The parables that Jesus told were often puzzling, forcing his audience to think deeply about what he was saying to decipher them. So, it comes as a welcome relief when he begins this Parable of the Unjust Judge by telling his listeners exactly what it is all about: the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
It may appear that Jesus is contradicting himself, given things he has said elsewhere about prayer. On one occasion he said: “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). If we keep on asking God for things over and over again, isn’t it a sign of little faith? On another occasion, he said: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). Isn’t he suggesting we keep our praying to a minimum?
Not at all. In the first instance Jesus is telling us to have faith that God will give us what we ask him for. However, God sometimes takes his time and when this happens, Jesus’ advise in this parable holds good. We are not to be discouraged and give up, but keep praying! In the second instance, he is merely cautioning us against verbosity in prayer, not against persistence in prayer. Persistent prayer is not a sign of little faith but of persistent faith. Paul later would advise us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
So with that out of the way, let us dig deeper into the parable for the other lessons it can teach us.
Jesus introduces the first of two characters in this story: “a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” He is essentially a man who is a law unto himself. He has scant regard for the Almighty and contempt for other mortals.
I am sure we have met people like these in the world. They are fond of professing they are “self-made” people and take great pride in their intellect, personality and abilities. They are self-centered human beings, concerned only with their opinions, their comfort, and their needs. They are obnoxious; when they attain positions of power, like the judge in this story, they become insufferable.
Jesus later calls the judge “unjust” suggesting that he was also corrupt. He probably wasn’t giving justice to the widow who came to him because she wasn’t greasing his palms, or because her opponent in court (there was an “adversary”) was bribing the judge to grant him victory in the case.
The Persistent Widow
Jesus then introduces “a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”
Widows are spoken about several times in Scripture. Theirs was not an easy life. They had no legal right to the husband’s property after his death and if she had no children, the estate automatically went to her husband’s family—the male side of the family! Even if the widow had children, especially if they were little, there was a good chance that her in-laws would challenge the inheritance resulting in a legal battle, which might well have been the case in this story.
It is a sad story, and we can’t help but feel for the widow, but we can see reflections of her story all around us. Many of the cases in courts these days involve property disputes, and the victims are usually as innocent as this widow. And as helpless. Without money and with no proper legal counsel, she was fighting what would have appeared to everybody to be a battle that couldn’t be won. However, we know one thing about her: she was a fighter who refused to give up. She “kept coming”, insisting on justice, and one is reminded of other people who have sought justice in the past, fighting for civil liberties or equal rights. They just didn’t give up.
A new methodology
I’d like to do something different here, because this is a different kind of parable from what Jesus usually told. As with the other parables we have looked at in the past (see previous issues), while we interpret the parable for you, we also try to show you different methodologies that can be used, and this particular one is very effective. Not only do we get great insights in doing so, we often find truths revealed about ourselves that demand a change. The method involves you being one of the characters in the story being told. In this story there are only two characters so it is fairly easily done.
So, put yourself in the shoes of the judge. You are, as described earlier, an arrogant, corrupt, and self-serving man who believes he is over and above everybody else. You are faced with a woman who simply won’t take “no” for an answer. Every time court is in session and you are presiding, there she is, sitting in the front row, looking at you unsmiling. Everyone knows her story, because when she is not sitting in your courtroom, she is standing outside with a placard in her hand demanding justice. She is a widow, friendless and hopeless—or so you thought. But now people are taking notice of her. They are starting to feel sorry for her and some are actually wondering if her case has any merit. Others are beginning to wonder about you, questioning your credibility, and as the whispers get louder people begin to share their stories about your corrupt behavior. Like the #MeToo movement which spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, there seems to be a movement starting against you. And now you begin to get alarmed. It is one thing being a corrupt person, it is another having everybody know that you are corrupt. This little widow, whom you thought powerless and could be bullied, is exposing you for what you really are. And you decide that whatever you are being paid by her opponent isn’t worth it, so you grant the widow what she wants in order to get rid of her.
An indomitable spirit
Now be the widow. Your husband is dead. You have little children to look after among several other responsibilities. Your in-laws want to take away what should rightfully belong to you, despite the wrongful laws of society. Widows have little respectability and you resent that; it is unfair. Some cultures required widows to burn themselves alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands, and while your own culture is not as barbaric, it isn’t very decent either. But you are a fighter. You take your case to court where you come up against a powerful and very corrupt judge who sells justice to the highest bidder. That can’t be you, because you don’t have anything. But even if you could buy him out, you wouldn’t because you have values that you believe in and stand for. It doesn’t appear that you have any chance of winning. The odds are stacked against you. But it doesn’t matter. If you go down, you will go down fighting. You visit court every time this particular judge is on the bench and you sit there quietly, praying to another judge who sits higher than him that he sees reason.
You do what you can to make your case known to the public, but for the most part everybody ignores you. You are not their problem and they don’t want to be involved. But that doesn’t bother you either. You continue to make a stand. And then one day the judge delivers a verdict in your favor. You have been vindicated and you thank God in your heart for the justice you have finally received.
The people Jesus were speaking to would have recognized both the characters in his parable, even though they were entirely fictional. They had their own experiences with those in authority and in power, and they would have known widows like the one Jesus spoke about. And as they listen with rapt attention, Jesus brings the point home: “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?” (Luke 18:6-8).
Again, Jesus simplifies things for his listeners. He substitutes God for the judge and his “chosen ones” for the widow. I can hear the protest. “But God isn’t unjust!” you say. Indeed, he isn’t, and that is the point of the story. If an unjust judge could ensure that a woman he held in low esteem was not left without succor, then how much more would a just judge ensure that those who cried to him for help found relief.
We often face injustice. We have oppressors who seem to make it their life’s purpose to make things miserable for us. On many occasions, we haven’t done anything to merit such hatred. In countries such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria believers are often tortured to the point of death for their faith. What do we do? We can take hope from a passage in Revelation.
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed” (Revelation 6:9-11).
We echo the cry of the slaughtered. “How long, Lord?” We get the answer in today’s parable. “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” And then Jesus continues. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And here too, we cry out, “But when, Lord? When are you coming? It’s already been over 2,000 years since you went away.” It is not a new question. It has been asked ever since Christ ascended into heaven after his resurrection: Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation! (2 Peter 3:4).
Peter has the answer to this question and the one we asked before it. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed (2 Peter 3:8-10).
God will grant justice “quickly”, but this isn’t according to our calendar; it is according to his. He will grant justice just as he will come back when the time is right. Our duty in the meantime is to be alert and keep praying in faith both for what we need and for his return, not getting discouraged or disappointed or disillusioned.
I’d like to leave you with a modern day parable in conclusion. An elderly lady was once asked by a young man who had grown weary in the fight, whether he ought to give up the struggle. “I am beaten every time,” he said dolefully. “I feel I must give up.” “Did you ever notice,” she replied, smiling into the troubled face before her, “that when the Lord told the discouraged fishermen to cast their nets again, it was right in the same old spot where they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing?”
Don’t give up.