The Unjust Judge; The Importunate Friend
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
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 about men. 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 about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"
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?"
"Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'
"Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'
I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs."
The parable of the Unjust Judge grew out of the circumstances related by Luke in the seventeenth chapter. The Pharisees had demanded of Christ, "when the kingdom of God would come?" This impertinent curiosity he justly rebukes; but, at the same time, takes occasion, from their question, to foretell his disciples the dire effect that would attend the destruction of Jerusalem, rivalling the horrors of a deluged world, or the ravages of Sodom's conflagration.
This announcement was calculated to depress their spirits and shake their faith: for, be it remembered . . .
Christ offered no outward inducement to men to become His followers;
He gave no flattering encomiums;
He held out no rich patronage;
He presented no anticipations of earthly pleasure, wealth, ease, or honors.
But, on the contrary, He told them that shame and reproach awaited them; that they "would be hated by all men for His name's sake;" and that "whoever killed them, would think that he did God service."
In order, therefore, to teach them that they should not faint in the day of adversity, that there would be a deliverer and a deliverance, and that the way and means of securing much of their needed help was in their own reach — he relates to them the parable of the Unjust Judge. The elements of the parable are quite simple, and need but little elucidation. Of the judge, two things are said — that he "neither feared God — nor cared about men."
This was a proverbial expression, used even by such classical writers as Homer and Euripides, denoting consummate and unblushing wickedness; indeed, most of the heathen writers employ the term to signify one totally abandoned to all evil.
Take away from man "the fear of God" — and you fill the soul with every inward sin, and make it "a cage of unclean birds." Take away from man "a regard for man," a proper respect for human opinion, when sound and wholesome — and you surround him with every outward sin, and make him a selfish despot, grinding out from his fellow men whatever may contribute to his own lusts or aggrandizement, reckless of their happiness — and solicitous only for his own. Strike out from the heart both these elements — the fear of God and a regard for man — and you make him a monster with a human shape — but with a devil's heart! When such sit upon the bench of law, or in the seat of equity, we may take up the lamentation of Isaiah, and say, "Our courts oppose the righteous, and justice is nowhere to be found. Truth stumbles in the streets, and honesty has been outlawed!"
The other character introduced to us in this parable is a widow — a name which stirs the fountain of sympathy by telling us of sorrow, loneliness, and bereavement. Like a vine torn by the scathing lightning from the tree around which it clung, and left to trail in the dust — yet leaving still some tendrils clasping the rifted trunk — so is woman when Death writes "widow" on her broken heart.
The introduction of this widow here gives increased interest and pathos to the parable. Left to struggle alone with the world, her natural protector gone — she has evidently been defrauded by one of those craven-hearted men, who, while they dare not oppress their own gender — yet cowardly triumph over unprotected womanhood. The cases of such were specially provided for by God, and judges were bound by the Divine law to see that justice was meted out to the widow. "You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless," was the command of Jehovah; and among the curses pronounced upon Mount Ebal, was that uttered by the Levites, "Cursed be he who perverts the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow; and all the people shall say, Amen!"
This poor widow then came to the unjust judge for simple justice, and he, by the law of God and man, was bound to give it to her; but either through indifference or indolence — for a long time he refused to give her audience. But put off once, she came again; rebuffed today, she returned tomorrow; and with an energy born amidst sorrow and nursed by oppression — she persisted in her appeal until the judge listened to her cry. To this he was moved, not by duty or compassion — but by her importunity acting upon his selfishness. For he gives the reason of this conduct when he says, "Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!"
Let us turn now to the parable of the Importunate Friend at Midnight.
The subject of our Savior's discourse at the time this was uttered, was prayer. He had Himself been "praying in a certain place;" and His disciples, standing probably at a respectful distance — yet observing His words and actions, felt a desire to know something of prayer themselves; reasoning, with much truth, that if He, their Lord and Master, needed to pray — much more was such devotion necessary for them. In addition to this incentive, they were stimulated still further to offer the request, from the fact that John had taught his disciples to pray — had given them probably a form of prayer as the guide to their devotion; and, therefore, not to be behind John's disciples in the privileges of grace, they approach Jesus with the request, "Lord, teach us to pray — as John also taught his disciples."
