The Unjust Judge
In a certain city there was a judge... [and] In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent." For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming." (Luke 18:3-6)
In this parable, we have a common theme of Jesus: a marginalized, vulnerable character contrasted with a privileged, powerful one. In the contemporaneous Jewish society, the widow would have no social support from her family, as that would have come from her late husband, and none from her employer or trade, as she would not have been allowed to work. So she had little power with which to pressure the judge.i It is also one of the more shocking images used by Jesus.
It is not a Kingdom parable, or at least the preceding explanation (v. 1) says it teaches persistent prayer, but the reason many readers find it shocking is that it is followed by words from Jesus—words that imply that the disrespectful judge represents God:
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…. (Luke 18:7-8a)
Did Jesus really believe in a God who is so anthropomorphic that he would answer the prayers of people simply to avoid them bothering Him? That seems unlikely. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus acknowledged a familiar philosophical problem with prayer, that God “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). But a bigger worry about this judge image is that if God is a loving father, as Jesus often says, wouldn't He want to help people regardless of whether they bothered Him about it? Indeed, that would be the natural conclusion from the central ethical teaching of the Sermon (with which we shall be concerned in the next part).
The solution is to avoid assuming that the parable is meant as an allegory where the judge represents God, and instead to attend to Jesus's explanation with a philosopher's eye. A logical argument is implicit there: Because even an unjust judge would answer our pleas for justice, then we know a fortiori that a loving God would do so.ii In his preceding parable on prayer, Two Friends at Midnight, Jesus uses humor while making the same argument: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12, also used in the Sermon: Matt. 7:9-10). While Jesus uses an argument to teach persistence in prayer, in the Book of Genesis it was symbolized by Jacob enduring a whole night wrestling with God (32:22-32). And although this may be unappealing for those who do not believe in God, Jesus's advocacy of the widow's use of persistence as the only power she has recourse to against the powerful promotes virtues of courage and hope that all can admire.
C. S. Lewis cited the use of arguments such as this as evidence that Jesus was a philosopher. While for a poet "the medium is the message," anyone who has read Kant or Derrida knows that it is only the quality of the message itself that philosophers are concerned about. Hence for Lewis it was more telling that, despite many people preferring to see Jesus as a poet, he did not have the poet's sensibility of the truth only being expressed in what is beautiful.iii As we've seen from these surprising images of the divine, Jesus taught that God's Kingdom is present throughout the pure and the impure, the beautiful and the ugly alike.
Back to Prudence
I began my look at shocking images by discussing the authenticity of the Assassin (Thom. §99), one of the parables I believe teaches prudence. If we should not make use of it, the synoptic gospels still have at least three passages where Jesus teaches prudence in different aspects: the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-9), the Foundation (Luke 6:46-49), and the Narrow Gate (Matt. 7:13-14). This establishes that prudence was an important virtue in Jesus's morality, which in turn evinces the aptness of locating this morality within the tradition of virtue ethics.
Yet it was not only because prudence is a foundational, cardinal virtue that I decided to analyze it first. It is also because of the contrast that can now be drawn between this virtue, which your typical secular philosopher might endorse, and the radical interpersonal and social teaching of Jesus, which often requires actions that appear to be imprudent or downright foolish. Jesus's commands in the Sermon are key examples of this—and will be analyzed in the next part—but there are several examples in the parables, also. The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) condemns what appears to be a prudent act, and as discussed in the podcast, the Treasure and the Pearl (Matt. 13:44-6) and the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-6) seem to commend single-minded pursuit of goals to a foolhardy extent, subjecting the protagonist's entire livelihood to great risk.
