Luke 18, 1-8.—And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?
All is not easy that appears so to a hasty, superficial observation, which is apt to mistake the simplicity of strength for the simplicity of weakness. The most wonderful discoveries, when once made, may seem obvious. The highest creations of genius appear level to the humblest capacity. The profoundest wisdom often shows no more surface than the shallowest folly. Of this the parables of Christ are eminent examples. Many a sage and scholar has neglected them as only fit for children. Others have looked upon them as befitting themes for first attempts and young beginners in the work of exposition. The best corrective of this error is experiment. As few have failed to entertain it, few, perhaps, have used this means without being undeceived. What appeared at first incapable of two interpretations, is successively subjected to a dozen. Whatever this may argue with respect to the interpreter, so far as the Scriptures are themselves concerned, it is not a fault, but a perfection.
These divine discourses were intended to accomplish more than one end, and to this variety of purpose their structure is adapted with an exquisite precision. Some were to see clearly, more were to be dazzled. They were also meant, at least in many cases, to be variously applied. A lesson crowded with allusions to the actual condition of our Lord's immediate hearers, is often so constructed that these very points enforce its application to a thousand other cases wholly different externally. Either from this or other causes, there is sometimes an illusion, like that produced by a painting, seen from a certain point of observation, while from any other it is a distorted daub. The imagery of the parables, when seen from a particular distance, may be definite in outline, faultless in perspective, perfect in colouring. But approach a little nearer, and the figures lose their symmetry, the tints their richness. This is often a key to the correct mode of exposition. It forbids the coarse manipulation of the little-souled grammarian, no less than the cloudy indistinctness of the speculative dreamer. It compels the one to stand back, and the other to draw near, until they both see neither too much nor too little, but precisely what they ought to see, and must see, if they would see to any purpose. In this way, some of the most valuable lessons may be learned as to the folly of over-refinement and extravagant minuteness in the explanation of strong figures.
But sometimes this advantage seems to be precluded or diminished by a doubt as to the general design of the whole parable. This doubt may extend to the very doctrine taught, or be restricted to its application. The truth embodied in some parables is plain, but it may be questioned whether it is predicted of the Jews or the disciples, or some other class exclusively, or meant to be applied to men in general. In other cases, both the doctrine and the application may be clear; but there is something obscure in the mode of illustration, an apparent incongruity between the substance and the shadow. This appearance often springs from a misapprehension of the image or its use, and then occurs one of those instances of self-interpretation which have already been mentioned. As soon as the true principle is once applied, the incongruity is gone. This proves the principle itself to be correct, and furnishes, or may furnish, valuable aid in solving other cases.
To this last class belongs the parable from which the text is taken. There is no indistinctness in the images themselves, nor any doubt as to what they were designed to represent. The widow and the judge stand out before the mind's eye as fully and clearly as the forms of flesh and blood which we remember seeing yesterday or expect to see to-morrow. The widow's wrong, the judge's wickedness, his equal scorn of God and man, the prayer, the refusal, the re
turn, the ceaseless importunity, the selfish tyrant's reasoning with himself—all this is like an object of sense. We do not merely read—we see, we hear, we feel it as a real, present living spectacle.
The moral, too, is not left to be guessed at or inferred; it is explicitly propounded. This parable was uttered for a certain end, to teach a certain lesson, to produce a determinate effect; and that was, that they who heard it should pray always and not faint, not give up, or desert their post—the Greek word having properly a military sense and application. As to the length which we may go in applying it, the only question that has ever been raised is, whether it had a special reference to the prayers of Christ's disciples after he should leave them, till he came again for the destruction of their nation. But even if it had been so intended, it is one of those cases where the lesson taught to one class is evidently universal in its nature and the purpose of the teacher.
This is the more certain here because the terms used are so comprehensive, and without any qualifying adjunct. "He spake a parable unto them to this end, that it is right or binding to pray always." If, then, there is any obscurity or doubt, it is neither in the images presented, nor in the doctrine taught, nor, to any practical effect, in its application. But it lies in an apparent incongruity between the illustration and the thing which it illustrates. This may be rendered palpable by placing type and antitype over against each other. That the elect of God should be represented by the wronged and helpless widow, agrees well with the fact and with the usage of the Scriptures. But the prayers which these are bound to offer without ceasing, must be prayers to God; and, therefore, he would seem to be the object corresponding to the judge of the parable.
