Yoder-Short: Annoying persistence

Sep 16, 2019 by

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Is it ever OK to nag about injustices? Do we remain too quiet when all around us vulnerable children, the marginalized and widows find no justice or are even ridiculed? Does Jesus’ parable of the unrelenting widow make space for annoying persistence in the face of injustice?

Jane Yoder-Short


The parable is familiar. A persistent and understandably obnoxious widow faces an unjust self-centered judge (Luke 18:1-8). Luke frames this parable as a call to pray and not lose heart. This makes sense, given that Luke is writing to a church facing persecution. But did Jesus’ original audience hear more?

Parables can be like puzzles with pieces missing. We’re not always sure what the whole picture looks like. Sometimes we become ­comfortable with the usual understanding and forget that some of the pieces clash.

There is nothing wrong with persistent prayer, but the usual pray-without-ceasing interpretation becomes awkward when we look carefully at the parable’s two unusual characters, an uncaring judge and a gutsy widow.

If the widow’s actions are a message to keep praying, then the unjust judge she pleads with becomes the god figure. This judge is no hero. He doesn’t fear God. He appears to be a member of the elite who has lost empathy. Jesus’ audience would recognize this judge.

The widow isn’t your usual widow. Widows don’t belong in the courtroom. Among the male voices seeking judicial opinions, this woman’s voice sticks out. This widow is such an intense woman that the judge wonders if she will attack him or ruin his reputation, depending on your interpretation.

Some wonder whether Luke’s prayer introduction is an attempt to make this woman more acceptable. A praying woman is more proper than an obnoxious woman calling for justice.

New Testament scholar Barbara E. Reid shifts the pieces of this parable. She proposes seeing the widow as the god figure.

Jesus would have been familiar with God as a mother giving birth (Deut. 32:18), with God as a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14) and multiple other references. Jesus earlier compared God to a mother hen (Luke 13:34) and a woman looking for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).

With the widow as the god figure, the parable looks completely different. God comes to us from the bottom of society, not the powerful. God sides with the victims of injustice. God, as the widow, cries out for justice.

Does that make us the heartless judge? We can sound uncaring. We find ways to distance ourselves from the cries of the poor. Our comfortable lives dull our empathy.  We easily justify our lack of action.

The widow’s persistence is a source of hope. God doesn’t give up on us when we fail to show compassion. The parable challenges us to not lose heart. God keeps asking us to respond in loving and just ways.

As Jesus-followers, we are called to be on God’s side, the side of justice, the side that can seem powerless. That doesn’t stop us from persevering. Like the annoying widow, we keep pleading for justice, even in the presence of insensitive power brokers. Even when our pleas fall on deaf ears.

Let’s continue to pray and not lose hope. Let’s find ways to join with the annoying widows pleading for justice.

The question that lingers is how to balance obnoxious and persistent calls for justice with loving kindness. This difficult combination sounds like something God’s people are called to do. Let’s boldly and lovingly nag for ­justice.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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