Only Jesus, I’m thinking, would tell a parable about an impious, merciless judge and make him an exemplar of Deity. “Here is a jurist, a practitioner of the law,” comments Robert Capon, “whom Jesus will portray as a barefaced agent of grace—and whom he will portray that way precisely because he breaks the rules of his profession and puts himself out of the judging business” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 330). Once again Jesus is going to turn upside down our default expectations of God and his righteousness. Instead of modeling the Creator as a compassionate magistrate who seeks to redress wrongs and restore the good order of society, he intentionally portrays him as one who is “not cowed by the supposed requisita and desiderata of the God-business any more than he is impressed by the rules that people (especially theologians) have dreamt up for him to follow” (p. 331). Let’s see how this plays out:
And he told them a parable on the necessity of their always praying and not becoming remiss, Saying, “In a certain city there was a certain judge who did not fear God and who had no concern for humankind. And there was a widow in that city, and she came to him saying, ‘Grant me justice over against my adversary.’ And for some time he would not; but thereafter he said within himself, ‘Though indeed I do not fear God, nor do I have any concern for humankind, I shall grant her justice simply because she bothers me, for fear that at the last she will entirely exhaust me with her visits.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says; Will not God then surely bring about justice for his chosen ones crying to him day and night, and not delay over them for long? I tell you, he will swiftly bring them justice. Yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he then find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
The plaintiff is a woman and widow. That automatically puts her on the bottom rung of the social ladder—in Capon’s vocabulary, a loser. She brings her cause to our unjust judge. We are not told anything about the merits of her case. We assume she has justice on her side—how else to explain her doggedness?—but in fact we do not know. All we know is that the judge repeatedly puts her off. Perhaps he thinks she has a good case but doesn’t want to upset those whom she has accused; perhaps it “strikes him as having nothing but nuisance value to anyone but herself” (p. 332); perhaps he has no idea what her complaint is about and just doesn’t give a damn. Whatever his reasons, he will not give the widow the opportunity to plead her case. He just wants her to go away and stop bothering him. Yet she doesn’t. She refuses to take no for an answer. Like the man in the Parable of the Importunate Neighbor, she just keeps pestering him for a hearing. Drip, drip, drip . . . (Chinese water torture) . . . drip, drip, drip. Wherever the jurist goes, there she is, shouting and waving her hands, crying out for her rights. How much badgering can a man stand? Everyone has started to take notice. The newspapers want to know what’s going on. This is starting to get embarrassing. Finally, our judge breaks and delivers her the ruling she wants. “Good riddance,” he mutters under his breath as he hands her the writ. Capon observes: “He arrives at his judgment, you see, not on the merits of the case, but simply on the basis of his own convenience. He is willing to be perceived as a bad judge just so he can have a little peace of mind.” And if we have caught the Caponian vision, we might even say that at that moment he dies to himself as judge.
So what’s the parabolic point? Traditional exegesis tends to focus on the willingness of God to defend the oppressed in response to our persistence in prayer. Pray and pray some more—sooner or later God will set things right. It’s a plausible interpretation, enjoying apparent support in vv. 1, 6-8. Yet Capon deems it pedestrian and moralistic, hardly worth a dominical parable. Why choose an unjust judge to be the central character in the story if Jesus simply wanted to assure his audience that the LORD will vindicate the oppressed. The latter is true, of course, as the prophets long ago taught us; but if this is the true meaning of the gospel, we remain trapped in perpetual class warfare between the (unrighteous) haves and the (righteous) have-nots, with all sides believing that God is on their side. And besides, does the heavenly Father of Jesus really need to be harangued to act on behalf of the victims of injustice? Persistence in intercession is commendable, but does it deserve its own parable or two? Maybe the meaning of this strange fable is stranger than we think.
But what happens if instead we interpret the story through the motif of grace? What if the parable is really about the Father indiscriminately filling his kingdom with sinners and transgressors, the unclean and marginalized? What if Jesus is really talking about the end of justification bookkeeping?
