The Absent Adversary

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 29
October 16, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: This is, to be sure, a parable about praying without ceasing. But it is also an exhortation to care, to show up, to simply be present and ready to receive what we claim we want.

Our story begins with a couple of rather eccentric characters. First, we have a judge. One can almost picture him, with his nose in the air, sailing through life not wanting to be bothered by anything, not caring about anybody. He has no fear of God - does he even really believe that there is a God who cares, one way or another, what he does? And neither does he, by his own admission, "... care what people think."1 Does he care about anything ? How does he feel about himself? What does he want out of life? He is a judge - but does he even care about administering justice ?

Apparently not, because right on his heels comes this widow, berating him and plucking at his robe, to the extent that he's afraid she'll attack him2 if he doesn't give her what she wants - which is "justice against my adversary." He decides to give her what she wants, but not out of any concern for justice or for balancing two claims on an impartial scale, anything like that. He just wants to get her out of his life as expeditiously as possible. And there is a third character in this story, but more on that later.

Who, shall we say, is the most important character in the story so far? A related question, difficult as it may be to acknowledge it, is with which character do we most closely identify? The judge or the widow?

Might we perhaps see ourselves in both of them?

An unjust judge

Some of us might see ourselves in that judge, especially when we consider the possibility that the "not caring" - not caring about God, about what people think, about the widow's complaint or about justice in general. And that attitude might be a front, armor against a life that has turned out to be too much, or not enough. The judge just wants to get on with life, moving along without frustrating complications, enjoying what pleasures there are. And, of course, to accomplish that, he must at least go through the motions of doing this job. Although the job gives him prestige and a tidy income, it may nonetheless be a job he doesn't like all that much - addressing the demands of various characters, with their tiresome abstractions about justice and fairness and law. He's trying to follow the path of least resistance and get through it. The not-caring is a mask for the profound weariness of a man with nothing to believe in, nothing to care about - not even God - and certainly not for people and their pointless, meaningless opinions. Or this insufferable woman, with her demands.

An implacable widow

More of us may identify with the widow. She wants justice against her adversary. She is obsessed with her complaint. We are not told what that complaint is, but only that she demands justice - justice as she defines it, anyway. We are not given any specifics. A casual glance at the world today shows us that a demand for justice is a common one. Everyone wants justice, but we don't all define it the same way.

The January 6th insurrectionists, and their defenders, were convinced that they were pursuing justice. People who feel oppressed by mask and/or vaccine mandates demand justice, or one of its cognates, liberty . Rioters loudly, sometimes violently, demand justice before all, or any, of the facts are known about the case they are rioting about. Justice in this parable, and in many other cases, is just a word. The more loudly we shout it, the more convinced we become that we have the right completely on our side.

We are not given any details about the widow's complaint, or about any defense her adversary might offer. Justice, when dealing with someone as single-minded as this widow, might mean anything. Whatever it means, she wants it from this judge, and she's not taking "No" for an answer!

A third character ...

And there is a third character here - the widow's unnamed adversary, against whom she demands that the judge levy justice, by which, of course, means deciding in the widow's favor. Who is this adversary? What does the adversary want? We don't know. We don't even know if that person is a he or a she; we just know that this widow has some kind of claim against this adversary. We can assume that the judge knows who this adversary is, and what that person wants. But he doesn't care. He doesn't care about anyone. Not even God.

Which one are you?

So where does this leave us? What is Jesus getting at, in this parable? Are we supposed to identify with one of the characters, and if so, is it the unjust judge, the justice-demanding widow or the absent adversary? Where is Jesus going with this? What is this parable about? Justice? Unanswered prayer? The practice of prayer? The utility of prayer?

But of course, we know where Jesus is going with this. We are told, in verse 1, that this is a parable about praying always, and never giving up.

"Listen to what the unjust judge says," Jesus tells us. Pay attention, not to what he does, but to what he says , which in this case, is to say okay to the widow's demand. Whatever we do, we are to listen to that unjust judge. If that widow is a model for us, at least in her persistence, that judge, in his response to the widow, shows us something, too: that persistence pays off. What kind of "justice" is that widow looking for? Does it matter? She "prays" for it, and she will not stop until she gets an answer.

Unanswered prayer

Does it seem, sometimes, that our own prayers go unanswered? It is not because God isn't listening. It is not because God doesn't care. Why, then?

Why did the judge refuse, at first? We don't know. Perhaps it was because the widow's claim wasn't as airtight as she would have everyone believe. Perhaps simply because it was his prerogative. There is kind of a comparison with God here; it is, after all, God's prerogative as to whether or not to grant our prayers, or even hear them. But Jesus' point is that God will not use God's prerogative in such a way. If even an uncaring, unjust judge will relent, so will God.

Yes, this is indeed a parable about prayer , a parable whose purpose is to admonish us to "pray and not give up." To whom are we praying? To God, of course. Does God sometimes seem like this judge, who is not simply "impartial," but who just doesn't care?

The Quest Study Bible 3 remarks on this passage that Jesus is not comparing God to an unjust judge, he is contrasting God with an unjust judge. His point is, if you pester such an unjust judge relentlessly enough, he is going to give you what you want, if for no other reason than to get you off his back. God is not uncaring. God loves us, God truly does care for us. God will answer our prayers, and not simply as a way of shooing us away as if we were annoying insects. God will answer, but in a way that gives us what we ultimately need. God will respond to the genuine need which lies behind our passionate prayers. And what we truly need, as opposed to what we think we want, is not easy to discern - not for us, anyway. Our passionate, prayerful demands are so often like that widow's relentless demand for justice. We don't know what it means, really. We simply want what we want because we want it. And God hears.

God hears ... and God truly listens - much more closely than that unjust Judge. God hears and God knows what we really need, and more. God knows what we really want. And God will answer, but only when we are truly ready to receive.

"And yet," Jesus says.

A big 'but,' as the saying goes; a significant "And yet."

"And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" Will we just give up, stop praying when the instant gratification doesn't come, and drop out of the case, like the absent adversary?

Never give up!

Pray and don't give up. Listen to the judge , but don't be like him, not caring about anything unless surrounded and assaulted from all sides by people who do care! Pray and don't give up. Don't be like the third character: the widow's adversary. Where is he, or she, in this story? Nowhere. The adversary doesn't "pray," doesn't persist, never shows up at all.

To get what is at stake in this little confrontation, one must be persistent. One has to show up. And this widow is nothing if not persistent. She gets what she prays for - because she prays to begin with. The adversary doesn't pray. The absent adversary never shows up. Whatever you do, don't be like the absent adversary, who apparently cares even less than the judge!

Pray - and never give up!


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