The Persistent Widow and the Heartless Judge

The Persistent Widow and the Heartless Judge October 12, 2013

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

–  W. S. Merwin

Pentecost 21  Persistent Widow and Unjust Judge.  GoogleJesus told the story as poser:  There was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.  A widow, whose case he had ignored, kept coming to him, needling him for justice.  But after a while he gave her what she wanted, saying to himself, this widow keeps bothering me, so I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by  her continual pestering.   And Jesus said, Listen to the unjust judge.  God will grant justice to those who cry to him day and night.  Yet, will the Son of Man find faith on earth?

Luke says the story urges upon us not to lose heart.  So then, in this story, faith is having heart.  The heart to tackle impossible things.  The heart to endure.  To persist.  Not wilting, not letting discouragement overcome hope, not letting obstinate injustice overcome your belief that justice will prevail.

For years I have cheered for the mettle of this woman, who will not be stilled.  Who does not sit in her room contenting herself with tears and sorrow.  Who will not let that arrogant judge get away with being heartless.  Who is powerful in not being discouraged.  Whose hope is neither sweet nor fleeting, but rigorous.  Hope is her backbone.

She is Merwin’s needle, pricking, piercing, threading through the comfort of this powerful man.  And yet she is the speaker of Merwin’s longing words, for it is the absence of justice  that threads through her, stitching its color into her.  And yet the judge is the one stitched, tightly sewn to her by the needle of her conviction.  They cannot be absent from each other’s lives, for she believes justice must be threaded between them.  She stiches herself into his days like a strong colored theme.

My jPentecost 21  Lorenzetti, Ambrogio, Siena, Italy, 1338, Commutative Justice, detail from the Allegory of Good and Bad Governmentoy in stubborn persistence has been altered by the Tea Party.  For twelve days now Americans have been pierced by the sharp needle of their persistent public stitches.  The color of blood and blame has been threaded through our culture by the needlework of politicans, intent on what each needler insists is just.  The Tea Party, who seem to neither fear God nor respect the the people, has insisted on its right to halt the nation for the sake of their bête noir, Affordable Health Care.

The figures of those begging them to stop, those playing the widow’s role, have included powerful businessmen like Warren Buffet, world leaders and professors of economics,  historians and exasperated journalists, Wall Street and China (our biggest lender), and even small children standing outside the closed Washington Zoo.   Seemingly unable to grasp the enormity of the harm they are doing, Tea Party pols have proposed doing more injustice by funding some things and not others, opening the World War II Memorial but not the Vietnam Memorial for instance.  Wise heads have refused these responses as chaotic and merciless.  And many federal employees, like the Capitol guards, are now working as volunteers, in order that the chaos not increase.

Who is really the widow here?   Neither side, in truth, for Jesus spoke of a powerless woman confronting a powerful public figure.  All of these politicians have exceptional power.  Across the nation, people are being thrust into the widow’s position by the shut down.   Their cries are rising, urgently.    The President, who does hear them, has been pushing back against this tide of woes with  the widow’s persistence, speaking for the powerless, the uninsured, the immigrants, those whose need for justice would begin to be met with a new budget, with a raised debt ceiling.

In these days, everything we do is stitched with the color of the deathly absence of the budget.  The color of this injustice is the ashen pallor of the stilled body.

Yet Merwin’s poem has love in its lines, and could as well be read as the aching of lovers who are apart, rather than as the quarrelers’ lament.  We, too, ache and long for the return of the lively lover’s quarrel in which we live together as Americans, and which can resume once the budget is opened.

Perhaps, if we look with great care, we can see that the Judge and this widow are lovers.  Perhaps we can see that Congressional enemies are family, bound by more than disdain.

Pentecost 21 Shimin, Symeon,  1940, Contemporary Justice and Child, Great Hall, Department of Justice, DC.  Library of CongressThese have also been days of Nobel Prize announcements, when the world looks up from its quarreling to see whose talent has blessed our lives with extraordinary imagination.  And I have found myself wondering if there could be annual Having Heart Prizes, perhaps funded by Oprah or Bill Gates (as the Nobels were by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel).  Perhaps a Committee of Interfaith Theologians from the world’s eminent theological schools could chose recipients for a number of categories:

Extraordinary Acts of Decency;

Justice Done;

Forgiveness and Second Chances;

Hope Rising;

Human Kindness;


Then virtue would not seem to belong only to the Stubborn, but as well to the Humane.  Then faith would not be defined as ideology, but as Jesus described it,  not losing heart.

Your loss of heart, Jesus says at the end of his story, will be a heartache for God, whose being is stitched through with your colors, the colors of fools and wacko-birds, the colors of the wise and magnanimous, the colors of illegal immigrants and veterans needing benefits, the colors of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the colors of America’s first black President, whose courage in these days has been a backbone for us all.

