Who knew that Jesus was secretly a candidate for “Last Comic Standing?”
This Gospel parable, about the incredibly persistent old lady and the impatient judge, could be a stand-up routine. In the fifties, it would have been Henny Youngman, telling the tale in a New York Jewish accent. In more recent years, we could imagine Tyler Perry turning it into a Madea movie.
It’s a common trope, this idea of the pesky and insistent old lady and the less-than-honest man whom she wears down over time until she finally gets what she wants. We hear and we think that Jesus is being uncharacteristically funny, but the point of the story is anything but comic.
It is about praying.
It is about prayer and the nature of prayer and persistence in prayer. And it is also about the result of prayer…justice.
Now, justice may not be the first thing you think of when you contemplate what you ask for from God, but that is what this story is about. The woman might well be powerless in her society – most women without a man to advocate for them were powerless then – but she has one instrument of power – her voice. And, my, does she use it!
Everywhere this judge shows up in town, the woman is there, hollering at him, asking him to rule in her favor against her opponent. If she did this in a modern day courtroom, the bailiffs would whisk her away…but she encounters this judge in dozens of different places around town, and everywhere she does, she pesters him about her case. In modern times, he would ask for a restraining order against her, to force her to stay away, but in this story, it seems like he cannot escape her.
He responds to her simply to shut her up – the squeaky wheel gets the grease – and she gets her justice finally, not because the judge is an honorable man who wants to see that the law is carried out, but because he is tired of hearing from her.
It sounds rather like some of our pre-teen children pestering us for the latest iPod or the hottest brand of jeans, does it not? And how often do we give in, simply to get the sweet relief of a thank you rather than another round of begging?
My guess is that Jesus told that story because a similar event had happened in the area in which he was preaching, and it was a story that was talked about over morning coffee and around the well by all the neighbors…and everyone laughed out loud when they heard it, because everyone knows old Auntie Leah can be so persistent and loud! Of course she got what she wanted, because she was like a dog with a bone – she would not let that judge go until he had ruled in her favor!
But then Jesus took that funny story and turned it around into a compare-and-contrast moment. Yes, the woman got what she sought because she wore the judge down. And yes, the judge was not the most wonderful fellow; he sounded like he was a judge simply because he liked the power and prestige, not caring for the law or for justice. But imagine a judge, The Great Judge who loves us and cares about righteousness, being approached by someone in need of justice. What would that Great Judge do?
He would respond, and it might not even take endless pestering for him to provide justice to those who cried out for it. There might be some sort of heavenly triage system, where those most in need of justice would receive it quickly…but they would have to ask for it.
The Great Judge would respond to the cries of those who needed justice, because those who cried out to God showed their faith in those supplications. And for some, it might take more than one cry or one prayer for God to tend to their need.
How many people cried to God for justice in the concentration camps of World War II before the Allies crushed the Nazi death machine?
How many people cried to God for justice in the Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II before the camps were disbanded at the end of the war?
How many people cried to God for justice when they were beaten for attempting to register to vote?
And eventually justice came – in God's time, not in the time that those who cried out hoped for. And that is a key part of this story.
God expects us to be persistent in our prayer to him. What we may be praying for may not be a justice with a capital J, it may be something more personal, and we may need to keep praying for a while. While what we pray for may seem terribly important to us, in God's triage system, it may take a while to be addressed.
Is this some sort of test? Is this a measure of our faithfulness? Jesus clarifies how God works and what we can expect in the final line of this Gospel story… he says "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. "
But then he adds a plaintive word of his own, a challenge to those who listen to the story: "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
Jesus tells this seemingly funny story to make the point that persistence in prayer is a sign of deep faith.
It is easy to pray when you get an immediate and positive response from God. But can you be persistent in prayer when it seems to take God a while to get back to you?
The whole world has spent the past two months following the story of the Chilean miners trapped underground, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the last of the men were pulled up from their underground prison in a remarkable rescue effort. The thing that struck me as I watched all the different players in this drama was the persistence of their prayer.
We are told that the miners prayed – one of their group was a lay pastor – and sang religious songs to keep their spirits up. Family members formed a makeshift camp around the rescue site. They, too, prayed. For 65 days they prayed. I have no doubt that some there, both above ground and below, were thinking, "Why doesn’t God hear my prayer? Why is it taking so long?" And yet they kept praying. They were persistent, because they believed. Their words might not have been "grant me justice" because their need was different than the widow in Jesus story. But their persistence was unmistakably the same. And God responded, in God's time, as always.
When we pray, can we have the faith to be persistent? Can we keep up that conversation with God even when we think he isn’t responding to us quickly enough? Can we accept that God's triage means that sometimes things need to play out in a way that we do not necessarily understand?
That's faith. That is the persistence of prayer shaped by an understanding that God's ways are not our ways. That is trust that God will respond in the way that is ultimately best.
If we believe, if we pray persistently, if we trust in God's love for us, then when the Son of Man returns, he will rejoice in the faith that he finds among us. He will say, "These are the ones who never stopped talking, asking, arguing, complaining, thanking the Father in Heaven. These indeed are the blessed ones. "