But this judge is an unjust judge; he neither fears God, nor respects man. He has no restraining motives either here or hereafter. In addition to this general habitual corruption, he is actually guilty in this very case of gross injustice.- He is faithless to his trust in refusing to discharge the solemn duties of his office. He perverts the right by constantly refusing to redress the wrongs of the injured. When at last he consents to do so, it is from the meanest and most selfish motive. It is merely to escape trouble and annoyance. "Lest by her continual coming she weary me." Between this character, this conduct, and this motive for a change of conduct, on.one hand, and the reasons for our importunity in prayer, upon the other, what connection, what resemblance, is there or can there be?
To some the difficulty may seem hopeless, as their rules of interpretation force them to admit that the unjust judge is here a type or representative of God as the hearer of prayer, and that being such, there must be a minute resemblance of the type and antitype. There have been those who would not scruple to assume and carry out this monstrous notion. They would say, perhaps, that the resemblance is a limited specific one; that God resembles the unjust judge only in his turning a deaf ear to the petitions of his people, and in granting their requests because of their unceasing importunity. In order to sustain this view, they are
compelled to extenuate the guilt of the unjust judge, and to exaggerate the supposed resemblance between him and God, lest the comparison should be revolting.
But this is utterly at variance with the drift and with the terms of the description. Why is it said that the judge was an " unjust" one? Why is it said that he "feared not God, neither regarded man"? These terms prohibit all extenuation. They are evidently added for the very purpose of determining the character. Injustice and contempt of God and man, are not incidentally mentioned; they are prominent. They do .not modify the character; they constitute it. It is as an " unjust judge" that he is held up to our view; and, lest we should mistake his quality, we are told that he neither feared God nor respected man. This accumulation of condemnatory phrases makes it certain that the wickedness of the judge is an essential stroke in the description. The idea evidently is, that the worse we make him out, the better we shall understand the parable. We cannot, therefore, substitute a merely careless, sluggish, or forgetful judge, much less a weak, but honest one, without destroying all the point and meaning of the apologue.
How, then, are we to reconcile this seeming incongruity? How can the conduct of this selfish tyrant to a helpless sufferer, be any illustration of a just and merciful God's dealing with " his own elect"? One thing, at least, is certain, that in this, and by parity of reasoning in all like cases, it does not follow, because two things are compared in one point, that they must be alike in every other; nor even that they must be alike in all the points which are specifically mentioned. For neither the character in general, nor the conduct in this one case, nor the motive for reforming it, can possibly have any counterpart in the divine nature or dispensations. The only points of contact are the mutual relation of the parties as petitioner and sovereign, the withholding of the thing requested and its subsequent bestowal. In all the rest there is, there can be no resemblance; there is perfect contrariety.
Why, then, was this unsuitable image chosen even for the sake of illustration? Why was not the Hearer of Prayer represented by a creature bearing more of his own image? Why was not the judge of the parable a conscientious, faithful magistrate, who, though compelled to put off a compliance with the prayer of the poor widow, still designed to grant it, and allowed her to come often and return unsatisfied, in order that her wishes might be kept upon the stretch until it became possible to satisfy them? Because this would not have answered our Lord's purpose, but would only have taught feebly by comparison what is now taught mightily by contrast. The certainty of our prayers being answered could not possibly be strengthened or evinced by any similar proceeding upon man's part. The ground of confidence here furnished is not the similitude of God to man, but their infinite disparity. The argument implied is not, that if imperfect goodness goes so far, that perfect goodness must go further; but, that if a certain good effect may be expected to arise fortuitously out of what is evil, it may surely be expected to arise necessarily out of what is good. If even such a character, governed by such motives, may be rationally expected to take a certain course, however alien from his native disposition and his habits, there can be no risk in counting on a like result where all these adverse circumstances favour it.
This view of the parable, or of the reasoning involved in it, as founded not on mere comparison, but contrast, does away at once with the necessity of strained constructions and unnatural refinements. Instead of trying to exculpate the unrighteous judge, or even to extenuate his guilt, we are at liberty, or rather under the necessity of, taking the description in its strongest sense. The worse he is, the better for the beauty and effect of our Saviour's illustration. We are also freed from the necessity of seeking points of fanciful resemblance between this ideal person and the Father of Mercies, to whom all flesh come as to the Hearer of Prayer. When the object is no longer to assimilate, but to distinguish and confront as opposites, we may give the language of the text its full force, without any fear of blasphemy or even of irreverence.
The three main points of the antithesis are these —the character, the practice, and the motive of the judge—his moral character, his official practice, and his motive for acting upon this occasion in a manner contrary to both. His official practice is intimated by the word unjust applied to him near the conclusion of the parable. If this were meant to be descriptive merely of his inward dispositions, it would add nothing to the previous description. It refers more probably to the habitual discharge of his functions, to his exercise of power. He was not only destitute of any love to justice or any wish to do it, but unjust in practice. The interior source of this exterior conduct is then described in other terms. He feared not God. He neither reverenced him as a sovereign, nor dreaded him as an avenger. Without this fear, justice is impossible. He only can command who knows how to obey. He only can direct the fears of men to right and wholesome uses, who is himself governed by the fear of God. A judge who "fears not God," is of necessity an "unjust judge."
