If we were to seek confirmation of the suggestion, that these last and the two preceding Parables are grouped together under a common viewpoint, such as that of Righteousness, the character and position of the Parables now to be examined would supply it. For, while the Parable of the Unjust Judge evidently bears close affinity to those that had preceded – especially to that of him who persisted in his request for bread 1 – it evidently refers not, as the other, to man’s present need, but to the Second Coming of Christ. The prayer, the perseverance, the delay, and the ultimate answer of which it speaks, are all connected with it. 2 Indeed, it follows on what had passed on this subject immediately before – first, between the Pharisees and Christ, 3 and then between Christ and the disciples. 4
Again, we must bear in mind that between the Parable of Dives and Lazarus and that of the Unjust Judge, not indeed, a great interval of time, but most momentous events, had intervened. These were: the visit of Jesus to Bethany, the raising of Lazarus, the Jerusalem council against Christ, the flight to Ephraim, 5 a brief stay and preaching there, and the commencement of His last journey to Jerusalem. 6 During this last slow journey from the borders of Galilee to Jerusalem, we suppose the Discourses 7 and the Parable about the Coming of the Son of Man to have been spoken. And although such utterances will be best considered in connection with Christ’s later and full Discourses about ‘The Last Things,’ we readily perceive, even at this stage, how, when He set His Face towards Jerusalem, there to be offered up, thoughts and words concerning the ‘End’ may have entered into all His teaching, and so have given occasion for the questions of the Pharisees and disciples, and for the answers of Christ, alike by Discourse and in Parable.
The most common and specious, but also the most serious mistake take in reference to the Parable of ‘the Unjust Judge,’ is to regard it as implying that, just as the poor widow insisted in her petition and was righted because of her insistence, so the disciples should persist in prayer and would be heard because of their insistence. But this is an entirely false interpretation. When treating of the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward, we disclaimed all merely mechanical ideas of prayer, as if God heard us for our many repetitions. This error must here also be carefully avoided. The inference from the Parable is not, that the Church will be ultimately vindicated because she perseveres in prayer, but that she so perseveres, because God will surely right her cause: it is not, that insistence in prayer is the cause of its answer, but that the certainty of that which is asked for should lead to continuance in prayer, even when all around seems to forbid the hope of answer. This is the lesson to be learned from a comparison of the Unjust Judge with the Just and Holy God in His dealings with His own. If the widow persevered, knowing that, although no other consideration, human or Divine, would influence the Unjust Judge, yet her insistence would secure its object, how much more should we ‘not faint,’ but continue in prayer, who are appealing to God, Who has His people and His cause at heart, even though He delay, remembering also that even this is for their sakes who pray. And this is fully expressed in the introductory words. ‘He spake also a Parable to them with reference to the need be of their always praying and not fainting.’
The remarks just made will remove what otherwise might seem another serious difficulty. If it be asked, how the conduct of the Unjust Judge could serve as illustration of what might be expected from God, we answer, that the lesson in the Parable is not from the similarity but from the contrast between the Unrighteous human and the Righteous Divine Judge. ‘Hear what the Unrighteous Judge saith. But God [mark the emphatic position of the word], shall He not indeed vindicate [the injuries of, do judgment for] His elect . . .?’ In truth, this mode of argument is perhaps the most common in Jewish Parables, and occurs on almost every page of ancient Rabbinic commentaries. It is called the Qal vaChomer, ‘light and heavy,’ and answers to our reasoning a fortiori or de minore ad majus (from the less to the greater). 11 According to the Rabbis, ten instances of such reasoning occur in the Old Testament 12 itself. 13 Generally, such reasoning is introduced by the words Qal vaChomer; often it is prefaced by, Al achath Kammah veKammah, ‘against one how much and how much,’ that is, ‘how much more.’ Thus, it is argued that, ‘if a King of flesh and blood’ did so and so, shall not the King of Kings, &c.; or, if the sinner received such and such, shall not the righteous, &c.? In the present Parable the reasoning would be: ‘If the Judge of Unrighteousness’ said that he would vindicate, shall not the Judge of all Righteousness do judgment on behalf of His Elect? In fact, we have an exact Rabbinic parallel to the thought underlying, and the lesson derived from, this Parable. When describing, how at the preaching of Jonah Nineveh repented and cried to God, His answer to the loud persistent cry of the people is thus explained: ‘The bold (he who is unabashed) conquers even a wicked person [to grant him his request], how much more the All-Good of the world!’
