The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge

The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8)

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Thanks to Barb Keyser for suggesting this parable! It’s best categorized as an exemplary parable, which means that its hearers are meant to understand it easily and go and do likewise. Other parables in this category are the rich fool (Luke 12), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). This is in contrast to other categories like the allegory and open parables which tend to describe the Kingdom of God rather than proscribe human actions.

In my naming of this parable, I included both the widow and the judge, although most Bibles include one or the other in their titles. Think for a second about the meaning of the parable shifts based simply on who is the main focus. Both the widow and the judge would have been recognized as tropes by Jesus’ audience.

The categories were well known: widows are a protected, although greatly disadvantaged, class. The widow represents those who are helpless, and God’s law gives them special protection. Judges are meant to be God’s representatives in meting out justice.

Our judge, however, is known to be unjust. The unjust judge is not, however, an unknown category. The prophet Amos writes about judges saying, “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy at the gate” (Amos 5:12).

And since even the judge was at last worn down, how much more will God who is honorable and just respond to the cries for justice? The basic point of the parable is easy to grasp—it’s in the first line after all. Pray always and do not lose heart. But the harder question comes when we do this and don’t see God quickly granting justice. If God does not delay, than why don’t I see the results in my own life? It’s a difficult question, and can’t be solved with a trite answer that of course the prayer is answered, we just may not understand it.

But still, the command is there to pray. To keep praying no matter what. To follow the judge around and make yourself so annoying that your request must be granted. I’ll close with another exemplary story, this time from Martin Luther. He was called to the bedside of his colleague and dear friend Philip Melanchthon. It looked as though the man was going to die, and Luther stayed and prayed for days. He wrote a letter describing the prayer:

Our Lord God could not but hear me; I threw the sack down before his door. I rubbed God’s ear with all his promises about hearing prayer…This time I besought the Almighty with great vigor. I attacked him with his own weapons, quoting from Scripture all the promises that I could remember, that prayers should be granted, and said that he must grant my prayer, if I was henceforth to put faith in his promises.”

I love Luther’s take on prayer. It may seem irreverent to some, attacking God with the promises of Scripture, but I find it takes a great faith to hold someone—even God—to account. Luther demanded that God be who God had promised. That God do what God had promised. Persistence, arrogance even, but arrogance in the promises of God.

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Experiencing Parables

My sermon yesterday, on the parable of the mustard seed, evoked a similar reaction in almost everyone who spoke to me after the service. It was not the reaction I anticipated (funny how often that happens), but it seems I struck a chord nonetheless.

What truly seemed to stick with most people was my brief introduction about what a parable is. So I thought I’d use my blog this week to expand upon a little analysis of the parable. To give credit where credit is due, I took a course my final semester of seminary on the parables of Jesus. A lot of what I’m about to say I learned in that course, from the wonderful Dr. Frederick Borsch, who managed to keep me engaged and interested a mere two weeks from graduation.

In the sermon, I contrasted parables with the familiar form of the fable. A fable is something that tells a simple truth through a straightforward story; there is usually only one way to interpret a fable. Think of “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It’s pretty hard to come away with anything but the moralistic truth the author intended.

There’s nothing wrong with that, it certainly has its uses—but it’s just not the way that parables work. Parables take a more circuitous route to the truth they contain. And that truth is almost never as simple as “slow and steady wins the race.” My professor made the suggestion that parables “tell it slant” a reference to Emily Dickenson’s poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Parables invite us into the stories—to take sides, to ask questions, to consider the implications. They use the everyday situation of life (or at least of life in first century Palestine) as a means of experiencing the Kingdom of God, rather than simply learning about it. After all, don’t we get more out of imagining the feelings of the dinner guest asked to move to a place of honor than simply being told that the last will be first?

Parables invite us to experience the story, and to come to truth through our own discovery. They set the stage for us to see the light, but do not blind us by revealing it too quickly. They tell the truth slant. Some of this is surely because if they told the truth straight out, it would be too much to believe—the parables include all kinds of disorienting insights into life in God’s Kingdom.

There are, of course, many parables. Depending on how you count, you can find between 33 and 60 parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And as Mark reports, there are “many things in parables” (Mark 4:2). My class spent three hours every week for a whole semester, with a lot of reading besides, and still there were parables we barely touched on.

So, instead of trying to cram too much in, I thought I would leave the choice to my readers: what parable do you want to hear about? Maybe it’s your favorite, or maybe it’s one that has always upset you for some reason. Let me know in the comments. I’m going to try and write on one parable day for the remainder of the week (maybe longer if there are a lot of responses), so please let me know what you want to read!

Here are a few better and lesser known stories—but don’t hesitate to go off this list!

  • The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
  • The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
  • The “Lost” Parables (Matthew 18:2-4; Luke 15:4-10)
  • The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
  • The Ten Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13)
  • The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:7-10)
  • The Great Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24)
  • The Treasure and the Pearl (Matthew 13:44-46)
  • The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8)