Whose Persistence?

There's not much question as to the meaning of this parable of the widow and the unjust judge. There's not much question because Luke tells us why the parable is important before he tells it and then remembers Jesus offering his own interpretation after he finishes telling it. This is a story about persistence in prayer and God's compassion and responsiveness. It is...isn't it?

There is this judge, says Jesus. We know about judges in Israel. We know their role was to maintain a reasonable harmony in the community and to adjudicate disputes fairly, impartially. It is particularly worth remembering that Jewish law, the Torah, described a particular responsibility for such judges when it came to protecting the rights of the poor - of widows and orphans and sojourners in the land.

Then Jesus says: there is this widow. And therein lies the plot. There is this widow. The choice of character automatically raises the stakes for the judge, because any God-fearing jurist would feel obliged by the Torah to take especially good care of her.1

The problem is that this jurist is not God-fearing and not especially interested in justice at all. And so he tries to ignore the widow's pleading. But the widow is not going to take "no" for an answer. She keeps coming back to him day after day, resolutely pressing her case, until finally the judge has a conversation with himself. Luke describes other such internal conversations elsewhere - the rich fool, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward - all of them talk to themselves. But this judge figures that if he doesn't grant the widow's petition, she will wear him out and may even give him a black eye - either figuratively or literally. So, eventually, despite his callousness and his lack of integrity, he gives the woman what she wants.

The progress of this parable is known as an argument from the lesser to the greater - if a wicked judge will finally relent and hear the woman's case, how much more will God. The point is that God is full of compassion, willing and ready to hear the prayers of the poor and oppressed. And the counsel is thus to be persistent in prayer, knowing that God will answer the prayers of God's children. It's an unclouded parable and a neat conclusion. And it is unbridled good news for those who pray day and night for justice, for it promises that their prayers do not go unanswered.

Of course, if that's the point - and it seems to be - then we have a dilemma, if we are honest with God and ourselves. The dilemma is that nearly two millennia later the poor and oppressed are still calling out for relief and, for the most part, don't seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice and compassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If one reads this parable as it has always been read, as a counsel to relentless prayer, there will always seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes a difference. Unless Jesus is talking about deferred compensation - the kind of "pie in the sky by and by" vindication that many Christians resist - then, frankly, the claim for persistence isn't very convincing...or at least not always.

Don't get me wrong. I believe persistent prayer is very important, even when such prayers are not answered in the ways we think best. It is important to be unrelenting in our prayers...not only because of the changes our prayers may elicit in God's mind, but for the changes such prayers can work in our own hearts and minds. As Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistence is a key, "not because you have to beat a path to God's door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there's no way of getting to your door."2

Buechner's comment set me to thinking that maybe there's more to this parable than we have sometimes seen. What if Jesus offered this parable not only as a call to prayerful persistence but also as a reminder to the church of the importance of securing justice for the poor and the oppressed in their midst? Alan Culpepper says, "To those who have it in their power to relieve the distress of the widow, the orphan and the stranger but do not [do so], the call to pray day and night is a command to let the priorities of God's compassion reorder the priorities of their lives."3

What if we stand this parable on its head and hear it as a testimony to the persistence of God, who wants us to grant justice to God's chosen ones who cry out day and night? Might this parable speak to the resolute, persistent, unrelenting, determined One who keeps knocking on our door, challenging us to respond, pressing us to accept God's claims, urging us to work for the good of neighbors in need?

All through the Scriptures we can trace God's unwavering claim on God's people - the covenant with Abraham, the giving of Torah (that set forth a way of faithfulness and integrity and righteousness), and when God's children rebelled and fell into selfish ways, the sending of prophets to press God's claims and to call for justice and fairness...and later when the people ignored the prophets, in the fullness of time, God sent the Christ into the world to demonstrate once and for all the character of God's grace and love toward all of God's children, and especially the poor and the outcast. "Behold," said the Christ, "I stand at the door and knock." That knock is the sound a conscience makes in the life of the faithful.