The Parable opens by laying down as a general principle the necessity and duty of the Disciples always to pray – the precise meaning being defined by the opposite, or limited clause: ‘not to faint,’ that is, not ‘to become weary.’ 15 The word ‘always’ must not be understood in respect of time, as if it meant continuously, but at all times, in the sense of under all circumstances, however apparently adverse, when it might seem as if an answer could not come, and we would therefore be in danger of ‘fainting’ or becoming weary. This rule applies here primarily to that ‘weariness’ which might lead to the cessation of prayer for the Coming of the Lord, or of expectancy of it, during the long period when it seems as if He delayed His return, nay, as if increasingly there were no likelihood of it. But it may also be applied to all similar circumstances, when prayer seems so long unanswered that weariness in praying threatens to overtake us. Thus, it is argued, even in Jewish writings, that a man should never be deterred from, nor cease praying, the illustration by being from the case of Moses, who knew that it was decreed he should not enter the land, and yet continued praying about it.
The Parable introduces to us a Judge in a city, and a widow. Except where a case was voluntarily submitted for arbitration rather than judgment, or judicial advice was sought of a sage, one man could not have formed a Jewish tribunal. Besides, his mode of speaking and acting is inconsistent with such a hypothesis. He must therefore have been one of the Judges, or municipal authorities, appointed by Herod or the Romans, perhaps a Jew, but not a Jewish Judge. Possibly, he may have been a police-magistrate, or one who had some function of that kind delegated to him. We know that, at least in Jerusalem, there were two stipendiary magistrates whose duty it was to see to the observance of all police-regulations and the prevention of crime. Unlike the regular Judges, who attended only on certain days and hours, and were unpaid, these magistrates were, so to speak, always on duty, and hence unable to engage in any other occupation. It was probably for this reason that they were paid out of the Temple-Treasury, 19 and received so large a salary as 225l., or, if needful, even more. On account of this, perhaps also for their unjust exactions, Jewish wit designated them, by a play on the words, as Robber-Judges, instead of their real title of Judges of Prohibitions, or else of Punishments. It may have been that there were such Jewish magistrates in other places also. Josephus speaks of local magistracies. At any rate there were in every locality police-officials, who watched over order and law. The Talmud speaks in very depreciatory terms of these ‘village-Judges’, in opposition to the town tribunals, and accuses them of ignorance, arbitrariness, and covetousness, so that for a dish of meat they would pervert justice. Frequent instances are also mentioned of gross injustice and bribery in regard to the non-Jewish Judges in Palestine.
It is to such a Judge that the Parable refers – one who was consciously, openly, and avowedly 26 inaccessible to the highest motive, the fear of God, and not even restrained by the lower consideration of regard for public opinion. It is an extreme case, intended to illustrate the exceeding unlikelihood of justice being done. For the same purpose, the party seeking justice at his hands is described as a poor, unprotected widow. But we must also bear in mind, in the interpretation of this Parable, that the Church, whom she represents, is also widowed in the absence of her Lord. To return – this widow ‘came’ to the Unjust Judge (the imperfect tense in the original indicating repeated, even continuous coming), with the urgent demand to be vindicated of her adversary, that is, that the Judge should make legal inquiry, and by a decision set her right as against him at whose hands she was suffering wrong. For reasons of his own he would not; and this continued for a while. At last, not from any higher principle, nor even from regard for public opinion – both of which, indeed, as he avowed to himself, had no weight with him – he complied with her request, as the text (literally translated) has it: ‘Yet at any rate 27 because this widow troubleth me, I will do justice for her, lest, in the end, coming she bruise me,’ 28 – do personal violence to me, attack me bodily. Then follows the grand inference from it: If the ‘Judge of Unrighteousness’ speak thus, shall not the Judge of all Righteousness – God – do judgment, vindicate [by His Coming to judgment and so setting right the wrong done to His Church] ‘His Elect, which cry to Him day and night, although He suffer long on account of them’ – delay His final interposition of judgment and mercy, and that, not as the Unjust Judge, but for their own sakes, in order that the number of the Elect may all be gathered in, and they fully prepared?
