He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. — Micah 6:8
The year 2020 has brought us two crucial things: COVID-19 and increased awareness of systemic racism in our nation. 2020 is the year when the on-camera death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide and global outrage. This year, many take to the streets and march for justice and racial reconciliation. Furthermore (and unfortunately), it is the year where humankind divides on the issues surrounding race and racial injustices today. Some turn their eyes and prayers heavenward, pleading with God to bring about justice for people of color killed needlessly by police, while others keep silent. Despite prayers and pleadings from humankind to God, the violence continues, and we wonder if God is even listening to our prayers. The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow tell us that the cries of the faithful will not fall on deaf ears. This parable tells the faithful that God will bring about justice and vindication for the marginalized and oppressed.
Jesus’ parables can generally be defined as small stories with deep theological meaning. Stories help make a point and help us process hard to understand topics. According to Turner, the human mind is always at work constructing small stories and projecting them. Much like the brain is always processing signals from the spinal cord and peripheral nerves throughout the body, the human mind uses small stories to process our world, distinguish objects from events, objects from other objects, and events from other events. We understand our experience in this way because we are evolutionarily able to learn to distinguish objects and events and combine them in small spatial stories on a human scale in a way that is useful for us. Jesus’ parables are small stories centered around things that were common to the people in that time and place in history, and as such, helped His followers understand His teachings. Things like agriculture, Torah, and the social hierarchy of that time set the stage for many of Jesus’ parables and provide a familiar background to small, yet powerful stories from Jesus.
The story Jesus tells in Luke 18:1-8 is about a judge and a widow. According to Osborne, we can assume certain things about the judge based on what we know about that time in history. He was most likely Jewish because the Romans typically stayed away from civil concerns and left their subjects to themselves on local matters. Being a judge gave him power, something not very common in agricultural Israel. Some scholars say the judge has narcissistic tendencies. These scholars point to the phrase used to describe him – he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought” – and conclude that the judge Jesus describes might be someone with a narcissistic personality disorder, or at least someone without much of a conscience. He is, in essence, the exact opposite of what a judge should be.
Osborne continues by stating what this judge is probably like as a member of the community. He is most likely a wealthy, influential leader in his community. Based on the little text we have, it is not a far leap to assume he only cares only for his high status in society and nothing for the poor and defenseless like this widow. Even though Scripture mandates that judges defend widows (Exod 22:22–24; Deut 24:17; Ps 68:5; Isa 1:17; 54:4; Jer 22:3; Jas 1:27), this judge is entirely cold-hearted. He is almost as bad as the scribes in Mark 12:40 who “devour widows’ houses.” The overall portrait that Osborne paints of the judge is best described as someone who cares for no one but himself.
We do not know the situation of this particular widow. Perhaps she had been financially wronged by someone or had come under another such hardship. Jesus does not tell his listeners what injustice had happened to the widow. Perhaps this was for a reason – by not giving specifics as to her dire straits, Jesus was able to create a character that His listeners and followers (mostly people of low economic status) would relate to best. Whatever her situation was, she had not found justice. She ultimately has no choice but to go before the judge and ask him for help. His lack of concern meant she kept coming again and again and pleading for “justice against my adversary.” (v. 3) The first several times she came to him, he refused to acknowledge her and her need. Perhaps this was because he was well-known and proud of his reputation as a godless and hard-bitten judge (v. 2, 4) and did not want to pay her any attention whatsoever. However, she persisted in her quest for justice, and thus started a battle of wills between herself and the judge. She eventually outlasted the judge and forced a reply from him. The judge finally responds to the widow’s plea for justice in verses 4–5 and determines that it was easier to give in and get it over with than to let her bother him all day every day with her constant pleas. Note he says this only to himself and not publicly; he does not want his inner motives behind granting her justice known to everyone. His reasoning makes sense: “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice so that she will not eventually come and attack me.” “Attack me” does not mean physical violence but public denunciation. He does not want his name vilified before the community, with whom he enjoys having power and authority over. An acceptable paraphrase might be “lest she gives me a headache with her continual yammering.”
Now that we know more about the characters, let us figure out the interpretation for this parable. Scholars over the years have debated over how to interpret the parable of the unjust judge. Despite the ongoing scholarly debate, the vast majority of scholars have agreed that this parable seems to have two main themes: the importance of prayer and God’s eventual justice for the oppressed. We see in the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow a story about the power of persistent prayer and God’s promise to grant justice for His people. We see, in essence, a story of justice requested and justice received. Even though the judge in this story is unjust and seemingly uncaring, he ultimately relents and grants justice to the woman. We are to assume that the judge did so for selfish reasons – if he grants her justice, perhaps she will leave him alone. Whatever his underlying motivation is, the thing to remember is that he did eventually grant her justice. More on that later.
At its heart, this story is a plea for justice. The word justice runs like a thread throughout the parable, identifying justice as the central theme that Jesus is passing on to His followers. Many aspects of Biblical law are concerned with justice in the different economic arrangements of that time, and judging from the biblical portrait of widows, her request for justice is likely economic. This widow (and perhaps us) needs justice only in order to go on living. Personal tragedy turns into bitter irony for this desperate widow. As Jesus indicates, she has appealed to a judge who is himself “unjust” (v. 6) and, by his admission, has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone” (v. 2, 4). In this respect, the widow of Jesus’ story belongs to all ages and all cultures. She is the vulnerable person at the bottom of the heap, the one whose urgent and continuous appeals are met only by endless delays and ongoing injustice.
