When someone won’t take ‘NO’ for an answer, a friend says:
‘What don’t you understand, the N or the O?’
I can imagine the judge whom we’ve just heard in today’s
Gospel shouting something similar to the woman in the
parable Jesus told.
Unlike some parables, Jesus spelled out the meaning of
this one before he told it. Having recently told the
disciples not to be distracted by false signs of the
coming of the Son of Man, he told this parable to
encourage them to pray always and not lose heart. How we
live while we wait for God to act is at the centre of
this. We know, for example, that the Thessalonian
Christians needed to be reminded by St Paul to get
on with normal life while waiting.
To emphasize his point, Jesus made the protagonist of his
story a widow, the classic example of vulnerability in his
society. Worse, this widow was being harassed by an
Women didn’t go to court because their men folk did that
for them. So the fact that this widow had to go herself to
face not merely a judge, but an unjust judge who cared
nothing for anyone and answered to no one, tells us that
she was totally alone.
With the odds stacked against her, desperation drove her
on. She has many equivalents today, not least poor people
around the world who take on opponents such as corrupt
sweatshop-owners or multinationals which are deforesting
the Amazon basin.
Jesus had already taught about persistence, using the
example of a man pestering his neighbour. Now it was a
woman’s turn, and he may have had words from
Ecclesiasticus Ch. 35 v 14 – 18 in mind. There a widow
persisted in pressing her case, with tears running down
her cheeks. Her judge wasn’t unjust: it was the Lord, who
doesn’t show partiality, even to the poor and yet listens
to the one who is wronged.
however, Jesus describes a worse situation with a very
powerful outcome, because Jesus’ judge didn’t listen.
Jesus’ language built the tension: “pray always … not lose
heart … kept coming to him … keeps bothering me … wear me
out by continually coming … cry to God day and night …
delay long in helping … quickly grant justice.” The climax
is that God will grant justice quickly to those who
persist, crying to God day and night and not giving up.
At the end of this parable, Jesus returned to the heart of
his concern, asking the pointed question: “When the Son of
Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Hearing this parable alongside Jacob and the mystery man
wrestling obstinately, neither willing to give up,
exemplifies the prayerful persistence that Jesus had in
mind. Neither man would desist until the stranger changed
the rules of engagement, striking Jacob rather than
wrestling with him. Still Jacob refused to yield, and
demanded a blessing.
The exchange about names was about control. To know
someone’s name, or to give someone a name, was to have
some power over him or her: in the creation story, God
gave humans authority over the animals by inviting Adam to
name them. When Jacob told the man his name, which means
“supplanter”, and received a new name “Israel”, “one who
strives with God” or “God strives”, he conceded his power
to his opponent. Then, when Jacob asked his opponent’s
(this time saying ‘please’), which suggests some nascent
humility, the man dodged the request and reinforced hi
mastery over Jacob by blessing him. Finally, Jacob got the
message: he had seen God and lived, and yet he limped as a
permanent, sobering reminder of the struggle with
Today’s epistle is also about persistence: “Proclaim the
message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or
unfavourable,” and have “utmost patience in teaching.”
Timothy was to endure suffering, and his persistence in
his vocation was not regarded immediately with unalloyed
bliss. Putting all this together, today’s readings
challenge us to be faithful and to persist when things are
against us or there is no immediate answer to our prayer.
If an unjust judge can be worn down by someone who will
not take ‘no’ for an answer, how much more will God, who
takes years to grant justice, answer?
This may not be in the way or the time frame we hope for
or expect; yet persistence and willingness to yield to
God’s power and authority will yield a blessing.