Proper 24C: The Unjust Judge
By: The Rev. Paul Carlson
The parable of the unjust judge is a favorite story and passage in scripture regarding prayer for many people, perhaps due in part to the illustration being so meaningful and clear. It promises justice, both immediately and abundantly, and It also connects in a positive way with one of the more famous, popular, and generally universally accepted euphemisms “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This story makes sense in the reality of human existence. The “justice system” is often “unjust” but that unjust system does not always win. Persistence and seemingly innocent weakness, through the humble power of simply irritating the strong and the proud (from time to time) has indeed proven to win out on the side of justice.
One of my personal favorite illustrations of this strange kind of justice comes from the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” In it, the main character Andy writes one letter per week for six years to receive funding for a library the prisoners could use. When dozens of boxes filled with enough books to start the library arrive at the prison’s post office, there is a note attached that asks Andy to “please, stop writing us letters.” He grins both wryly and triumphantly, and tells the prison guard helping him with all the packages that, “Now I will start writing two letters a week.”
These stories, and others like them, describe quite well the power of hope that those who are considered weak can always wield over those who are considered strong. At the end of the film, Andy writes yet another letter, this time to his friend, Red, who has just been released from prison. He writes, “Dear Red – If you’re reading this then you have gotten out. And if you have come this far, then maybe you are willing to come a little further … Remember, Red: hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. I am hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend, Andy.” (for reference, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K30e9O3Nng)
In this reading, Jesus also attaches much hope to his story, which he tells—according to Luke—to encourage his disciples to pray persistently and not lose heart. Jesus says to them after he finishes with the parable (v. 6-8): “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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. And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
William Barclay points out in his commentary that although Jesus uses an unjust judge in his parable, we are not praying to an unjust God. He writes, “The prime lesson is not that shameless persistence painfully extracts blessings from an unwilling God; but that, in prayer, we are coming to one who is our Father and who is even more ready to give than we are to ask.”
This parable inspires me toward faith, hope, and prayer through the telling and hearing of these words; but at the same time, like many other people I know, both faithful and unfaithful alike, I struggle with the seemingly equal persistence of “unanswered prayer.” After all, would Christ ever have to encourage anyone to pray if unanswered prayers didn’t exist?
The pain and burden of unanswered prayer is more than enough to break off communication between God and God’s people. In preparation for writing on this topic of prayer, I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to share with me why had either ceased praying or never did pray in the first place. Here are a few responses: “What’s the point?” “Waste of breath,” “I am unworthy,” and “God does not care.”
These are quite possibly the same kinds of thoughts that many in our congregations struggle with in their daily lives. More often than not these comments are attached to extremely personal stories of grief and loss. I believe that these thoughts, which inevitably come with the reality of unanswered prayer must be dealt with from the pulpit. Name its existence and personally share in the struggle so that the importance of having a relationship with God through prayer (our language of faith) might have a real impact.
If you can’t think of a personal story, think of Jesus. Jesus, who in the Garden of Gethsemane went to God earnestly in prayer (multiple times according to Mathew and Mark), asking God to “take this cup” from him and received no answer. He then went to his disciples, even after receiving no answer from God, and told them to pray as well. Pray that they “may not enter into the time of trial.”
The grief and burden of this unanswered prayer was so great that in the Gospel of Luke, even after an Angel comes to him to give him strength, we read that his sweat became like blood falling down on the ground. Jesus knows what it’s like to struggle with what could be perceived as unanswered prayer and yet he continues to pray, always. He prays and encourages his followers to pray even for desires he knows full well are not “God’s will.” Their time of trial does come. “This cup” is not taken from him. And yet he does not break off communication with the Father but begins to pray even more vigorously—faithfully trusting to the very end in the will of the Father.
The relationship Jesus has with God the Father is one that does not ever give up on communication. It is a relationship built so firmly upon a foundation of communication that the prayers Jesus makes go far beyond any description of persistence. It is a relationship of faithfulness that defines his identity as the Christ and forms every breath he takes into a breath of prayer, even to his last breath in which he exhales, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
For Jesus, prayer is not about answers. It is about relationship.
 William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, p. 117.
The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife, Pastor Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.