20 October 2019; Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 24C (RCL); Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Luke’s use of this parable to reinforce the moral about persistence in prayer appears at first glance to compare God to the unjust judge. If God doesn’t answer at first, keep going back and back and back again, just like the widow, until God, out of shame, responds. Certainly, in the Old Testament, we have numerous examples of people reminding God of God’s own nature as a way of encouraging God to take action.
Abraham, in bargaining for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, argues God into willing to save the cities for the sake of ten righteous people by reminding God that God would be sweeping away the righteous with the unrighteous — far be it from you to do such a thing! Moses argues God into saving the people after they had made the golden calf by asking God, “What would people think?”
This story presents an argument from lesser to greater. If even an unjust judge will do such a thing, how much more will a just God respond to pleas for justice. But the final question frames Luke’s use of the story: when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth? Something about the widow’s persistence is an example to us of faithfulness.
We’re not told whether her cause is just or not, but widows are often used as examples of people the system has failed. Perhaps she is trying to protect her family’s land from a greedy speculator. In the Greek, she asks the judge “avenge me against my wrongdoer.” This certainly carries the weight of an allusion to so many of the Psalms that ask God to avenge Israel against the wicked, though a widow is an unusual metaphor for Israel (though it makes a certain amount of sense in the context of the Roman conquest).
Also, the judge, in his internal reasoning, final decides to help her, lest by her continual coming “she give me a black eye,” which metaphorically can mean to embarrass or mortify or shame. The widow’s persistence will end up shaming even a judge who does not fear God and cares nothing for the opinions of people. Faithfulness, then, might look like shamelessness in the cause of the marginalized.
In the Jeremiah reading, we have a rare burst of optimism from the prophet who lent his name to the form of speech know as a jeremiad. In coming days, God will write the divine law on our hearts. Jeremiah imagines a community and a society governed by lived rather than enforced righteousness. The author of the letter to Timothy, on the other hand, imagines a coming day when no one will desire the truth. It would be easy to think that we are living in such a day, and imagining, along with Jeremiah, a different day. Faithfulness in this day looks like the widow’s persistence.