The Unjust Judge
Luke 18:1-8 Gospel Reading
New International Version (NIV)
18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 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? 8 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?”
Bishop Tony Howard once again presents in his homily a reading from “The Parables of Grace.”
So this Gospel lesson leads to many questions, at least to Robert Farrar Capon author of “The Parables of Grace” it does. Do we have to earn our way into heaven? If we do then where is the cutoff point? What percentage of goodness or good behavior merits us the gold prize? If there are no requirements for entrance into heaven does that mean everybody goes? Only the chosen? Does what we do dictate what God does or does God just do his own thing? How can God use bad people to impart grace? Why would he do such a thing? For what purpose? Did God set down a list of rules we must live our lives by with failure to comply resulting in the ultimate punishment? If so how our we justified? How many chances do we get? These and other considerations Capon tackles in his answer to the Parable of the Unjust Judge.
The Unjust Judge, like the Good Samaritan and the Unjust Steward, is another notable example of Jesus’ use of an anti-hero. Never having been to a theological seminary, he was blessedly free of the professional theologian’s fear of using bad people as illustrations of the goodness of God. There is an ole seminarians’ joke that stigmatizes this don’t-let-God-be-disreputable attitude perfectly: You go to seminary to learn about all the things God couldn’t possibly have done, and then you go to church to ask him to do them anyway. In the spirit of that healthy skepticism, I proceed straight to the exposition of the parable itself.
The parable is prefaced with a comment by Luke that Jesus told it as a lesson to people that they ought always to pray and not become discouraged. While this is by no means an unfair or irrelevant hint as to the parable’s meaning, I still think that on balance it is a case of Homer nodding. Luke is still using up his last few index cards here; and while his decision to insert the Unjust Judge at this point puts it brilliantly in context (whether you take it as dealing with either grace of judgment), he really should not simply have copied into the text the rather general, early-Jesus-style introduction he originally jotted down for it in his notes.
Be that as it may, the parable itself begins at Luke 18:2: “There was a certain judge in a certain city who neither feared God nor respected public opinion.” This is a bold stroke on Jesus’ part. He is about to take two subjects that most people find diametrically opposed – the grace business and the judging business – and expound them conjointly. Here is a jurist, a practitioner of the law, 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. All of which, Jesus implies without apology, makes him a perfect stand-in for God. He suggests, in other words, that God 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.
Jesus then continues by saying there was a widow in that city who came to the judge asking him to render her a favorable judgment against her adversary. The choice of a widow for the other character in this parable is a stunning device for displaying the antithesis between losing and winning that recurs constantly in the parables of grace. On the other hand, the woman is a twenty-four karat loser: widows, especially in ancient times, were people who had lost not only their husbands but their social standing – they had, in a word, lost their life as they knew it. But this particular widow is also a compulsive winner. Like so many of us who, while we may be poor, still go blithely on rejecting our poverty and trying to fake out some kind of wealth – who are, in the last analysis, just high rollers who happen to be unaccountably and embarrassingly broke – she is still committed to making a buck out of her loss. Like the prodigal son when he first formulates his confession, she is dead and she knows it, at least to some degree; but she has not really accepted her death because she hopes she can ace out the system and get some old-style, if marginal, satisfaction from it.
For a while, Jesus says, the judge tells her to go fly a kite. Her suit, no doubt, strikes him as having nothing but nuisance value to anyone but herself: he will not have his calendar clogged up with a case that no self-respecting jurist would give even the time of day.
Then, however, Jesus goes on to give the judge’s reasoning for his change of heart. “even though I don’t fear God or respect public opinion,” the judge says to himself, “still, simply because this widow is giving me such tsouris, I will grant her a favorable judgment – just so she doesn’t finally wear me out by her constant showing up in my courtroom.” 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 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 their wet blankets off his back and let the party begin.
The prodigal, of course, responded positively to the father’s ungodly behavior: he left out of his actual confession the silly, life-preserving gesture of asking to be made a hired servant and he frankly accepted his status as a dead son who had been raised. The widow does not seem to have responded so favorably to the judge’s gift of grace, but the outcome is the same: the son is justified and she is justified. And the words she uses to ask the judge for a favorable verdict (ekdikeson me, justify me) and the words the judge uses to announce his attention to do precisely that (ekdikeso auten, I will justify her) both contain the root dik-. This root enters into a whole string of major New Testament words” dikaios (the just), dikaioun (to justify), dikaiosyne (justice, justification), dikaioma (justification, justice, judgment), dikaios (justly), and dikaiosis (justification). 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.
So Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Listen to what the unjust judge says: ‘And will not God judge in favor of his own people who cry to him for help day and night? Will he not have mercy 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, unmasked-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.
Finally, though, Jesus answers the rhetorical question he proposed when he first began to point the moral of the parable of the Unjust Judge, namely: “Will not God judge in favor of his people…and have mercy on them?” His answer is: “You bet he will – and soon.” Forget, if you will, all the hopeless arguments over what Jesus, in his first-century Jewish mind, might have meant by the word “soon.” And forget especially all the critics’ assertions of what he couldn’t possibly have meant. For my money, none of that matters: at the very least, he said soon because, for some reason unknown to us, he felt like saying soon. In any case, both in terms of the parable of the Unjust Judge and in terms of what Jesus rather shortly did on the cross, I opt for the crucifixion and resurrection as the most likely scriptural referents of that soon.
In any case, what Jesus actually did soon was die and rise – and that, for me, governs everything. Like the unjust judge, he went out of business. He issued a totally disreputable verdict of forgiveness over an entire race of unrepentant, unreconstructed nuisances just because he didn’t want to be bothered with the unnecessary job of proving what they had already proved, namely, that they were a bunch of jerks. All that mattered to him was that they were pitiful jerks. And because he was willing to drop dead to give them a break – because, like the judge who was tired of the widow’s hassling, he was tired of having his cage rattled by a worldful of idiots – he destroyed himself rather than have to destroy them. 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.
Jesus concludes the parable, however, with a warning in the form of yet another rhetorical question. “Still,” he says (nevertheless, notwithstanding, in spite of all the lovely good news I’ve just given you), “when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” The implied answer, of course, is no: a dead God is no more acceptable to a world of respectable winners than a corrupt, self-pleasing judge would be to the members of the ABA Ethics Committee. As they would not trust such a judge to sit on the bench, so we will do almost anything to avoid putting our faith in a God who doesn’t come up to our standards for divinity.
And there, if you will, is the ultimate dilemma of the church. The one thing it doesn’t dare try to sell – for fear of being laughed out of town – turns out to be the only thing it was sent to sell. But because it more often than not caves in to its fear of ridicule, it gives the world the perennial spectacle of an institution eager to peddle anything but its authentic merchandise. I can stand up in the pulpit and tell people that God is angry, mean, and nasty; I can tell them he is so good they couldn’t possibly come within a million miles of him; and I can lash them into a frenzy of trying to placate him with irrelevant remorse and bogus good behavior – with sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings, all of which are offered by the law (Heb. 10:8); but I cannot stand there and tell them the truth that he no longer cares a fig for their sacred guilt or their precious lists of good deeds, responsible outlooks, and earnest intentions. I can never just say to them that God has abolished all those oppressive, godly, requirements in order that he might grant them free acceptance by his death on the cross. Because when I do that, they can conclude only one of two things: either that I am crazy or that God is. But alas, God’s sanity is the ultimate article of their non-faith. Therefore, despite Scripture’s relentless piling up of proof that he is a certifiable nut – that he is the Crazy Eddie of eternity, whose prices are insane – it always means that I am the one who gets offered a ticket to the funny farm.
Which is all right, I guess. After the unjust steward, the unjust judge, and the God who hasn’t got the integrity to come down from the cross and zap the world into shape, it’s a nice, rough approximation of justification by grace alone, through faith.
The Hardest Parable
The Unjust Steward
Luke 16: 1-13
Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property
He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one.
To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note, write one for eighty.’
And the master commended the dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?
No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
The parable of The Unjust Steward always needs a lengthy explanation for it is not clear right away who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. That is why it was so interesting to go to two Masses and listen to two different interpretations of the same scripture.
At the Roman Catholic Mass Father Danny saw the steward’s doctoring of the books as an attempt to curry favor with those who owed his Master a debt. In this interpretation Father Danny sees the master as commending the steward for his cleverness.
