Despair and the Widow

(This is Neil.) This morning (or perhaps yesterday evening), we most probably heard the following verses from Luke’s Gospel at church:

Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘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 Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This was the appointed Gospel reading in all the Western lectionaries of which I am aware. I would like to share some of the reflections of the Rev Dr John Pridmore from the current issue of the Church Times; Pridmore, an Anglican priest, is the former Rector of Hackney. He speaks about despair, a topic we very often avoid (or, at least, from which we are distracted).

Here, then, is the Rev Dr Pridmore:

Despair is not the loneliness and desolation of “the dark night of the soul”. The darkness of the soul is the darkness before the dawn. Nor is it accidie, the torpor that overtakes us when the sun is high, the listlessness that has been identified with the “noonday demon” of the 91st (Psalm 91.6). Nor is it “spiritual distress”, the condition that, in all its many unhappy manifestations, has been the subject of much valuable research in recent years, notably in the nursing community.

As traditionally understood, despair is far worse than any anxiety of spirit, however acute. It is it is the deliberate and willful abandonment of all hope of salvation. It is deadlier than any deadly sin. Some have claimed that it is the “unforgivable sin”. And yet, paradoxically, it is those closest to God who are most tempted to commit it.

Benedictine monks and nuns are wholehearted in their search for God. To equip them for that quest, St Benedict presents them in his Rule with no less than 73 “instruments of good works”, 73 rungs on “the ladder of perfection”. The 72nd “good work” is “to make peace with an adversary before the setting of the sun”. Benedict, knowing what, by now, his brothers and sisters must be feeling, adds a final 73rd admonition: “Never despair of God’s mercy.”

Despair can be an easy and attractive option. That is why it is so dangerous. Giving up the struggle comes as a great relief. The mountaineer lost in the snows is tempted simply to lie down and to surrender to whatever will be. Gerard Manley Hopkins understood the seductive appeal of despair.

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be —
these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry “I can no
more.” I can;
Can something, hope, wish,
day come, not choose not to be.

Luke emphasizes what it is that drives Jesus’ disciples to despair. It is that he takes such a long time coming. Luke understands history, particularly that there is an awful lot of it left. Luke, and only Luke, records Jesus’ warning: “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not see it” (Luke 17.22).

If this grossly neglectful judge in the end yields to the persistent widow, how much more willing will God be to vindicate his people? And, Jesus adds, he will do so quickly.

We are inclined to ask: “How quickly is ‘quickly’?” Jesus does not reply. Instead, he puts a question of his own. “Will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” That plaintive enquiry confirms the context in which this story is to be understood. It is the memory and prospect of history unfolding, age on age, which causes faith to falter. To abandon hope — hope having so often been dashed — would be to find peace of mind.

Jesus fears that many of us will take that easy way out. But in our way stands this doughty widow who refuses to despair, and who teaches us how to pray. So, Lord, grant us:

Patience to watch, and wait,
and weep,
Though mercy long delay;
Courage, our fainting souls to keep,
And trust thee though thou slay.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Despair and the Widow

  1. Liam says:

    Our homilist today suggested that rather than the common interpretation – with the problematic questions it raises about nagging God – that the parable could also be understood with the widow partaking the role of God and the slow-to-melt judge partaking our role, as it were. Food for thought.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I think that most interpreters do suggest that the judge takes the role of God – we have an a minori ad maius argument here. Or, as Pridmore says, “Here, then, is a ‘how much more’ story. If this grossly neglectful judge in the end yields to the persistent widow, how much more willing will God be to vindicate his people.”

    And I’ve always (following Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ in the Anchor Bible Commentary) associated the “nagging” with the recommended “persistence” of Luke 11:8.

    Do you remember what evidence that your homilist gave?

    I’ve just read America’s blog on Scripture, and Barbara Green, OP, mentions that the popular lecturer and writer Megan McKenna suggests that the widow partakes the role of God. Do you think that he received this interpretation from her?

    This is food for thought, indeed, although I’m quite uncomfortable with us taking on the role of “judge” with regard to God.

    Well, at least you didn’t get an awful
    stewardship homily.


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