Difficult as the rendering of this last clause admittedly is, our interpretation of it seems confirmed by the final application of this Parable. Taking the previous verse along with it, we would have this double Parallelism: ‘But God, shall He not vindicate [do judgment on behalf of] His Elect?’ ‘I tell you, that He will do judgment on behalf of them shortly’ – this word being chosen rather than ‘speedily’ (as in the A. and R.V.), because the latter might convey the idea of a sudden interposition, such as is not implied in the expression. This would be the first Parallelism; the second this: ‘Although He suffer long [delay His final interposition] on account of them’ (verse 7), to which the second clause of verse 8 would correspond, as offering the explanation and vindication: ‘But the Son of Man, when He have come, shall He find the faith upon the earth?’ It is a terribly sad question, as put by Him Who is the Christ: After all this long-suffering delay, shall He find the faith upon the earth – intellectual belief on the part of one class, and on the part of the Church the faith of the heart which trusts in, longs, and prays, because it expects and looks for His Coming, all undisturbed by the prevailing unbelief around, only quickened by it to more intensity of prayer! Shall He find it? Let the history of the Church, nay, each man’s heart, make answer!
The introductory clause shows that it has no connection in point of time with what had preceded, although the interval between the two may, of course, have been very short. Probably, something had taken place, which is not recorded, to occasion this Parable, which, if not directly addressed to the Pharisees, is to such as are of Pharisaic spirit. It brings before us two men going up to the Temple – whether ‘at the hour of prayer,’ or otherwise, is not stated. Remembering that, with the exception of the Psalms for the day and the interval for a certain prescribed prayer, the service in the Temple was entirely sacrificial, we are thankful for such glimpses, which show that, both in the time of public service, and still more at other times, the Temple was made the place of private prayer. On the present occasion the two men, who went together to the entrance of the Temple, represented the two religious extremes in Jewish society. To the entrance of the Temple, but no farther, did the Pharisee and the Publican go together. Within the sacred enclosure – before God, where man should least have made it, began their separation. ‘The Pharisee put himself by himself, and prayed thus: O God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers – nor also as this Publican [there].’ Never, perhaps, were words of thanksgiving spoken in less thankfulness than these. For, thankfulness implies the acknowledgement of a gift; hence, a sense of not having had ourselves what we have received; in other words, then, a sense of our personal need, or humility. But the very first act of this Pharisee had been to separate himself from all the other worshippers, and notably from the Publican, whom, as his words show, he had noticed, and looked down upon. His thanksgiving referred not to what he had received, but to the sins of others by which they were separated from him, and to his own meritorious deeds by which he was separated from them. Thus, his words expressed what his attitude indicated; and both were the expression, not of thankfulness, but of boastfulness. It was the same as their bearing at the feast and in public places; the same as their contempt and condemnation of ‘the rest of men,’ and especially ‘the publicans;’ the same that even their designation – ‘Pharisees,’ ‘Separated ones,’ implied. The ‘rest of men’ might be either the Gentiles, or, more probably, the common unlearned people, whom they accused or suspected of every possible sin, according to their fundamental principle: ‘The unlearned cannot be pious.’ And, in their sense of that term, they were right – and in this lies the condemnation of their righteousness. And, most painful though it be, remembering the downright earnestness and zeal of these men, it must be added that, as we read the Liturgy of the Synagogue, we come ever and again upon such and similar thanksgiving – that they are ‘not as the rest of men.’
