In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps nagging me, I will grant her justice, so that she wont wear me out by continually bothering me. Luke 2 18:4-6.
What a fantastic parable. It is illogical; the judge is probably acting unethically and the woman isnt the sort of person who would be a lot of fun to be around. Even later in the parable, Jesus describes the judges action as not fulfilling the role of justice; and yet somehow it does speak to the heart of what life is for many people. This widow nagged her way to get justice. She believed in her cause and she was persistent and persevered in her claim to the point of harassment. And then the poor judge weakened and gave her what she wanted. When it comes to persistence and perseverance, it seems that some have it and others dont. But I think it can be encouraged and nurtured in most of us.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the USA and an oft-quoted philosopher, said:
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
I also like the words of Kobayashi Issa, the 18th century Japanese poet, who wrote
"O snail, climb Mount Fuji, but slowly, very slowly!"
Perhaps this ancient Japanese poet caught a glimpse, in a few words, of the nature of perseverance. And that is slowly, very slowly, take your time and consider the task ahead.
Discernment and Persistence
There is also another important aspect to persistence. Yes, it is true that staying the course and being a bit of a nag can help you achieve your goal. But not all goals are worthy of achievement. And certainly not all goals are worth ones lifetime dedication.
If we are to persevere, then there must be a discerning, an evaluation, of what is worthwhile and what is not. And there must be the wisdom to know when one should abandon a task and move on to other important activities. In a very practical way, when it comes to any of lifes quests and journeys, there must be first of all a time of preparation - openness to reflection, to contemplation, conversation and centring prayer that leads us to our deepest self and our sustaining desires; and that is where I believe we mean God, the sacred, the holy. It is in that open space where things become clearer. To quote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, "Muddy waters allowed to stand become clear."
For this widow in the parable it was a burning desire for justice. We are not sure what the issue was, but it may have taken her some time to discern what she needed and then the courage to pursue it. For us it may be a simpler thing. So while there is a great truth in the aphorism to "never give up", nevertheless, we need to know what we are asking for what we are pursuing.
The story is told of a man who prayed every day to win the lottery. Day after day, month after month he prayed, but sadly, he never won. One day in exasperation he called out to God, "Why dont you answer my prayer and let me win the lottery?" The answer came back from God, "Why dont you go out and buy a ticket?"
While the parable is shaped around the womans persistence that won the day, we know that in life that doesnt always happen. While the author of Lukes narrative puts the best spin on the story:
So will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
Nevertheless, there have been a myriad of ways in which these words have been interpreted. Just to mention a few.
I find each of these responses unhelpful. It is important to recognize that this is a parable and therefore its intention is to capture the imagination. Some have said that a parable is a kind of riddle that calls the listener to wander around inside the story and draw their own conclusions. An overly literalist approach to this parable will rob us of its meaning for us today.
Persistence and Indifference
I am going to suggest another way we can live into this story and that is that there is a paradox here. First, we live and act with persistence and a willingness to persevere even when the odds seem to be against us. We have set a course, not casually or carelessly, but with discernment. But that is then put against what is called living with Holy Indifference. So somehow or other we need to see the eternal truth, that while the struggle is mine, the goal is not within my control.
I remember as a young person in our youth group being encouraged to "pray as though everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you." It was in a simplistic way trying to get at this paradox of the need for persistence, while at the same time a sort of indifference toward the final outcome which, as mentioned, is really beyond our control.
This term Holy indifference comes from the 16th-century priest and monk St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits (the society of Jesus) and it is a disposition toward life that is not centred on frenetic achievement, or the desire to manipulate outcomes to ones own advantage, but rather an openness to the future and a willingness to live life with faith and trust in the abiding presence of God. Of course it doesnt mean indifference toward suffering or injustice, but rather living into a wholeness of life.
Persistence and Courage
Given the paradox here, the challenge is to hold our hopes, plans and desires in tension with the ultimate outcome, of which we are unaware. The tension of being willing to push the boundaries; to make changes as we move through life; to hold our own wishes lightly and yet in the final analysis to be courageous enough to accept lifes outcomes and the choices we have made.
Never give up, but know what you are asking for and recognize that there may be outcomes that you have never imagined possibilities that only the Creator can see.