Jesus tells many stories about widows in the Gospel of Luke. There is the story of the widow who gives her last penny to the Temple giving more than wealthier patrons. There is also the story of Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes who devour widows. There is the story of Jesus’ raising the widow’s son. Finally, there is this parable about the persistent widow.
Widows are an important demographic throughout the Bible. The word widow appears 126 times in the Bible, including commands on how to treat widows, stories about widows, or condemnation for not treating widows properly. Throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel are encouraged to take care of the widows. Caring for these people is a command of the covenant of the people with God. As much as the Jews care for the widows and orphans is a sign of their commitment to God’s covenant. Much of the prophet’s condemnation is that the people are not taking care of or even taking advantage of the poor.
The judge in this parable is described as someone who does not fear God and does not respect people. The reader of Luke, having read the Old Testament, would know that this judge does not fear God by the mere fact that he is unjust to the widow. Any faithful Jew would be just, especially to the most vulnerable, like the widows
The parable is introduced as a lesson about prayer. The widow is the person who is persistent, active, and forceful enough in seeking the justice she demands that she gets it even from an unjust judge. The widow’s persistence is an image of a faithful person’s prayer life. The parable suggests that a sign of a person’s faith in his or her willingness to persist in prayer, just as the widow has done, and against all odds find justice in the end from our just God.
I am a pretty avid reader. I read 2 – 3 books a week. One of the books I read this week reminded me of today’s parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The parable is a story of prayer and justice. So too is the memoir I read this week by Marina Nemat. In Prisoner of Tehran, she wrote about her teenage years in Tehran, Iran. She was a Christian who valued education. Her grandmother was a Russian immigrant who taught her the tenets of faith and took her to church every Sunday. She had a special place she prayed which she called her prayer rock.
Marina grew up in the time of the shah. She was surrounded by underground political movements against the shah and lost her first love to the revolution to overthrow the shah. When Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah’s regime, she didn’t align herself with any of the political parties. She found some of the ideals of Marxism noble and knew from Russia that Communism didn’t work. She couldn’t align herself with the Islamic movements because she was a Christian.
Still, she believed that the revolution intended to bring justice and relieve poverty. Justice and poverty were 2 things that were important to her because of her faith. She knew Jesus favored the poor and was a champion for justice. If justice for the poor could be found, she could align herself with that movement.
In high school, she was angered by the Ayatollah’s policies to teach politics when she wanted to be studying Calculus and Physics. She staged a walk out in hopes that her teachers would begin teaching the subjects rather than religion and politics. She started a school newspaper and wrote about demonstrations that she attended. Its no surprise that she became a target of the Ayatollah’s oppressive police.
Marina was arrested one evening. When the police came to take her, she asked if she could take her rosary with her. The police allowed it. She was taken to Evin prison and was held as a political prisoner. While she waited to be interrogated, she was much calmer than the other girls because she prayed. She was beaten and while her captors tortured her she prayed. She was sentenced to death and taken before a firing squad and she prayed. Just as the men were drawing up their weapons, a man by the name of Ali presented a stay of execution and her sentence was reduced to life in prison.
Throughout her time in Evin prison, she prayed and prayed. The other Muslim girls prayed at the appropriate morning, noon, and evening. But, Marina prayed throughout the day. Several months passed and she continued to pray. The man Ali came back to help her reduce her sentence and free her from prison by marriage. Through this man, her life had been spared and she had been set free.
She was free but all her prayers hadn’t quite been answered. She still missed her family. Through a series of events, she was finally reunited with her family. Her husband, Ali, died, which set her free to marry her lifelong love, Andre. Marina had found justice. She was freed from imprisonment for speaking her mind. She was free to live a life of faith. Her justice was hard fought and she bared many scars from her fight.
Through it all, she prayed and prayed and prayed. She said the Our Father prayer and Hail Marys and prayed the rosary. She prayed to the saints and prayed to God. She was persistent in prayer; God heard her and brought her justice. Reading Marina’s words and prayers, I wondered if I would have been as persistent as she was or prayed for people the way she did. Her prayers were a sign of a truly mature and full prayer life.
Besides the widow of our parable, the Bible gives us 2 examples of people with lives of prayer. First, of course, is Jesus. He began his ministry with prayer. We know he often stole away from the crowds to pray. Even, on the cross, he prayed for the people who had crucified him asking God to forgive them and prayed to God the entire time He was on the cross. I believe He was actually praying the Psalms while hanging on the cross. And, His final words were a prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Another example of a fruitful prayer life is Stephen in the book of Acts. In Chapter 7, Stephen is condemned to death by stoning. The maturity of his prayer life was evident as he was being stoned. The Bible records that he prayed. It is not that he prayed, but what he prayed for and about that showed his true faith. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit upon his death. Then, he prayed that the sin not be held against those stoning him. His prayer was so powerful that one of his stoners was converted to Paul who went on to write much of the New Testament.
Like Jesus, Stephen, and Marina, our prayer life doesn’t have to be separate from our busy life. Prayer can be incorporated into our life. Prayer opens the door to God who is always there. It opens our awareness to the presence of God. Through constant awareness of the presence of God we can discern the holy in the midst of our everyday.
Finding a quiet moment to pray in a busy home or a busy schedule can be difficult. Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life, writes about a practice he calls bullet prayers. Warren says that we should pray for whatever comes to mind right then and send up prayers like bullets to Heaven. When someone or something comes to mind, say a simple one sentence prayer, like pow, pow! We can pray about whatever comes to mind right then. Give thanks for a bright sunny day. Pray for a safe drive home. Just a short prayer will do. Over time, your life will become a life of prayer.
We don’t need to limit our prayer lives to a few minutes we can squeeze in before bed. We don’t need to bend God’s ear for 10 minutes once a day pouring over our list of concerns. Praying throughout the day and having a good prayer life full of joys and concerns is what brings growth to our spiritual journey.
We see the seasons of Advent and Lent as times of spiritual preparation for the holy days of Christmas and Easter. They are seasons where we especially focus on spiritual growth. The focus on spiritual growth is not just for the seasons of Lent and Advent. But, ordinary time should be spiritual, too. We can grow at all times of the year. We grow through study and prayer. The Apostle Paul urged the Thessalonians to pray continually, or “pray without ceasing.” We follow Paul’s advice when spiritual practice is part of our everyday lives.
The widow of Jesus’ parable was persistent in seeking justice from the unbelieving judge and she finally bugged him enough that he gave her what she wanted. How much more will our Father in Heaven give us what we ask when we are persistent in our prayers. The Bible tells us that God hears all our prayers when we pray in Jesus’ name. Jesus said we just have to ask and seek and it will be given. In the parable today, Jesus teaches us that through a mature prayer life we will receive justice quickly.
One of my favorite Scriptures is about prayer. It is Paul’s words to the church in Philippi. The Scripture is Philippians 4: 4 – 7. It reads: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.