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.