“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 notion that we go through life engaged in “spiritual warfare” was once a common sentiment among Christians. And, certainly there is some truth that each of us is engaged in various battles in life as we try to overcome temptations, negative attitudes, addictions, harmful behaviors and habits, and sin. But, as we know, our “combat” also includes working for justice and peace in a world that seems more and more set on violence and oppression.
The parable recounted in this Sunday’s Gospel fits with this notion of “spiritual combat.” Although the language used in our lectionary tells us that the judge gave in to the widow’s appeals because she was “bothering” him, there is more going on here than this translation might suggest. In fact, what Jesus seems to be describing is a contest that has the elements of a full-blown battle.
The widow is a tragic and courageous figure. Throughout the Scriptures, widows are presented (with orphans and strangers) as the most vulnerable members of society (cf. Deuteronomy 24:17-21). In that patriarchal culture, widows should have been cared for by their nearest male relative and it was he who should have been in the courtroom day after day pleading her case. Instead, the widow herself goes bravely before the judge. But, as we see, the judge simply doesn’t care. He is impervious to her pleas.
Pay attention, however, to the judge’s statement, quoted above. The word we find translated as “bother” is the Greek word kopos, which essentially means to “beat” or “punch.” And the phrase translated as “strike me” is the verb hypopiazo, which literally mean to “give a black eye” or “strike in the face.” So, one possible translation might be: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect of any person, because this widow keeps hitting me, I will grant her a just decision, so that she may not give me a black eye.” It’s easy for us to imagine an enraged older woman hitting the judge over the head with her handbag. While the subject is serious, it seems Jesus is also inviting us laugh a bit.
In a commentary on this passage, Professor John W. Martens observes that while a translation like this might be a bit too blunt, “it evokes a more visceral response to the spiritual life as a battle in which steadfastness and persistence are essential and in which one must be prepared always to get ready to rumble.” He goes on to observe that “the spiritual life is not a curated Instagram account. Sometimes it gets down and dirty, and the only way to get to God is through a tremendous effort expended on fighting in times of desolation, when God feels distant, our enemies seem powerful and near, and we feel weak and defeated.”
At its most basic level, this parable encourages us not to give up, even when things seem to be working against us. This is all more true when we consider that God is just, unlike the judge in the story. But the liturgy this Sunday invites us to expand our vision of this struggle by including the curious story of Moses we hear in the First Reading.
As the people of Israel engage the forces of Amalek in an actual military battle, Moses stands on a hill overlooking this conflict with the “staff of God” in his hand. Exodus tells that, “As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hand rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.” In order to help him, Aaron and Hur literally supported his weary arms and gave him a stone to sit on. Their support of Moses throughout the battle reminds us that human friendship and support have a part to play in our personal battles and spiritual growth.
As we struggle to live out our commitment to follow Jesus—including our pursuit of justice—we have to have courage and stand firm, but we also have to be willing to allow others to stand with us, supporting us, especially when the “battle” is hard. As Catholic-Christians, we have the words of Scripture and the grace of the Sacraments to help us. But, we also have the prayers and practical aid offered by both the saints above and the saints who populate our homes, workplaces, and parishes. And, of course, God is always with us, the Just Judge: “Will not God secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?… I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.”
When has my commitment to follow Jesus felt like a battle?
Who has supported me in my struggles in life? Who supports my spiritual life?
How can you support those who, like the widow, are fighting for justice and peace for themselves and those they love?
Words of Wisdom: “Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. It is that relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship. If the disciples do not ‘cry out day and night’ to the Lord, then they in fact do not have faith, for that is what faith does.”—Luke Timothy Johnson