Readings: Wisdom 18:14-16; 19:6-9; Luke 18:1-8
It is tempting to take this parable as a kind of self-contained teaching about prayer, in which case the final comment of Jesus, ‘when the Son of Man comes will he find any faith on earth?’, will seem like a kind of retaliation in advance in case you have not received what you’ve prayed for: ‘well did you have enough faith’, something like that. But this is to misunderstand the parable and the significance of that final comment which is not just tagged on. Because what it does, this final question from Jesus, is bind the parable securely into the longer section of the gospel that precedes it and which we have been reading at Mass all this week. That whole section is about the coming of the Son of Man and the parable is about the kind of attitude we ought to have in relation, not just to anything we might want or desire, but in relation precisely to that coming, the coming of the Son of Man. We are to long for it, and seek it from God, as earnestly and as confidently as the widow pesters the unjust judge.
If this is the context then it is not accidental that what the widow is seeking is justice. She is not looking for a new washing machine or a Christmas holiday in the Canary Islands. There is another time and place to think about that kind of praying. But the kind of praying she is involved in here is eschatological. It is about the end of the world as we know it. What she is looking for is justice, in other words the judgement of God, that final act in which God will reveal himself as the champion of the poor and oppressed, the Father of the orphans and the widows whose God he has long promised to be. In a parallel parable in Luke about a man disturbing his friend at night we read that God will give not just ‘good things’ to his people as Matthew puts it, but ‘the Holy Spirit’. In Luke it is very clear that God knows what we need and that we can be brought to pray not just for what we want but for what we need: in the one case the Holy Spirit, in this case justice.
The unjust judge is a kind of foil, an absurd comparison with God, so that Jesus can underline that we can confidently look to God, a judge who is absolutely just, to hear the cry of those who call out to Him for justice. He will answer speedily. Or will he? The text gets a bit confused and the translations vary because it seems to say that God will answer speedily even if he delays. But when he does answer it will be quickly. Or something like that.
This confusion about what we might call the timeline involved here is another thing that alerts us to the fact that what Jesus is speaking about is the coming of the Son of Man. When will this widow’s prayer be answered? It will be answered on the day of the Lord, for it is the justice of that day that she seeks. At what time will this widow’s prayer be answered? It will be answered at an hour you do not expect. Just as we heard earlier this week that the kingdom of God is neither here nor there but is in the midst of us, so the kingdom of God is neither now nor then but is coming upon us. Space and time are refashioned as we are taken into this kingdom of God that is already among us and for whose consummation we are to pray.
The first reading speaks of the power of God’s Word to leap from his throne in heaven and to come as a stern warrior carrying the sword of death and with the power to re-fashion creation. This strange world, the world of the end times, the world of the apocalypse, is the world in which this widow is praying. Surely she is another feminine figure representing the Church, representing all of us. Jesus presents her to us as an example of the faith and confidence we need to persevere in prayer in this world. She is praying in a wild world of corruption and justice seeking, where goodness and evil do battle, and where cries of distress call out for a re-fashioning of things that can only come, it seems, from God himself. The world in which she is praying is a terrible one that seems God-forsaken and yet she continues to cry out for justice. She keeps faith and hope that she will surely be vindicated even though the world in which she prays is this world in which we are living.
Of course we could continue these reflections in the direction of Jesus’ own experience of dereliction and injustice, his cries of distress in Gethsemane and from the Cross. In that hour in which goodness and evil are most dramatically ranged against each other we believe that the justice of our just judge has been revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The divine re-fashioning of creation has begun. We enter into that strange world which is already here whenever we celebrate the paschal mystery in the Eucharistic sacrifice.
And we try to be obedient to what Jesus teaches us in this parable because each time we celebrate the sacred mysteries we declare ourselves to be waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Sun of Justice.