The Stories Jesus Told: The Unjust Judge, Luke 18:1–8

By Peter Amsterdam

January 28, 2014

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The parable of the unjust judge, often called the story of the importunate woman, is a parable about prayer. It’s sometimes referred to as the “twin” of the parable of the friend at midnight, as they have a number of similarities. Traditionally, both have been seen as primarily teaching persistence in prayer. The parable of the unjust judge does speak about prayer, yet when taking a closer look, we see that Jesus was also telling us something about what God is like when it comes to His hearing and answering our prayers. Let’s start by reading the parable, which we find in Luke, chapter 18.

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”[1]

Let’s begin by looking at the two characters of the story.

The Judge

The judge in the parable is not an honorable man. Jesus describes him as someone who does not fear God or respect people. Fearing God was linked to wisdom, yet this judge doesn’t fear God. He does not accept God’s authority, nor does he pay much attention to other people’s opinions.[2] As a result, people can’t appeal to him by saying “For God’s sake, judge in my favor,” because he lacks fear of God and he doesn’t care what people think about him. He has no sense of honor. He feels no shame. The appeal of “for the sake of this widow who is in need” has no effect on him.

The Talmud, which contains the writings of rabbinical Judaism and expresses the opinions of the ancient rabbis, speaks of some judges who were willing to pervert justice for a bowl of meat. Some judges were called “robber-judges” because of how they perverted judgment.[3]

Jesus uses the extreme case of the unjust judge, a man who has no moral scruples and lacks shame in the sight of the community, to point out that the widow, one of the most vulnerable of people in Israel, is not likely to get justice before him.

Now let’s look at the widow’s situation.

The Widow

Widows in first-century Palestine and throughout the Old Testament could be extremely vulnerable. They were considered a symbol of the innocent, powerless, and oppressed.[4] Scripture admonishes that widows should not be mistreated, and if they are, it says that God will hear their cry, as He is the protector of widows. Anyone who perverts the justice of a widow is cursed.

You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.[5]

Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.[6]

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.[7]

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.[8]

A wife who lost her husband in first-century Israel was in a very vulnerable position. She not only lost her natural protector but also her position and status in society. A widow’s vulnerability is expressed by Jesus when He spoke of scribes who devour widows’ houses,[9] which is likely speaking of some manner of financial exploitation.[10]

Since the widow is bringing her case before a single judge instead of a tribunal, it could be that it involves a financial matter, a debt owed to her, a pledge or part of an inheritance being withheld from her.[11] It could be that she has a suit against one of the heirs of her husband’s property, or perhaps she is being evicted from her home, as sometimes happened to widows. Though a widow didn’t inherit her husband’s property, she had the right of continued support from his estate and could live in his home as long as she remained a widow.[12] However, if she remained in her husband’s family, she had an inferior position, almost like a servant. If she went back to her family, the money given to her father at her wedding had to be returned to her husband’s family.[13]

As women at this time often married at the age of 13 or 14, the widow in the story may have been a fairly young woman. That she went to a judge indicates that she probably had no son or brother or other man in her extended family to speak for her, as if she had male relatives, they would have probably gone before the judge instead of her.

In the context of the story it’s understood that the widow is in the right. She’s seeking what is rightfully hers. The disciples to whom this parable was originally told would have understood that the woman was defenseless and helpless, with no one to stand up for her or defend her. She didn’t have money to offer a bribe. Her perseverance was her only defense.

They would have also recognized that the woman was acting out of character. As a widow, she would have been expected to act like a helpless victim. She instead assumes the responsibility for her own well-being. She steps into a man’s world before the judge, and when rebuffed, she persists.[14]

The Parable

The parable begins with Luke, the Gospel writer, noting what the parable is about.

And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.[15]

As we will see later, this initial phrase, followed by the whole parable, was told to Jesus’ disciples within the context of the Parousia, which is the theological word for the second coming of Jesus.

He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.'”[16]

We have the unprotected yet bold widow coming before the unjust judge. She’s asking him to take up her case, to bring her justice against her adversary. It’s obviously not the first time she’s come before him. She has repeatedly returned, and for some time he has rebuffed her, refusing to help her.

“For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”[17]

Eventually it becomes clear to the judge that the widow is not going to stop pleading for justice. She won’t give up, which causes him to become annoyed and irritated. He admits that he doesn’t care what God or man thinks, but he does care that he’s being constantly bothered by her. He decides to give her justice not because of any goodness or compassion on his part, or even because it’s the right thing to do. His decision stems from being sick and tired of the widow bothering him. He is concerned that he will be beaten down or worn out by her never-ending pleas.

