Now 91 years old, Frances Crowe has for 65 years been protesting against war and advocating for peace, human rights and environmental justice. She has been arrested and imprisoned for leading public demonstrations more times than she can remember. This diminutive widow never tires of her persistent pursuit of justice. She seems the very embodiment of the widow in today’s Gospel.
Luke has framed the parable with introductory and concluding verses that were likely not part of the original parable Jesus told (preserved in vv. 2-5). The parable begins with the introduction of two characters: a judge, who twice declares he has no fear of God and no respect for any human being; and a widow, who comes to him over and over and over, day after day after day, insisting that justice be done. The imperfect tense of the verbs indicates repeated action; she comes again and again and will not give up until she receives a just verdict.
We can picture her going back to the courtroom every day, raising her voice in protest, calling out to the judge, telling him he might as well listen to her today because if not, she’ll be back tomorrow She sees people with influence and money being attended to, while her only recourse is her voice and her presence. She breaks the stereotype of how widows are generally regarded.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there is a repeated admonition to care for widows, along with orphans and strangers, the most vulnerable people in the society (e.g., Dt 24:17-21). This widow should be cared for by her nearest male relative, and it is he who should be pleading her case before the judge. Instead, the widow intrepidly enters into space usually reserved for males and will not give up until justice is accomplished.
The judge is impervious to her pleas. He continues to ignore her until he can no longer stand her insistent protests. He has not been changed; he still insists he has no fear of God nor respect for persons, but he finally relents because he is afraid she will haul off and give him a black eye! The verb hypopiazein in verse five is often translated metaphorically as “wear me out,” but it is a boxing term that literally means “to strike under the eye” (see also 1 Cor 9:27). It is a hilarious image: a supposedly powerful judge cowering in front of a seemingly powerless little widow.
The humorous vignette, however, conveys a very serious message: It is through persistence and tireless actions of nonviolent confrontation that justice is attained. More often than not, this happens through the repeated actions of seemingly inconsequential people who never give up. In a patriarchal world it is expected that the powerful male figure will be the God-like character. But in this parable it is the widow who embodies the divine insistence on justice and who most resembles Jesus’ manner of tirelessly preaching and acting to bring it about.
Persistent prayer goes hand in hand with persistent action for justice. In order to sustain the constant struggle for peace, the heart and mind must be continually transformed by the One who is our source of peace. The first reading reminds us that this is not a solitary effort. Like Moses, we need companions to hold up our arms when we grow weary, and like Frances Crowe, we need to engage other faithful friends in our persistent actions for justice. Fearless, because she has nothing to lose, she vows, “as long as I have energy I’m going to keep at it.”