One time, when I was in middle school, we had a roller skating party. For some reason, my mom took the completely unreasonable position that since I hadn’t cleaned my room, I couldn’t go. I railed against the injustice of it all. Then, I went and cleaned my room.
Feeling like I’d out-maneuvered her, I asked her again if I could go.
“No,” she said. “”I told you already.””
“Yeah, but I cleaned my room.”
"Only after I told you couldn't go."
"But Mom, this is really important. Carmen is going to be there."
"I guess you should have thought of that when you decided not to clean your room."
"But I did clean my room."
"I'm not having this discussion with you."
"Come on, Mom!"
Over and over again. To my mom, it must have felt like being tied up in a room and forced to watch Sean Spicer on Dancing with the Stars on an endless loop.
She finally gave in and let me go roller skating. But she said, "Don't ever pull this again. When I tell you 'no,' don't ask me again. This is ridiculous."
I assured her I wouldn't … but, I mean, come on. I didn't consider it at the time, but being annoying can be a workable strategy for getting what you want.
That's how I grew up thinking about this parable of the widow and the unjust judge. She pestered the judge until he finally caved. Looked at from just the right angle, it's not too difficult to feel bad for the judge.
The lesson I took away from it, because Jesus uses this parable to talk about praying, is that if you want something from God, you just have to be prepared to annoy God like a relentlessly exasperating 12 year-old until you get what you want.
As I got older, I started to think there was more art to the widow's pleas. She wasn't just irritating; she was clever—maybe even, manipulative.
When I was not too long out of seminary, in my first church down in Middlesboro, somebody had the bright idea that we needed a pictorial directory. If you've never tried to organize one of those things, you have no idea the headache and grief involved in getting appointments set up, collecting the information from each family, checking to make sure the company didn't misspell Ms. Ollie's name … because, Lord knows, that would have long-lasting consequences for stability of the free world.
Anyway, after the pictures had been taken, one woman came to my office and said, "I have a complaint."
"What's the matter?"
"Well, I think something should be done about the directory salespeople."
"Well, I didn't want any photographs of myself. I told the man that right away. But, he just kept going. All these slick pitches about why I would want pictures of myself for posterity, blah, blah, blah. I kept saying no, but he just kept on asking."
"That's obnoxious; I'll grant you that. He tried that on us too. So, what's the problem?"
"Well, I don't know how it happened, but I just bought $200 worth pictures of myself that I don't want."
Maybe, that's what the widow did—tricked the judge into doing what she wanted. Again, not a very flattering picture of either either the widow or the judge. And frankly, if this is about prayer, this doesn't look very good for God either.
But I've come to think of the widow and the unjust judge in a different light.
On February 7th, 2017, during senate debate on the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts, began reading a letter from Corretta Scott King from 1986. The letter was sent to the senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 to oppose Jeff Sessions' appointment as a federal judge. Corretta Scott King opposed Jeff Sessions because of his role in voter suppression, saying that he "has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship."
Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, requested that Sen. Warren be commanded to stop reading the letter. She didn't. She was finally made to stop.
Famously now, Sen. McConnell, in trying to explain the move on the senate floor, said, "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."
The reaction in the country was immediate, with "Nevertheless, she persisted" becoming a feminist rallying cry.
In other words, in pursuit of the principle of justice for African Americans, Sen. Warren persisted—even when men told her to shut up. That's the most accurate picture of the widow in our Gospel today.
Jesus tells the story in the Gospel of Luke about a widow who goes to see “a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people” (18:2). She asks the judge to grant her justice against her opponent. We don’t get any further information about the opponent or the nature of the injustice from which the widow seeks redress—the text doesn’t provide any details—but the story suggests that her grievances are severe enough that the widow is motivated to keep coming to the judge in search of relief.
It is most likely the case that the widow is trying to get a fair settlement after the death of her husband, and is being opposed by males in her dead husband's family—who have a legal claim to his estate. What they don't have a right to is her dowry—which her family paid to the husband prior to the wedding as an insurance policy for the woman, in case the husband were to die. It appears as though, because of the judge's inaction on behalf of her rightful claims, that the husband's family has gotten to the judge. They're paying him a bribe for a favorable ruling. (He's got a reputation, after all, as an unjust judge, who neither fears God nor respects people.) They are, in other words, buying justice.
Whatever the case, what we do know is that every time the woman asks for justice, the judge refuses her. Finally, however, the judge relents—not, apparently, because he’s come to his senses about the truth of the woman’s claim, but because he’s tired of being worn out and publicly humiliated by this woman’s ceaseless requests for justice. She's relentless.
The story concludes by suggesting that—unlike the unjust judge—God doesn’t need to be badgered into dispensing justice for those who cry out “day and night.”
