Before Jesus even begins to tell today’s parable, Luke cuts to the chase and tells us what the point will be—that the parable will be about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus describes a judge who does not take his job very seriously: he “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” This one judge lacks the sense of justice that we hope for from all judges.
A widow comes to beg him to grant her justice against her opponent, and here we remember that a “widow” in the Bible represents all of the most vulnerable people in society. The judge is not interested in the least, and keeps putting the widow off, but she keeps coming back. Finally, just to get rid of her and stop the nagging, he decides to grant her the justice she seeks. Jesus recommends this persistence in prayer to the disciples. Jesus argues that if persistence in prayer will work with a hard-hearted and unjust judge, how much more would it work with a just and loving God.
I have an old friend who I consider a secular humanist—a description I applied to myself for about the middle half of my life. Once, sometime after I made my reconversion back to Christian faith, we were talking about her aging and ailing mother. I said, as was my new custom, that I would pray for her and her mother.
My friend brought me up short, as she does whenever she hears me use religious language, and asked, “What does that mean, exactly? Other than that you’ll be thinking of us?” Once again I realized I shouldn’t have ventured into this territory, because I knew I wouldn’t have an answer that would satisfy her. I knew that in her mind I was talking gibberish. I knew she would think of prayer as a specific request to God to grant some wish, like a fairy tale heroine with her fairy godmother. I’ll call this the magic-wand, or finger-snap, or transactional idea of God: we ask for something, and God grants it. Maybe.
It’s understandable if that’s the idea of prayer many of us have. The Bible certainly gives that impression. Just going by today’s parable and numerous other examples in Scripture, it certainly seems that prayer is mostly a matter of asking God for stuff. People in the Bible are asking God for stuff pretty much all the time: for children, for deliverance from bondage or exile, for a cure for their illness, for victory over their enemies.
And if that’s all we think prayer is, if that’s the idea of prayer that my friend and I were going to argue about, then pretty soon we were going to go down the road of quantitative reason. How often do people get what they pray for? How often does God answer prayers about the health status of your friend’s aging mother? How often does prayer for healing result in healing? How often does prayer for peace result in peace? How often does prayer for justice result in justice? My skeptical, rational friend would have required a success rate that exceeds that of pure chance.
But there is a more expansive and inclusive understanding of prayer, which one writer says is “that movement of heart and will toward God, which is the experience of the Christian faith.” In that more expansive and inclusive understanding, faith is more than simple belief, and prayer is more than begging for stuff.
Faith is not a permanent state of being, to be turned on by a simple flip of the switch. Faith requires practice; it requires practices. Prayer is a foundational practice by which we develop and grow our faith. And for me, faith is not just about believing what it says in the Nicene Creed, about believing that there was once a human being who was the living, breathing, suffering, dying incarnation of God. Faith for me is also about the conviction that that human being rose again to show us that the life we all share here on earth will not be conquered by the forces of death, and that it can resemble the kingdom of God, can bring into view God’s justice, mercy, and love in the lives that all of us live together.
In this context, it is important to notice that the widow in Luke’s gospel is praying for justice, even in a world of unjust judges. The parable is telling us that in response to our fervent, persistent, and heartfelt prayer God is more than willing to grant us justice.
This same friend I mentioned earlier was instrumental at the beginning of my learning what justice truly means. We became friends as graduate students together, and at one point she ordered me—she didn’t invite, suggest, or persuade—she ordered me to join her in teaching a course on feminism. When I told her I knew nothing about the matter, she said all I had to do was read the assigned readings, and help her lead the discussion.
That reading and reflection, those classroom discussions and debates, were life-changing. They taught me how one group’s oppression of another group operates on systemic and interpersonal levels at the same time. They taught me how injustice is not simply an accumulation of individual actions, but also an organized system to keep some people down so that other people can rise. They taught me to ask many years later why it was biblical widows, but not widowers, who symbolize vulnerability and powerlessness. They taught me that oppressed lives are passed on generation to generation, and that cries for justice in every generation are the same cries.
The unjust judge admits himself that he has no fear of God and no respect for anyone. That is, he neither cares for the welfare of individual persons, nor will he do anything to realize God’s kingdom here on earth. In other words, he himself knows that he is an emblem of unjust systems. He is the emblem of a society that refuses to recognize that injustice exists, refuses to recognize that people can in fact challenge injustice and dismantle it.
Our calling as followers of the one who told this parable is to grow our faith, to develop and deepen our resolve through prayer and action. Our calling is to pray—and, yes, to nag, and to plead—God’s kingdom into being. A kingdom of justice for all widows and all women, all people of color, all immigrants and strangers, all children, all people in poverty and need. In the words we read from Second Timothy our calling is to “proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”
If we answer the call of Jesus Christ to envision and to work toward a kingdom of justice; if we answer the call of God in Jesus Christ to be dogged in prayer and action to bring about justice for all the oppressed and vulnerable; if we persist and do not lose heart, then there is hope that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.
 Seraphim Sigrist, “Introduction” to Lorraine Kisly, ed., Christian Teachings on the Practice of Prayer: From the Early Church to the Present. Boston and London: New Seeds, 2006, p. x.