But this, though decisive of the real character, is not necessarily so of the outward conduct. If the acts of men were always an unerring index of their moral state, the world would be a very different world from what it is. If human society depended for its temporal advantages exclusively on genuine virtue, it would soon come to an end. There are appearances of goodness which, although abominable in the sight of God, are highly esteemed among men, and for that very reason, have a social, civil or political value, wholly irrespective of their moral worth or worthlessness. These outside virtues, having no pure fountain in the heart, must spring from other sources. They are not the fruit of politic contrivance and collusion, being only overruled for civil ends by Providence. Their real source is in the selfishness of those who practise them.
Among the motives which may act upon this principle, not the least potent is the fear of man. This may include the dread of his displeasure, the desire
of his applause, and an instinctive shrinking even from his scorn. Shame, fear, ambition, all may contribute to produce an outward goodness having no real counterpart within. This is particularly true of public and official acts. How many magistrates and office-bearers, who have no right principle to guide or check them, are controlled by a regard to the decencies of life, to the conventional exactions of society, in short, to public sentiment. Such fear not God but man. They can brave the terrors of eternity, but not the nearer retributions of the present life. They can consent to risk their souls, but hot to jeopard their respectability. Under the influence of this selfish but most salutary fear, they do what they would otherwise leave undone, and abstain from what would otherwise be done without a scruple.
There would thus seem to be three grounds for expecting justice and fidelity in human society, and especially in public trusts. The first and highest is the fear of God, including all religious motives—then the fear of man or a regard to public sentiment—and last, the force of habit, the authority of precedent, a disposition to do that which has been done before, because it has been done before. These three impulsive forces do not utterly exclude each other. They may coexist in due subordination. They may all be necessary to a complete official character. The first in that case, must control the others, but the others, under that control, may answer an important purpose. The man who fears God, does Hot, on that account, despise the judgment of his fellows, though it cannot be to him the ultimate, supreme rule of his conduct.
The same is true of a regard to settled usage, or even to personal habit, when correctly formed. Indeed, these latter motives never have so powerful an influence for good, as when they act in due subordination to the fear of God. It is only when this is wanting, and they undertake to fill its place, that they become unlawful or objectionable. And even then, although they cannot make good the deficiency in God's sight, they may make it good in man's. Although the root of the matter is not in them, a short-lived verdure may be brought out and maintained by artificial means. In this case, the defect is one which cannot be supplied. But even where the secondary lower motives fail or cease to act, the consequence may be unhappy. The most conscientious man, who disregards the public sentiment or tramples on established usage, may do far less than he might have done, though far more than the demagogue who lives on popular applause, or the precisian who acknowledges no higher law than custom. The want of any one of these impulsive forces, may detract from the completeness of the ultimate effect. How much more the absence of them all!
If the judge, for instance, who is governed by the fear of God, and pays due respect to the opinion of mankind, may fall short of the standard, through a want of fixed habit, or contempt of settled usage; if he who, in addition to this, sets at nought the judgment of his fellows, sinks still lower in the scale, how low must he sink who has not even honesty, much less, religion to compensate for his minor errors! In other words, how utterly unjust must that judge be
s who neither fears God nor regards man. It seems then, that the few words which onr Saviour uses, are so happily chosen and so well applied as to exhaust the subject, by affording a description of an absolutely worthless judge, on whom none of the ordinary motives to fidelity have any influence, and from whom nothing, therefore, can be expected. What could be more hopeless than the case of the poor widow at the feet of such a tyrant? If he knows neither fear nor shame—if there is nothing to restrain him either in the present or the future—if she has not the means of appealing to his avarice—how clear it seems that his refusal to avenge her is a final one, and that continued importunity can only waste time and provoke him to new insult.
