Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Unjust Judge

This and a few other parables unique to Luke's gospel stand out as daring examples. It seems so impious to use an unjust judge as the centerpiece of a story to teach us about God. Who would dare it? Yet for this very reason, this parable offers insight into all the parables. It offers insight into the nature of parables.

First, despite the traditional name of the parable, the unjust judge isn't the centerpiece of this story, the widow is. Yet, by Jesus' own words we see that what we learn about God in this parable, we learn from the unjust judge.

The parable is quite clear and the application is clearly specified in both introduction and conclusion. Even so, because of the daring juxtapostion of God with the unjust judge, some interpreters have balked at the interpretation. For example, Thomas Keating (following, I believe, Bernard Brandon Scott) suggests that Luke has misapplied the parable and that it is really the widow who Jesus intends to use as the figure for God. As much as I like that idea, it isn't what the text says.

The key is this: just because the unjust judge in the parable corresponds to something Jesus is teaching about God, we need not apply all of what the parable tells us about the judge to God. This is what scholars mean when they emphasize that parables aren't allegories. For instance, while the parable surely teaches that God will answer when we persistently pray, it absolutely does not teach that God only answers to get us to be quiet. I think most of us intuitively understand that about this parable, so it serves as a useful starting point for thinking about the other parables.

The other interesting thing about this parable is that it pictures a widow asking for justice. The Old Testament prophets are constantly railing against people who refuse to give justice to widows and orphans. Because these weakest members of society are denied justice, God will act.

Imagine how different the message of this parable would be if it were about a teenager pleading with her father to buy her an iPod! But that isn't the sort of image it presents, and so I must adjust what it teaches me about prayer accordingly. Jesus says, "And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" This parable doesn't promise that God will grant me a comfortable life, it promises that if I pray for justice in the world, God will answer.


Lutheran Zephyr said...

Thanks for this post. You wrote: The key is this: just because the unjust judge in the parable corresponds to something Jesus is teaching about God, we need not apply all of what the parable tells us about the judge to God.

By what method do you discern which parable elements to apply to God and which not? This can be problematic, of course, but reading and interpreting the Bible is a problematic and dangerous thing! Later in your post you reference the prophets, suggesting that their witness helps us better understand this parable. Scripture interpreting Scripture? Also, Luther had a hermaneutic in which he read the Bible looking for Jesus and the cross, and if he didn't see Jesus and the cross in a particular passage or book (ie, James) he gave it a lower priority.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Mata H said...

I have always loved this parable, and see it as a lesson about prayer --and about God encouraging us to nag him, to beseech him relentlessly -- to come to him not with only whispers but with big voices that cry out for justice. God tells us that even though the judge was a clod, even he responded to the woman's constant nagging. Maybe it is just that simple -- that the text is suggesting that if a clod could end up doing the right thing -- and the clod didn't give a rat's whisker for the widow -- imagine what our loving Father will do for us. But the doors sometimes do not open unless we keep knocking and knocking louder and louder. This is, it seems to me, a lesson and an encouragement about the steadfastness and boldness and shamelessness of prayer.

BruceA said...

I agree with what Mata H says, and I would add this: Sometimes we cry out for justice but we see only injustice. It may sometimes seem like God is an injust judge, but even so, we can continue praying with confidence.

Andy said...


That's a good question. How do we find the line? Your suggestions are also good.

I wonder if maybe we don't need to draw the line at all. That is, rather than analyzing the parable and spelling out what it teaches, perhaps we can just let it teach us. We'll probably get some things wrong, maybe a lot, but as long as we don't stray into dogmatism and remain teachable, that's probably OK. As long as we don't assume we've arrived at knowledge, searching must be good.

But I suppose that answer is of limited value to those who are called to teach in the Church. And I'm just wondering aloud. I could be completely wrong.

Andy said...


You're certainly right. This parable definitely teaches us to push the limits of how loudly we're willing to cry out to God.

Andy said...


You've hit on a key note with regard to the seeming lack of answer to our cries for justice. This parable doesn't just teach us about God answering prayers. It also teaches us something about God not answering prayers -- at least not on our timeline.

Lutheran Zephyr said...

I love your comment on my comment. There a certain level of control, of putting God-in-a-box that we attempt in much of our teaching. My wife (a pastor) leads a Bible study and simply reads the scripture out loud and allows the scripture to speak to the people gathered and lets them wrestle with it, coming up with "answers" or responses in community. It's pretty freeing when you are NOT given THE authoritative approach, but rather are encouraged to explore and wrestle with the faith in community