Post Series on Luke 18:1-8:
- God Wants You to Beat Him Down with Prayer
- How to Seek Justice When You are Also Guilty
- Do You Believe in God’s Love Enough to Pray?
The parable that Jesus tells in Luke 18:1-8 is about prayer. Specifically, Jesus tells the parable about the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge to teach us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
But Jesus also tells the parable to teach us what we ought to pray for. Specifically, this parable teaches us how to pray for justice.
In fact, Jesus uses three forms of the Greek word for justice a total of six times in the parable, but not all are easy to see when we read the English translation. Here is Luke 18:1-8, with the words for justice bolded:
1And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice (lit: to procure justice) against my adversary‘ (lit: someone who acts on behalf of justice). 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” 6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous (lit: unjust) judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
The root word for justice is dike, and so you can see the thread of “justice” through all of these words by looking for the letters “dik” in the three Greek words used in this passage.
The easiest word to look at in this passage is when Jesus calls the judge an “unrighteous” judge (v. 6), using the word adikia. In English, we have two words for “justice” and “righteousness,” where justice usually refers to institutions or the representatives of institutions (here, the judge is representing the government), and where righteousness refers to the conduct of a person (e.g., “Abraham was counted righteous”). Greek uses only one word to refer to both of those concepts. So, this man is an unrighteous/unjust judge, which is a summary of the description used twice in the parable, that he “neither feared God nor respected man” (v. 2, 4).
Second, the ESV (quoted here) does a good job of consistently translating the verb ekdikeo (v. 3, 5) and the noun ekdikesis (v. 7, 8) as “give justice,” making it easier for us to see the use of the word through this passage. The word refers to someone who either avenges a wrongdoing or who protects someone from another for the sake of justice.
The third use of the word justice is the most complicated. The “adversary” from whom the widow is seeking justice is called an antidikos (v. 3), but it’s really important to understand that, in Greek, the prefix anti does not usually mean “opposed to” as it does in English. Instead, anti refers to someone who acts in place of something else or on behalf of someone else. For example, the word antichristos (antichrist) written about in the New Testament is not describing someone who is opposed to Christ (although that is true), but rather someone who sets himself in place of Christ, usurping Christ’s lordship.
And here, the word for antidikos does not refer to someone who opposes justice, but probably (more likely) someone who is acting on behalf of justice. In all likelihood, this story is not about a widow who was minding her own business until someone started stalking her, but about a widow who is in some kind of trouble—probably financial trouble. Most likely, she owes a debt that she cannot pay, and now her “adversary” is hunting her down until she pays up. When she asks for justice, she is probably asking for some kind of settlement or payment plan that she can afford.
That’s exactly how Jesus uses the word in Matt. 5:25 and Luke 12:58: “As you go with your accuser (antidikou) before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
Technically, then, this woman’s adversary is acting on behalf of justice, if we think of justice as the strict, unbending, inflexible rule of law. But, there is also a sense in which he has missed the larger aspirations of justice. This parable illustrates the exact reason that Javert in Les Miserables is so compelling: despite the fact that Russell Crowe is not a strong singer, we nevertheless know that the character he portrays has a point. Jean Valjean has broken the law, and he deserves to go back to prison. We don’t like the law because we intuitively sense that the law is actually subverting justice, but we understand that Valjean’s adversary Javert is nevertheless acting within the scope of the law.
In fact, this word antidikos is used one other time in the New Testament to refer to Satan: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary (antidikos) the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The Hebrew word “Satan” actually means “adversary,” and Satan is depicted (especially in the book of Job) as someone who brings accusations against God’s elect.
How to Seek Justice When You are Unrighteous
It’s this last use of the word justice that creates what my old preaching professor called “the tension in the text.” Here, Jesus is drawing our attention to something that should unsettle us. The tension here is this: if the woman represents us, then Jesus is portraying us as unjust people who are seeking justice. We are pursuing justice, but yet we are ourselves in the wrong. The question we ought to ask is this: What happens to us if we actually get justice?
In the Bible, justice is a big deal. If the operative word of the Old Testament is shalom (representing more than simply the absence of conflict, but the prosperity and flourishing of humankind), then the operative word in the New Testament is dikaios—that is, the fulfillment of the demands of dike, justice. When the righteousness/justice of God fills the whole earth to wipe away sin, death, and Satan forever, then God’s elect will live in perfect shalom with him for all eternity.
But what if we find ourselves standing on the wrong side of justice? What hope do we have if, at the end of time, our great Adversary Satan is able to accuse us of injustice that we ourselves have perpetrated, whether against other people or against God himself? Why should we not be swept away with the wicked? As we begin to ponder these questions, we begin to achieve the desperation that we talked about yesterday (the desperation that leads us to beat God down in our prayers) fairly quickly.
The short answer is that Jesus himself came to establish justice for us through living a perfect life that even Satan could not accuse, and through dying on the cross to take our penalty for all the accusations that Satan hurls against us. Through Jesus, God gives us a perfect righteousness so that we have nothing to fear on the last day.
The longer answer will be our topic for tomorrow’s post.