You can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest - honestly. It’s the good ones you have to worry about because you really don’t know when they might do something really . . . Stupid.” - Captain Jack Sparrow
There is a little gem hidden in this text: “in the end, she may wear me out,” or “ give me a black eye,” as the Greek suggests. “In the End,” (eis telos) is the words of the judge and those words tie the text back to the discourse that Jesus has just embarked on, the coming of the Son or Man, the “End.”
The text ends in equally neat fashion: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find Faith on earth?”
But it is supposed to be about prayer, right? Or is it about not loosing heart? Are those connected and if so, how? And how is that: “Faith?”
To be a judge is a public thing. To be neglectful of the widow is also public when indeed he is neglectful of her petitions. He is to protect her. As the text progresses, he seems to come to his senses and decides to do the right thing. He does not fear God, says Jesus, but he comes to realize that: She might give him a black eye at “the End.” (scary quotes implied here) How he treats her will be a witness against him when the vultures gather. (17:27) He has Moses and the Prophets, he has heard them. (16:29) He will now obey but because he fears "the end."
The widow, keeps coming to him. Doing the right thing is demanded of him daily when she appears. She becomes the daily reminder that the demands of righteousness have not been set aside for anyone, whether they fear God or not. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” (18:7-8) Woe to the unjust judge when the Son of Man comes and grants justice to those whom justice has been denied. That Son of Man will come in a flash (17:24) and there will be judgement.
Jesus' words to the disciples is that they need to pray always and not to lose heart. (18:1) This is not, I believe, about asking what we need or want, even if we really need and want it, even urgently. Rather, "in spite of the injustice that you see, like Lazarus who lies at the gate but no one helps, will you maintain trust in God," that is the question to be dealt with. Will you keep relationship with God? Will you lose heart? God is God but dogs are licking Lazarus’ sores.
Prayer and persistence in prayer have already been dealt with in chapter 11. There, the point was to teach how to address God and keep relationship with him. Here there is an addition. The dishonest magistrate in this parable is not God. Rather, the magistrate is the world in sin. The widow is the church. She knows that the time until the coming of the Son of Man is finite. Will she be the daily reminder to the world that he is at hand? Will she be the daily living reminder that God’s will is being trampled on?
God is patient but eventually God will no longer delay judgement. When judgement is finally given and the widow’s cause is vindicated, who will be glad? Who will welcome the judgement with relief and joy, not over the demise of the adversaries but as relief?
God delays judgement. That is in itself a biblical theme. “He is patient and merciful,” is a refrain in both Psalm and Prophets. God never asked me if it was OK with me that he not smite those who do wrong and do so right away, but rather wait to see whether they might turn and repent. When the moment of decision came for my father to fight and live a few more years or to go and be in palliative care he quietly said: “I have seen enough. It is OK to go now.” I sometimes remind myself that World War II was part of what he had seen. Luke would say: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.” (2:29) Simeon, who speaks those words, is longing for the redemption of Israel and he sees it in Jesus, the infant.
Faith, if the Son of Man will indeed find it, is that spark that sees Jesus, recognizes the kingdom in him (17:21), and knows that this is enough. “We have seen the salvation that you have prepared in the sight of every people.” (2:30-31) In Jesus, Simeon, in Faith, sees that the redemption of Israel and the widow are certain. In our text, Jesus invites us to believe and live likewise.
But there is a caveat. Those who believe that they are not, like the judge, in need of turning, are warned that the publican, who is willing to beg for mercy, is the one who will depart the holy places justified. (18:14) There is the present possibility that we are the unrighteous judge. The widow is at the door to see us.