I dwell on these particulars to show that, in their aggregate, they are intended to convey the idea of a hopeless case. The petitioner was helpless—she was poor—she was at the mercy of her enemies. The judge was habitually unjust, and uninfluenced, either by the fear of God or by respect for man. What is this but to say—and to say in the most graphic and expressive manner—that the case is hopeless—that her importunity is vain? And yet she perseveres; so have thousands in like cases. Why? Because there is nothing more to lose, even though there may be nothing to hope. And there always is some room for hope. For hope does not depend on certainties nor even probabilities, but on possibilities. When there can be no change for the worse, and a change for the better is even barely possible, men will hope, from the very constitution of their nature. When the widow's case is said to be hopeless, it is not said with respect to her own feeling, but with respect to any rational, appreciable ground of hope. She hopes against hope. An indomitable instinct triumphs over reason. She persists in her entreaties. So have thousands.ing of the widow's prayer had been deferred for the sake of the petitioner herself, in order that the favour when obtained might be enhanced in value. Suppose that instead of knowing that the judge was in principle and habit unjust, she had known him, by experience, to be just and merciful, as well as eminently wise. Suppose that she had been protected by him, and her wrongs redressed in many other cases. Suppose that she had, even in the present case, his promise, nay his oath that justice should be done her. How easy must it then have been to trust! How doubly mad and wicked to despair!
The ideal case was meant to bring before us a familiar practice. It is equivalent to saying, Men in such situations still confide in the effect of importunity. When every thing seems plainly to forbid it, they persist, because success is possible, and on that possibility the natural repugnance to despair exerts itself. Yes, even in the most discouraging condition, men will pray to their fellow-men, so long as there is a possibility of having what they ask. And in this perseverance they are often justified by the event. Of this fact too, the widow's case is but a type. With every reason to cease praying, she prayed on and she was heard at last. When every higher motive failed, a lower one was still available. She could not bribe but she could weary him. He who neither feared God nor regarded man, was tenderly mindful of his own ease. He did not say, "lest God be angry" or "lest man despise me," but he said, "lest by her continual coming Bhe weary me." This might have seemed a frail foundation for the hope of the petitioner, or rather it would never have occurred to her as likely to decide her case, and yet, on this it turned at last. Lest she should weary him he did her justice. Her continued importunity was therefore justified by its success. She did well in continuing to urge her claim, however little reason she might
have to look for its success. The widow in the parable and those of whom she is the type or representative, do right, act reasonably in thus persevering, even where the case seems desperate and every rational consideration is in favour of abandoning the suit.
There is often a divine art in our Saviour's parables, by which we are led unawares to pass judgment on ourselves. This is sometimes recorded as the actual effect produced upon the unbelieving Jews. But the effect is often still more general. It arises partly from the peculiarities of structure which have been described. The indistinctness of the images presented, seems at times to be intended to disguise the final application of the lesson till its truth is fully recognized. In this way the Pharisees were made to utter their own sentence, and in this way we too may become our own judges without knowing. The simpler, the more natural the case supposed, the more tremendous is the force of its recoil upon the real object.
In the parable before us, we are all led irresistibly to own that the widow's persevering application to the unjust judge was rational and right, although apparently the case was hopeless. Though there seemed to be nothing in the character, the habits, or the circumstances of the judge, on which a reasonable expectation could be founded, yet we know that she was right, because she gained her end, and that not by accident, but in a way entirely natural and likely to occur again. The true force and application of the parable may best be shown by varying the ideal case presented, first a little, and then more, until it merges in the real case it was intended to illustrate.
The conclusion which we have already reached is, that the widow in the parable did right, acted a reasonable part, in hoping against hope, and still persisting in her suit when every thing combined to prove it hopeless. If so, the converse of the proposition must be true; and by abandoning her suit or suspending her entreaties she would have been chargeable with folly and with sin proportioned to the interests at stake. If it had been her own subsistence merely, that would be enough to condemn her dereliction, how much more if that of others were dependent on the same decision. She would have had no right to sacrifice the comfort and tranquillity, much less the life or the salvation of her children to her own despondency or weariness of effort. All this is certain, and will be at once admitted in the case which the parable supposes, to wit, that of an unjust, unmerciful, and selfish judge, "who feared not God neither regarded man."
But let us suppose that he had been an upright, conscientious, faithful judge, whose execution of his office was delayed by some mistake or want of information. How much less excusable would she have then been in relinquishing her rights or those of others in despair! Suppose again that there had not been even ignorance or error on the judge's part to make the issue doubtful, but that his decision was delayed by temporary circumstances which were likely soon to have an end. The case would then be stronger still, and the folly of abandoning the suit still greater.
But advance another step. Imagine that the grant
There seems to be room for only one more supposition. Those which have been stated, from the lowest to the highest, all imply the possibility of error or delinquency, however strong the reasons for expecting the actual exercise of wisdom and integrity. But now remove this possibility. Exclude all chance of intellectual or moral wrong. Enlarge the attributes before supposed, until they reach infinity or absolute perfection. What then would be left as the foundation or the pretext of a doubt? The bare fact of delay? Under this pretence, suppose the suitor to despair and to renounce his suit. Is not this indeed a case of madness, too extreme to be supposed? because it could not occur often, even if it occurred once. Alas! my hearers, this extreme case is our own. It is to this view of ourselves, that the consummate wisdom of the Master brings us by a way that we knew not. Just so far as we practically doubt the promises of God, or fail to use the means of his appointment, we reverse the conduct of the widow in the parable, and that too under the most aggravating circumstances. If she was wise in hoping against hope, what must we be in despairing against evidence?
