Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Revisiting the persistent widow and the unjust judge

As I said in a recent post, I've been thinking a great deal recently about the parables of Jesus. One of them that has puzzled me in the past has puzzled me again as I've revisited it. Now I think I'm getting a bit closer to the nub of this uncomfortable parable.

The parable in question concerns the persistent widow and the unjust judge, which is recorded in Luke 18:1-8. What got me thinking about this parable again recently was the repetition of the word 'justice':

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

This made me think that there's more to the parable than immediately meets the eye. The other thing that I'd never really thought about before was the context. Jesus has been speaking about his return in Chapter 17 - and then returns to that theme in the final sentence of the parable. The parable starts with the word 'then' - making the link between chapters 17 and 18 solid. And so it seems to me that we should think of this parable as an encouragement to the disciples who may be undergoing struggles in the period before Jesus' return not to give up hope, but to pray and remain faithful to Jesus.

The unjust judge

On to the parable itself, which centres around the unjust judge. That the judge neither fears God or cares about men is detail which is repeated. Both of these would have been reasons to have helped the widow - it is commanded by OT Law, and compassion would have demanded it. In other words, the judge doesn't respect the needs of the poor and oppressed. Though Jesus isn't explicit, there was probably a reason that the judge wouldn't give the widow justice. Perhaps she couldn't afford to bribe him. In other words, the judge was arrogant and unjust, a powerful man facing down one of the weakest members of society.

The persistent widow

We don't know how the widow was being cheated. We do know that the judge wasn't inclined to help her. We also know that she was persistent. She came many times and implored the judge to rule for her. If she had kept quiet, perhaps things would have died down. But since she kept on demanding justice, time after time, the judge had no choice but to do something. Whatever he had been paid wasn't worth the hassle she was causing. He decided to grant her what she was due just to get rid of her.

The meaning of the parable

Now for the unjust judge and the widow, Jesus substitutes God and his 'chosen ones' - his people. It's not that God is like the unjust judge - rather, it's the opposite case. In fact, every detail that we're given about the unjust judge contrasts with what we know about God from the rest of the Bible. Jesus' argument is from the lesser to the greater: if an unjust, selfish judge will see that justice is done in response to persistent requests, how much more will the just God bring justice to the people he loves who pray constantly for help. I think that it's this emphasis on justice which is often missed when reading this passage.

Jesus evidently isn't saying that praying to God will lead to a temporal relief from injustice. Poor and oppressed Christians around the world are still calling out for relief and, for the most part, don't seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice and compassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If you read the parable as just an encouragement to prayer, there will always seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes a difference.

This is where the context of Chapter 17 (and Jesus' return) comes in. From the very earliest times, Jesus' followers hung on the promise that he would return. Only that made sense of 'losing life' (and all of the persecutions that brings) in order to experience 'true life'. Just like today, the promise of Jesus' return under-girded and overarched their lives. Without Jesus' return, Christianity makes no sense. And so, particularly in moments of injustice, we long for Jesus' return and for the way in which he will right wrongs. Sometimes the wait is particularly painful. Like the believers in the book of Revelation, sometimes we cry, "How long, Lord?" Sometimes it seems that God will never answer our cries for justice. Sometimes it feels like God is just putting us off.

But Jesus' answer is firm: God will see that his people will receive justice - and quickly. God's people will not suffer for a moment too long. When Jesus returns, it will be at the right time. Not our time or our preference, but God's, but the right time.

The challenge

Jesus' return is sure - but his question for us comes in the last sentence.

"However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" In other words, will we still be disciples of Jesus, even though it's cost us in the period waiting for his return? Or will he find us having given up, having capitulated to despair? When the answer to the prayers we have prayed and prayed and prayed finally comes, how will we be found? Or will we have turned instead to resentment or bitterness towards God? How will the coming of the answer of your prayers find you?

Jesus has told a parable of a persistence widow - very weak in the world's estimation - who has won a victory because she didn't give up hope. She didn't give up her plea and finally won the day, despite having the odds overwhelmingly stacked against her. And so I think the point is this: we sometimes become so worn down and discouraged by the injustices of our lives and the hardships that come through being Christians that we stop praying, stop hoping and ultimately stop expecting Jesus to return.

But the reminder of the character of God (so unlike the unjust judge), his care for his people and the surety of his promises should lead us to prayerfully and confidently commit ourselves to him - even when facing injustice. The Judge of the world is fair, he is loving, he is in control - and he will return.

And perhaps the other challenge for us in the West concerns our own godliness. We see in this parable that God cares passionately for the justice of his people. Walking in relationship with God means loving the things he loves and hating the things he hates. Perhaps as part of our own godliness, we need to be more concerned about the plight of Christians around the world who are experiencing horrific injustice. People like the widow from Bangladesh that is pictured here - whose husbands have been murdered for their devotion to Christ.

It's a word, at least, to me.

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