But this was not all. From looking down upon others the Pharisee proceeded to look up to himself. Here Talmudic writings offer painful parallelisms. They are full of references to the merits of the just, to ‘the merits and righteousness of the fathers,’ or else of Israel in taking upon itself the Law. And for the sake of these merits and of that righteousness, Israel, as a nation, expects general acceptance, pardon, and temporal benefits – for, all spiritual benefits Israel as a nation, and the pious in Israel individually, possess already, nor do they need to get them from heaven, since they can and do work them out for themselves. And here the Pharisee in the Parable significantly dropped even the form of thanksgiving. The religious performances which he enumerated are those which mark the Pharisee among the Pharisees: ‘I fast twice a week, and I give tithes of all that I acquire.’ The first of these was in pursuance of the custom of some ‘more righteous than the rest,’ who, as previously explained, fasted on the second and fifth days of the week (Mondays and Thursdays). But, perhaps, we should not forget that these were also the regular market days, when the country-people came to the towns, and there were special Services in the Synagogues, and the local Sanhedrin met – so that these saints in Israel would, at the same time, attract and receive special notice for their fasts. As for the boast about giving tithes of all that he acquired – and not merely of his land, fruits, &c. – it has already been explained, that this was one of the distinctive characteristics of ‘the sect of the Pharisees.’ Their practice in this respect may be summed up in these words of the Mishnah: ‘He tithes all that he eats, all that he sells, and all that he buys, and he is not a guest with an unlearned person, so as not possibly to partake of what may have been left untithed.’
Although it may not be necessary, yet one or two quotations will help to show how truly this picture of the Pharisee was taken from life. Thus, the following prayer of a Rabbi is recorded: ‘I thank Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast put my part with those who sit in the Academy, and not with those who sit at the corners [money-changers and traders]. For, I rise early and they rise early: I rise early to the words of the Law, and they to vain things. I labour and they labour: I labour and receive a reward, they labour and receive no reward. I run and they run: I run to the life of the world to come, and they to the pit of destruction.’ 41 Even more closely parallel is this thanksgiving, which a Rabbi puts into the mouth of Israel: ‘Lord of the world, judge me not as those who dwell in the big towns [such as Rome]: among whom there is robbery, and uncleanness, and vain and false swearing.’ 42 Lastly, as regards the boastful spirit of Rabbinism, we recall such painful sayings as those of Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, to which reference has already been made – notably this, that if there were only two righteous men in the world, he and his son were these; and if only one, it was he!
The second picture, or scene, in the Parable sets before us the reverse state of feeling from that of the Pharisee. Only, we must bear in mind, that, as the Pharisee is not blamed for his giving of thanks, nor yet for his good-doing, real or imaginary, so the prayer of the Publican is not answered, because he was a sinner. In both cases what decides the rejection or acceptance of the prayer is, whether or not it was prayer. The Pharisee retains the righteousness which he had claimed for himself, whatever its value; and the Publican receives the righteousness which he asks: both have what they desire before God. If the Pharisee ‘stood by himself,’ apart from others, so did the Publican: ‘standing afar off,’ viz. from the Pharisee – quite far back, as became one who felt himself unworthy to mingle with God’s people. In accordance with this: ‘He would not so much as lift 45 his eyes to heaven,’ as men generally do in prayer, ‘but smote his 46 breast’ – as the Jews still do in the most solemn part of their confession on the Day of Atonement – ‘saying, God be merciful to me the sinner.’ The definite article is used to indicate that he felt, as if he alone were a sinner – nay, the sinner. Not only, as has been well remarked, 47 ‘does he not think of any one else’ (de nemine alio homine cogitat), while the Pharisee had thought of every one else; but, as he had taken a position not in front of, but behind, every one else, so, in contrast to the Pharisee, who had regarded every one but himself as a sinner, the Publican regarded every one else as righteous compared with him ‘the sinner.’ And, while the Pharisee felt no need, and uttered no petition, the Publican felt only need, and uttered only petition. The one appealed to himself for justice, the other appealed to God for mercy.
