The Parable of the Widow and the Judge
1Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to teach them that they should always pray and never become discouraged.2“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.3And there was a widow in that same town who kept coming to him and pleading for her rights, saying, ‘Help me against my opponent!’4For a long time the judge refused to act, but at last he said to himself, ‘Even though I don't fear God or respect people,5yet because of all the trouble this widow is giving me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I don't, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out!’”
6And the Lord continued, “Listen to what that corrupt judge said.7 Now, will God not judge in favor of his own people who cry to him day and night for help? Will he be slow to help them?8I tell you, he will judge in their favor and do it quickly. But will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?”
Exodus 17:8-13, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:2
Jesus loves to teach in parables. He uses these memorable stories to teach larger groups of people, especially those he may never address again. In this week’s Gospel Jesus teaches about the importance of persistence in prayer.
The parable opens. Two characters appear in a public setting, a city gate or public square. A local judge is hearing cases. He claims neither to fear God nor respect any person. He is a consciously shameless figure, unusual but still familiar in the honor-based culture of the New Testament. He would be called a “robber judge” because everyone knows that in his court “justice” follows the highest bidder. This judge believes himself immune from the social expectations of his role and even from the curse promised in Deuteronomy 27:19 on “anyone who deprives the resident alien, the orphan or the widow of justice!”
The second character is a helpless widow. In Hebrew “widow” translates to mean “the silent one” for widows in the ancient Middle East had no voice in public forums. With no husband to speak on her behalf and protect her from harm she is being taken advantage of and wants to press a case against her adversary. In the time of Jesus, she would have no way to address this issue in a public court, in front of a judge. But she can in the parable; that is a shocking element for the listening audience to consider. It is a reminder that God himself chooses to defend widows. In Psalm 68:6 the psalmist reveals God as Father of the fatherless and the defender of the widow.
Our widow is bold and has the daring that can come from desperation. She summons the courage to enter a public court and demand justice. The fact that she addresses a single judge suggests her case is financial, that her adversary is trying to wrest from her what little financial means she still controls. In the time of Jesus solitary judges would sit in judgment over financial dealings. Rebuffed, she returns again the next day and the next.
The robber judge is willing to ignore the widow for a time, but eventually she wears him down. We can assume that her cause is just. The judge’s self-reflective response to her persistence is revealing. He admits to himself that she is wearing him out and straining his patience. Her constant cry for justice has caused him to reconsider his own self-interest.
The widow is victorious! Too poor even to bribe the judge, she still prevails over her adversary. We learn that the judge is finally motivated by fear that the widow will come to “strike” him. The term is strong; despite his protest that he is not worried about what God or others think about him, the judge decides to avoid the social “black eye” she will cause him if her persistence is not rewarded. The widow is in the right and everyone in the community knows it.
The parable affords Jesus the opportunity to make a comparison between the delay of the robber judge and the timing of God. Jesus teaches his disciples that his Father will secure the rights of the chosen ones who are persistent in their prayer, day and night. They will get the justice they are due. That is good news.
Finally, Jesus wonders if he will find such faithful persistence when the time of justice comes. Will the returning Son of Man find the kind of faith demonstrated by the widow in her persistent, constant, and eventually fruitful effort to secure a just decision against her adversary? It is still an open question today.
For our meditation this week, consider the contrast that Jesus makes between the robber judge and the righteous God. The judge in the parable is shameless because he doesn’t care about anyone other than himself. The widow is nobody to him—but he ultimately caves to public pressure and does the right thing. Does God need the pressure of shame to act consistently with his character and help those he has chosen? The question answers itself.
Who is the parallel with the widow? The “chosen ones” of God. That’s us! We are someone to God. God knows us and knows the justice we desperately need. And God is not bothered by us when we “call out to him day and night.” When no one else will listen, he will both listen and answer.
“Out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1-2).
Persistence in prayer. What does that mean for you and me? Are we to be as bold, as brash, and as persistent in our prayer life before the Lord as this widow before the judge? I think so, especially when our cause is just, our intent honorable. In the parable the defenseless widow demands justice against a merciless adversary. The Bible teaches that God is clearly on her side. Every day. All day long. Her witness of persistence is meant for us. We are challenged by Jesus to stand up for what is just and right. He promises that the Father will respond to these prayers.
Spend time this week practicing persistence in prayer. Start with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. The “Our Father,” prayed persistently, will help you realize just how much the Father has already provided and wants to provide for your future. Your cause is just; this prayer is pure. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Be persistent in prayer and you will see the fruit of the Spirit begin to grow in your life.