By the time Luke was writing his Gospel a generation or so after Jesus died, people were starting to feel discouraged. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to fulfillment, the deepest hope of their hearts. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering. Today's passage is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. However, we've somehow read it more as an instruction to "nag" God with our repeated requests, so God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want.
Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers a lesson. The "word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.' In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf. So this "silent one" is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it's because she knows that there's a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows, orphans, and aliens are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God's concern. We might ask ourselves who "the widows" are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak up anyway in protest of injustice.
Society may have told the widow she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that knowledge: "She is willing to say what wanted – out loud, day and night, over and over – whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart…". The shape of her heart: it makes us wonder about the shape of our own hearts and the health of our prayer life, doesn't it?
Several years ago,there was a report about a prisoner in Myanmar (Burma). A BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Thida, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there. When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like "vitamins" to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Thida meditated 18-20 hours a day. Can you imagine that? The reporter cited her "deep engagement with Buddhism."
After reading about the persistent widow, I wonder how many of us Christians are "deeply engaged" with Christianity. Jesus wanted his followers to do more than pray as a habit or a requirement: "Then, as now, most people prayed like they brushed their teeth – once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program." Does that ring true for you? Don't we know, deep down in our hearts, that Jesus wants much more from us as his followers? As always, his teachings go right to the heart of the matter, to who we are. Those 18-20 hours a day of meditating must have had an effect on Ma Thida, on shaping her spirit; it must have helped her to remember who she was. Our prayer life shapes us, too, and helps us to remember who, and whose, we are. It helps to align us with the intentions of God.
So the story isn't really about the persistent widow or the corrupt judge who gave in rather than get "a black eye" (that's what the word translated as "wear me out" really means!). This story is about God, and Jesus teaches us by contrasting the corrupt judge with God, or using the argument from less to more. If this corrupt judge responds, how much more don't you know a loving God will respond to the prayers of our heart? Our prayer life sustains us even in the worst of times, and it keeps us close to God: "You are going to trust the process, regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart." The reading is about God and about Jesus returning to find people who have held fast, through everything, and have persevered in trusting God. Rather than thinking it's a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for, prayer, "keeps our hearts chasing after God's heart. It's how we bother God, and it's how God bothers us back. There's nothing that works any better than that".
Acknowledgements: Kathryn Huey; Barbara Taylor - "Bothering God" in Home by Another Way