What the ‘persistent widow’ can teach us about faith and patience
Many Jews in Jesus’ day looked forward with hope to the end of the world. The Pharisees and Essenes did so, as did the disciples of John the Baptist and of Jesus. The world all around them was disappointing, even hostile. Israel was under foreign domination. National traditions that had miraculously survived centuries of exile and oppression were now in danger of being lost to assimilation. The great work of human restoration that God had begun in Abraham and Moses was now melting like a sand sculpture before a rising tide.
‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Lk 18:8)
Can you pray continuously even when God’s response is delayed?
Can you think of something worth a lifetime of persistent faith and prayer?
A rereading of Israelite prophets revealed deeper messages that spoke to this threat. A “day of the Lord” was coming on which God would raise up the house of David and establish a heaven on earth for all time. All nations would recognize Israel as God’s mediator and follow Israel’s example of righteousness. Israelites who were patient through the current tribulations and remained righteous would enjoy peace and plenty after that day of judgment.
The first Christians built their faith within this matrix. Jesus had come to preach the good news that the day of the Lord was near. Although Jesus had died, he also rose and returned to his Father. The day of his return as the apocalyptic Son of Man would be that expected “day of the Lord” about which the prophets spoke. Any Jew or Gentile whom he found on that day living according to the Gospel would receive the reward of the righteous.
This is important background for today’s Gospel reading, because this passage is not about prayer as much as it is about faith and patience. Just before Jesus presented this parable, sometimes called the parable of the persistent widow, several Pharisees had quizzed him about the end times (Lk 17:20). This introduced a dialogue in which they discussed the details of the day of the Lord. Jesus warns them of a potential delay: “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.”
Writing decades after the life of Jesus, Luke recognized that the Son of Man’s day had indeed been delayed, and that some disciples were losing faith. Luke presents a widow demanding justice from a corrupt judge. Eventually she gets what she wants, not because the judge has discovered virtue but because he finds her persistence tiring and even a little threatening. If this is so easy to imagine, Luke challenges, how foolish is a community of faith that loses heart praying to a loving God?
This Gospel passage thus challenges us not just to pray but to trust in God. The world that faith allows us to see is not the one in which we live, and we are right to cry out for deliverance. If we do so, however, it had better be a worthy cause, because we may have to commit everything to it. We might have to give it the first breath of every day and the last breath of our earthly life. We may need to invite others to pray with us and teach still others to continue after we are gone. In such persistence, the Son of Man will find faith and deliver the just when he comes again.