The word translated as “beaten down,” or in other translations as “wear me out” or “weary me,” comes from a Greek word that literally means to “beat black and blue,” especially on the face below the eye; in other words, to give a black eye. Some commentators say that the judge was afraid that the widow would physically attack him out of frustration. Most commentators feel it was meant metaphorically, that she would completely wear him out with her continual coming to seek justice.

Though it’s not specifically stated—and we must remember that parables by nature give very few specifics, with the listener expected to fill in the gaps—it’s possible that the judge was waiting to receive a bribe. Perhaps he had already received a bribe from the woman’s adversary, and because of that he kept putting the woman off. But because of her out-of-character persistence and unceasing demands for justice, he decides to rule in her favor. Simply put, she’s wearing him out with her “continual coming.” The Greek phrase used for continual implies going on forever. One author calls it a war of attrition,[18] a gradual wearing away of the judge’s resistance by her continual pleading. The judge concludes that the woman will never give up, so he relents.[19]

One Western author, writing in the 1890s, described an experience he had in Iraq that might help us visualize what Jesus was speaking about in this parable.

It was in the ancient city of Nisibis, in Mesopotamia. Immediately on entering the gate of the city on one side stood the prison, with its barred windows, through which the prisoners thrust their arms and begged for alms. Opposite was a large open hall, the court of justice of the place. On a slightly raised dais at the further end sat the Kadi, or judge, half buried in cushions. Round him squatted various secretaries and other notables. The populace crowded into the rest of the hall, a dozen voices clamoring at once, each claiming that his cause should be the first heard. The more prudent litigants joined not in the fray, but held whispered communications with the secretaries, passing bribes, euphemistically called fees, into the hands of one or another. When the greed of the underlings was satisfied, one of them would whisper to the Kadi, who would promptly call such and such a case. It seemed to be ordinarily taken for granted that judgment would go … for the litigant who had bribed highest. But meantime, a poor woman on the skirts of the crowd perpetually interrupted the proceedings with loud cries for justice. She was sternly bidden to be silent, and reproachfully told that she came there every day. “And so I will,” she cried out, “till the Kadi hears me.” At length, at the end of a suit, the judge impatiently demanded, “What does that woman want?” Her story was soon told. Her only son had been taken for a soldier, and she was alone, and could not till her piece of ground; yet the tax-gatherer had forced her to pay the impost, from which as a lone widow she could be exempt. The judge asked a few questions, and said, “Let her be exempt.” Thus her perseverance was rewarded. Had she had money to fee a clerk, she might have been excused long before.[20]

This account, with its similarities, gives us more of a feel for what the plight of the widow in this parable might have been.

Jesus then gets to the meat of the matter, the point He is trying to get across:

And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?”[21]

Jesus draws attention to what the judge says, and then makes His point. When we pray, our prayers aren’t heard by an unjust judge who cares for no one, who only responds to the woman’s persistent asking for his own selfish reasons. Instead, we bring our petitions to our Father, who loves us and answers the pleas of those who come to Him in prayer.

This parable speaks of the need to pray and to not lose heart if our prayers aren’t answered immediately. Perseverance in prayer is one point of the parable; however, there is more to it.

Luke places this parable right after a discourse from Jesus about the return of the Son of Man.

And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”[22]

Jesus tells His disciples that the time will come when they will long to see the day of His return, but they won’t see it. He then gives an explanation of what it will be like prior to His coming, that it will be like the days before the Flood, and the days of Lot, before judgment came upon the people. There was eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, until suddenly the judgment came. The believers will desire to see the Son of Man, but instead life continues on. But when that day comes, judgment will be swift.[23]

Then Luke begins the story of the judge and the widow, which we read earlier, starting with verse one:

And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

The context of the parable is the unfulfilled hope of the coming of the Son of Man. The point is that believers should not lose heart as they wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises, but that as we wait, we should continue to pray in faith, knowing that God will not fail to answer. As Jesus said:

And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?[24]

In the context of the return of the Son of Man, God will bring justice to His people at the time of His choosing. The Greek word translated as justice is translated in other places in the New Testament as avenge,[25] vindicate,[26] and bringing punishment to evildoers.[27] Jesus is saying that God will vindicate His people and punish those who do evil. The time of reward for believers and judgment for evildoers will eventually come. And while we wait, our responsibility is to pray and trust, to not give up, get weary, or become exhausted, which are other definitions of the Greek word translated as “to lose heart.”