From this conviction we perhaps take refuge in the false view of the parable before exposed. We would fain deny the possibility of arguing from one case to the other. For this purpose we exaggerate and multiply the points of difference. She asked for justice; we for mercy or free favour. Her judge was unjust, impious, and reckless; ours is the infinitely Holy God. She gained her end by exhausting his patience; but "the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary." How then can we be either bound or condemned by her example? Because she at last wearied an unjust judge into doing right in order to escape a worse annoyance, what ground have we to hope that we can weary the Most High into compbance with our wishes? It need scarcely be said now, that this is not the true state of the case. The true state of the case is this. If she would have been chargeable with sin and folly in despairing of justice from an unjust, impious, and reckless judge, who feared not God neither regarded man, what may we be charged with if we despair of mercy, freely offered, dearly purchased, clearly promised, on the part of God himself? If she was right in trusting to the selfish love of ease in such a man, how wrong must we be in distrusting the benevolence, the faithfulness, the truth of such a God!
Every point of dissimilitude between the cases does but serve to make our own still worse and less excusable, by bringing into shocking contrast men's dependence on the worst of their own species, with their want of confidence in God. For what the Widow in the parable did, all men do substantially. They will not be deprived of any temporal hope, however great the human wickedness which seems to crush it. On the contrary, they will not, in a multitude, alas, a vast majority of cases, be persuaded to trust God, and to prove their trust by importunity in prayer, however ample the encouragement, however strong and unequivocal the promise.
The extensive application of the lesson here taught is apparent from the nature of the principles involved. It is impossible to feign a case at all analogous, to which it may not be as properly applied as to the one expressly mentioned. The only grounds of limitation which have ever been suggested, are the supposed reference to the downfall of Jerusalem, and an alleged restriction of the parable by Christ himself to the specific grant of vengeance on the enemies of His elect. The first has been already shown to be really no limitation, even if the primary intention were the one supposed. The other rests upon a twofold misconception. In the first place, the avenging here meant is judicial or forensic vindication; the redress of wrongs endured, and the assertion of disputed rights. The adversaries meant, as appears from the form of the original expression, are the adverse party in a case of litigation. There is no allusion, therefore, to the gratification of malicious or revengeful passions. In the next place, even if there were, it would belong to the type and not to the antitype, and be no better reason for restricting the import of the passage, than the fact that the petitioner is represented as a widow. Because the ideal judge says, "I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me," our Lord, adapting his expressions to the case supposed, says, " Shall not God do likewise; shall not he avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?" This evidently means, shall he not at last hear their prayers, though he long defer an answer? So instead of saying, Yes, he will surely hear them, he still retains the costume of the parable in answering his own demand: "I tell you that he will avenge them speedily," i. e., he will do what they ask more certainly, because for reasons altogether different, and from motives infinitely higher than those for which the unjust judge consented to avenge his helpless but importunate petitioner.
But how shall it be speedily, when by the very supposition it is long deferred? Because the longest term of expectation, when surveyed by an eye of faith, and not of doubt or jealous apprehension, will be short enough to the believer; and because continued expectation of the right sort, while it fortifies his faith, is constantly diminishing the period of its exercise. If we really believe that God will grant us our petitions, we shall gladly acquiesce in his appointed time, and own, when he "avenges" us, whether it be sooner or later, that he did it "speedily." The only question is, have we that faith, to which, as to the Lord himself, "one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day?" The only difficulty of the case is in ourselves, and hence the Saviour winds up his divine instructions with a "nevertheless;" i. e., notwithstanding the immense weight of preponderating reasons for implicit confidence in God, expressed by importunity in prayer— notwithstanding the gross folly, and the aggravated guilt of that despondency which "casts off fear and restrains prayer before God"—though the faith required is so simple, so reasonable, so delightful—is it common, is it ever to be universal? The reasons for believing are the most complete and satisfactory conceivable. "Nevertheless when the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" This solemn question comes home just as really to us, as if we were to meet the Lord on earth to-morrow. And if we would answer it aright let us remember that the faith in question is a faith that must be proved and exercised by prayer; so that if men would either have it or demonstrate that they have it, they " ought always to pray, and not to faint."