But then he asks, if you can be clever for what is wrong why cannot you be equally clever for good? God gave us wisdom. Instead of abusing that gift cannot we use it for the betterment of humankind?
Do we use our God given wisdom to make bigger and better weapons or for more effective medicine?
In the end Father Danny still saw the steward as the bad guy and the master as blameless in this account.
At the Universal Catholic Church Bishop Tony asks, “Who do we identify with – the steward, the rich man or those who got a huge discount?”
This parable, continued Bishop Tony, is similar to another parable where a large debt is forgiven in the hope that the forgiven would do likewise, forgive the debts of those who owe him. This similar parable is forgiveness from the top down.
But in the case of the Unjust Steward forgiveness comes from the bottom up.
Bishop Tony then introduced us to another book this week – “The Parables of Grace” – reading some of the chapter titled “The Hardest Parable”.
In doing so he pointed out a few of the concepts introduced by its author Robert Farrar Capon.
1) Grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise.
2) Grace cannot come from respectability
3) The unjust steward can be seen as a Christ figure
Here is a major portion of that chapter “The Hardest Parable” from the book “The Parables Of Grace”.
In any case, it all boils down to the fact that there are basically just two ways of interpreting this parable: you can make the steward out to be a hero or you can make him out to be a villain. Obviously, if you decide to read the parable as verses 1-8, the white-hat interpretation will be your natural choice; but if you read it as verses 1-13, the black hat will seem to fit better. It’s worth noting, though, that each interpretation has a price to pay. If you make the steward a bad guy, several things don’t make sense. In the first place, the heavily moralized parable that that gives you consists ill not only with the preceding parable in Luke but with the entire tone of the final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus has been on a grace trip for seven chapters now: he has been talking lastness, lostness, death, and resurrection, and he has again and again made it clear that the bookkeeping department’s heyday is a thing of the past. Why, then, at this stage of the game, would he poke in a parable that has none of the above as its main point – that amounts to little more than a surgeon general’s warning that “shady dealing is hazardous to your soul’s health”? Above all, why on earth would he put into the parable verse 8 (“And the Lord praised the unjust steward because he had acted shrewdly…”) – a verse which, unless it is taken as pure sarcasm, makes no sense whatsoever if you take the steward as a plain old bounder?
On the other hand, if you make the steward a good guy, verse 8 becomes the principal support for your interpretation – so much so, that you are willing (as I am) to lop off the rest of the passage in order to do justice to its decisiveness. Even at that price, though, the steward-as-hero interpretation seems preferable: it is, as you will see, consonant with the whole thrust of the parables of grace; in particular, it allows the parable to voice once again the theme of forgiveness-by-resurrection-from-the-dead that is the burden of so much of what Jesus has been saying. It even allows you to entertain the most bizarre and fruitful notion of all, namely, that of the unjust steward as Christ-figure. But more of that shortly. time now to expound the parable in order.
It begins with some nameless informant telling a certain rich man that his steward has been wasting (diaskorpizon) his money (hyparchonta, possessions). Score one fascinating point right there for a “grace” rather than a “morality” interpretation of this parable: diaskorpizein is the same verb used in the Prodigal Son to describe the boy’s “wasting” of his substance in the far country. From Jesus’ very choice of words, therefore, we are given a hint of continuity. Next, the master – without any trial or even fair inquiry – simply reads the steward the riot act: “What’s this I hear? You’re a disgrace! Turn in your books! You’re fired!” Score yet another point for continuity: just as with the Prodigal Son, death enters this parable early, and as a pivotal consideration. The son found himself dead in the far country; the steward comes out of his master’s office with none of his old life left at all.
But at this point, the parable of the Unjust Steward diverges from the Prodiagal Son and begins to look more like an upside-down version of the Unforgiving Servant. Watch “So the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do now that my master has taken away my manager ship? I’m not strong enough to work as a laborer. I’m too proud to be a beggar. Aha! I’ve got it! I’ll use my brains and ace out that unforgiving tyrant. So he wants to play letter-of-the-law games, does he? He would like me to turn in my books, eh? Well, I’ll do just that – after I’ve made a few … adjustments.'”
