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Persistence in Prayer

by Mark Francis, CSV | October 16, 2013


Scripture Readings:

Exodus 17:8-13
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8

This Sunday's gospel reading deals with the necessity of being persistent in prayer. To understand the drama of Jesus' story of the determined widow and the corrupt judge, it is important to appreciate the justice system of the ancient Near East.  We need to forget the ordered nature of our own courts where (usually) one person speaks at a time and there is an orderly presentation of evidence by both sides of a dispute. We are a world away here from Judge Judy!

Receiving a judgment in the ancient world involved going to the gates of the city, pushing and shoving to get physically near the judge, and then loudly expounding one's case in order to be heard in the midst of the hubbub.  This is the way Psalm 127:5 called happy the man who has many sons since he "will not be put to shame when he contends with enemies at the gate," i.e, at the city's court of justice. To get justice one must push, shove and scream to be heard. For that reason it was also a part of a "man's world" since in the patriarchal Mediterranean world, males alone played a public role.

With this mind, the widow who persists at appearing before the judge is truly a remarkable person.  Scholars have pointed out that the word for "widow" in Hebrew means "silent one" or "one unable to speak." Women were not supposed to speak on their own behalf. Yet, she enters into this male domain and refuses to be silent. She appears day after day seeking justice from the unjust judge who finally relents because he is afraid that "she will come and strike me" -  literally hit him under the eye (give him a black eye!). The widow will dishonor the judge publicly, so out of fear of being shamed, he finally gives her justice.

The meaning of the parable is not to think that God is the unjust judge. Rather Jesus is using here a literary and legal device from the rabbis called qal va-homer (light and heavy) - if it is thus in a light situation, how much more so in a heavy!

There is another example of this device recorded in Matthew 7:11: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask him."  In other words, if this corrupt judge will finally give the widow what she asks for out of the less than worthy motive of avoiding public shame, how much more will our just God give to those who persist in prayer.

The parable, though, ends with the seeming non sequitur, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" This question seems to be out of place only if we have an overly focused idea of what "faith" is. Rather than a set of doctrinal propositions, faith in the Scriptures is better understood as a relationship of absolute trust in God who is both provident and reliable. Persistence in prayer, then, is supported by a relationship of faith - a relationship of absolute trust and confidence in God.  Even though one's prayers may not be answered right away, maintaining an attitude of trust in our God who is love will be justified and our prayers eventually answered.


Image: "Living on a Prayer" found on Flickr under the Creative Commons license

Author information Mark Francis, CSV

Fr. Francis is a member of the Clerics of St. Viator (Viatorians) and was ordained to the priesthood in 1982. He obtained a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Arts degree in Theology from Catholic Theological Union (CTU). He served for three years in Bogotá, Colombia, and then, in 1988, he earned a Doctorate in Sacred Liturgy (S.L.D.) from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Sant'Anselmo in Rome. He taught liturgy at CTU for 12 years and was a regular lecturer at the Institute for Liturgical Consultants and its Spanish language counterpart. In 2000, he returned to Rome as Superior General of the Clerics of St. Viator, where he oversaw the mission of the international community until 2012. Fr. Francis was elected to the presidency of CTU on April 15, 2013.

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