And all creation is stitched together by the needle of God, thread, color, and design woven through us, in the color of the persistent heart of God.



1.  The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge.  Jesuit Illustration.  No other identity discoverable.  Used in many religious posts, not offered for sale online or otherwise identifiable through Google.

2.  Commutative Justice, detail from the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Lorenzetti, Ambrogio. 1338.  Palazzo Publica, Siena,Italy

Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

3.  Contemporary Justice and Child, Shimin,Symeon.  1940.  Great Hall, Department of Justice, DC. Library of Congress.

Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

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  • Wonderful! I love it. I love the persistent widow because she reminds me of my grandmother who reminded me constantly that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. There is no doubt that persistence pays off. My grandmother herself was a persistent widow who lost her husband unexpectedly when she was 32 and never bothered to feel sorry for herself for one second. She went out, found a job raised her two little girls alone, saved every penny she had to send them to the best colleges, and never tolerated whining. The W.S.Merwin quote is so beautiful – no, we must not get weary and lose heart but stitch on and overcome.

    • Your grandmother is a fine example, Trisha. And I bet she had to contend with injustice, in estate matters to some degree, and in the work place to a larger degree. And she never let herself be overwhelmed. Hard to do that. But what fine women her two daughters turned out to be! Not to mention her granddaughter . . .

  • L. K. Cannon

    In my preparation for a weekly discussion group focused on the Lectionary readings, I often have read your blog (The Bite in the Apple) and enjoyed your insights presented there. Your post on Luke 18:1-8 (above) was a great disappointment. Unfortunately for readers who do not share your political views, your post this week was little more than a far-left ideological screed filled with unchristian vituperation! Although I am neither associated with nor particularly supportive of the Tea Party, I am very surprised that, with your background and professed Christian faith, you would resort in this forum to impugning the character, religious faith and intentions of a group that, thus far, has engaged only in the exercise of its Constitutional rights to further legitimate political goals (with which you clearly disagree). To use your words, it would seem that your faith has been defined as ideology.

    • Just as you yourself have spoken strongly, out of your conviction, so I out of my Christian conviction, have written of the Tea Party, but not only the Tea Party, as stubborn persistence we have all experienced which does not, I believe, fit Jesus’ model. My conviction is rooted in Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. To extend hospitality to arguments against providing health care for the poor is, as I understand the gospel, unchristian. I know that Jesus did not say Congress should do this. But he did say that Christians must put the welfare of the suffering ahead of all their other concerns. And he gave examples: the Good Samaritan versus those whose other concerns kept them preoccupied; healings on the Sabbath that challenged other views of public righteousness, etc. You know these stories.
      I take it that you are thinking pastorally of the people in your discussion group, and I accept your concern for them. But my blog addresses our need to stand up publicly for the least and the lowliest, whose needs none of us can serve alone but all of us together, as a nation, can meet.
      In fact, I am a moderate politically, not far left at all, and do have reservations about the Affordable Care Act. But my faith tells me I must risk foolishness for the sake of the needy, if foolishness is all that is available. And history teaches me that those who accommodate the right end up in fascist states, as much an important worry now as communist states were thirty or forty years ago.
      And to me it is a moral outrage that we forbid people to drive through red lights, yet balk at offering them medical care; that we require people to wear seat belts, but do not restrain their carrying of weapons in public or their purchasing of semi-automatic repeating rifles.
      Since the data shows that most of those without health insurance are Hispanic,black, new immigrants, and the poor, race seems to be fundamental to the health care argument. That is too important a connection to be swept under the carpet of individual freedom of conscience, to me.
      Were I in your shoes tomorrow, I think I would raise these topics as questions, and share my own views among the mix. In the end, Jesus’ story of persistence involved discernment of who is right here. The judge also was persistent. And in Jesus’ view, he was doing wrong. You and I cannot say we do not know who is right here, when Jesus insists that it is the widow who is justified.
      I hope that you can see the tone of your own words, written from your heart, is as fierce as you feel my words are. And in that, see how imperative it is for us to be this honest.
      I hope you keep reading the blog. I can promise to be honest, and to read your responses as fairly as I can. But I am not writing to make all sides happy. For that is not justice. Nor is it, in Jesus’ view, God’s love.

  • J D

    Wonderful thoughts here… thank you for weaving them together with great poetry and beauty. I thought you used the political times in a well thought out way.

    • Thanks, John, for reading and for understanding the spirit in the post –

      • Thank you. For reading. For writing. And for your own wise discernment.

  • William Schlesinger

    The poignancy of the question at the end – finding faith or trust on earth – was addressed by your response to L.K. Cannon above. Trust is the alternative to the tribalism engulfing so many parts of the world. It is the willingness to engage across lines of disagreement frankly and openly, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and yet not stepping back from our commitments. I am grateful for your faith.