Summary: Christ is looking for faithfulness on earth. Our faithfulness is shown when we pray continuously and when we persist in seeking God's justice in the world.
A few weeks ago, Pam Brooks loaned me her copy of the book Accused. As Pam promised, it was an absorbing book, and despite a full time job and a toddler, I finished it up earlier this week. The book is the autobiography of Tonya Craft, and specifically the events of her life in the years around her trial in Catoosa County. For those of you who may not be familiar with this story, or may not remember the details, Tonya Craft was an elementary school teacher in Chickamauga, Georgia, who was accused of violating three young girls, one of whom was her own daughter. After two years of fighting twenty-two counts against her, Mrs. Craft was acquitted on all charges. Now, I realize that there are two sides to every story, and I only read one side, but Tonya Craft’s experience surrounding these charges is not unlike that of the widow described in Jesus’ parable we heard just moments ago. Here is a woman who, according to her story, dealt with injustice at every turn, despite the fact that she spent two years and half a million dollars fighting the injustice she was facing. Things never went her way until the end of a lengthy trial when the jury declared, “Not guilty.” In the face of unrelenting injustice, she persisted in seeking true justice.
In many ways, Tonya Craft’s experience is the modern-day equivalent of the widow and the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable. A widow in Jesus’ day was essentially a nobody; she had no rights—no rights to work, no rights to lead, no rights to own property, and as a widow she would have had no one to support her. Widows were completely reliant on the generosity of the communities in which they lived; which is why widows (along with orphans) are often lifted up before the Jewish people as those in need of special care. So here is a woman with no rights, and no one to defend her, and as if that is not enough, she is facing some matter of great injustice. Though the specific issue is never named, it is obviously serious, as the woman appears before the judge if not daily, then probably at least weekly, trying to resolve the matter. This judge would not have been some highly educated and well-practiced lawyer like we have sitting on benches today. A judge in Jesus’ day was simply a well-respected elder in the community who people sought out to provide unbiased judgment in the midst of disagreements. But in this case, the judge seems to be a bit corrupt—by his own admission he “neither fears God nor respects people.” So despite clear demands from God to care for the widow, this judge seems to have little interest in offering justice to the widow.
And here’s the key to this story—despite the judge’s repeated rulings against the widow, she persists in seeking justice. Remember, Luke introduces this parable with the statement, “Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged.” Now, before we all hop on this bandwagon without giving it much thought, a few words of caution. We do “need to pray continuously and not be discouraged.” However, that does not mean we are always going to get what we are praying for. No matter how persistently we are praying for a 100ft houseboat, God’s really not concerned about that, so it’s probably not going to happen no matter how unrelenting we are. But I’m sure most of also have that experience where we have prayed fervently for some completely legitimate cause, only to feel as if those prayers go unanswered as well. We pray for a marriage on the rocks to hold together and it doesn’t. We pray for a child with cancer to be cured, but three months later she is gone. We pray for relief from the addiction, or anxiety, or depression that holds us captive, but no relief comes. The simple truth is, sometimes it will feel as our most persistent prayers go unanswered.
So what’s the message of this parable? Luke tells us it is about the importance of “pray[ing] continuously and not [getting] discouraged.” But if we know that some persistent prayers will never be answered, what’s the point, right? Well, I think that is precisely the point that Christ is trying to make. We must pray continuously. Even when it may seem as if our prayers are superfluous, even when it feels as if our prayers are accomplishing nothing, Christ says we must persist. And when we are disappointed, when God doesn’t “deliver” in the way we had hoped (or even prayed) for, Christ says still we must pray. That’s the first lesson of this parable, but there’s more. It’s one of the beautiful things about these parables Jesus told, they are multi-layered, often bring many messages in a single story.