(This homily is taken from the writings of Jack Shea.)
Conventional religiosity loves to turn this parable into a teaching on perseverance in prayer. It immediately envisions people petitioning God for a specific purpose and not getting what they want. They are tempted to give up. But if they keep importuning, God will relent. So the message is: don’t lose heart, turn up the volume. God caves in with persistent petitioning.
This popular interpretation sunders what the parable struggles to keep together; namely, that personal spirituality and social justice are two sides of the same coin. Praying to God is for the purpose of effecting social justice. God answers the cry for justice by giving justice into the hearts of the ones who cry. In this way the ones who pray will endure because they will be grounded in God.
That is, if the ones who pray manage to pray always. “Always praying” means the channel between God and the human person remains open. Divine energy will not periodically spurt and then dry up. Rather, it will be a steady, empowering flow. Therefore, the ultimate source of the energy that wears down injustice will be coming from the boundless source of the passion for justice.
“Praying always” is only possible if the ones praying are widows; that is, if the ones praying are powerless. In the culture of Jesus’ time, a widow is one without resources of her own to rely on. The word itself means “the voiceless one.” If she manages to wear down a hard-as-nails judge, the surmise is that she has had help. When the powerless who seek justice take down the powerful who refuse to give it, a careful investigation will undercover the hidden agency of God. The energy of wearing down is mediated through the widow, but it does not originate with her. It is the result of her communion with God made possible by her continual praying.
This combination of praying always and not losing heart is further developed in the Gethsemani scene of St. Luke’s Gospel. The injunction, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial,” bookends this episode. In the Garden, Jesus stays awake in prayer, but the disciples fell asleep. As Jesus prays, an angel visits him and takes on the role of a comforter, strengthening him for the upcoming contest until his sweat becomes as “drops of blood falling down on the ground.” This praying is necessary for Jesus to persevere in the mission he has been given.
When the crowd comes to take Jesus away, the disciples, who have not prayed, resort to violence. They cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest. But Jesus, who has prayed, restores the ear. The disciples have yielded to temptation and become as violent as the men who have come to arrest Jesus. But Jesus has not yielded to this temptation and continues to reconcile enemies. The key is that Jesus prayed always, allowing God’s peace to suffuse his heart and inform his actions.
This is a significant addition to the “how we are to pray always and not lose heart.” Not to lose heart means more than merely persevering in the face of difficulties. It is more than not giving up. It is coming forward with love and being faithful to the ways of peace. The temptation in wearing down injustice is to become more unjust than what we are attempting to wear down. We win on the terms of the unjust judge sets. We fear God less and respect people less than he does, and so we can overcome him with more violence than he is able to muster. However, we can resist this temptation when we integrate our hearts into the heart of Jesus. He is the relentless widow who prays always until his heart becomes the heart of God.