What he does, of course, is call in his master’s debtors and settle accounts with them at considerable write-offs: he knocks the bill of one of them down by half, the bill of another by a fifth. all of which might produce a number of different results, depending on how you estimate it. On the one hand, it might at one and the same time make him look bad to his master and good to the debtors. If the master ever remembers any of the originally owed amounts he could be so furious over being gypped that the presence of cash in the till would hardly be enough to mollify him. But then, if the debtors thought kindly of the steward’s write-offs, they might, as he hooped, “receive him into their houses” after he was officially fired. On the other hand, his sharp dealing could, with even more logic, be read as making him look good to his master and bad to his debtors. For all we know, the master may have been overjoyed to get even fifty cents on the dollar from deadbeats like those. Likewise, for all we know, deadbeats like those could very likely have spotted the steward as no better than themselves and refused to give him office space.
But whichever of those readings or combination of them you decide to go with, the deciding factor remains verse 8. “And the Lord praised the unjust steward, for the children of this age are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” Somehow, between verse 2 (“What’s this? You’re fired”) and verse 8 (“My beamish boy! You’re a genius! I never thought I’d see even a nickel from those accounts!”), the master of the steward has turned from an unforgiving bookkeeper to a happy-go-lucky celebrator of any new interest that comes along. And what happened to him, can, as I have said, be best understood by comparing this parable with that of the Unforgiving Servant.
In that parable, forgiveness starts from the top down: the Lord, who is owed ten million dollars by one of his servants, simply drops dead to his own claim and absolves the debt. His intention, of course, is that the servant will take the hint and likewise drop dead to the hundred dollars owed to him by a fellow servant. But as Jesus tells the story, things do not work out that way – the forgiven servant chooses a bookkeeper’s life rather than a spendthrift’s death and thus short-circuits the working of forgiveness. Still, the point of the parable remains unchanged: grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise.
Exactly the same point is made in the parable of the Unjust Steward, but by a reversal of the story’s device: forgiveness in this parable starts from the bottom up. Here, it is the lord of the steward who starts out unwilling to drop dead to any of his bookkeeping: He will not die to the steward’s peculations, and he will not die to the accounts past due that he has never succeeded in collecting. The steward, however, does die; and because he is freed by his death to think things he could not have thought before, he is the one who, from the bottom of the heap, as it were, becomes somehow the sight of a loser bringing off a coup like this in the very thick of his losses finally loosens the old boy up: ‘My God!” the master says, “My whole life has been a joke, and only now I learn to laugh at it!” But the steward is also able to be the resurrection of his lord’s debtors because they wouldn’t consent to deal with anyone but a crook like themselves: they would never have gone near him if they hadn’t been convinced he was dead to all the laws of respectable bookkeeping.
As far as I am concerned, therefore, the unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead ringer for Jesus himself. First of all, he dies and rises, like Jesus. Second, by his death and resurrection, he raises others, like Jesus. But third and most important of all, the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.
The parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead. Crux muscipulum diaboli, St Augustine said: the cross is the devil’s mousetrap, baited with Jesus’ disreputable death. And it is a mousetrap for us, too. Jesus baits us criminals with his own criminality: as the shabby debtors in the parable were willing to deal only with the crooked steward and not with the upright lord, so we find ourselves drawn by the bait of a Jesus who winks at iniquity and makes friends of sinners – of us crooks, that is – and of all the losers who would never in a million years go near a God who knew what was expected of himself and insisted on what he expected of others.
You don’t like that? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order? You bet it does! And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen. Even more unfortunately, it can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up into a bunch of supposedly perfect peaches, too good for the riffraff to sink their teeth into. But for all that, Jesus remains the only real peach – too fuzzy on the outside, nowhere near as sweet as we expected on the inside, and with the jaw breaking stone of his death right smack in the middle. And therefore he is the only mediator and advocate the likes of us will ever be able to trust, because like the unjust steward, he is the only one who has even a chance of getting the Lord God to give us a kind word.
“And the lord praised the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly”: “This is my beloved Son, Hear him” (Mark 9:7).
“For the children of this world are shrewder in their generation than the children of light”: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1:14)…and his own people did not receive him (John 1:11). He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant …and finding himself merely human, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death – death on the cross. Therefore God himself exalted him and graced him with a name that is above any other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2: 7-11).
Lucky for us we don’t have to deal with a just steward.