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Jesus tells the odd Parable of the Unjust Judge on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C.
It’s unsettling and confusing. He seems to compare God to a self-serving uncaring bureaucrat, and says we should pray to him like a powerless victim begging a powerful bad man for what is due us, even though he doesn’t care.
How is this a positive thing?
Luke knows the parable is going to be a tough one to understand, so he tells us the meaning of it right away.
He begins: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.”
The situation he describes is dire: a widow, who would have been utterly without status or resources in the ancient world, wants “a just decision for me against my adversary.” The judge is unwilling to help for “a long time,” and describes himself this way: “I neither fear God nor respect any human being.”
He does finally answer the prayer, reasoning that the widow annoyingly “keeps bothering me” and fearing that she will “finally come and strike me.” He gives her the just decision she is looking for not because he loves her or embraces justice but because he wants her to go away.
St. Augustine warns us that the judge is not to be taken as an image of God, because God does love us, God is absolute justice, and God does not want us to go away. But Jesus says something important: “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?”
Jesus Christ himself told us to, so let’s pay attention to what the unjust judge says.
He says he knows that the widow won’t stop bothering him, and that she might even get violent. In other words, the widow is persistent, insistent and passionate. She won’t give up and she will put her whole body and soul into her demand.
This is exactly the kind of effort God expects from Moses in the first reading today. When Amalek comes to fight the Israelites in battle, Moses climbs to the top of the hill. As long as he persists in prayer and put his whole body and soul into the effort, raising his hands up, Israel wins. Whenever he stops, Israel starts to lose.
Moses gets to see in a day what the widow has to learn over “a long time”: God wants us to pray and not stop, and to put our whole selves into the exercise, body and soul.
We’ll get to the rest of the Gospel in a second, but it’s important to note that what this “putting our body and soul into it” looks like. With the widow, it means getting up in the face of judge. With Moses it means being willing to stand on a hill with his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross. For the Israelites, it means to be able to do violent battle with a foe. St. Paul in the Second Reading describes what it means for us.
Just as the widow faced her judge, we will face “Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead,” he says, and so we should “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.”
Father Gabriel Landis at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, tells the story of how a woman nagged him so much to go to R.C.I.A. that he eventually went. Then a monk nagged him to check out the Abbey. Now he’s a priest. This is what the Gospel is asking.
Think about that for a second. In order to face Jesus the just judge, we need to be like the widow in how we treat Jesus in our unjust neighbor.
Jesus will say, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What did the widow do? She bothered the judge incessantly. What should we do? St. Paul tells us: Proclaim the Word incessantly, convincing, reprimanding, encouraging, and teaching Jesus our neighbor.
There is a battle between opposing forces in our day as surely as there was for Moses. For us, the battle is between the prince of darkness and the light of the nations; between the father of lies and the Word of God, which Paul says is “inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
Our battle is as real as the battle between Israel and the Amalekites. And just as Moses could, you can tell whether we are doing our part or not. If the battle isn’t going our way, we aren’t doing our part. If the battle isn’t going our way, our leaders aren’t on the hill with arms wide in cruciform praying and sacrificing. If the battle isn’t going our way, we haven’t learned and embraced our Scripture as Paul urges. If the battle isn’t going our way, we aren’t living our lives according to God, and we aren’t training our children with both “reprimand” and “encouragement.” If the battle isn’t going our way, we aren’t bothering to try to convince our neighbor, coming to them again and again like a widow to the unjust judge.
If you look at history, you will see the times we were doing our part. They were the times the efforts of the devil were mowed down at the edge of the sword of the Spirit like the Amalekites were by Israel.
But let’s get back to the Gospel parable.
When we left him, Jesus was saying, “pay attention to what the dishonest judge says,” which we now have done.
Next, Jesus says, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.” These words seem to contradict both what Jesus has said before and our personal experience. He has said it took the widow “a long time” to get what she asked for. How is it that he now claims justice will be done “speedily”?
As with many lessons of Jesus, there is a paradox here that only makes sense if you have practiced what he is asking. In the past, I have hazarded guesses as to what “speedily” means here, but now, longer experience has given me a better answer, I think.
My answer now is this: The more you truly persist in prayer, the more you will realize just how much God is already giving you what you want. If you are praying for “justice,” like the widow, you discover you have a higher justice already, a justice where God is filling you with good things that your adversary, the unjust, can’t even dream of.
The more you pray, the more you see God’s hand all around you, in the beauty, truth and goodness that you receive continually, moment to moment. And the more you pray, the more you realize that the thing you wanted is not what you need, and the thing you need is what you never thought to ask for.
“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus asks ominously at the end.
It’s a good question. Do we have the kind of faith in our good and loving Father that the widow had in the unjust judge? She knew that he, and only he, could help her. Do we know God can help us, way more than we can help ourselves? The widow trusted that she could eventually wear down the judge. Do we have faith that God loves us and will give us what we need — or have we given up on him?
Above all she had humility. She knew she was a widow and powerless and could only beg. Do we pray like a widow, or like a rich, important person who is owed something from God? Do we pray like we are powerless, or like we are so powerful we have a right to dismiss God imperiously if he doesn’t satisfy us?
The widow’s humility led to obedience. She didn’t give up on the judicial system and try to get what she wanted some other way. She didn’t decide she would get her version of justice no matter what, judge or no judge. Have we given up on God and his way, the Catholic Church, with its visible hierarchy? Have we decided that the Church is filled with unjust judges and we know better than Pope Francis or the bishops in communion with him or the pastor they assigned us? Have we decided we are smarter than the Church about the liturgy, about right and wrong, about politics, about doctrine?
It’s hard to be a widow who has to rely on an unjust judge. Yet here we are.
Like it or not, a powerless widow is what we are, and only faith — which necessarily entails humility and obedience — will save us.
But remember: God is not an unjust judge, and he repays faith with peace, love and joy, speedily — and forever.