Jesus immediately complies, by giving to them as a formulary what is commonly denominated the Lord's Prayer; that remarkable collection of petitions and ascriptions, which contain within themselves the elements of every prayer that can ever be offered by the faithful heart to our Father in Heaven. Each need of the renewed soul, each object of its most anxious desire, everything for which it can pray aright — lie enfolded in some one or other of the petitions of this prayer — as the majestic oak lies enrapt up in the acorn. The more we meditate upon the paragraphs of this prayer — the more profound and comprehensive do they appear; no human mind can grasp the full meaning of any one of the sentences of this prayer, or sound the depths of its spiritual mysteries. It carries in itself the proof that Christ is Divine, for only a mind possessing Divinity could frame a prayer that should concentrate every possible aspiration of the soul, and every known attribute of the Godhead; giving to a few crude disciples a set of words which they readily comprehended and used, which yet, at the same time, is a form of prayer suited to . . .
every age of life,
every period of time,
every class of people,
every nation of earth, and
to every condition of the soul, from the time that it draws the first breath of spiritual life, until at the hour of death it exchanges the prayers of earth for the praises of Heaven.
Having given His disciples this model prayer, and thus taught them for what they should pray, the necessary elements of acceptable petition — He proceeds to show them how they should pray, and this He does in two ways: first by parable, then by precept; the parable giving more emphasis to the precept — and the precept more point to the parable.
It is not unusual in those hot countries to journey in the night, thus avoiding the burning rays of the sun, and enjoying the refreshing coolness which then prevails. The coming in, therefore, of a friend at midnight is quite in keeping with oriental usages, and supplies an important element of the parable. Had the friend thus surprised by an unexpected visit gone to his neighbor in the day time, to ask for "three loaves," he would easily have obtained them; but going at midnight, when his house was closed, its doors barred, his family at rest, and rousing him from the first sweet sleep of the night — was a test of friendship and liberality of no ordinary kind.
To the request, then, for "three loaves," to supply the necessities of this traveler, the man "from within" answers, "Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything." These reasons for declining do not weigh against the necessities of his hungering, fainting friend, therefore he goes not away at this rebuff — but presses his request more and more with shameless earnestness, until the landowner, wearied with his importunity, rises, and "gives him as much as he needs."
The key-word of this parable, then is, IMPORTUNITY — an earnest persevering effort to obtain his request. This was the point to which the Savior wished to direct the attention of his disciples, and by the means of this parable He designed to enforce the duty of earnest, persevering prayer. And in this respect the parable is not unlike that of the Unjust Judge, and though there are points of difference — yet so far as it regards the setting forth of importunate prayer, they may be regarded and treated as one.
That spirit which these parables enjoin is still further enforced by the precept with which our Lord follows up the similitude of the Midnight Friend: "So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."
The end which our Lord had in view in uttering the parable of the Unjust Judge was, as He declares, "that men ought always to pray — and not to faint;" and from the two parables, combined, we learn these truths:
First, That men "ought always to pray."
Secondly, That we must "not faint" at the apparent delay of God, and the pressure of our adversary.
Thirdly, That this prayer must be importunate.
Lastly, that persistent and earnest prayer will always prevail, and that everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
First. "Men ought always to pray."We usually give form to our petitions by praying on our knees, with closed eyes and solemnly uttered words; but to pray always in this manner is impossible, physically and mentally. Hence our Lord must mean something else than the formal and distinctive act of prayer when he said, "Men ought always to pray;" and Paul also must have had in his mind something else than set, closet petitions, when he exhorted the Thessalonians, "Pray without ceasing," and the Romans to be "persistent in prayer."
