Summary: This passage is a call to pray with our bodies and our actions as well as with our hearts, minds, and mouths.
There is an old Japanese saying that if a person makes one thousand folded paper cranes, then he/she will be made well. Lots of people believe that prayer works that way: If enough people pray enough prayers to God, then God is bound to grant their request. Prayer is a way of getting God to do what we want.
That’s a mechanical way of understanding prayer: If you put x number of prayers in the prayer machine, then you’ll get the result you want. If you don’t get the answer you want, then you haven’t prayed enough.
That understanding of prayer may stem in part from the parable in our text.
The conclusion people draw is that if a judge who doesn’t care will finally relent under pressure, surely God, who does care, will give justice when his people ask.
But this parable leaves me uncomfortable. Can we conclude from the story of the widow that prayer is a way of putting pressure on God, or that we should nag God? Is God somebody who must be nagged before He’ll do something? I suspect that there is a deeper teaching about prayer in this parable, one that doesn’t imply that God needs to be nagged like the unjust judge.
Think of the folks in the early church to whom Luke told this story. They were worn out from the struggle to be faithful to Jesus in hard times. People around them misunderstood them and rejected them, plus they had the same struggles with illness and tragedy that we have. They had been praying faithfully ... fervently seeking the Kingdom of God, but it hadn’t come yet. They hadn’t received the answers they wanted. The world was still in bad shape, and they were still hurting. They were tempted to lose heart. They needed more than the simple advice to "just keep praying ... to just try a little harder." There must be more help than that to be found in the parable.
Let’s picture the story in our minds. In a certain city there is a judge who has no respect for God or for people. How a person like that got to be judge, I don’t know. But it seems to me that there is plenty of that sort of attitude in the world, plenty of folks to whom God means nothing. There are plenty of folks who have no regard for anybody but themselves and their kin.
Now, in this city, there is a widow who needs to have a judgment rendered. She has taken someone to court. The story doesn’t say why, but I think I can imagine why. In Jesus’ day widows were often in a bad fix financially, and they needed special help to survive. That’s probably the situation of the widow in the story. Someone owes her money, and she really needs that money to make ends meet. The situation is unjust. It’s not right!
So the widow goes to the judge and pleads for her rights: "Help me against my opponent!" And the judge says, "No!" Does she give up? No! Again and again she goes around to the judge’s chambers and knocks on his door, seeking what is good and right.
Seeking, knocking, asking. That’s what prayer is. Sometimes prayer is quiet and contemplative, or conversational. Sometimes prayer is feisty and active, like the widow going down to the judge’s chambers day after day after day to plead for justice.