A number of years ago I was doing some research online to get ideas for a children’s sermon on the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. Here’s the story from Luke chapter 18 if you’re not familiar with it:
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (NRSV)
Searching for children’s sermon ideas on this passage, I quickly found 5 or 6 ideas, and I was amazed at how similar they were to each other even though they all came from different websites. They all went something like this: I should bring along with me a small toy or object to represent something that I strongly desired to have as a child. Then, I should tell the children about how I had asked my parents for that toy, and they had said “No.” Then, I should tell them about how I kept on asking for it, over and over again, until I had driven my parents so crazy that they finally bought me the toy. The moral of the story is that we should be that persistent in our prayers to God, who loves us and is always there to listen to our requests and will eventually give us an answer.
At first that seemed like a good idea. After all, that scenario does bear a great resemblance to the parable that Jesus told about the widow and the judge, and it is a version more understandable to children than the world of widows and judges. However, I was afraid that if I used that as the children’s sermon, instead of learning something about how ready God is to hear their prayers, the children would take away the idea that if they just keep badgering their parents enough, they will eventually get everything they want. I thought the parents in the room might not appreciate that message. But even worse, I was afraid that the children would get from the sermon the idea that God works like that, too—that the purpose of prayer is to try to get the things we want and if we just badger God enough, God will eventually grant them to us.
With only a quick reading of this parable, we grown-ups might take that message from the text as well—that God is like a big slot machine in the sky, holding all the treasure. If at first we don’t get what we want, then we just need to have persistence in pulling that lever, and eventually we’ll get the big payoff. But if we slow down and read the story again, we will see that there are two aspects of this parable that lead us into a deeper understanding of God and our relationship to God in prayer. The first is noticing what the widow asks for. The second is looking at the character of the judge and the conclusion that Jesus gives to the story.
The Widow’s Request
First, let’s take note of what the widow asks for. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she says. The widow asks for justice. We are not given the particulars of the case, but we are led to believe that justice is on the side of the widow. Someone has wronged her, someone has taken what is rightfully hers, and so she seeks justice. This is a more serious matter than seeking a toy or a prize. In fact, when we remember the ancient context of this parable we realize that this is, perhaps, a matter of life and death.
Ancient Mediterranean culture was patriarchal. This means that property generally passed from father to son, not from husband to wife. This left many women in a precarious situation, because they did not own their own property, but were dependent first on their fathers and then on their husbands. If a woman’s husband died and she did not have grown sons or other family members to care for her, then she would be dependent on the charity of those outside her family to survive. This is why God had commanded the people of Israel to care for widows and orphans. (See, for example, Exodus 22:22-23, Deuteronomy 27:19, Isaiah 1:17, and Jeremiah 7:6.) Apparently in this case, the nation was falling down on the job. The widow of the parable was not only being neglected, but was actually being wronged or defrauded. This was a matter of justice and compassion, and the widow was fighting for what was right.
This is first problem with interpreting the parable to mean that God is like a slot machine in the sky. The widow in the story is not seeking some trinket or prize or advancement for herself. She is seeking justice. So, the story is not about how to get what we want so much as it is about seeking justice.
The Judge’s Character
The second thing to help us get to a deeper understanding is noticing the character of the judge and what Jesus says about him. What is the judge’s character according to the parable? He “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” When the widow comes seeking justice he repeatedly turns her away. But eventually he says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” That NRSV translation is a pretty sanitized translation. More vividly, in the original language of the text, the judge says to himself that he will grant the widow’s request so that “she will not in the end come and give me a black eye” or “come and strike me in the face.” Only out of fear that the widow may be pushed past her breaking point, to his own distinct disadvantage, does he grant her justice.
Does the parable imply that God is like this judge? Perhaps some people have said so, but Jesus does not. Quite the contrary, actually. He says that, if even this selfish, stubborn, disrespectful judge will grant the widow’s request just to get her to leave him alone, then how much more will God, who is full of love, compassion, and kindness, hear the prayers of his people who cry out to him for justice. So God is nothing like that judge. And once again, Jesus says that God will answer those who cry out to him for justice. It is not personal wishes and wants that are in view, but seeking fairness for all and just provision for all.
Seeking Justice and Not Losing Heart
This parable calls on its hearers to persistently pray for justice for themselves and for all people around the world, because God is ready and willing to hear the prayers of and for those who suffer unjustly. And we would do well to remember that prayer and action cannot be separated. Those who feel called to pray for someone who is suffering unjustly should consider that God may be calling them into action to help relieve that person’s suffering. Prayer and action flow in a continuous cycle. One of the greatest missions of the church is to bring justice to the oppressed because we believe that this is God’s will for everyone. And this mission is both a call to action and a call to prayer.
Luke, the author of this Gospel, tells us that the purpose of the parable is to inspire us not to lose heart. Sometimes it may seem to us that nothing in our world will ever change. It is easy to lose heart. But notice how the widow behaves. She does not passively accept the way the world is, but seeks justice with such determination that she even intimidates the judge—a person who, according to her society, was the one who held all the power in that situation. What if we sought justice for all in our world with the same persistence as this widow? What would our world look like then?