This Sunday is the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. In yesterday’s post we looked in detail at the judge. Today we turn our attention to the persistent widow. The entire parable rings with the echo of Sir 35:14-24 (note: depending on translation you find verse numbering slightly different – also, this is part of the OT reading for the 30th Sunday in Year C)
14 He is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint; 15 Do not the tears that stream down her cheek cry out against him that causes them to fall? 16 He who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. 17 The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal 18 Nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right. 19 God indeed will not delay, and like a warrior, will not be still 20 Till he breaks the backs of the merciless and wreaks vengeance upon the proud; 21 Till he destroys the haughty root and branch, and smashes the scepter of the wicked; 22 Till he requites mankind according to its deeds, and repays men according to their thoughts; 23 Till he defends the cause of his people, and gladdens them by his mercy. 24 Welcome is his mercy in time of distress as rain clouds in time of drought.
While the similarity is clear, where Sirach is concerned with God’s retribution against the unrighteous, Jesus’ emphasis is on praying and crying to God against injustices
In the ancient near-east (ANE) widows had no intrinsic standing within the community. Chḗra, the word for widow, derives from a root meaning “forsaken.” The fate of the widow is bewailed (Ex. 22:25). Widows are associated with others who are disadvantaged, e.g., orphans, aliens, or day laborers. They suffer wrongs (Is. 10:2) or loss of rights (1:23). They are held in low esteem (54:4); cf. their special clothes (Gen. 38:14). Like harlots or divorceées, they may not marry the high priest (Lev. 21:14), or, in the program of Ezek. 44:22, any priest at all unless they are the widows of priests. Some widows enjoy high regard (cf. Gen. 38), and the OT enjoins all the righteous to be kind to widows. God is their refuge, and he helps them to their rights (Ps. 146:9; Dt. 10:18). He threatens judgment on those who wrong them and promises blessing to those who assist them (Ex. 22:21ff.; Jer. 7:6). He witnesses in their favor (1 Kgs. 17:20). The supreme disaster is when he no longer pities them (Is. 9:16). Their vows are valid (Num. 30:10), they have a share of the tithe (Dt. 14:29), they may glean (24:19ff.), they participate in feasts (16:11), their clothes may not be taken as a pledge (24:17), and incidentally Levirate marriage grants them some protection (25:5ff.). [G. Stählin, TDNT 9:440–65]
If that weren’t enough, the court system in Ancient Near East was a world of men – women were not considered stable witnesses and often had no rights of inheritance. It was typical for a woman’s case to be represented by one of her kinsmen. In this parable the widow seems to lack kinsmen and resources (for a bribe), and thus pursues the case herself. As even this parable makes clear, in the tradition of Israel a widow is the ultimate state of vulnerability, deprivation and need.
Yet, a corrupt judge is not the unique element of the parable, rather the astonishing behavior of the widow. She is not the helpless victim, but takes the shocking initiative to continually return to the magistrate for justice. The disciples are certainly directed to the importance and persistent need for prayer, yet they are also directed to see the importance of engaging in the quest for justice – even when that quest requires that one acts outside the scripted provided for by an unjust world.
Image Credit: Братья Белоусовы (Палех), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Modified to include both parts of a larger plata.