And what does that say about God? It says that God is willing to be perceived as a bad God—and for no better reason than that he wants to get the problems of a worldful of losing winners off his back. It says he is willing—while they are still mired in their futile pursuit of the spiritual buck, the moral buck, the intellectual buck, the physical buck, or the plain ordinary buck—to just shut up about whatever is wrong with them and get the hassle over with. It says in fact what Paul said in Rom. 5:8: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It says, in short, that God doesn’t even wait for us to accept our losing: he simply goes ahead with his own plans for the season, for the kairos, the high old time he has in mind for himself. Like the father in the Prodigal Son, he just runs, falls on all our necks—the widow’s and yours and mine—and showers us with injudicious kisses simply because he wants to get the wet blankets off his back and let the party begin. (p. 332)
Go back to the widow’s petition and the judge’s announcement: “Grant me justice [ekdikeson me] over against my adversary”; “I shall grant her justice [ekdikeso auten].” Both contain the root dik-. This root underlies a host of important New Testament words: dikaios (the just), dikaioun (to justify), dikaiosyne (justice, justification), dikaioma (justification, justice, judgment), dikaios (justly), and dikaiosis (justification). The two clauses, therefore, could be equally translated “Justify me” and “I shall justify her.” Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the Pauline epistles:
Taking those words into account, therefore, ask yourself a leading question: how in fact does the New Testament say we are justified? The answer of course is: by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8)—that is, by our simple trust in the graciously disreputable thing that God did when he fixed up his own insides by the death of Christ. (pp. 332-333)
New Testament scholars will warn us that Capon is importing a 16th century Lutheran understanding of justification into the words of our Lord. In response Capon would no doubt say that he is doing scriptural, canonical, theological exegesis. “I’m a priest, dammit, not an antiquarian!” That is to say, he is interpreting the Parable of the Unjust Judge in light of the whole of God’s Word written. Why should we not look to the Apostle Paul or the Gospel of John to help us better understand the often cryptic parables of our Lord? That’s the difference between reading the Bible as Scripture and reading it as a collection of historical artifacts:
At the risk of having even my temporary work permit withdrawn by the New Testament Critics’ Union, let me say plainly what I mean by a scriptural referent. For my money, the scriptural meaning of a passage is the one it has in the entire context of the biblical revelation of God, not just what it might mean in its particular time and place. And that meaning is the overarchingly important one, since it takes into account not only the licks that the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures’ presiding genius, got in at the time the passage was originally composed but also all the other scriptural licks he got in before, during, and after its composition. It even includes the consummate lick of getting the church finally to agree about just which Scriptures he actually presided over. (p. 334)
Still unpersuaded? That’s okay. For the moment, let’s cut Capon some hermeneutical slack and see how he interprets the rest of the parable.
Remember: Capon is convinced that Jesus sought to radically challenge Israel’s misunderstandings of divinity. Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is absolute love. He wills your good and happiness, absolutely, categorically, unreservedly. He accepts you into his Kingdom apart from your works, apart from your merits and demerits, apart from your social and religious standing. His grace is scandalously extravagant, even prodigal. It knows no bounds and no conditions.
- He is a shepherd who leaves his flock to seek one lost sheep.
- He is a woman who turns her house upside down looking for one lost coin.
- He is a father who rushes down the road to welcome home his profligate son.
- He is a householder who invites publicans and harlots to his banquet.
- He is a judge who justifies equally the undeserving and deserving.
- He is the Father who sends his Son and Messiah to die on a cross.
- “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will drag everyone to me” (John 12:32).
Now reread the parable and ask yourself: Is it possible that the story is about the justification of the non-deserving—i.e., justification apart from works and merits and therefore justification by grace of the all and sundry?
So Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Listen to what the unjust judge says: And will not God judge in favor [poiese ekdikesin, do favorable judgment] of his own people who cry to him for help day and night? Will he not have mercy [makrothymei, be big-hearted] upon them?”‘ Pay attention to what I’m telling you, Jesus says in effect. Do you think it makes the least difference to God whether anyone’s cause is just? Do you think it matters at all to him that they, even in their loss and death, still try to function like winners? I tell you, none of that amounts to a hill of beans with him. He finds all the lost whether they think they’re lost or not. He raises all the dead whether they acknowledge their death or not. It’s not that they have to make some heroic effort to get themselves to cooperate with him, and it’s certainly not that they have to spend a lot of time praying and yammering to get him to cooperate with them. Don’t you see? It’s the bare fact of their lostness and death, not their interpretation of it or their acceptance of it, that cries out to him day and night. Lost sheep don’t have to ask the shepherd to find them. Lost coins don’t have to make long prayers to get the housewife to hunt for them. And lost sons—who may think that they are only allowed to ask for some plausible, sawed-off substitute for salvation—are always going to be totally surprised by the incredible, unasked-for party that just falls in their laps. All they have to be is lost. Not fancy lost, perceptively lost, or repentantly lost; just plain lost. And just plain dead, too. Not humbly dead, engagingly dead, or cooperatively dead; just dead. “I, if I be lifted up,” Jesus says, “will draw all to me”: the sheep, the coin, the son, the widow—the whole sorry lot of you. You don’t have to do a blessed thing, make a single prayer, or have a legitimate case. I do it all. (p. 333)
And that, Virginia, is why “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” There is no condemnation because there is no condemner. There is no hanging judge and there is no angry God: he has knocked himself clean off the bench and clear out of the God Union. Nobody but a bad judge could have issued a favorable judgment on our worthless cases; and nobody but a failed God—a God finally and for all out of any recognizable version of the God business—could possibly have been bighearted enough to throw a going-out-of-business sale for the likes of us. (pp. 334-335)
So maybe, as St Luke appears to have thought, the point of Parable of the Unjust Judge is to encourage us to persist in our prayers until God fulfills his promises and puts the world to rights. . . . But just maybe the real point of the story is the irrelevance of “justice” to the judge’s decision to justify the widow. All that matters is that he does justify her. Time to kill the fatted calf!