The world is at odds with God, because the Devil is always at work, and he always finds fertile soil for his efforts. Even when the world seems friendly to God, it’s always working to turn faith in Christ into mere human religion, which is much more useful and congenial to it. It’s always working to turn the church away from Jesus—it doesn’t even matter what direction; “conservative” and “liberal” both serve the purpose equally well. The key is simply to divert the gospel. Those who refuse to be diverted will be marginalized, slandered, or even attacked more directly.
This is a reality the first disciples knew better than we do. Like Whittaker Chambers when he converted from Communism to Catholicism, they must at times have thought they had left the winning side for the losing side. It can be hard to keep the faith when all the loudest voices in your society are condemning you as wrong, bad, out of step, and opposed to all that’s good and right. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the situation for them; instead, he tells them a parable to teach them “they should always pray and not give up.” Actually, it’s even stronger than that, because what we have here is almost a command: “It is necessary for you to keep praying.” The New Testament scholar Darrell Bock calls it a “moral imperative.” Whatever comes, Jesus is telling the disciples, keep praying; don’t tire, don’t lose heart, don’t give up hope, just keep praying.
Jesus begins the parable by setting the scene, in very broad terms: a crooked city judge, presumably a Jew, but not one of the religious authorities; he’s apparently a secular judge of some sort, because he’s a bad man of a type the priests, scribes, and Pharisees would never have tolerated. One, he doesn’t fear God, which is to say he’s completely indifferent to God and his demands—including the demand for justice. Two, he doesn’t feel any shame before other people for anything he does.
Now, we’ve talked about this a bit, that this was an honor-shame culture. In modern Western culture, we think in terms of abstract concepts of right and wrong—even people who say they don’t believe in right and wrong use that language—which are a matter for each person’s individual conscience. Whether we hold that good and evil are absolutes to which our consciences alert us, or believe that each of us determines our own right and wrong, the basic idea is the same. For the Near East and the Middle East, it’s very different: the community decides what’s good and bad, and what matters is whether your action is honorable or shameful in their eyes. Well, like the people Jeremiah condemns, this judge does shameful things—such as hurting a poor widow whom it was his job to defend—and feels no shame, no matter what anyone says about it.
This widow is clearly suffering injustice, probably relating to some property which is rightfully hers. Unfortunately, she lacks the resources or the family connections to defend herself, so this judge is her only hope. She has every right to expect him to protect her—Jewish legal tradition declared that a widow’s suit came only after that of an orphan in importance—but he doesn’t care. She lacks the social standing to compel him to vindicate her, she has no protector to force him to hear her case, and she can’t afford to bribe him, so he isn’t listening.
She refuses to give up. She’s powerless in almost every way, but she does have one advantage: as a woman, she cannot be mistreated in public, which means she can say and do things which would never be tolerated coming from a man. Kenneth Bailey illustrates this with a story from Beirut in the 1970s. A young man, a widow’s only son, disappeared. His extended family went looking for him, but found no trace. Finally, in desperation, they sent three women to confront the military leader who controlled the section of Beirut where he had been kidnapped. They shouted their way past his guards and officers, then proceeded to bury him under an avalanche of abuse and complaints.
Dr. Bailey asked one of them, “What would have happened if the men of your family had said such things to this man?” Her response, eyebrows raised, was, “O, they would have been killed at once.” As he summed up the story, “In the case of my Palestinian friend, the family had deliberately sent the women because they could express openly their sense of hurt and betrayal in language guaranteed to evoke a response. The men could not say the same things and stay alive.”
This is the widow’s one advantage: she can go to the court, day after day, and demand justice at the top of her lungs, and the judge can’t silence her. Over time, he realizes that he can’t wait her out, because she’ll never stop coming. He says to himself, “I don’t care what God thinks about me and how I run my court; I don’t care what anyone else thinks about me either; but this woman is giving me a splitting headache, and it’s only going to get worse if I don’t give her the vindication she’s looking for. I’d better give her what she wants before she wears me out completely.” And so, though this crooked judge has every advantage but one, it is he who caves and the widow who wins, because she pressed her one advantage so relentlessly and with such determination.
The principle here is the one we saw a few weeks ago, “from the light to the heavy,” which means, “how much more?” If the widow’s needs are met, how much more will we find our needs met when we pray not to a harsh judge but to a loving God? The specific need highlighted here is the need for vindication: that justice would be done for the disciples, and that judgment would come on their enemies; that in the end, those who follow Christ will be proven right, and those who oppress the people of God will be judged. And so Jesus asks, “If the widow was able to win vindication from this unjust judge, won’t God vindicate the people he has chosen, who cry out to him day and night?” The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes! God will grant them justice—quickly.”
And yet—is that what we see? We have it pretty good in this country, but it’s clear the culture is turning away from the church; and we can think of a lot of places, such as Iran, where those who follow Christ are persecuted and killed. If Jesus said God would vindicate his chosen ones quickly, why do they suffer?
There’s another question, too; if you were here two weeks ago when we read the parable of the vineyard owner, this talk of demanding vindication from God might be sitting a little uneasily. The workers who spent the whole day among the vines demanded justice against those who came late, but brought judgment down on their own heads; they demanded to be proved right when they were actually in the wrong. If God judges those who oppress us, shouldn’t he also judge us? After all, just because our cause is righteous doesn’t mean we are; the fact that we call out for justice doesn’t necessarily mean we’re justified. How can we ask for justice without expecting judgment to fall on us?
The answer to these questions is obscured by our English translations. In the second half of verse 7, the NIV reads, “Will he keep putting them off?” The Greek word there is makrothumia, and it means “to restrain anger”; it’s consistently used to describe God’s patience with us in withholding his judgment to give us time to repent. We saw this concept illustrated in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and in the passage we read that day from 2 Samuel where David could have killed Saul but refused to strike.
If we take the word here in its usual sense, we might render this, “He will be slow to anger over them.” God will bring justice for his chosen people who cry out to him, but he will not send judgment down on us; by his grace, he has taken his anger at our sin and set it aside—indeed, he took it on himself, as Jesus bore it on the cross. Our prayers for vindication—and for everything else—don’t depend on our own merit, and they don’t require us to be perfect and blameless; they rest only and entirely on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, our vindication has already come, even if the world doesn’t see it yet. And if God in his grace chooses to hold back his wrath against those who oppress us, giving them time to repent—well, maybe he’ll save them at the eleventh hour. If not, their judgment will only be that much greater when it comes.
So why, then, do we keep praying and not lose heart? Three reasons. One, God loves us and cares for us. Two, out of his love for us, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin on the cross. God has set aside judgment for our sin, and instead has shown us mercy and grace, giving us open access to him in prayer. Three, Jesus is coming back, and whatever we might suffer now, whatever might go wrong on this earth, all will be made right when he returns. The only question is, when he comes, will he find us faithfully praying and watching for him? When he comes, will he find faith on the earth?