With this parable Jesus deals with a very serious subject by means of a humorous story–one which at first tickles our fancy, then with the use of imagination results in some hearty chuckles, and finally with some insight brings us to profound truth.
When God’s Kingdom seems to be painfully postponed if not a fool’s paradise–when God seems deaf to human pleas–when the Lord seems absent and good seems defeated–when justice is denied and evil reigns, what are we to do? What are we to believe? How are we to live? To answer these persistent questions of the faithful in any age, Jesus tells an amusing story.
A widow in a certain city had a lawsuit regarding a matter of money (possibly her inheritance). We know the suit dealt with money because that was the only civil case an individual judge could decide. Those cases involving property required three judges. The amount of money may have been a trifling sum to the judge, but to the widow it may have been the difference between survival with some degree of dignity and ever deepening despair. And some man was cheating her out of her money.
The judge involved apparently was not a religious official or scribe or elder among the Jews, for we are told he had no concern for God. He probably is to be understood as one of the secular metropolitan judges appointed by Herod Antipas and as such he was used to bribes and rewards for hearing and deciding a case. We know from other accounts regarding the procedure of these ancient courts that they were corrupt through and through–slip the judge a “fee” and he will hear your case and decide in your favor. The judge knew the widow had no money with which to bribe him–perhaps her adversary had already “tipped” the judge to delay hearing the suit until the widow despaired and simply gave up. Whatever the case, the judge repeatedly refused to hear the widow’s case and since according to the custom of the day that was the judge’s prerogative, it would seem the widow had no hope of vindication.
And this was just one example of how helpless a widow was in that time. The laws, customs, and economics of the day left the widow as the most vulnerable person in the ancient Near East. Widows unable to remarry could return to their own families only if they could repay their original purchase price. Otherwise, they were to remain in their husband’s family as a servant. They were required to wear clothes of mourning until their deaths or until they remarried. So everywhere they went, people knew their helpless state by their “uniforms of grief.” Both the Old and New Testaments recognize the vulnerable position of widows in Near Eastern society, and thus true religion is consistently defined by how a society and especially how the courts treat the widow.
But the judge in our story by his own admission cared neither about God nor humans. And not being an elected official, he didn’t have to care. He was not what we would call today a “person-oriented” individual, and so the plight of this widow did not tug at his conscience one tiny bit. And neither would any word from God influence this judge. God simply was not a constitutive factor in his life. What the prophets said and what the priests taught and what the Scriptures revealed were so much nonsense to him. Caring neither about the opinions of the public nor the judgments of God, this judge seemed beyond any influence save that of an enticing bribe. And so without money, without influence, without a male advocate, and without even the help of an appeal to decent fairness, what is this widow to do? Her position seems hopeless. One New Testament scholar describes her this way: “One of the most helpless and unprotected creatures on God’s earth petitioning a callous beast who happened to be the city’s judge, for justice against some wolf of a man who was taking cruel advantage of her unprotectedness.” (J.A. Robertson)
But in spite of all that, with this widow, our judge meets his match. She uses the only weapon she has–she makes a pest of herself! In a relatively small town (at least by our standards), it would not be difficult to know where the judge was most of the day. And so for a long period of time she hounds his every step. When he comes out of his house, the first thing he hears is her grating voice. As he walks down the street, she is tugging at his sleeve telling him how unfair her adversary is. Every time a case comes before the judge, she is shouting in the background that it should be her case being heard. And on the way home at the end of the day, there she is again–pleading, demanding. It was getting so that he could even hear her in his sleep. Refusing to give up, to be intimidated, or to surrender to what seemed to be hopeless odds, she fights on and on. And finally her indomitable spirit overcomes the judge’s hardened will. He says to himself, “Good grief! I don’t give a plug nickel about God or man—but to shut this woman up, I’ll hear her case. Otherwise she’ll wear me out.”
The words translated “wear out” literally means “give me a black eye” (boxing terminology). So this judge fears he may be whipped by a widow! Now he may not care about the values of God or the opinions of humans, but no man wants to be whipped by a woman. Somehow this widow had communicated to the judge that she meant business. She might just start using her fists along with her tongue. She must have been quite a woman!
