Parable of the Unjust Judge

Luke started out prefacing this parable with an assumption that Jesus told it in order to encourage us to pray always. My understanding is Jesus was teaching us an entirely different thing.

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The parable

1Then Jesus told them a parable to show them they should always pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3There was also a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused, but later on he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor have regard for people, 5yet because this widow keeps on bothering me, I will give her justice, or in the end she will wear me out by her unending pleas.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says! 7Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long to help them? 8I tell you, he will give them justice speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:1-8)”

The faith of the widow

The object of the woman’s faith is a judge, who is deemed an unjust judge in other translations of the Bible. She may have heard of his reputation as a kind of man who “neither feared God nor respected people.”

Her “faith” in this judge is like this: He’s a very unjust man. He doesn’t listen to the little people. He’s preferential toward the rich and the powerful. He takes bribes. Had I had some money to give I wouldn’t have to knock as much. He doesn’t have my well-being in mind. He can’t care less if I live or die. Unless I bother him so much with all the knocking, he wouldn’t give me a hearing.

This is very typical of a relationship between a powerful figure and one at a lower rank of society. It explains why most people relate to their deity the same way.

Is persistence the essence of faith?

The title “Persistent widow” for this parable was just something translators came up with to capture what they thought was its core message. But Jesus never taught faith in this sense. He never teaches how much you believe, but whether or not you believe, and if you need to define a quantity, the amount as big as a mustard seed is enough. Likewise, he defines the strength of your faith according to the quality of its object, like WHO do you believe. You can have faith that move mountains, but if it’s based on a faulty object, it’s useless. You can have great faith in a chair, and be as persistent as anyone can be, but if it has been eaten through by termites, it will not support you. Conversely, if it’s built of strong wood and in great condition, no matter how feeble your faith is, it will securely support your weight.

Lengthy prayer?

In Matthew 6:7-13, Jesus taught us not to pray on and on like the pagans for the reason that God knows all your needs, so don’t pray as if he’s deaf or hard of hearing. For in doing so, you’re making God to be like the unjust judge in this parable. Since Jesus could not contradict himself, he must not have taught persistent, or repetitive, praying, but instead a persistence in believing, in trusting, in knowing the One you’re unloading your burden on. Yet, sermon after sermon, commentaries after commentaries, and even the Bible translators, fall into the trap of teaching this parable as an example in persistent praying. For thousands of years, since the beginning of Christianity, to spend an extended amount of time on one’s knees praying is considered among the greatest Christian virtues.

Lengthy praying says nothing about a person’s faith. Neither does tenacity, or loyalty. It’s a false humility to cloak a hidden desire for self exaltation.

God in your own image

The inclination to believe that unless you pray long and hard, you won’t move the hand of God, is almost a universal phenomenon. Most of the world’s religions also share in this belief. Some religion’s adherents inflict pain upon themselves to get their gods to hear them. Scream as loud as you can, and maybe your deity will hear you. Focus, use the right words, have the right attitude, think the right thoughts. It all depends on your prayerful performance whether or not your prayer will be answered.

The principle reason for this approach toward deities is they’re mostly conjured up in the mind of the believer from their life’s experiences. The deity takes on the personality of the powerful figure in their life. His ability to respond to their request, his fairness in dealing with his subjects, his temper tantrums and what not.

Such is the relationship between the widow and her judge in the parable. He’s hard of hearing, so she has to knock long and hard. Furthermore, he’s known to be unjust, so though he responded to her tenacious knocking, his answers may not spring from his knowledge of her situation, or how his decision may affect her life.

Therefore, when Jesus parabolically concluded the story with “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”, he was hinting at something completely different than Luke’s introduction to the parable. He was asking his listeners whether they would know God as he should be known, because he knew the widow, who is perhaps no different than the disciples that surrounded him, though may have faith, her faith, and theirs, was a faith in a god created in their own image.

The differences

It’s easy to contrast the judge against God. The judge was in a deep slumber. God never sleeps. The judge was uninterested in the woman’s situation. God knew her even before she was knitted in her mother’s womb. The judge may not be able to solve the woman’s problem as the opposing party in her situation may be more powerful than him. Our God is omnipotent. The judge lacks compassion toward the woman. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. The judge granted her request just to shut her up without regard to whether his answer helps or hurt her in the long run. God may or may not grant a request, he does it based on his foreknowledge of the plan for each person’s life. Lastly, this judge is hard of hearing, but our God knows the inward groaning of all his people even before they could voice them.

What kind of faith?

When Jesus asked at the end of the parable: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”, he meant anything but persistent prayer. Let’s look at how John defines eternal life:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Eternal life has nothing to do with what you do for God, for he can send the angels of heaven to accomplish whatever in his plan, but it has everything to do with knowing God.

Will you know that God is not like that judge? Will you know that he desires a relationship with you unlike that of the widow and the judge? Will you know that God is infinitely more knowing and compassionate than the judge? But Jesus knew better. He knew a multitude went to church, wore the badge of Christianity, but few truly knew him. Most relate to him like a transaction, if I do this, will you do that for me? Since I have done this, can I expect you to do that? But so rare were those who were humble enough to acknowledge that God could do whatever he wished, and he owed them nothing.

Great faith may prompt one who is in need to raise their concern to God, then leave it at that, knowing that they do not have to pray long and hard, they don’t have to try to move his hands with long extended prayers, but leave their burden at the throne of grace knowing that all things will work out for them in due time. But such faith is rare, as most believe that God reciprocates the amount of time they spend on their knees. Their god is deaf, our God can hear the saint’s prayer even before it is spoken, their god cannot hear the cry of the little people, our God cares for even a little sparrow.

It won’t just be whether, when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith, but whether he will find faith “on earth.” Mostlikely, He will find many who have the kind of faith like that of the widow toward the unjust judge, and just as many who read this parable and draw the conclusion that it’s about persistence in prayer. Will he find true faith on earth? Will he find any who knows him as he is?

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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