The Unjust Judge
and the Persistent Widow
By Emily Sylvester
Jesus taught his lessons as stories. We call them parables. He did this for two reasons. He wanted his listeners involved in figuring out their meaning, and it made his lessons more memorable. It worked. The Gospels weren’t written until several decades after Christ, yet his parables were still circulating and available to be captured in ink. But this delay in writing them down creates a problem for us. The stories evolved as they circulated, revealing as much about each new generation of speakers as about the original teller. We don’t know – scholars still debate – which words of the parables originated with Jesus and which with his followers. One of these stories is the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow in the gospel of Luke.
There once was a judge, not a particularly honest or devout judge. A widow came before him to plead her case. He didn’t want to listen, he didn’t want to listen, but she came back, day after day, to plead, bargain, beg, argue, barter, petition. At last he gave in. Not because he’d turned suddenly merciful, honest, or even impartial. In fact, we’re not told the nature of her case. Maybe she was in the wrong. But the judge said to himself, “this woman is wearing me down!” In Greek, “She’s beating my reputation black and blue!” Perhaps every day after court the other judges were laughing at him down at his favourite watering hole. Jesus had a sense of humour. I bet he laughed every time he told the story too.
But the world had changed between the time Jesus told his parable and it was written down. Jesus’ followers were beginning to be persecuted. They were discouraged he’d not returned as soon as they’d hoped. Some scholars think Luke added the next verses to encourage the early Christians. That he added if an unjust judge could be moved by the persistence of someone he was indifferent to, how much more is God moved by the prayers of people he loves. So, stay faithful, says Luke! Be ready for the Lord’s coming! In the skit of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge, Luke casts God as the Judge, infinitely more gracious. He casts us as the Widow.
These scholars think that Jesus originally told the story with a different ending and meaning. In fact, scholars debate a lot about the Christian scriptures. This makes it hard for you and me to follow. We’re not scholars. We’re not reading the gospels for intellectual exercise. How are we supposed to understand what Jesus meant? It helps to know what roles judges and widows played in his society.
By tradition, Moses appointed the first Hebrew judges while the people still walked the Sinai Desert. For centuries judges were the ethical leaders of their people. They developed and interpreted the common law of the Torah. They were honoured by their tribespeople much as elders are honoured by First Nations peoples today.
The Greek and Roman conquests of Israel and Judah changed all that. By the time of Christ, judges were political appointees of the ruling class. They were part of a corrupt leadership system. Their decisions could be sold and bought. We have no record of Jesus showing respect for judges. Why would he cast God, whom he loved, as an unjust judge?
And the Widow. Luke often used a widow, or widow and orphan, as symbols of vulnerability. In many ways, she was. A Jewish widow was someone who lost her husband after her 60th birthday. If she were younger, Hebrew law expected her to remarry, preferably a brother of her first husband. Since Jewish girls married near their 14th birthday, and had as many babies as was natural at a time before birth control, most women died in their 30’s. There were few widows in the land of Israel.
A widow could inherit her husband’s property but she was hard put to keep it. Any relative or neighbour could claim it with the weight of common law on his side. She was allowed to represent herself if she had no male relative to defend her. This widow was exercising her right to represent her plea. The judge was exercising his indifference.
But this widow was a tough old bird. I imagine her as an older Bette Midler with the same compact, fast-talking attitude. That’s how the judge saw her. An angry little bantam hen peck, peck, pecking, day after day, until he was black and blue from harassment.
Jesus was telling a realistic story. Archaeologists have found court records from a village in Mesopotamia. They document another widow’s petition before another judge. She couldn’t afford a bribe. But she could persist, and in the end, won her case.
An old man draped in authority and legalism. An old woman draped in vulnerability and attitude. Both old enough to be Jesus’ grandparents. Some scholars think Jesus cast God as the feisty bantam hen in his story because he believed God stands with the little people. They think he cast us as the judge because we are preoccupied with power and control.
We’re lucky; we don’t live in a society as corrupt and power-dominated as the Jews under Roman occupation. We can’t understand what it was like for the little people – the widows, orphans and beggars – to hang on by their fingernails against a current of military savagery and government abuse. Yet Jesus was saying the little people still had a way to survive, make things better. Not by sword. Or bribes. By asking, asking, asking over and over again, wearing down hearts of stone.
Today it could be a homeless guy petitioning the shareholders of the Royal Bank of Canada. Gandhi standing in the way of British imperialism. A housewife taking an injustice all the way to the Supreme Court. Hundreds of Amnesty International letters about a woman under death sentence in Iran. A high school science student embarrassing Syncrude. Little people making a difference.
There is a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It’s just as hard to explain when good things happen to bad people. It isn’t fair. If we were judges with unlimited power, we’d make it fair. Perhaps God agrees, but believes his part is less to control what happens as tocomfort those it happens to. He doesn’t promise to make it fair. He promises to stand withthose impacted when it isn’t.
God stood with the widow when no one else would. She didn’t even have to deserve it. Remember, we aren’t told the nature or merits of her case. We’re told she needed help and asked repeatedly for it.
So here’s my dilemma. You and I read this story as a single piece, but some scholars think the first verses are by Jesus with one meaning; the last verses by Luke with another. Other scholars disagree. They say everything in the bible means exactly what it says, word for word. Who are we to believe? I struggled for weeks on this. Until I remembered Jesus used parables to involve us in interpreting them. He didn’t intend only one way to understand them. That’s what makes his message so universal and timeless – new and alive whenever and however we encounter it. Luke was right to interpret this parable for the people of his time. Jesus invites us to understand it in our own way too.
I find two lessons in the story of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow – and I think Jesus and Luke are nodding as I say this:
God is the Widow. He stands with the little people. He takes the little things we do, do over and over again, and lifts them into the power to make change.
God is the Judge. He hears our suffering and answers our prayers more faithfully than the indifferent judge. But he wants us to worry less about when and how this will happen, and more about how to be ready to accept his presence in our lives.
Thank goodness we’re not scholars! We’re allowed to hold more than one meaning to the same parable. Both are authentic. Both call and comfort us. Which is how Jesus meant his lessons to work within us.
The widow asked the judge over and over again until he gave in. God’s been asking us something over and over again too. It’s time to give in and welcome his presence in our lives.
Copyright 2010 Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.