We’re back in the gospel according to Luke this morning, as we continue our series focusing on Jesus’ parables and how his original hearers would’ve experienced these stories.
The story that Luke offers us today is a little bit odd, in that the punch line isn’t necessarily within the parable itself, but in the way Jesus interprets it for us. So as we listen, I’ll invite you to pay attention to who’s asking for justice, who it is that doles out justice, and what that looks like in this particular parable.
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’ 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?’
Before we go too far, there are some cultural assumptions here that we need to dig through. First: widows in ancient Israel didn’t have much formal power—what little power they had was often what we would call ‘soft power.’ It’s the power of influence rather than demands, of persistence rather than instant results. This is likely why she has to keep coming back to the judge, and perhaps even confronts him outside of the courtroom.
Fun fact: the phrase that’s translated here “so that she may not wear me out” is more literally translated “so that she may not give me a black eye.” It’s a boxing term—so whether it’s meant literally or metaphorically, the judge realizes that she will contend with him if she doesn’t get what she wants.
But what does she want? The word she uses over is most often translated as ‘justice,’ but it can also be translated as ‘vengeance.’ We don’t get any details about who she’s fighting this legal battle with, or why. We don’t have any idea whether she’s demanding some sort of settlement from her opponent, or if she’s trying to get them arrested, or even who her opponent is. We just don’t have the information, so we have to rely on the rest of the story to give us clues about what she’s up to.
So let’s talk about the judge for a minute. Although we don’t get much information on him either, he actually gets a better description than the widow: he has respect neither for God nor his neighbors. In the story itself, he owns that—in his own words, he really doesn’t care about what God might think, or about the well-being of the people around him; he’s entirely interested in his own well-being. This is, according to Luke, what makes him ‘unjust.’ He seemingly has no moral code at all, aside from what suits him in the moment—which even by modern standards makes him dangerous.
At the end of the day, the widow gets what she wants, whether that’s vengeance or justice or something in between.
But the story keeps going. This parable is somewhat unique because Jesus himself interprets it as an allegory, in which each character stands in for someone or something else. He tells his listeners to be like the widow, persisting in prayer and crying out to God, and God will answer them.
But it makes me a little uncomfortable to connect God with the unjust judge—not least, because it can give the impression that God has to be convinced to listen to us, not to mention help us.
Even Jesus tries to make a distinction between the two, as he seems to be saying: if even a judge with no moral code can be worn down by a persistent widow, then will not a wise and just God answer your cries for justice? Will God ignore your pleas for mercy? No, God will be quick to hear you, and quick to answer.
But even that simple teaching moment opens up a whole bunch of new questions, and exposes a deep mystery: what is God’s role, and what is our role, in doling out justice on this side of God’s kingdom?
One of the attributes of God we praise and value most is God’s patience—especially when we’re the ones who’ve done wrong. And yet, we also value and praise God’s justice—God’s impartiality and strength, the ability to make things right. We gather here not just because the food is great, but because we truly believe that God hears us, and will answer us when we call out in prayer and in praise.
But the widow’s insistence, and Jesus’ perhaps purposeful lack of detail, demand that we ask the question: what does God’s justice look like in a fallen world, full of broken people, and broken people who inflict brokenness on others? What does that mean for our relationships, for our policies, for our systems and our families?
If justice is just “I get what I want, so forget everybody else,” then I’ve aligned myself with the judge in the story, whom Jesus calls “unjust.”
If justice is simply “I get revenge on someone who’s wronged me,” then I’ve aligned myself with the old ways of “an eye for an eye,” while Jesus tells me to love my enemies.
Can justice on this side of heaven truly be restorative, for both the person wronged and the person who made the wrong choice? Can we even begin do the work of reconciliation, of becoming this new creation that Paul speaks of?
Jesus seems to think so.
And the way that work begins, every time, is with prayer. Prayers of protest and lament. Prayers that pour out our deepest desires, to be whole, to have courage, to bring peace, to return no one evil for evil. This sort of prayer is, I believe, is not so much about changing God’s mind, or convincing God to care about us, but about connecting our hearts and minds to God’s—recharging our bodies, minds, and souls so that we can be the change we want to see in the world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a biblical scholar in the mid-20th century. He left Poland in 1940 after much of his family was killed by Nazi violence, and settled in the US, where he taught at a Jewish seminary and wrote extensively on the Hebrew Bible and its contemporary applications. He also became very active in the Civil Rights Movement, and he marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King at Selma.
Later, when he wrote about that experience and how he saw God there, he said: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
This sort of prayer will likely not get us the warm fuzzies we long for. Protests will disrupt our sense of order and disturb what inner calm we have. Lament will force us to recognize the ways we and our world are not okay. On our best days, the urgency in our prayers will compel us to act in ways we might not usually. We will disagree with one another about how and when and where to pray these sorts of prayers.
But the promise in this parable is that our persistence in seeking justice will not go unnoticed. We are the hands and feet and hearts and eyes of Christ in the world, and Jesus promises us that one day, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a stream that never dries up.
Until that day, we’re the people praying with our hands as we feed those who need stability. We’re the people praying with our feet, every time we protest injustice or inhumanity. We’re the people whom God has chosen and called, whom God continues to provide with every good thing, so that the rivers of God’s compassion might never stop flowing.