The persistent widow

Exodus 17:8-13, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, Luke 18:1-8


In Whitefriars School they have a thought for the week, taken from scripture, that is displayed on the wall of the assembly hall. This week’s text has caused some controversy, it says. ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ Some might see this as taking an authoritarian view of Christianity, that we are called on to be submissive and unquestioning. It could be seen as enforcing a rule of authority in the school, especially if the head teacher were to stand underneath it at assembly.  It could give an impression of Christ that he uses emotional blackmail, that we can only be considered his  friends if we obey his commands.  

Displaying such a text shows the benefits and the pitfalls of treating a bible text in isolation. On the one hand it makes people think and hopefully retain the message, on the other it can suggest a meaning that is unintended.

In general, Bible texts should not be taken in isolation, but read in context. The context of that quotation from John is the commandment of Jesus to the disciples to love one another as he has loved them. If they obey the command to love they will be behaving like Jesus, they will be his friends.  

In his second letter to Timothy, St Paul commends a thorough knowledge of the scriptures to his disciple Timothy. From them he will learn wisdom through faith, they will enable him to guide and counsel others, to patiently teach the faith. They will enable him to correct what is wrong. A thorough grounding in the scriptures will equip him and make him ready for any good work.

A through knowledge of the scriptures can indeed equip the Christian. The Bible is like a tool box to the tradesman. We need to know our way around the scriptures, be familiar with what lies where. A pristine Bible, whose pages have never been turned is a sad sight. A Bible that is falling to pieces through excessive use is cause for joy.

What part does the Bible play in your life? Do you read it regularly? Do you turn to well-known passages when you are in need? Do you just hear it read on a Sunday at Mass? Do you take home the sheet and have a read of the passages later?

In order for our faith to grow we need to deepen our understanding of the Bible, if we are to apply our faith to our lives. Being well-grounded in scripture there will be a chance that we will be able to apply our faith to our lives, and help us articulate our faith to others.

The insights of scholars can enhance our reading of a passage. Thae the parable of the persistent widow. Widows were a very vulnerable group in Jewish society. The word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak'. I would not use the term silent one to describe most of the widows I know! In losing her husband, she has lost the one who would speak for her. She has no son or relative  to speak for her either, so she goes to the judge herself to plead for justice. The judge is shameless with no regard for the protection of widows encouraged by the Jewish Law, but he gives in to her persistence. Why he does this, differs according to the translation of the Bible. Is it that she will wear him down, worry him to death? The Greek translation of the verb means ‘she will blacken my face,’ ‘she will give me a black eye’. You could take that literally maybe she would get so frustrated she‘ll end up socking him one. Or alternatively it could mean she will shame him. He will have a public badge of disgrace, just as if he sported a black eye. No judge, no matter how shameless, would want to endure public disgrace.

Jesus concludes that though we might think our prayers are unanswered, we must persist and hopefully the image of the persistent widow will inspire us to persevere, because God is not a shameless judge.  The image of Moses, in the first reading, with his weakening arms held aloft by Aaron and Hur reminds us that we cannot always rely on our own strength alone. Self-sufficiency is a good thing, but taken too far, it can shut out others, whose help we need but will not admit.

We will soon begin our discussion groups looking at the forthcoming Bible readings. We will try to understand them better and share our reflections. They will be a chance to listen, reflect and learn from one another. I am very appreciative of what I have learned from others. I am especially grateful to Ruth, a Methodist lady in her nineties completely soaked in the scriptures, who had been brought up to devote her Sabbath days to reading the Bible.  She gave me one of the best definitions of prayer, she called it ‘talking to someone who is completely interested in everything you have to say to them.’

Even if you are a persistent, nagging widow.