The widow and the unjust judge: interpretation


Scripture: Luke 18: 1-8; Jeremiah 31: 27-34

The parable of the widow and the unjust judge

“The parable of the widow and the unjust judge” is the heading of today’s Gospel reading in my Bible.  Jesus tells a story about an unethical judge, who refuses to hear the case of a widow. The story is so familiar that we don’t notice how strange it is at first. The widow keeps coming to ask for justice in a civil matter. Perhaps someone owed her money, or perhaps she faced unfair eviction from her home. Maybe relatives had cheated her out of an inheritance. We don’t know. These were (and are) common situations for women in patriarchal societies. She might face disastrous consequences – forced into begging or prostitution to survive. The judge didn’t want to hear her case. But eventually he got so fed up with her pestering him that he relented so as to get her off his back.

So far, so good. But then Jesus seems to liken God to the unjust judge, who will grant justice to his chosen people. But apparently they have to cry out to God day and night before he will listen. What does that say about our relationship with God, and that of the widow and the unjust judge? Is God like parents with children, who keep whining, “But I want to go to McDonalds?” until they give in. In the world of the story, that’s exactly what the oppressed should do.  They should keep complaining till they get justice, wrote David Lose.

A superficial explanation of the parable

At first, I wondered whether perhaps Luke had got the story mixed up. Maybe he didn’t hear it the way Jesus told it originally. Or possibly Jesus, the Teacher, was having a bad day. I can remember occasions in my own teaching career when what I was telling class did not seem to be going over well. Perhaps I had used a poor analogy, or perhaps my mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. But I could see from the blank looks on the students’ faces that they hadn’t a clue what I was trying to say. Sometimes I simply had to take up the subject again at the next class, and try a new approach.

The parable seems to say that God is like the unjust judge. God only responds to prayer after continual petitions.

Then I realized that I had missed the point. The widow’s position in the society of Jesus’ day was even worse than I said at first. She could not go before the judge on her own behalf at all. Only a male relative could represent her legally. Therefore if he cheated her or refused to help, she was out of luck. She was probably shouting to the judge on his way to and from court. Eventually he considered her case just to stop her yelling at him. The situation is hard to imagine in our modern Canadian society.

The context of today’s short reading

We ignore the context of the parable when we read it by itself. Jesus had just talked about how people would know when the Kingdom of God would come. It would happen suddenly and unexpectedly, but soon. “The days are coming …” Jesus had said. That echoes our reading from Jeremiah. We have come across this way of thinking many times. First century Jews believed that God would soon, and speedily come and set injustices to rights. Judeans lived under an oppressive Roman occupation. Surely God must come and establish a righteous rule for his Chosen People! The reading makes this clear. “God will grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night. Will he delay in helping them? [The answer is presumably, No]. I tell you, he will come quickly to grant justice to them.”

People hear and understand a parable from their own perspective

Different people, in various situations, might understand a parable completely differently.  Or they might not see any interpretation at all.  Jesus was talking to the disciples and some Pharisees. They would have instantly recognized the characters in the story. The widow was the people of Israel. God was indeed the judge character. But the point of the parable is that God is not the same as the unjust judge, only answering prayers to get rid of us, his whiny children.

God is different from that judge.  He is a Father who is keen to help his children, who are the people of Israel. The widow had no rights in her society, just as the Jews had no rights in comparison with their Roman overlords. The widow trusted that if she kept pestering the judge, she would eventually get justice. But, says Jesus, God – unlike the judge – will speedily grant justice to those who cry out – the Jews, and bring in the Kingdom of righteousness.

The nature and purpose of prayer

In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge the matter of prayer is implicit.  The text speaks of God’s chosen ones who “cry out” day and night.  But most authors consider that crying out in distress is tantamount to praying.  This makes the parable raise uncomfortable questions about the nature and purpose of prayer. There is the old answer to how God responds to our prayers – “Yes”, “No”, and “Not yet.” All too often it seems that the response is “Not yet” – we offer up our prayers, but they seem to disappear into the void. The people of Jesus’ time must have felt that way about their prayers for deliverance from injustice. So the point about persevering in prayer is that right now, the answer may be “Not yet.” Be patient. Change takes time.

“Have patience,” is also what the writer of this morning’s psalm says to the reader, both 2500 years ago, and today. If I contemplate the nature of God, and try to follow God’s commandments, I will gain understanding. Nevertheless, we have to realize that the answer to our prayers is sometimes, “No.” God does not always give us what we want, and we don’t get to go to McDonalds.

How can we relate this parable to modern life?

I said earlier that people who hear a parable interpret in it the light of their own circumstances.  At first, this piece of Scripture seemed to be mostly relevant to Jewish politics and theology in the 1st century. It doesn’t seem to apply to 21st century Canada. Our political system is different. We are not in bondage to a foreign power. On the other hand, this parable must seem highly relevant today to the Kurdish people. They must be crying out to God for speedy deliverance from cruelty and injustice, in which Turkish bombs fall on even their hospitals and schools.

Take another example. Author Fred Craddock [Fred B. Craddock, “Luke”, Interpretation Series, Knox Press, Loiusville KY, pp. 210] quoted a black American preacher who summarized the parable in these words. “Unless you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” This preacher clearly saw the parable in the context of the on-going struggle of black Americans for civil rights and equality of opportunity.

A Canadian context

I could imagine the preceding sentiment as the heart of a pastor’s message in many First Nations communities in Canada this morning, with a federal election tomorrow. Many First Nations see the federal government as the unjust judge and themselves as the widow. Like the poor widow, they continually cry out for the unjust judge to hear their petitions. They need clean drinking water, and equality of health care and education for their children with the rest of Canada. When will the unjust judge listen to them?  We in Southwestern Ontario take these services for granted. It’s easy for us to forget the communities that lack them. 

At the end of the reading, Jesus asks whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth when he comes. He wasn’t making a negative or being sarcastic. He was being positive. Faithful people continue to pray to God despite all the injustices that we see around us. We continue to hope that God’s answer right now is, “Not yet” but that one day it will change to “Yes.”