Prayer is the expression of the soul's desires; but "God is a Spirit" and the soul is immaterial, and there is needed, therefore, no intervention of words or posture, no utterances of the tongue, no postures of the body, in order to have fellowship with Him. There may be true prayer . . .
without a closet,
without the bended knee,
without the shut eye.
There may be true prayer . . .
in the thronged street,
in the busy market,
in the din of the workshop,
in the bustle of the store,
amidst the books of the office, and the activities of professional life.
When the soul is so attuned to God's will that there is an ever-growing harmony between it and God, and an ever-increasing conformity of mind and heart to Jesus Christ — then is that soul in a praying frame — ready at any moment to commune with its Heavenly Father . . .
now darting out a desire,
now ejaculating a petition,
now breathing out a holy wish, and
now silently reflecting back the manifestations of Divine love, with a glow of emotion and tenderness of sensibility peculiarly affecting.
He who cultivates this spirituality of mind lives in an atmosphere of prayer, and breathes the spirit of supplication. He is always in a praying condition. It requires no violent wrenching off of his mind from seen and earthly things, before it can be fastened on unseen and eternal things; but it passes from his avocations to the Throne of Grace with an easiness of transition evincive of the little hold that things on earth have upon his heart, and of the powerful attraction of the Mercy-Seat.
It is the privilege of the Christian to have this perpetual fellowship with God, to have his soul thus brought into fellowship and communion with the adorable Savior; and where we fail to enjoy it the cause is in ourselves, and not in God — for His ear is ever open to our requests, being "more ready to hear than we to pray, and more willing to give than either we desire or deserve."
In this praying state, men "ought always" to keep their souls, because it is the only truly healthful state of the soul, its only truly happy state, its only true preparative to the unveiled enjoyment of God in Heaven.
Secondly. We must "not faint" at the apparent delay of God, and pressure of our adversaries.In ourselves, indeed, we would often faint, for our strength is weakness, and our strongest resolutions are but as the thread of the gossamer around the sinewy arms of some giant passion. But we should "faint not," because we pray to an almighty God; we go to a throne of grace from which we are never excluded; we offer our prayer through the Savior, who is always a prevailing intercessor; and we are aided by the Spirit of grace and supplication, who "helps our infirmities."
The widow fainted not, even though she had an unjust judge to appeal to; and because she fainted not — she gained her petition. And if this weak, unprotected woman, by the mere force of importunity, wrung from the hands of a judge "who neither feared God, nor regarded man" — redress of her grievance, shall not God's own children, if they faint not, in due time reap from their heavenly Father, full and satisfactory answers to their requests? Can He, who is all justice and all love, do less for His importuning children than this "unjust judge" did for the afflicted widow? Indeed, Christ Himself puts the question, "Shall not God avenge His own elect, who cry night and day unto Him, though He bears long with them?" and He answers His own question by declaring, with marked emphasis, "I tell you that He will avenge them speedily."
The "elect" of God have, as we learn both from the Bible and experience, "an adversary," that great adversary "the Devil, who goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." This "adversary" of God and man is none other than that "ruined archangel," who at the head of legions of other fallen angels, is plotting, though impotently, the overthrow of the moral government of God on earth. To this end they assault the Church of God and "His own elect" with peculiar virulence and power, level against them every fiendish weapon, spread out every deceiving lure, and seek to entrap their souls into eternal ruin. They torment the children of God with fears, and doubt, and spiritual darkness; they harass them with innumerable temptations, and leave no point unassailed, from the infusing of secret unbelief to the open and iron-hearted persecution of the saints by fire and fagot, by sword and scaffold, by dungeon and death.
