The parable of the persistent widow is surely comforting to anyone prone to nagging—and, perhaps, distressing to anyone who does not like to be nagged! So, I suppose that includes all of us in one way or another.
In context, the story follows the comments in Luke 17 on the coming of the Lord and his kingdom. There the emphasis is uncertainty and surprise. Jesus compares the kingdom to the sudden destruction of Sodom or the great flood in the days of Noah:
As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and brimstone rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed. On that day, let him who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away; and likewise let him who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together; one will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”
Theophylact of Ohrid explains the parable in this light: “Our Lord having spoken of the trials and dangers which were coming, adds immediately afterward their remedy, namely, constant and earnest prayer.”
Some of us may not want to hear that. It seems rather too simple. Faced with trials and tribulations, wouldn’t it be nice to have some spectacular weapon with which to resist? Some great theological device to aid us in the coming storm? Or why not rather secure the life of peace with political power and technology? Is that not the whole aim of the modern nation-state?
No, the image of Christian faithfulness amidst the winds of change is that of a nagging old lady.
The Fathers see in this figure either holy Church in general or the individual soul. The adversary is, well, the world, the flesh, and the devil. This courtroom drama is both a common image in Scripture and a deep part of the Church’s liturgical imagination. For most of its history, the Mass of the Roman Rite began with a dialogue. The goal was, of course, to go “to the altar of God.” But we can only get there in a kind of stuttering manner, through pleading and contrition. “Give sentence with me, O God, and defend my cause against the ungodly people; O deliver me from the deceitful and wicked man” (Ps. 43). At every Mass, the Church is, in a sense, the persistent widow.
This patient — or even impatient — pleading is all over Scripture and Tradition. Think of Abraham bartering with the Lord over the fate of Sodom. Think of Jacob wrestling with God and demanding a blessing. Think of the Syro-Phoenician woman who approaches Jesus and will not take no for an answer. Think of St. Monica and her decades of prayer for the conversion of her son Augustine.
Frustrating as it may be, this does seem to be the economics of prayer. Chrysostom says that the Lord wants us to ponder in our hearts what we are asking for. And that idea is the key to a larger principle of salvation history, which is that the manner of God’s redemption is suited to our need. We may want to be saved in some other way. We may want to bottle up divine grace and dispense it on our own terms. But that is not what we really need.
We are creatures of time and place, of matter and spirit, and we need grace not to separate ourselves from our nature, but to slowly saturate our humanity in the presence and activity of God. When St. Thomas and the Scholastic tradition speak of grace elevating nature, this is what they mean — that God wants to truly save us, not to make us into something else.
The persistent widow also gives us a window into the nature of human faith. In his Introduction to Christianity, then-Cardinal Ratzinger insists that “faith” and “doubt” are in a sense two sides of the same coin, both opposed to absolute certainty. Both contain an implicit “what if?” What if, perhaps, it is not true? What if, after all, it is? Even atheism, he says, cannot escape all doubt, and its most delusional aspect is the idea that there could ever be certainty without this nagging doubt about the validity of doubt. Persistence in faith and prayer is hard.
The parable imagines God as the just judge, in contrast to the dishonest judge faced by the widow. But dare we also see something of God in the widow? Is not God also characterized by a remarkable and even annoying persistence? He speaks to us in creation. He speaks to us in the human mind. He speaks to us through the prophets. Above all he speaks to us in his Son. He keeps calling us to repentance, to communion, to the life of grace. And while the world endures, he will not stop doing so.