However, this is ultimately a story about justice requested and justice received. Furthermore, as such, this story has a stunning and unanticipated outcome. Unjust and uncaring as he is, the judge ultimately relents and grants justice to the woman despite himself. The judge’s belated, grudging, and self-serving decision to meet the widow’s demands and grant her justice brings the plot of the story to its conclusion (v. 5). This parable ends with a question: if this wicked judge who has no compassion for anyone (especially a poor widow) can ultimately do the right thing and act this way, how much more a loving God? Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones? If even a cold, calculating judge provides earthly justice, our heavenly Father will act in marvelous ways for his people. This is the absolute promise from God: that His followers will receive that justice due to them. Jesus applies the parable to God’s chosen people, whose continual cries for justice will be heard and answered. In parallel fashion, the cry of God’s “chosen ones” for justice (v. 7, 8) moves God to speedy action on their behalf.
The eschatological teaching of these eight verses as they stand in Luke is as follows: If an unrighteous judge heeds a widow’s plea for justice, how much more will the righteous and merciful God listen to the pleas of His servants who cry to Him day and night? He is indeed patient concerning them and is patient and longsuffering toward their persecutors as well. He will assuredly vindicate His servants soon, as the return of Jesus is near. It would appear that Luke, while stating that God’s justice was coming, was also cautious to clip the wings of those who anxiously waited for God’s justice through the expression of the realistic observation at the end of v. 7: “And he delays with respect to them.” The Gospel writer was thoroughly convinced that God would come to avenge his chosen ones but that he would take his time in doing so. For the time being, he would put it off. However, the saints must always be ready for that day and must remember the last part of v. 8, because when Jesus returns, it will mean judgment for them as well as for their persecutors. Will they be found faithful when the Lord comes?
In summary, the story Jesus tells in Luke 18:1-8 is a powerful story of justice requested, and justice received. The widow’s cry for justice, the unjust judge’s surprising decision: this is a parable that takes on new meaning today in the year 2020. The parable about a widow – a nobody person in that society – receiving justice from an uncaring, unjust judge – tugs at our heartstrings because oppressed and marginalized individuals today are being ignored and denied justice.
We are over halfway through the year 2020, and yet this two-thousand-year-old parable about justice requested and justice received speaks to us today. 2020 started as the year for COVID-19: face mask mandates when in public spaces established in many states, doing the “elbow bump” instead of shaking hands, social distancing by standing six feet apart in public spaces and doing work/school from home, learning how to work Zoom video calls, and online church services. As 2020 dragged on, COVID-19 spread like wildfire throughout the nation. Healthcare workers experienced burnout and mental health issues like posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety – with some even attempting (and succeeded in) suicide – at alarming rates, as the nation feared an overall PPE (personal protective equipment) and ventilator shortage. During this chaotic time, a tragedy struck that had the nation once again in an uproar: the murder of African-American George Floyd on Memorial Day by a Caucasian Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death was caught on camera and immediately drew attention and criticism from the nation in general because the white officer was filmed with his knee pressed against a passive Floyd’s neck. It took eight minutes and forty-six seconds for Floyd to die after the officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Let that sink in. It makes a person sick to their stomach to even think about such an inhumane act.
The murder of George Floyd leaves us questioning whether God hears and cares about our cries for racial reconciliation and justice for people of color. The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow teaches us that God is a God of justice and, as such, cares for those who have been denied justice. Furthermore, as a story set in ancient Israel, this parable has a stunning and unanticipated outcome. The theological implications are massive when one considers the ramifications of the story found in these eight verses of Scripture. If even an unjust judge will vindicate and grant a widow’s request for justice, how much more will God answer the cries for vindication from his people? If the judge finally answers the widow’s pleas for help after ignoring her for a long time (and we know his moral character is far from stellar), how much more will God listen and respond to our pleas for justice and racial reconciliation?
This particular parable gives us a reason to keep on trusting and praying, ‘Thy kingdom comes,” even as we wait in a world where the “already” of God’s victory at the cross has not entirely supplanted the “not yet” that we see in a world of evil around us. The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow does not tell us that we must continuously badger God with our prayers. Instead, it shows us that if even an uncaring judge provides justice for a helpless widow, think of how much more our loving Father will bring in his Kingdom and grant justice for the oppressed. The parable encourages us to tackle difficult issues with confidence; it cautions us not to expect difficult results, and it ultimately assures us that God’s justice will prevail in the end. During uncertain times, we must keep praying in the confidence that at the right time, God will answer us suddenly, swiftly, and thoroughly.
Father in heaven, grant us justice and continued racial reconciliation in our nation, our world, and our hearts. Let us all be instruments of peace, understanding, and compassion in regards to the racial injustices that are tearing our country apart. Help us be a voice for the marginalized like Jesus was when He walked among us. Hear our prayers, O God, and grant us justice.
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Osborne, Grant R., 2018. Luke Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=2011794&site=ehost-live.
Penny, Donald. 2007. “Persistence In Prayer: Luke 18:1-8”. Review And Expositor.
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