Every child of God feels the enmity of this adversary, and groans to be delivered from his power; some he vexes more than others — but all are made to bear the marks of his violence, and to endure his hatred and reproach. But do you think that God will allow this to go on unavenged? Can he, as a Father, see His children prostrated by this prince of darkness — and not hasten to their rescue? Can He, as a covenant God, behold those who have laid hold upon His covenant, assaulted and persecuted by this great adversary, and not avenge them? "I tell you," says Christ, "He will avenge them speedily!" And though, from God's "bearing long" with the machinations of this adversary, it may seem as if He did not regard His suffering people — yet there is only a seeming hiding of His power, for He has declared, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay!"
For when His people are almost faint and despairing, then shall He arise to judgment, and making bare His arm, shall put His hand on the throat of His enemies. This was proved in the destruction of Jerusalem, when those who had cried out concerning Jesus, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" coupled with the horrid imprecation, "His blood be upon us and on our children," and who had visited their wrath upon the first Christians, were suddenly shut up within the walls of the city, and subjected to a series of trials, and sufferings, and deaths until then unheard of in the annals of retributive vengeance.
In every age since, not a persecution of the Church has existed which has not been followed by the avenging curse of God. Nay, further, not a leader or originator of any of the great persecutions which have been directed against Christianity in its first planting among the nations, or in its subsequent revivals, who has not been made "to drink of the wine-cup of the wrath of God." Collect the biographies of all the sword-armed or torch-bearing antagonists of the Church, whether you find them among Roman emperors or Roman pontiffs; whether among Gallic princes or Gallic cardinals; whether among Spanish kings or Spanish inquisitors; whether among English sovereigns or English prelates — and you shall find that all have experienced the vengeance of Almighty God.
There is scarcely an exception to this remark, from the time of Pontius Pilate, who, like Judas, "went out and hanged himself," and Herod Agrippa, who was eaten up of worms and died; down to the imbecile Charles IX, before whose crazed vision the bloody scenes of Bartholomew's day ever glared its spectral horrors; or Mary of England, the "bloody Mary," who reigned amidst rebellions, and died amidst the taunts and triumphs of her hating subjects. It is a truth written in God's Word, "He will avenge his elect!" It is a truth written on the breastplate of God's justice, "He will avenge them speedily!" It is a truth that all history reiterates and confirms, "Jehovah shall tread down His enemies!" And so will it ever be unto the end of the world. God often "bears long" with sinners in order to test the faith of His people, and to show to the world how grievously men will sin if left for a season to themselves — but when his disciplinary course is over, his punitive course begins, and there is no escaping out of His hands.
Thirdly. We learn from these parables that Christ requires earnest and importunate prayer.A few formal phrases, a few languid petitions, a few ascriptions of praise, and a few acknowledgments of mercies — are not the kind of prayers which are pleasing to God. He requires deep-felt, heart prayers — the wellings up of desires from souls who feel their sin and their need of a Savior, and who burn with love and zeal.
It is not "eloquent prayers," elaborately carved and polished by the tools of rhetoric, for refined ears — that are pleasing to God. It is not a harangue addressed to men under the form of prayer to God — which He approves; neither is it "much speaking," or "vain repetitions," which engage His attention.
Do you wish to pray aright? Go to God as a sinful child; go to Him as your Father, reconciled by the death of His Son; go in faith and hope, in love and adoration. Tell Him your fears, your trials, your doubts, your sins. Unburden your soul at the gate of his ear. Go with a broken and a contrite heart, looking only for acceptance in and through the merits and sacrifice of Jesus Christ — and you shall assuredly be heard, for the word of His promise is, "Whatever you shall ask in my name, believing, you shall receive," and "Him that comes unto me — I will never cast out."
Fourthly. Persistent and earnest prayer will always prevail.
To use in part the words of another, the widow was a stranger, not at all related to the judge; but Christians are "God's elect," His favored, His "peculiar people." The unjust judge was not interested in granting her petition; but God's honor and truth is concerned in relieving the needs of His people. There was little hope of prevailing with such a merciless and unjust judge; but we address a loving and compassionate Father. The widow, moreover, had none to intercede for her; but "we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." She was in danger of irritating the judge by her entreaties; but the more importunate we are — the more is God pleased, for "the prayer of the upright," says Solomon, "is His delight." She, notwithstanding all her difficulties, obtained her request; how much more shall we, who, in lieu of difficulties, have such abundant encouragements!
