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?” – Luke 18:3-8
The parable of the persistent widow made an appearance in my recent attempt to outline how I think about justice at the Torrey Honors Institute (the video of which is still forthcoming, alas). It’s such a tempting story to reach for in thinking about the work of seeking and praying for justice in this world: it names both the deep patience required to have our petitions and our pleas answered in a world full of unrighteous judges, and the eagerness of God to hasten the rightening of all things.
Yet the matter is probably more complicated than that, at least exegetically speaking. The verses preceding the parable disclose what the revelation of the Son of Man will be like, comparing that day to the days of Noah and of Sodom. It’s intensely eschatological imagery that Jesus uses, which intensifies the sense of urgency among his people. “On that day,” he says, “let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back” (17:31). This is not directly the urgency of the persistent widow, who pleads for her cause. But it is not far off of it, either.
But then, we need only look at Jesus’s commentary on the parable to see this eschatological dimension. God’s justice is narrowed here to His elect; it is not an abstract justice that the Lord brings, but rather the righteousness of His faithfulness to His people. He will bring His justice, by liberating His people from the suffering and the oppression that afflicts them. He will meet their petitions and their pleas for relief. But when he does come, will He find faith on the earth?
Framing justice both eschatologically and Christocentrically this way, though, almost demands that it be immediately qualified by mercy. Which, surprise, is precisely what our Savior does! His next parable shifts the place of action from the law court to the synagogue, and the manner of action from petition to prayer. One Pharisee thanks God he isn’t like those sinners, and that he has done all he must do. The tax collector asks for mercy—and so goes away justified.
It is almost as though the eschatologically-focused urgency of the persistent widow carries its own dangers. It is good to plead for justice, to ask for the hastening of the Lord’s liberation. But within any such request lies the assumption of the rightness of one’s own cause—and the more urgent the plea, the more firm such an assumption must be. This seems like a necessary correlation: being uncertain about our own rightness seems unlikely to generate the kind of intense urgency the persistent widow displays. Her petitions indicate a contest between justice and injustice, righteousness and unrighteousness—with her on one side, and the judge decidedly on the other. No wonder Christ warns immediately of self-righteousness: there is no moment when we are so prone to it, than when we ask for justice on our own behalf.