The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
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?”
When preaching on the parable of the persistent widow, Thomas Long tells a story about Mother Theresa, who
. . . went to visit Edward Bennett Williams, a legendary Washington criminal lawyer. He was a powerful lawyer. He at one time owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles and he was the lawyer for Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others.
Evan Thomas’s biography of Williams tells the story about when Mother Teresa visited Edward Bennett Williams because she was raising money for an AIDS hospice. Williams was in charge of a small charitable foundation that she hoped would help.
Before she arrived for the appointment, Williams said to his partner, Paul Dietrich, “You know, Paul, AIDS is not my favorite disease. I don’t really want to make a contribution, but I’ve got this Catholic saint coming to see me, and I don’t know what to do.” Well, they agreed that they would be polite, hear her out, but then say no.
Well, Mother Teresa arrived.
She was a little sparrow sitting on the other side of the big mahogany lawyer’s desk. She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, “We’re touched by your appeal, but no.”
Mother Teresa said simply, “Let us pray.” Williams looked at Dietrich; they bowed their heads and after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the hospice.
Again Williams politely said no.
Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.”
Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling, “All right, all right, get me my checkbook!”
Could there be a better illustration for this parable from Luke? Mother Theresa seems to perfectly parallel the widow, and the rich Washington lawyer sounds very much like the unjust Judge.
There are, in fact, many illustrations that could go hand in hand with just this interpretation of the parable. And it seems to be a common jump to turn ourselves into the widow and God into the “Unjust Judge.” But I want to encourage you to look a little deeper. . . because although the text tells us that Jesus told the parable to teach about prayer, Luke pushes us along a little further by tagging on a post-script of sorts when he writes, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Ah, there’s the rub: because with that seemingly innocuous sentence, Luke changes this from what he introduces as a parable Jesus used to teach about prayer, to a parable that Luke is using to remind his listeners that God’s Kingdom surely will come, and will come swiftly and suddenly. When it comes, will the widows (a common character who represents all those who cannot fend for themselves, or who are oppressed by systems) be receiving justice? Or will they be turned away, time and again by the unjust judges of the earth?
And so we must ask ourselves who we are in this parable. Are we the oppressed widow? Or are we the Unjust Judge?
To understand ourselves as judge all it takes is to be reminded of our modern-day apathy, when we fail to be passionate for justice, and many times don’t care much for our neighbor either. Might we be too concerned with our own busy-ness that we don’t have time to live deeply in our faith?
An excellent example of how we are like the unjust judge, who cares not for justice or for people, can be found in the excellent film “Hotel Rwanda.” This film is about the 1994 mass genocide of the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda, Africa, by the Hutu minority. A reluctant hero is found in Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of an upscale European Hotel, who finds a way to offer asylum to and save the life of nearly 1300 Tutsis.
There is a powerful scene in the movie when an international press agent staying at the hotel has come back with footage of the horrific slaughter. A repeated theme in the film is that if the Americans or Europeans knew about the genocide, they would do something about it. When Paul Rusesabagina sees the graphic film clip, he prophecies that now, after seeing this, the world will certainly come to the rescue. The cameraman shakes his head at Paul, and sadly, quietly says, “No, the world will look up briefly from their dinner table, comment on how terrible it is, and then return to their meal.”
Unfortunately, the world was like the Unjust Judge, as:
Over the course of 100 days, almost one million people were killed in Rwanda. The streets of the capital city of Kigali ran red with rivers of blood, but no one came to help. There was no international intervention in Rwanda, no expeditionary forces, no coalition of the willing. There was no international aid for Rwanda. Rwanda’s Hutu extremists slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors and any moderate Hutus who stood in their way, and the world left them to it.
Yes, though painful, it doesn’t take much to see ourselves as the unjust judge.
And without too much work we can see God as this widow, constantly vying for our attention, time after time approaching us in the hopes that we might notice her and stop to do what she is asking.
And hopefully, looking at the parable this way will help you to feel God’s relentless, nagging love. And maybe, just maybe, you will allow yourself to be challenged and transformed by that love; to surpass the hearing and move into action, answering the plea of that Persistent God!
In Sure and Certain Hope,