Now, in Luke’s hands, this parable becomes an exhortation to “pray always and not to lose heart” (18:1). Traditionally, the interpreters of this passage have continued on this trajectory of textual spiritualization, rendering the few details of the parable as extraneous and unnecessary for understanding the spiritual intention of this story.
So, she’s a widow, big deal? It could just as easily have been a man seeking justice. The point is the persistence in asking.
So, it’s a judge, who cares? It could have been a farmer or a merchant who happened also to be callous. The point is that an imperfect human being refused to respond to the woman’s cries, which is obviously unlike how God would handle it.
In other words, the way I grew up interpreting this passage is that Jesus pulls a couple of stock characters out of the narrative hat, puts them together in a situation that allows him to show how generous and helpful God is to those who keep asking.
But what this traditional spiritual interpretation of the persistent widow and the unjust judge fails to take into account is that Jesus doesn’t use just any characters; he uses a widow and a judge to tell this story—not a man and a merchant. This acknowledgment of the details is important because widows and unjust judges were people everyone knew. And this kind of justice-seeking by the powerless was an occurrence everyone could immediately understand.
Widows in the ancient Near East were among the most vulnerable members of society, obvious and frequent targets of exploitation by those in power. The fact that Jesus used the character in the story of a powerless widow on the verge of destitution and exploitation isn’t a throw-away detail; it’s central to the point he wants to make.
Moreover, this unsympathetic judge isn’t just an obnoxious neighbor who refuses to clean up after his 200 lb. Mastiff, thus causing the woman to experience paroxysms of fury. This is the man in the community who has power over people’s lives and futures. That the judge feels no particular moral obligation toward the woman is, in the mind of Jesus’ Jewish listeners, an affront to the demands of Torah. An unjust judge is like a physician who actively and with knowledge makes people sick, an auto mechanic who puts sugar in the gas tank.
Setting aside for a moment Luke’s focus on prayer, in this parable Jesus takes aim at a state of affairs in which the powerless find themselves repeatedly at the mercy of those who have power over them. Jesus is, in other words, indicting a system in which widows can’t assume they’ll receive justice. In order to find it, they have to make spectacles of themselves, embarrassing and shaming the powerful who are supposed not only to know better, but to be better.
In other words, Jesus attacks a system in which justice is only for those who can afford it. And unfortunately, this kind of system flourishes because it flies under the radar. When nobody speaks out against it, the big shots in power get to keep fleecing those who have no power to defend themselves. Silence is a boon to injustice, which requires for its survival that nobody make it public.
But the widow refuses to remain silent. She refuses to let the men tell her to shut up.
Walter Wink wrote:
When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that enables everyone else to peer behind the curtain too …. Anyone who steps out of line therefore denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety …. If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not suprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.
You see, this is a parable about justice—about who dispenses it, and at what cost. It's a parable that does a quick takedown of a system designed to grant justice to the vulnerable only when the vulnerable beg and plead for it—only when they make everybody uncomfortable and anxious.
They raise their voices when manners dictate that the discourse ought to remain peaceful and polite.
They bring their bullhorns and their signs.
They chain themselves to each other, declining to move.
They refuse to sit at the back of the bus, or eat at a different lunch counter.
They reject the idea that they are second class citizens.
They're loud and they're obnoxious—not in the same way that middle schoolers who want their way can be, or salespeople working to get you to buy just one more upgrade.
Unfortunately, we've been socialized to believe that justice ought to take a back seat to politeness. But the problem with that is that protest—the cry of the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the LGBTQ person, the young black man, the seven year-old asylum seeker—is always transgressive. If you let the folks in charge determine the rules of dissent, you don't have a protest, you have an officially sanctioned pep rally.
And we who claim to follow Jesus have a responsibility to pray without ceasing, to be sure. But we pray unceasingly to God not so that by our supplications God might be tricked into giving us what we want, but because we must keep always seeking the heart of the one who wants a world where widows don't have to plead for justice, because justice is all we know.
We pray not so that God might just get frustrated and finally provide us with what we think we deserve, but so that we might be a part of revealing God's reign here on earth, where the vulnerable and the destitute, the unseen and the unheard, the abused and the neglected will not be an afterthought to those in power, but whose protection is the very reason power gets wielded in the first place.
According to Jesus, God stands in opposition to those in power who think first of themselves and the interests of those important enough to buy influence, while standing in solidarity with those who are too regularly trampled under foot by the people who are supposed to protect them.
After all, God is big enough not to be badgered into doing the right thing for the most vulnerable among us, because God already desires it. If we believe what we say about Jesus, we shouldn't need to be either.