Commentary on Luke 18:1-8
In what way is God like an unjust judge?1
Even the question seems inappropriate. God is nothing like an unjust judge, we quickly assert. What do we make, then, of this parable?
Two elements of the parable discourage easy interpretation. First, the parable proper (verses 2-5) doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it’s bracketed by Luke’s introductory note on prayer (verse 1) at one end and an early interpretation (whether Luke’s or not is difficult to tell) of the parable (verses 7-8) on the other. Second, whatever the original parable’s import, it is now placed in the context of the delayed parousia, as it is preceded by Jesus’ teaching on the coming kingdom (17:20-37) and followed by another reference to the coming of the Son of Man (verse 8b).
Given these complicating factors, what can we say about this parable? Three distinct possibilities present themselves that, while drawing on similar elements, yet differ enough from each other that the preacher will need to exercise homilitical and pastoral judgment in determining which route to pursue.
God the Good Judge
Perhaps the easiest interpretative road to travel involves correcting our faulty hearing of the rhetorical force of the parable’s comparison of the unjust judge and God. The point is not that God is like an unjust judge who will, eventually relent to the persistent petitions of the widow. Rather, the rhetorical force of the construction mirrors that of earlier instructions about prayer: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:13). We might read today’s comparison similarly: “If even the most unjust of judges will finally relent to the ceaseless petitions of a defenseless widow, then how much more will God — who is, after all, a good judge — answer your prayers!”
The focus of this interpretation is on God’s goodness and eagerness to bless. Therefore, the sermon offers believers who are perhaps reluctant to address almighty God with their petitions both an invitation and encouragement to pray without ceasing, confident of God’s desire to respond.
God the Just Judge
A second and related path would be to give primary attention not only to Luke’s introductory note but also to the choice of the unjust judge as a major character. Might the parable give voice to some of the discouragement of early believers, whether caused by the delay of Jesus’ return or the difficult or unjust circumstances they were enduring? If so, the parable might be saying, “While I know that God may seem like an unjust judge, God’s actions are just and God will deliver justice in due time.”
The focus in this case is on the interpretation of the parable in the latter verses of the pericope. Correspondingly, the rhetorical force of the sermon is not so much invitation as it is comfort for those in distress and encouragement to persevere in faith and prayer. Believers, like the widow, should pray and petition without ceasing and not lose heart, confident that God’s justice will in time prevail.
The Widow as Pursuer of Justice
A third interpretive route shifts our attention from the judge to the widow. Widows in the ancient world were incredibly vulnerable, regularly listed with orphans and aliens as those persons deserving special protection. The fact that this particular widow must beseech a judge unattended by any family highlights her extreme vulnerability. Yet she not only beseeches the judge, but also persists in her pleas for justice to the point of creating sufficient pressure to influence his actions.
The focus in this reading is on the judge’s description of his own motivation for settling the widow’s claim. He asserts (as the narrator already had) that he neither fears God nor respects people, thereby testifying that his unsavory character has not changed during the course of the parable. When he explains why he relents, however, he utters a description of the effect of the widow’s ceaseless complaints on him that most translations dilute. A more literal translation of the judge’s grievance (18:5) is that the woman “is giving me a black eye.”
Like all black eyes, the one the widow’s complaints threaten to inflict have a double effect, representing both physical and social distress. That is, the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him physical harm but also risks publically embarrassing him. For this reason, he says — perhaps justifying his actions to his wounded sense of self? — that he relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, insolent, obnoxious, even intolerable behavior results in justice.
Read this way, the parable serves to encourage those suffering injustice to continue their complaints and calls for justice. A sermon following this path will encourage believers in their efforts, noting that sometimes it takes extreme, even socially unacceptable behavior to effect change. God, the Bible has persistently insisted, gives special attention to those who are most vulnerable; therefore, we should persist in our complaints, even to the point of embarrassing the powers that be in order to induce change.
A Contextual Homiletic
One’s decision on how to preach this text will rest not only on interpretive decisions but also on contextual sensitivity. This parable, as ambiguous as it is provocative, can support several readings. Which one the preacher chooses will depend in large part on how she reads the present and pressing needs of her congregation. If speaking to a congregation unconfident of their ability to pray, invitation seems appropriate. If addressing believers who are discouraged by the injustice in the world and who wonder whether God is at all moved by our prayers, then comfort and encouragement not to lose heart may best serve. If preaching to a congregation wrangling with principalities and powers, then the affirmation that their relentless struggles will not be in vain may provide the impetus to strengthen their prayers along with their efforts. Whichever direction you choose, surely one thing is certain — our preaching, as with our living, should be accompanied by ceaseless prayer.
1. This commentary first published on this site on Oct. 17, 2010.