The persistent widow and petitionary prayer


“There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

(Luke 18:2-8)

In this parable, Jesus teaches us about being steadfast and persistent in prayer. Often, we pray out of particular desires, feelings, or wishes, and when the prayer does not seem to be answered, are tempted to give up. St Ignatius of Loyola always advised us to pray about our desires and to ask God for what we need. At times, people might hesitate to ask God for what they desire, perhaps because they feel that it is too small of a thing to bother about, or because it feels selfish, and it might seem nobler to pray for others. However, Jesus reminds us that we are to ask God for exactly what we want, because through bringing our needs and wants to God, we are giving God a chance to be responsive and to develop relationship. While human beings are often limited in their capacities to respond, like the unjust judge who ignores the poor widow for so long, God is always responsive in some way, even if that way is not the way we initially anticipate what a good response might look like.

Ignatius understood that our desires are part of how God works through us. While our more superficial desires may be ones that we need to let go of, our deepest desires—for love, healing, community, connection, meaningfulness, wholeness— are ones that God always wants to fulfill. God tells us to persist in asking for what we need, and to keep on digging more deeply into what it is that we understand to be our deepest desires. The promise is that God will provide.

Although this parable mostly asks us to place ourselves in the role of the persistent widow, I think there is also a secondary challenge to consider the perspective of the unjust judge, and whether we share anything in common with him. In the world of ancient Judaism, “widow” is a short hand for a person who is marginalized and possibly poor. Widows had little social standing and lacked the means for self support, and so the good follower of the law was asked to provide for the widow and orphan. Our world is full of needs. The people of Haiti, for example, will needs not only a week but years of support to recover from the recent hurricane. It is easy for us to feel compassion fatigue and to turn away from the needs of others who are the ‘widows’ of our own time. However, we can be persistent in both the works of mercy (for example, offering financial support when it is in our means to do so) and in faithful prayer for others when that is all that we can do. There are many ‘widows” in our world, and when we remember how important it is for us to ask for our own needs to be fulfilled, we can listen to others, ask for what they need, and compassionately respond to them. In this way, God also works through us, when we respond to the persistent needs of the world.

2 thoughts on “The persistent widow and petitionary prayer

  1. Marina,

    This is such a wonderful explanation of this gospel and how we might explore our prayer life. Thank you for your inspiration. As a widow myself, I will not give up in praying to Our Lord for His help in coping with this deep loss.

    Mary

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