Jesus tells a parable about a persistent widow who demands justice from an unjust judge. If even a scoundrel like the judge can finally be moved to grant justice, how much more likely will God bring justice to those who pray continually for it?
Ancient Jewish biblical interpretation sometimes follows a “how much more...?” kind of logic, proceeding like this: “If X is true, then how much more so must Y be true?” See examples of it in Luke 11:13; 12:24; and Romans 5:17. Jesus’ parable about a widow makes its point in a similar way, saying that even an unfair, disobedient, and unwilling authority figure might grant justice when petitioned to do so repeatedly by an insignificant person. How much more, therefore, will a just God respond quickly to requests for help from “his chosen ones”? This passage therefore describes God as merciful and attentive, even as it encourages people to be persistent and confident in their prayers.
At the same time, parables often resist easy interpretations. This one is not simple. Why does Jesus compare God to an unjust judge? Could he recognize that God often seems to be aloof and unresponsive, just as many of the Bible’s Psalms experience God in such a way? After all, the narrator of Luke’s Gospel declares in verse 1 that Jesus tells this parable to encourage those who pray, so they will not lose heart as they wait for God to respond. Everyone knows God does not answer all our prayers right away, including the really selfless or sincere ones. Even as this parable differentiates God from an apathetic, unjust judge, it also recognizes how commonly we experience God in this way, as an authority figure we wish were more attentive to what we think we need, when we need it. God’s response rate does not always match our expectations. “Be persistent! Demand the justice you believe God has promised!” this parable says, even as it reassures us of God’s eventual reliability.
Luke’s Gospel includes the parable in the midst of a larger section about the question of how near or far away God’s reign (or “kingdom”) is (see Luke 17:20-37). Thus the parable presupposes a situation of watchful endurance and commends the need to remain simultaneously patient and vigilant. The parable’s surrounding context suggests Jesus’ teaching here applies in particular to our prayers for God to bring all things to final consummation, to bring complete justice to those who suffer for their faith. It is not as applicable, strictly speaking, to our prayers about our individual needs or occasional struggles. Verse 8 underscores this point; the returning Son of Man expects to find faith on the earth, even though the need to wait for him to complete the job will try many believers’ trust and determination.
18Then Jesus* told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, Grant me justice against my opponent. 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming. * 6And the Lord said, Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org