OBSERVING HOW PREVALENT evil exists in the world, its power sometimes overwhelming, philosophers of old used to ask whether this is the best of all possible worlds. But those who experience evil do not merely look at the present and offer an explanation; rather, they look toward the future and ask whether there is any hope that we will ultimately triumph over it. For example, after years of praying that the problems of violence and war in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Eastern Africa, Afghanistan, Southern Mindanao and other hot spots be solved, is there any guarantee that an era of peace will finally dawn for the poor in these places? In a history of exploitation and oppression, will the poor ever get a fairer deal from a society in the hands of the moneyed and the powerful? In a society in which efforts to obtain greater justice for the majority meet vigorous opposition, is there hope that the cause of the poor will ever be vindicated?
These questions appear contemporary, but they make us understand the background of today’s gospel. As in other synoptic gospels, Luke portrays the Kingdom of God as an experience of a community in which people are freed from hunger, thirst, persecution, injustice, poverty and other evils, and enjoy the blessings of justice, love and peace. This summarizes the central message of Jesus. It seems, though, that after years of practicing their faith in Jesus, that faith of the Lukan Christians was being challenged by the hostile environment in which they lived. Luke’s believing community experienced persecution, injustice and violence from those who did not share its faith. Understandably enough, the members raised question that affected their faith in the context of the adverse situation: when is the Kingdom of God coming so that the poor will come into their own (Luke 17:20-21)? When will Christ return so that Israel will be reconstituted and the poor Christians will be rewarded (Luke 17:22-37)? When will the poor believers finally obtain real justice on this earth (Luke 18:1-8)?
When there is no glimmer of dawn in sight, it is easy for the poor members of the Christian community, who have everything but the positive experience in life, to lose heart. This is especially so when people observe that the overwhelming forces of evil seem to make headway, despite all efforts to ward them off, and when every move toward obtaining deliverance from an oppressive situation seems to end in disappointment. But the Gospel today (Luke 18:1-8) has a word for them: Christians who find themselves in that or similar situation should not lose heart (Luke 18:1). To bring home this point, Luke preserved for us the parable of unjust judge. The story characterizes the judge as unsympathetic, with no regard for what either God or man said about him—which explains his attitude toward the widow. The judge delayed in his decision. Some suggested that the widow was a plaintiff in a case she brought to court against a wealthy opponent, and the judge did not speed up the case in order not to offend the defendant. Others, however, in keeping with the character of the judge, surmise that the judge refused to give an immediate decision in the hope that the widow could raise the sufficient bribe! But these suggestions are not essential to the story. For central to the parable is the widow. And in the normal circumstances at the time of Jesus, widows were poor, marginal, not influential, and were economically deprived. They were part of the déclassé in the Israelite society, and being powerless, they leaned on God for protection. The widow, in other words, symbolizes the poor in the community of Luke and in our Christian communities who look on God to vindicate their cause.
Powerless and marginal though she might be, yet the widow in the parable succeeded in obtaining justice from the corrupt judge through relentless persistence. But if she so got on the nerves of the judge that he was forced to vindicate her, how much more would God vindicate his faithful people, if they only pray persistently, even though he seems to delay (Luke 18:7). This is the message that Luke tries to convey. In other words, the point of the parable is that, even though they find themselves in a situation in which hope for a better future seems unobtainable, Christians are not to be discouraged or give up. On the contrary, as followers of Jesus, they are to be persistent in their prayer, trusting that God will act and vindicate his cause and the cause of the Christian community. The Kingdom of God will come, and if one is not vindicated at the moment, he will certainly be vindicated with the advent of the parousia, and justice will surely be served.
Such exhortation is relevant, because in the face of opposition to all efforts to obtain justice, even time can erode enthusiasm and faithfulness. Constant suffering and oppression can destroy hope, and give the impression that God is really asleep. Which recalls the experience of the Psalmist: as the people of Israel were being despoiled, God remained silent before their real pain, even though they were not conscious of any sin against the covenant: “Yet for your sake we are being slain all day, we are looked upon a sheep to be slaughtered. Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? Arise! Cast us not off forever! Why do you hide your face, forgetting our woe and our oppression? For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth” (Ps 44:23-26).
But at the same time, this serves to correct an impression on the way God answers our needs. Too often, when one sees on television big prayer rallies in parks and auditoriums, one often wonders whether the participants’ understanding of these prayer rallies makes sense. For what is often portrayed is that, one who has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior easily obtains answers for the petitions he makes. All he has to do is to raise his wallet and money will come in, or raise his passport and he will find employment abroad, or hold high his umbrella and graces will flow. But if the Gospel has anything to teach us, it is that one does not easily obtain the favor he asks, that justice is not always served, that peace is not easily given. There is a need to knock too often, to pray persistently, to wait for long, to suffer in silence, and to stand in prayer, even when praying seems meaningless and useless. A Christian may not easily obtain the favor he asks, but he can always take comfort in the thought that he is not totally helpless before God, and is entirely dependent on him, and that God will, in his own, time, answer his prayer, even though not always in the form that he wants or expects.*