The same line of argument and the same inferences can be drawn from the parable of the Friend at Midnight, though we need not stop to recapitulate them here.
To unfold fully the encouragements which we have to importunate prayer, would require a volume rather than a page. We find them in the attributes of God; in the covenant made with Christ; in the manifold promises of His holy Word; in the recorded instances of its success, as in the cases of Jacob, and Moses, and David, and Daniel, and Paul; and in our own experience of God's faithfulness and truth, in reference to every earnest cry which we have uttered in His ear.
In order to the putting forth of this earnest importuning prayer, there is needed more "faith on the earth." Faith is the essential basis of all prevailing prayer. There is no acceptable prayer without it. Our prayers will be fervent and effectual — just in proportion to the strength and vitality of our faith. If we have but a faint belief in God's government and care; if we have but little trust in Jesus Christ, as our only Savior; if we believe but in part the full and free promises of grace; and if, instead of the manly, vigorous walk of faith, we take the tottering steps of an infantile belief — then will our prayers be weak, ineffectual, unedifying.
But if we cling to God's Word with unrelaxing tenacity; if we yield ourselves up to Christ in undoubting confidence; if we hold fast the precious promises, and, steadying ourselves by the staff of hope, walk with firm step in the pathway of the just — then shall we reap the rich results of our devotions. Our prayers will be heard — and will be answered; and blessings uncounted, unmerited, and unspeakable in richness and in glory, will descend upon our souls.
Nor should our prayers be confined to our own needs alone, for we find in the parable of the Importunate Friend, a great incentive to intercessory prayer for others. The poor widow pleaded for herself; her own wrongs, her own necessities urged her to continually press her suit. But in the other parable, the one who came to borrow bread from his friend did not ask it for himself — but for a traveler who had unexpectedly presented himself at his door. His whole importunity was in behalf of another's necessities, not his own; and he continued pleading at that midnight hour, and before that bolted door, until he gained his request.
While, therefore, we should, like the widow, plead with unrelaxing earnestness for our own spiritual needs — we should likewise present importunate supplications to Almighty God in behalf of those whom His providence has placed under our care, those near and dear to us by the ties of kinship or affection. The promise is not, Ask for yourselves only, and you shall receive; seek for yourselves alone, and you shall find; knock only for personal admittance at the door of Heaven, and it shall be opened. But it runs in this broad language: "Whatever you shall ask in my name, believing, you shall receive." "Truly I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in Heaven." How often do we find in the narrative of our Savior's miracles, that He wrought special deeds of mercy upon people brought to Him by others, and because of the faith of those who brought them!
The man who was let down on a bed before Him through the broken-up roof of the house, was healed because of the faith of those who had borne him to Jesus. The servant of the Capernaum centurion, the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, and many other cases, were each healed by Jesus because of the faith of those who applied to Him for aid and favor.
The preceptive part of Scripture sustains the truth thus taught by the parables and the miracles of Jesus. Paul begs an interest in the prayers of his fellow Christians. He told the Corinthians that they had helped to deliver him from dangers through their prayers; he assured the Philippians that he knew that his afflictions would "turn to his salvation through their prayers." He often speaks of remembering others in his prayers, and James distinctly urges, "Pray one for another."
Intercessory prayer for each other is then the plain and bounden duty of the children of God; they should come with boldness to the Throne of Grace; they should plead the necessities of their friends with the importunity of that midnight landowner; they should faint not in their application, even though at first God seems to say, "I cannot rise and give you anything." Pray on; God will hear, will arise, will open to you the windows of Heaven, and give you, not "three loaves" merely — but will rain down upon your soul and the souls of those for whom you intercede, "heavenly manna," that "angels' bread," which shall strengthen and sustain both you and them, until you enter the promised land above!