The Gospel for October 16th, 2016: “The Parable of the Persistent Widow”
Reflection: The Effectiveness of Nagging God
Currently, I am reading Father James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. One of the revelations from this engaging book is the idea that Jesus had a sense of humor, which may well be the reason some of the gospels are hard to interpret. In other words, Jesus’s strange choice of words and examples may have been chosen to be humorous and are perplexing when they are read too seriously. I am wondering if this parable about the persistent widow is one of those moments.
Jesus’s point, as we are told in the opening, is about the need to “pray always without becoming weary” (1). We need to remain persistent in our prayers. I don’t think this is surprising advice, but rather quite logical. And yet, as I think about what it might mean as Jesus is addressing his disciples, the word “weary” might mean more than they were a little fatigued and needed to lie down. He was probably talking about the very debilitating weariness that comes from trying to live a life that put them at odds with so many around them with the promise of a reward that may be at times hard to believe. This is the kind of weariness that is probably accompanied by a crisis in faith. It might be quite possible to believe that many of His disciples were experiencing that weariness then. In such moments, the advice to keep praying may sound overly idealistic and hollow. I will admit to feeling that way at times when I am lost and confused, weak and tempted, or sometimes just exhausted; and my daily prayers do not seem to be helping me through my trials.
So Jesus tells a story as an example that, thanks to James Martin, makes me laugh and leaves my heart feeling lighter. We have this corrupt judge who apparently has ruled against this widow in some case where he has been unjust to her, or maybe he has refused to hear her case for some reason or another. Jesus tells us she keeps bothering him about this, asking him to give a verdict in her favor. It sounds like she might do this quite belligerently–perhaps there is handbag or cane used as a weapon–because the judge decides he needs to give her the just verdict she seeks or she may come and strike him! (5). Luke calls this persistence; I call it nagging. And it works! The judge gives in and delivers the verdict she seeks. This woman is not a saint; she is a bully! So when Jesus says be like her because surely the Father will answer our petition for help more quickly than a corrupt judge, I laugh and say I can do this. And with that, a little weariness lifts, as it probably did for the disciples who were not in the mood to hear ‘the Lord doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’
Now I don’t really believe we should go out of our way to belligerently nag God with our unanswered prayers in the spirit of the widow. Certainly, we should always strive to approach our Lord with humility, gratitude, and patience. However, I also think that God wants us to turn to Him when we are lacking those virtues rather than give up. So if we need to express our prayers as grumpy nagging once in awhile because we are acting as the sinners we are, Jesus is saying go ahead and keep praying. And furthermore, have a laugh at yourself while you are at it. Just don’t lose faith in God’s grace and salvation. For He ends the parable with this provocative question: “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on Earth?” Let us pray that He does.