Luke 18:1-8: The parable of the widow and the unjust judge

LUKE 18.1-8: THE PARABLE OF THE WIDOW AND THE UNJUST JUDGE

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral: 9 May 2021

Luke 18: Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 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 bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And 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. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’” (18.2,3). In this parable there was a widow who was owed money, but her debtor refused to pay up. We know it was a money matter, because only one judge was involved: in all other cases three judges had to be present. The debtor not only refused to pay up, but almost certainly bribed the judge, who we are told “neither feared God nor had respect for people”. In our terms, the judge was corrupt. Alas, the widow had no money of her own with which she in turn could bribe the judge. Nor had she any position with which she could influence him. Her only weapon was her persistence. So we read in v3: “she kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent’“.

Eventually the judge gave in: “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 bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming‘” (18.4,5). By her nagging the widow got on the judge’s nerves. She kept “bothering him”. The underlying Greek word is a boxing term for ‘beating a person black and blue’. Metaphorically she left the judge feeling ‘battered and bruised’. Here we have an instance of Jesus’’ sense of humour. To use a different metaphor derived from Prov 27.15 [“A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike”], just as the dripping of rain may wear away a rock face, so in the end the judge was worn down too.

Jesus then adds: “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (18.6).

At first sight this is a most puzzling parable, not least because Luke prefaces the parable with the words: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18.1). Is Jesus here really likening God to an unjust judge who needs to be nagged before he bestirs himself? Does God need to be worn down to put things right? Twist his arm long enough. will God clap his hands to his ears and cry: “Stop! I give in! I can’t cope with any more prayers”? No! We have here a parable of contrast. “If even this callous and corrupt judge could be moved to act by the widow’s persistence, how much more will God answer his people’s prayers”.

The fact is that God is just, and God is loving. In the words of Psalm 103: “The Lord is merciful and gracious… As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him… The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (103.8, 13, 17). God cares for his children. He does not have to be worn out to answer our prayers.

On the other hand, God does expect us to persist in prayer. As Luke put it: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18.1). But isn’t this the same thing as badgering? What is the difference between badgering and persevering? Mary Magdalen, an Anglican nun who at one stage was my spiritual director, wrote: “The first has all the feel of ‘getting one’s own way’ about it, of whining and wheedling in the way of small children. The second implies an earnestness in prayer, a steady pursuit of God that acknowledges our constant state of helplessness and our need for total dependence on him who has the power to change things.” [1] It is as if for God to work, we need to throw away all our self-sufficiency and cast ourselves on him and his mercy alone. Through persisting in prayer we are not cajoling God into changing his mind, but rather engaging in the process of opening up ourselves to become channels of his power, his healing, his love.

This is not always easy work. It is not easy when your prayers do not appear to be immediately answered. God may not be unjust, God many not be unloving, but there are times when prayer does seem to be hurling petitions into the void. In this regard the story is told of an old black minister who read out this parable at a meeting called to protest about injustice in society, and then said:

Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not know what prayer is.

Notice that the old black minister here was not talking about prayer in general – but about prayer for justice. It is this longing to see the world put to right which provides the framework to this parable. For Jesus ends the parable by saying, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (18.7) The fact is that: “The prayer enjoined by this parable is not a prayer for a parking place, or that God would bless everyone in the world. One does not ‘cry to God day and night’ for such matters.” [2]

But, if God is good and cares for his children, why does he delay coming to our aid? And why does Jesus say that God “will quickly grant justice” (18.8) to those who cry out, when he self-evidently does not speedily put the world to rights in response to our prayers? At this point there could be a mistranslation. While the underlying Greek phrase (en tachei) can be translated as ‘quickly’, in the LXX the phrase can often have the meaning of ‘surely’ or ‘certainly’. [3] If so, then Jesus is emphasizing the certainty of God’s coming kingdom rather than the timing of its kingdom.

According to James Edwards, “In the kingdom of God, justice is not a peripheral matter; it is inherent within the character of God. God does not hear the longings and cries of his elect with indifference, but with solidarity….  A delay in human reckoning does not in the least imply apathy or inability on God’s part, nor it is a ‘delay’ in the divine reckoning (Heb 10.37).” [4]

Edwards draws attention to the final words of Jesus on this parable: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18.8b). He comments: “The normal approach to theodicy asks, ‘Why does a good God allow bad things to happen?’ Despite the anguish associated with theodicy, putting the question thus is, in one sense, a comfortable way to put it, for God is in the dock. The onus is on God to deliver, to justify his case. Man is judge, God is on trial. The ultimate concern of Jesus, however, is not with the divine side of the equation; God knows, God cares, God will act, and although it may not happen immediately, it will happen sooner than expected. The ultimate concern rests with the human side of the equation. God is more concerned with anthropodicy than with theodicy. ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’ God is not the only one in the dock; humanity is also in the dock. Greater than the timing of the second coming – for all the problems associated with that question – is the preparedness of humanity to receive it.” [5]

For reflection and discussion

  1. This is a parable about justice. The word “justice” appears four times: in v3, v5, v7 and v8. Yet is also a parable about prayer: see 18.1, 7. Where for you does the parable’s main emphasis lie?
  2. When did you last hear a prayer pleading with God for justice? To what extent do we need to be more passionate in our praying for justice?
  3. When did you last hear the same passionate prayer four Sundays in a row? It has been said that praying persistently involves a sifting process: “we have left behind lesser and more trivial matters and concentrated our petitionary energy on only those things that are our deepest concern” (Margaret Magdalen). To what extent has that been true in your experience?
  4. What are for you the three ‘justice’ issues which you feel most passionately about? To Prayer apart, how do you expression your passion? The Danes have a proverb: “Pray to God in the storm – and keep on rowing”. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Victorian preacher, said: “Pray to God and keep the hammer going”. To what extent do you think that God sometimes waits for us to act, before he acts?
  5. What other thoughts have come to your mind as you have thought about this parable today?

[1] Margaret Magdalen, Jesus – Man of Prayer (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1987) 163.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke (Apollos, Nottingham 2015) 498.

[3] Edwards 500, 501.

[4] Edwards 501.

[5] Edwards 501.

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