A few years ago I saw the film, Hotel Rwanda, the difficult story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, when that African nation descended into madness, with the powerful Hutu majority beginning a systematic slaughter of the Tutsi minority. One writer would later call that massacre "the fastest and most efficient killing spree of the 20th century;" in one hundred days, the Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis.4 The film tells the story of that horror through the person of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a Hutu who made a promise to protect his Tutsi wife and the family he loved and ended up finding the courage to shelter and save over 1,200 people by hiding them in the luxury hotel he managed.

As the horror built, Paul initially protested that there was nothing he could do, but his reticence was challenged by the steady beating of truth upon his door. What was it Alan Culpepper said? "To those who have it in their power to relieve ... distress ... but do not, the call to pray day and night is a command to let the priorities of God's compassion reorder the priorities of their lives." Paul began to see the horror and experience the shame. It was a truth he didn't want to admit; but in the end, his conscience prevailed and he acted to save as many lives as he could.

But Paul was not the only one to hear the beating on the door and to experience the need to reorder his priorities; it happened also to many viewers of the film. And I think it happened especially in one telling moment. About midway through the story, as the slaughter of the Tutsi people escalated in Kigali, Western reporters began to capture scenes of the genocide on tape. Paul was heartened a bit, because he assumed the broadcast of such images would prompt immediate Western intervention. When a skeptical Western reporter expressed doubt, Paul was dumbfounded. "How can they see that and not intervene?" he asked. But the reporter had seen it all before. "More likely," he responded, "people will see the footage, say 'Isn't that horrible?' and then go right on with their dinners." It was for me a particularly disturbing moment in a deeply disturbing film, for I knew he was right. Who could see and hear that exchange and not feel shame?

And yet shame could be our full-time preoccupation. Across the span of our lifetimes we have experienced a steady drumbeat of news reports of injustice after injustice, perpetrated by one group or another. And what has been done? In this country, of course, some civil rights laws were established; and they have brought some progress, though such progress more often seems to follow the path of a pendulum than of an arrow. We have seen some of the worst offenders elsewhere being brought before international tribunals and tried for crimes against humanity. We've watched celebrities who have staged worldwide concerts to raise awareness and to try to end poverty in our time. But many of us, seeing such things, have spoken our laments and then have gone right back to our dinners or whatever else it was we had been doing.

So, I wonder: if this parable offers a mirror for our lives, then maybe the face many of us will see when we peer into that mirror is the face of the judge who, as Jesus said, "neither feared God nor had respect for people." Is that not who we are in this story?

Oh, it's not very flattering to read the parable that way, to be sure. Who wants to be thus characterized? But, then, in the parable the judge does eventually reach the tipping point, and even if not for the best of motives and more from self-interest, does grant the widow what she wants. What she wants, of course, is justice and a fair shake. It's what the outcasts of the world most often want, and we know - from reading the Torah and the prophets and from listening to Jesus - it is what God wants for them as well.

Maybe the good news in this story for the non-outcasts - for the rest of us - is that God is like the widow - unrelenting, persistent, assertive. God hasn't given up on us, even when we have acted as though we "neither feared God nor had respect for people." So maybe there's hope, not only for the widows and orphans and sojourners of this world, but for us. Maybe there is hope that we will tend to the shame we feel and allow it to break through our resistance and press us to open doors to those who knock persistently; maybe there is hope that we will hear their pleas at last and use our voices and our power to help shape relief and reconciliation and fairness in this world. Maybe there is hope for us. I believe there is. More importantly, I believe God believes there is.

"Behold," says the Christ, "I stand at the door and knock." Maybe today we'll open the door. Maybe. And what a good day that would be...for everyone!

O Lord, let that day come. Let it come. Amen.

1 Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 269`
2 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1973, 71.
3 R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IX, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995, 339.
4 Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, as cited by Thomas Hibbs, in The National Review Online, January 18, 2005.