The Widow and the Judge

2 “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

One way of reading this parable might lead us to think that God’s answer to our prayer is contingent upon our capacity to suffer: If we just pray hard enough, dig deep enough, or persevere in our pain long enough, God will answer our prayer. I have written about a personal experience in which I confronted the inadequacy of this way of thinking. Maybe you have experienced something similar.

Through the experience, I came to see the truth in the words of the late theologian, Marcus Borg: “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable.”

You can perhaps see the inadequacy of an interpretation that associates God with the judge and 21st-century American Christians with the widow. Even though God listens, if we don’t read this parable in view of the scope of the rest of scripture—in view of God’s character—we’re left with a God who grants justice only if we do enough groveling.
1.     God in no way resembles the egotistical judge who only listens if we bother him long enough.
2.     And 21st-century American Christians are not on the margins socially in the way that a widow was in first-century Palestine.

The widow was up against an unjust system. Jesus hints at the widow’s predicament later in Luke’s gospel when he affirms the prophets’ criticism of those who deal unjustly with widows. Jesus condemns the scribes who “devour the houses of widows.” Acting as guardians appointed by a husband’s will to care for the widow’s estate, scribes often mismanaged the property of widows. They cheated widows of what was rightly theirs and took the houses as pledges for debts which could not be paid.

Such harsh treatment is a far cry from Yahweh’s commands in Deuteronomy:
Deut 24:17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Deut 24:19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.

These commands were taken up by the early Christian community, who proclaimed with the author of James that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” Without the support and representation of her husband, the widow was entirely at the mercy of the community.

And so the stage is set:
We have a socially powerful man. We know he is egotistical and irreverent.
We have a socially vulnerable woman. We know she is defenseless and has been defrauded.

The widow, although vulnerable in the social system, is by no means weak. She pesters the judge to give her justice. Night and day, on his doorstep, waiting for him when he comes home, waking him up in the morning, keeping him up at night, constantly re-articulating her need.

The judge has all the power in the encounter, and for some time, he does exactly what we would expect an egotistical, irreverent judge to do. He ignores the plight of the socially vulnerable.

But then, by some miracle, he relents. He doesn’t seem to have a change of heart. In fact, his reason for giving in sounds as delusional as we might expect from someone who has no regard for anyone but himself. Here’s a more literal translation from the Greek of the egotistical judge’s response in verse 5:

5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, lest she, coming and coming, give me a pair of black eyes.’”

Think about how absurd this sounds. The man with all the legal, social, and economic power considers the widow’s persistence a threat to his physical well-being! If anyone is in a place to do violence, it’s the judge. And indeed, up until his abrupt, albeit absurd, about-face, he is doing violence to the vulnerable widow by not listening to her repeated cries for justice.

What is perhaps just as important to reading this parable faithfully is what we don’t read. We don’t read, for instance, the details about how Jesus’ audience has failed in their duty to this widow. Those faithful to the God of Israel are called to pay special attention to the vulnerable, and yet here is the widow, fending for herself before the judge. 

I find this image particularly helpful in illustrating other things that I have overlooked in a quick reading:

1.     Where is the judge? [eyes down, wearily relenting]
2.     Where is the widow? [still there, pleading for justice]
3.     Where is Jesus? [mirroring the widow. If Jesus is anywhere in this encounter, he’s by the widow’s side, not behind the judge's desk.]
4.     Where am I? [standing by; perhaps even beside the judge, looking down.]                           

If the action of the parable weren't enough there's abrupt and rather odd transition in its closing sentences:

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The challenge of the parable in the final analysis that Luke's Jesus offers is a faith response from the gathered audience, and from those who would follow Jesus today.

What is meant by “faith” here?
1.     Faith to believe that God will grant us justice when we pray, and that his answer is not contingent upon our effort to convince him to be just.
2.     Faith to act on behalf of the vulnerable one for whom justice is very much in doubt.

1.     Recognize the judge in ourselves. [Are we looking down, allowing rhythms of life to dictate how we respond (or don’t) to the disadvantaged?]
2.     Know the widow in the city. [If we don’t know the disadvantaged, how can we be there for them?]
3.     Follow Jesus to her side. [If Jesus is indeed on the scene, we are to be there too.]