all of those who are burdened down and in need of healing, restoration, and justice.
So thank God, our God is One who is revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ! Every prayer in the Mass (worship service) is consistent with the unbounded virtues of the one who hears our prayers and speedily works for justice. Prayers for ourselves, our forgiveness and healing are offered: “Say the word and I shall be healed,” we pray. But our prayer does not stop when we have prayed for ourselves. The needs of the church are our first concern as the faithful offer their communal prayer. Then our focus is directed to public authorities and the salvation of the whole world. Then we pray for those burdened by any kind of difficulty, anywhere in the world. And turning our attention to our local community, we pray for issues and people who are in leadership and who are in need. All this because we do not, thanks be to God, come before an unjust judge, but before the Holy and Righteous Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostle James, offers this encouragement:
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
And St. James then adds, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” And, of course, those prayers are heard by our loving Father who will come speedily to our assistance.