More complete contrast, therefore, could not be imagined. And once more, as between the Pharisee and the Publican, the seeming and the real, that before men and before God, there is sharp contrast, and the lesson which Christ had so often pointed is again set forth, not only in regard to the feelings which the Pharisees entertained, but also to the gladsome tidings of pardon to the lost: ‘I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified above the other’ [so according to the better reading, par ekeinon]. In other words, the sentence of righteousness as from God with which the Publican went home was above, far better than, the sentence of righteousness as pronounced by himself, with which the Pharisee returned. This saying casts also light on such comparisons as between ‘the righteous’ elder brother and the pardoned prodigal, or the ninety-nine that ‘need no repentance’ and the lost that was found, or, on such an utterance as this: ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ 48 And so the Parable ends with the general principle, so often enunciated: ‘For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ And with this general teaching of the Parable fully accords the instruction of Christ to His disciples concerning the reception of little children, which immediately follows. 49
Its connection with the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican lies in this, that Pharisaic self-righteousness and contempt of others may easily lead to unforgiveness and unmercifulness, which are utterly incompatible with a sense of our own need of Divine mercy and forgiveness. And so in the Gospel of St. Matthew this Parable follows on the exhibition of a self-righteous, unmerciful spirit, which would reckon up how often we should forgive, forgetful of our own need of absolute and unlimited pardon at the hands of God 53 – a spirit, moreover, of harshness, that could look down upon Christ’s ‘little ones,’ in forgetfulness of our own need perhaps of cutting off even a right hand or foot to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
In studying this Parable, we must once more remind ourselves of the general canon of the need of distinguishing between what is essential in a Parable, as directly bearing on its lessons, and what is merely introduced for the sake of the Parable itself, to give point to its main teaching. In the present instance, no sober interpreter would regard of the essence of the Parable the King’s command to sell into slavery the first debtor, together with his wife and children. It is simply a historical trait, introducing what is analogous circumstances might happen in real life, in order to point the lesson, that a man’s strict desert before God is utter hopeless, and eternal ruin and loss. Similarly, when the promise of the debtor is thus introduced: ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all,’ it can only be to complete in a natural manner the first part of the Parabolic history and to prepare for the second, in which forbearance is asked by a fellow-servant for the small debt which he owes. Lastly, in the same manner, the recall of the King’s original forgiveness of the great debtor can only be intended to bring out the utter incompatibility of such harshness towards a brother on the part of one who has been consciously forgiven by God his great debt.
Thus keeping apart the essentials of the Parable from the accidents of its narration, we have three distinct scenes, or parts, in this story. In the first, our new feelings towards our brethren are traced to our new relation towards God, as the proper spring of all our thinking, speaking, and acting. Notably, as regards forgiveness, we are to remember the Kingdom of God: ‘Therefore has the Kingdom of God become like’ – ‘therefore:’ in order that thereby we may learn the duty of absolute, not limited, forgiveness – not that of ‘seven,’ but of ‘seventy times seven.’ And now this likeness of the Kingdom of Heaven is set forth in the Parable of ‘a man, a King’ (as the Rabbis would have expressed it, ‘a king of flesh and blood’), who would ‘make his reckoning’ ‘with his servants’ – certainly not his bondservants, but probably the governors of his provinces, or those who had charge of the revenue and finances. ‘But after he had begun to reckon’ – not necessarily at the very beginning of it – ‘one was brought to him, a debtor of ten thousand talents.’ Reckoning them only as Attic talents (1 talent = 60 minas = 6,000 dinars) this would amount to the enormous sum of about two and a quarter millions sterling. No wonder, that one who during his administration had been guilty of such peculation, or else culpable negligence, should, as the words ‘brought to him’ imply, have been reluctant to face the king. The Parable further implies, that the debt was admitted; and hence, in the course of ordinary judicial procedure – according to the Law of Moses, 55 and the universal code of antiquity – that ‘servant,’ with his family and all his property, was ordered to be sold, 56 and the returns paid into the treasury.
Of course, it is not suggested that the ‘payment’ thus made had met his debt. Even this would, if need were, confirm the view, previously expressed, that this trait belongs not to the essentials of the Parable, but to the details of the narrative. So does the promise, with which the now terrified ‘servant,’ as he cast himself at the feet of the King, supported his plea for patience: ‘I will pay thee all.’ In truth, the narrative takes no notice of this, but, on the other hand, states: ‘But, being moved with compassion, the lord of that servant released him [from the bondage decreed, and which had virtually begun with his sentence], and the debt forgave he him.’ 57 A more accurate representation of our relation to God could not be made. We are the debtors of our heavenly King, Who has entrusted to us the administration of what is His, and which we have purloined or misused, incurring an unspeakable debt, which we can never discharge, and of which, in the course of justice, unending bondage, misery, and utter ruin would be the proper sequence. But, if in humble repentance we cast ourselves at His Feet, He is ready, in infinite compassion, not only to release us from meet punishment, but – O blessed revelation of the Gospel! – to forgive us the debt.