Jesus goes on to say:

I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.

God will answer the prayers of His children down through the ages for justice through Jesus’ return. When He comes, justice will be given speedily.

Then Jesus asks a very sobering question:

Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?[28]

That’s a question worth pondering. At Jesus’ return, will He find those of faith, those who have persevered, who trusted and believed? Will Jesus find that we who are Christians have remained faithful to Him?

Jesus told this parable to His disciples prior to His arrival in Jerusalem, not long before He would be arrested, tried, and crucified. His disciples were about to face perilous times. They were being told to pray and to not lose heart.

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, the disciples had the expectation that Jesus would return soon, as did the apostle Paul. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God crying out to God, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” To which God tells them to rest a little longer.[29]

Christians throughout time have longed to see the return of Jesus, the return of the Son of Man. Jesus is saying that it will happen. God will give justice to His elect, to those who have been crying to Him day and night, and when it comes, the judgment will be swift.

Jesus asked if, when He returns, He will find faith on earth. Through that, we can see that He understands that we are human, that our faith is tested in times of trial. By linking this fact to prayer, He’s making the point that our ability to remain in faith is linked to our faithfulness to pray, to put our trust in God.

While this parable has something to do with the question of God vindicating His people, there are other points about prayer and God’s nature which we can draw from it.

Unlike the judge, who doesn’t respond until he’s sick and tired of hearing from the woman, God does hear our prayers. And He responds, not because we bother Him, but because He loves us.

We are meant to be persistent in our prayer lives. That means being tenacious, determined to pray, praying regularly, and continuing to pray in faith even if we don’t receive the answer quickly. Just as the woman came boldly before the judge, we are to come boldly before the Lord in prayer.

As we are told in the parable of the friend at midnight:

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.[30]

The asking, seeking, and knocking in these verses can be seen as meaning that they go on doing these things.[31] The petitioners are faithful to bring their requests before God on a regular basis.

At the same time, Jesus cautioned His disciples to not be like Gentiles who “heap up empty phrases” and “think that they will be heard for their many words,”[32] or like the scribes who “for a pretense make long prayers.”[33] Jesus is not seeking lengthy prayers or repetitious prayers. What is important is that our prayers are heartfelt communication with our Father who loves us.

The idea of persistence in prayer isn’t that we are to try to wear God out with our asking over and over. We are to bring our requests before Him with faith and trust, knowing that He loves us like a father loves his child, and will give us what we ask for when it is good for us and within His will to do so. That being said, it should be understood that being persistent in prayer will not always result in God answering the way that we are asking.

We shouldn’t lose faith if our prayers aren’t answered immediately. We’re told to not lose heart. Jesus instructs us to carry on in faith and confidence, knowing that God is a fair and generous judge, a loving father, who will answer according to His will and in His time.

The parables about prayer—the Pharisee and the tax collector, the friend at midnight, the Father’s good gifts, and the unjust judge—all teach us different aspects of prayer. In brief, these are:

And perhaps most important of all to remember, God loves each of us as His children. He cares for us. He has our best interests at heart. We can and should come to Him in prayer with faith, trust, humility, and love for the one who loves us with His everlasting love.


The Unjust Judge, Luke 18:1–8

1    And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

2    He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.

3    And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’

4    For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man,

5    yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”

6    And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.

7    And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?

8    I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”


Notes

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] Luke 18:1–8.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 263.

[3] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 674.

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 133.

[5] Exodus 22:22–23.

[6] Psalm 68:5.

[7] Deuteronomy 27:19.

[8] Isaiah 1:17.

[9] Luke 20:47.

[10] David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 186.

[11] Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), 122.

[12] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 254.

[13] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 453.

[14]Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 640.

[15] Luke 18:1.

[16] Luke 18:2–3.

[17] Luke 18:4–5.

[18] T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 306.

[19] Snodgrass, Stories With Intent, 458.

[20] H. B. Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands in Poet & Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes, combined edition, Kenneth E. Bailey (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 134.

[21] Luke 18:6–7.

[22] Luke 17:22.

[23] “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:26–30).

[24] Luke 18:7.

[25] Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

[26] For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter (2 Corinthians 7:11 NKJV).

[27]Or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil… (1 Peter 2:14).

[28] Luke 18:8.

[29] Revelation 6:9–11.

[30] Luke 11:9–10.

[31] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 624.

[32] Matthew 6:7.

[33] Mark 12:40.

 

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