I have personally struggled with this particular parable about an unjust judge. Every third year as this lectionary text rolls around I immediately feel inspired to look for another. It is, on the surface, a rather bothersome and strange story that challenges us to search not only for a possible meaning and application, but also for any sense of the presence of God. We much prefer cleaner and simpler parables from Jesus, stories that easily fit into our ways of thinking and acting.
The passage itself moves in what seems to be disconnected ways. The context, Luke suggests, is about prayer and the importance of not giving up. The parable that follows revolves around a not-so-nice person and his indifference toward one who lived on the margins, barely getting by. The passage then ends with a question about faith. From prayer and callousness, to persistence and faithfulness. While it may seem disjointed on first reading, there is something significant here about who we are and how we are to order our lives in this complex and confusing world.
The two main characters in this parable are drawn from the real world. Luke's Gospel is filled with stories like this where the surprise of grace is discovered not in holy, pious, religious, people but in seeing reality through the lens of God's Kingdom. These two people open that door.
The judge in this story is not presented in any kind of favorable light. Whether a fictional character or a composite personality, this particular judge does not fulfill the role and responsibility assigned to him. Rather than being an advocate for others, like this widow, this judge at first ignores her, seems to act against her. As I try to flesh out who this judge is and how he behaves a string of words comes to mind: impious, contemptible, self-reliant, power-broker, corrupt. Instead of hearing her complaints in a fair and impartial way, this judge clearly has no time nor interest in the request of this widow.
But what choice does she have? A widow in that culture would have been one of the most hopeless of people. She had not only lost her husband, but evidently there was no family left to support or to sustain her. She had lost whatever social standing she might have had. In essence, she had lost her life. She was one of far too many who were living on the edge of society, overlooked, ignored, forgotten. She had no voice, no influence, no future. She turns to the one person who might have helped her but instead found more rejection.
Jesus recognizes and highlights the disparity of power that exists between these two. Our linear minds struggle to make sense of it because the judge can only be a way of helping us see and experience God in an inverse order. God is not like this at all, Jesus says. In fact, quite the opposite, God is everything this judge is not. Drawing that upside down comparison is not easily made, then or now.
At least there is a little good news in this story: the widow does finally get a settlement in her favor. But we cannot ignore why or how it happens. The judge does finally give in not because of any sense of justice or compassion, but rather simply because she has become a nuisance. And because she is going to wear him out by continually showing up. Just give her what she wants and get her away from me. He chooses expediency and convenience over any sense of compassion or mercy.
What in the world is Jesus up to here? And, in retelling this story, the only Gospel writer to do so, what in the world Luke is up to? He sets us up with that introductory comment about how we are to pray and not lose heart, and then follows with this story. Well, if that's the way Luke wants us to read it, how shall we draw any insight into prayer or about the life of faith or how we are to live in this world from a story like this?
In his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, John Wesley commented that this and the following parable [the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector] warn us against two fatal extremes with regard to prayer: the former, this unjust judge parable, warns us against faintness and weariness; the latter, the Pharisee and the tax collector, Wesley says warns us against self-confidence. (p. 271) Luke introduces this sequence of stories by connecting prayer with not giving up. Or, as John Wesley phrases it, "weariness" - a sense that our prayers are not getting results so why bother.
For those of us who read Scriptures, who pay attention to the spiritual disciplines, who strive to be formed in our faith, we know that prayer is essential. We remember the encouragement from the Apostle Paul that we should "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and that we should "pray in the Spirit ... and always persevere in supplication...." (Ephesians 6:18) The widow in this story captures that with her tenacity and determination. But when prayers go unanswered, or we do not get what we had hoped for, a weariness settles in. We begin to give up. So what can we take from this parable that might help us unleash the power of prayer for living faithfully?
First: that prayer is believing that God will act. If there is anything to learn from the actions of this widow it is her confidence that eventually the judge will respond. I like to picture her in the traditional posture of prayer, standing with head and arms lifted up as a sign of being ready to receive what is poured out upon her. It is a way of acknowledging that God is eternal and transcendent. In traditional Jewish words, "know before whom you stand."
Prayer is not about bringing God a "to-do" list of things we want, believing that somehow if we ask in faith and perhaps even have someone agree with us, it will be done. God does not hand out gifts based on what we want. However, prayer is about positioning ourselves to receive what God offers, confident that God will act.
Kathleen Norris writes: "...prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you cannot imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been." (Amazing Grace, page 60) Serious, intentional, disciplined prayer stands before God, arms outstretched, ready to receive, expecting God to act.
Second: we must be persistent in our praying, that we must not give up, that we must not lose heart. Because of who she was and where she found herself, this widow had no other option than continually beating a path to this judge. We are not given a clue about what she demanded. She simply wanted justice and she persisted in her claim.
One of the frustrating realities we all come face to face with at some point in our lives is the apparent delay in receiving answers to our prayers. That, however, is no excuse for giving up. Continually coming to God provides an opportunity for us to refine our prayers, or for God's grace to refine us so that the shape and the direction of our prayers are bent toward the way of Christ and not merely in a self-centered way. We keep knocking and asking and seeking. Julian of Norwich puts it this way: prayer "is yearning, beseeching, and beholding" until finally we see God face to face.
Third: that the power of love and compassion, of God's justice and mercy will ultimately prevail. In the story, the judge finally gives in to the widow simply to make her go away. He has delayed his actions in the hope that she would leave him alone and go pester another judge. At that point in the story Jesus turns the tables and reminds us: God is not like this judge! God will hear; God will act; God will not delay. To hear that is to know the never-failing, steadfast love of God, which restores our spirits and give us all we need to move through life. We are connected to the eternal power of the universe, a power that is greater than ourselves.
It is finally all a matter of faith, of trust and reliance on God, of believing God. The widow received justice and mercy and I suspect she was never the same again. And then Jesus connects the dots between persistent prayer and faithful living as a way of urging us to align our lives with that holy love and compassion. It is important for our spiritual lives to be engaged in persistent prayer, but it is also important to live faithfully as a result of having been the recipients of God's love, mercy, and grace.
Prayer is an act of trust which reorders our priorities and helps us to see and to live into a different future. In a world filled with fear, prejudice, hatred, violence, we need to be living faithfully, boldly, tenaciously as people of faith who pray and strive for God's Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. As we do, we will discover that we have unleashed the power of prayer to make a difference in our lives and to help shape a different world.
So be it. Let us pray.
We stand before you, O God, arms outstretched, hearts and spirits open, ready to receive a word, a sign, a gift of your grace. We, each of us, have concerns and worries, fears and anxieties. We turn to you, source of justice and mercy. Here our prayers. Come, Lord Christ. Amen.