It is this new relationship to God which must be the foundation and the rule for our new relationship towards our fellow-servants. And this brings us to the second part, or scene in this Parable. Here the lately pardoned servant finds one of his fellow-servants, who owes him the small sum of 100 dinars, about 4l. 10s. Mark now the sharp contrast, which is so drawn as to give point to the Parable. In the first case, it was the servant brought to account, and that before the King; here it is a servant finding and that his fellow-servant; in the first case, he owed talents, in the second dinars (a six-thousandth part of them); in the first, ten thousand talents; in the second, one hundred dinars. Again, in the first case payment is only demanded, while in the second the man takes his fellow-servant by the throat – a not uncommon mode of harshness on the part of Roman creditors – and says: ‘Pay what,’ or according to the better reading, ‘if thou owest anything.’ And, lastly, although the words of the second debtor are almost the same 58 as those in which the first debtor besought the King’s patience, yet no mercy is shown, but he is ‘cast’ [with violence] into prison, till he have paid what was due. 59
It can scarcely be necessary to show the incongrousness or the guilt of such conduct. But this is the object of the third part, or scene, in the Parable. Here – again for the sake of pictorialness – the other servants are introduced as exceedingly sorry, no doubt about the fate of their fellow-servant, especially in the circumstances of the case. Then they come to their lord, and ‘clearly set forth,’ or ‘explain’ what had happened, upon which the Unmerciful Servant is summoned, and addressed as ‘wicked servant,’ not only because he had not followed the example of his lord, but because, after having received such immense favour as the entire remission of his debt on entreating his master, to have refused to the entreaty of his fellow-servant even a brief delay in the payment of a small sum, argued want of all mercy and positive wickedness. And the words are followed by the manifestations of righteous anger. As he has done, so is it done to him – and this is the final application of the Parable. 60 He is delivered to the ‘tormentors,’ not in the sense of being tormented by them, which would scarcely have been just, but in that of being handed over to such keepers of the prison, to whom criminals who were to be tortured were delivered, and who executed such punishment on them: in other words he is sent to the hardest and severest prison, there to remain till he should pay all that was due by him – that is, in the circumstances, for ever. And here we may again remark, without drawing any dogmatic inferences from the language of the Parable, that it seems to proceed on these two assumptions: that suffering neither expiates guilt, nor in itself amends the guilty, and that as sin has incurred a debt that can never be discharged, so the banishment, or rather the loss and misery of it, will be endless.
We pause to notice, how near Rabbinism has come to this Parable, and yet how far it is from its sublime teaching. At the outset we recall that unlimited forgiveness – or, indeed, for more than the farthest limit of three times – was not the doctrine of Rabbinism. It did, indeed, teach how freely God would forgive Israel, and it introduces a similar Parable of a debtor appealing to his creditor, and receiving the fullest and freest release of mercy, and it also draws from it the moral, that man should similarly show mercy: but it is not the mercy of forgiveness from the heart, but of forgiveness of money debts to the poor, or of various injuries, and the mercy of benevolence and beneficence to the wretched. But, however beautifully Rabbinism at times speaks on the subject, the Gospel conception of forgiveness, even as that of mercy, could only come by blessed experience of the infinitely higher forgiveness, and the incomparably greater mercy, which the pardoned sinner has received in Christ from our Father in Heaven.
But to us all there is the deepest seriousness in the warning against unmercifulness; and that, even though we remember that the case here referred to is only that of unwillingness to forgive from the heart an offending brother who actually asks for it. Yet, if not the sin, the temptation to it is very real to us all – perhaps rather unconsciously to ourselves than consciously. For, how often is our forgiveness in the heart, as well as from the heart, narrowed by limitations and burdened with conditions; and is it not of the very essence of sectarianism to condemn without mercy him who does not come up to our demands – ay, and until he shall have come up to them to the uttermost farthing?