Now some commentaries say that the judge agreed to hear the case, but we should not assume he judged in her favor. But can you imagine what his life would have been like had he judged against this widow’? The Scriptures say he was stubborn, not stupid. I think we can safely assume that the widow against all odds was vindicated.
Now what does this parable say to us–to the people of God who wonder when/if God’s Kingdom will come – who wonder if God hears their prayers–who wonder whether hanging in there is worth it anyway. In this story we have a challenge and a promise. First the challenge.
There is a winsome story about Daniel Boone and his wanderings in the forests of Kentucky. He was constantly trying to find new lands for settlers and to clear the way for better roads. One settler asked the great wilderness man, “Were you ever lost in the woods?” Boone pondered a moment before his reply: “No, not exactly lost. But I have been bewildered for days on end, once for more than a week, but I kept on going.”
Now that’s the way the widow seems in our story. She may have been bewildered, but she was never lost. She never gave up, and thus she becomes an example of the persistent believer.
Followers of Jesus Christ await with eager longing the coming Kingdom of God–they are hungry for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. They pray, they labor, they wait, they face obstacles, setbacks, brick walls, stubborn hearts, and deep darkness. In our personal, social, and religious lives we find that being faithful, loving, and committed can be difficult. So what do we do? The parable says, “Hang in there!” Persistence is not a popular word today. Even in religious circles it is lackluster to say the least. And in a society which for years has had mottos like “If it feels good do it,” “Pull your own strings,” and “Do your own thing,” we should not be surprised to find persistence a lost virtue. Our shallow society would rather abandon a problem, a friend, a spouse, a crisis, a costly opportunity than hang in there and see life through.
No, “persistence”–living in the meantime between the mountain top experiences of life–is simply not a welcomed word today. But without persistence, there can be no lasting faith–no dynamic discipleship – no mature wisdom–no deepening communion with God — no committed love. A personal decision to stay with Christ from conversion to death and whatever may occur in between is not the stuff of best sellers – but it is the stuff of best lives. After all, as T.W. Manson reminds us, “We are not called to be the pampered darlings of Providence but the corps d’elite in the army of the living God.”
So the challenge is, “Hang in there!” In our personal, religious, and social lives sometimes all that is needed is persistence. After all, there may be a change, a death AND resurrection, a miracle. It’s worth the try–and when all is said and done, do we really have any other option?
In a public speech in Boston, another American pioneer, Amelia Earhart, once told of her lonely journey across the Atlantic. Five-hundred miles from England her engine began to have trouble. What should she do? Land in the ocean? Turn back? She decided to go on as long as she could keep the plane in the air, for as she put it, “The hazards of GOING ON were no greater than the hazards of GOING BACK.” As Christians that is true for us–in fact, the hazards of going back are infinitely more costly. There is only one direction for the followers of Jesus to go–and that is on. So Jesus says. “Hang in there!”
But there is also a promise in Jesus’ parable. The promise is that God’s people will be vindicated – God’s Kingdom will come–God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. As believers we are never to give up on the providence of God. If a crooked, stubborn, hard-hearted judge will finally vindicate a widow who means nothing to him, how much more will God do for those loved to the point of costly sacrifice? In the end, all genuine faith comes to the same conclusion: all rests in Abba’s hands.
New Testament scholar Peter Rhea Jones ends his exposition of this parable with these words:
“Hanging in there or persevering it is a little- heralded posture, but for many it makes or breaks. There are times in the Christian experience when we need to bow our backs, set our chins, pray our prayers, and keep going with a faith to the finish. For God will vindicate his people.”
To disciples who are concerned about their commitment–who pray earnestly for God’s will to be done in their lives and in the world–who want to be faithful in an unfaithful world, the message is clear: “Hang in there!” for the “darkness shall turn to dawning and the dawning to noonday bright, and God’s great Kingdom shall come to earth – the Kingdom of love and light.”