Some of Jesus parables are pretty straight forward and easy to understand. But some are a bit more challenging. The parable of the Persistent Widow is, at least for me, one of the latter.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’Luke 18:1-8 NIV
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
This parable starts us off with the moral to the story, which is good. We should be persistent in prayer, not giving up if we seem not to get a response. In other words, don’t be afraid to be a nag; assuming of course that you are praying appropriately.
This parable has three characters. The first is a rascal of a judge who apparently is in the judge business solely for his own benefit. He neither cares about what God thinks of him, of what the people around him think. We might wonder how such a person could become, and stay, a judge. But that is not really material to the parable.
The second character, the persistent widow, is as weak as the judge is powerful. A widow in that day was nearly helpless, dependent on family or the charity of neighbors and friends. And this widow seemed to be a bit short in the support department and has turned to the town’s judge for help.
The third character is really unknown, other than as the widows adversary. The widows specific complaint against her adversary is unknown, but it is likely that he was taking advantage of her position as a widow to enrich his own coffers. He could have been a money lender, a rich business man, a tax collector, or even a neighbor who wanted what little she had.
In the parable, the persistent widow comes to the judge in order to get justice from her adversary. Exactly what constitutes justice for the widow is unknown. She may have wanted something returned; she may have wanted some penalty or debt dropped; or she may have wanted a restraining order against harassment. But whatever it was she wanted, the judge was not interested in granting it. I think it would be safe to assume that if the widow had come before the judge with a large enough bribe, that he would have ruled for her. But since there was no benefit to himself he refused to get involved.
But the widow was not easily put off and kept coming before the judge with her plea. And eventually the judge responded, granting her request. Why? Because he finally recognized the rightness of her request? No! But because he finally saw some value for himself, self preservation, in getting her to quit coming before him. He gave her justice, not because it was right, but for self serving reasons.
A difficulty in this parable comes when we try to put God in place of the unjust judge and ourselves, as the persistent widow, encouraged to nag him until he finally gives into us. But I do not think that is an appropriate response. Instead, we should view God as the opposite of the unjust judge. If even an unjust judge will eventually wear out and give us what we ask for, how much more will God respond to those he loves, providing them with justice, and doing so quickly.
The bigger difficulty with this parable, at least for me, is what is meant by receiving justice quickly. It is tempting to think that I should be able to pray to God about someone who is causing me grief, and have that problem go away. But that seems not to happen in real life. Instead, untold numbers of devout believers suffer terribly, some because of their faith, some because of natural disasters, and some simply because of the greed of other people. And seldom do I see God intervening, at least in this life, to resolve those things.
The only response I can really make to this is to echo Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12: “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” I have entrusted my life to God, and am persuaded that he will keep me safe, regardless what happens to the shell I inhabit here. God will deal with all that in his time. I will pray and trust.
And, until Christ returns, I will strive to be faithful to him.