The Unjust Judge, Eugene Burnand (1850-1921)
By Walter Sundberg, The Rose magazine, page 26, Spring 1999.
Luke 18:1-8 — Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
When we usually think about prayer, we do not think about things such as we find in this Gospel passage. For most of us prayer means folded hands, bowed heads, stilted language— all taking place in church during worship, around the dinner table before the evening meal, or when we go to bed at night.
In the Bible, however, prayer is a more wide-opened, undisciplined thing. Paul tells us in Romans that it does not even require words: as long as the emotion is there— the desire, the need, the sincerity— we can pray the sigh too deep for words (Romans 8:26). In this parable about the widow about the widow and the judge, Jesus explains prayer by illustrating nagging. Prayer, says Jesus, is nagging.
I don’t know about you, but I know how to nag. Growing up in a household with two doting parents, and experiencing nearly 30 years of marriage, I have become an expert. When I get a bee in my bonnet— that thing I want or that task I wish someone to perform– I hammer away until I accomplish my goal. My wife also knows how to nag, as do my two daughters. I dare say that most of us are talented at nagging because we get so much practice at it. What is unusual is that Jesus uses this common, unattractive human trait that we all engage in from the cradle to our last days to describe our relationship with God.
In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, the woman is presented as wanting justice. She goes to the judge. The judge does not care about her one bit. But he cares about her nagging. He knows she won’t quit. And so he gives in. Jesus says that if a person can get that response from an unjust judge, just think what he can get from the Lord Almighty who has chosen His people and cares about them.
I do not know of anyone who has explained prayer in this way. But it is not just anyone who is offering this explanation; it is Jesus Himself. What are we to make of it? I wish to say two things.
1) When I nag it is because I really want something. Prayer, insofar as it is like nagging, has to do with something that we really want. What do you really want? The widow in the parable wanted justice. It was fitting therefore that she go before a judge. So let me refine the question just a bit: What do you really want that is fitting to be brought before the throne of God? God is holy. God is good. God brings salvation and wholeness. God does not deal in hate or selfishness. He is not there just to help you in the piling up of your possessions. So I ask again: What is it that you really want that is fitting to be brought before the throne of God? Maybe what you want is not fitting for God. Maybe what you want is better asked of the devil who claims in the scriptures that he rules the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-9).
2) To nag is to be persistent. It is to have the motivation to a pursue a goal. It means that you won’t quit easily. Jesus is telling us that prayer is a matter of persistence. You have to keep at it: engaging the Almighty every day with beseeching, pleading, and confessing. But when you do that, there is a risk that comes along with it. The risk is that the Lord will engage you. When you start hounding heaven, the ‘Hound of Heaven’— as the poet Francis Thompson called God— may start chasing you ‘down the days and down the years.’ God has, after all, chosen you. He loves you. He wants you. God therefore may decide to use your persistent prayer for His purposes. He may open your heart and direct your desire to the things that He knows you need. Prayer can be a wonderful thing or a dangerous thing, depending on how you see the possibility of being engaged by God. If you nag in prayer, you might just be changed.
If you want a relationship with God— I mean a serious relationship and not just a casual date— then nag Him in prayer. I dare you.
O Lord, we know not what is good for us. Thou knowest what it is. For it we pray.
–Prayer of the Khonds in North India