This leads the philosopher Don Cupitt to conclude that Jesus did not straightforwardly commend the virtue of prudence, but also stressed the necessity to make room for imprudence in certain situations. Cupitt says this is because, for Jesus,
we are not ethical beings at all unless we are capable when the occasion calls for it of rising above the law and responding with an immediate, unthinking, 'ecstatic' generosity to a fellow human being in need or distress.iv
Whereas prudence is an intellectual virtue that involves reasoning out one's conscience, what Jesus urges (as if against Kant) is that we must also act from sensitivity to our emotions, if we are to be truly loving. Giving the example of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24) who trusts his son despite the lack of evidence that he has changed his ways, the novelist Francis Spufford characterizes the imprudent generosity encouraged by Jesus as “a love that is radically unprotected on purpose, and is never going to stop to ask.”v
Jesus's story about investment, the Talents1 (Matt. 25:14-30), presents us with a synthesis that resolves some of the tension between the prudent and imprudent aspects of his message. Jesus apparently commends both the prudence of the investors for their effective means of achieving their goals, and within these means, their willingness to take great risks and (shockingly) to accept the scandal and impurity of moving beyond the law (which prohibited lending at interest). O'Collins comments that Jesus's morality therefore is “for those who are not afraid to be losers, those who are not nervous about losing their gifts, those who are not afraid to let their talents come out into the open.”vi Jesus encourages his followers to find freedom in choosing a fearless, adventurous life in pursuit of ideals.
Ultimately, Jesus was not incoherent in commending both prudence and imprudence because he applied them to different situations. Prudence is the general rule for reaching our day-to-day goals, but more important is that when we have an encounter with an "Other" in need, or are faced with another moral crisis, we should follow our emotions rather than our reason. I'd like to unpack this with an analogy. There's a Christian story where Jesus's father teaches him: “see everything twice Jesus. See it with your eye and then with your heart.” The wisdom there may be expressed in a contemporary secular sense in terms of the psychology of the the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains that the left brain has evolved so that we can give our attention to particulars and see them in detail, and it is in this sense I say that it is like the eye. And although the notion of an absolute divide between the functions of the hemispheres has now been consigned to pseudoscience,2 the right brain does tend to be behind perceptions that are more holistic, meaningful, and affective—and so is like the heart. In his seminal 2009 book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist makes a persuasive case against western culture's historic privileging of left-brained thinking (similar to Derrida's charge of logocentricism, or the claims of difference feminists like Carol Gilligan), arguing that we must be mindful of the means of attending to the world provided by both brains if civilization is to meet its challenges and improve. From what we know of Jesus's moral teaching, he commends a similar message to individuals: do not be too quick to judge people by sight, nor too slow to open your heart to them.3
1 Importantly, as was noted on the podcast, a "talent" here is not an ability or even a gift, but refers to a weight in silver worth 16 years of average wages for Jesus's contemporaries. Confusingly, the parable does also refer to people being given tasks and then rewards in regard to their own particular abilities, abilities that coincidentally in English may also be referred to as their talents or gifts.
2 Likewise in the conceptual realm, I don't believe there's an absolute divide between reason and emotion. Affective states are often rational and cognitive, and they are certainly not irrational by their nature as has often been assumed. Cf. Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge.
3 Many readers will also be familiar with Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), and it is fascinating to ponder the connections between the speed of judgment, its qualitative dimensions as left- or right-brained, and its moral implications.
i O'Collins, (1999), p. 133
ii O'Collins, (1999), p. 134
iii C. S. Lewis, (2004), Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. II, Harper, San Francisco, p. 191. Cited in Kreeft, (2007), pp. 4–5. Cf. Keats, John, , 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', v. 49.
iv Cupitt, (2009), p. 33
v Spufford, (2012), p. 131
vi O'Collins, (1999), p. 97
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Cupitt, Don, (2009), Jesus and Philosophy, SCM Press, London
Kreeft, Peter, (2007), The Philosophy of Jesus, St. Augustine's Press, Indiana
McGilchrist, Iain, (2009), The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press
O'Collins, Gerald, (1999), Following the Way: Jesus Our Spiritual Director, Harper Collins, London
Spufford, Francis, (2012), Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Faber & Faber, London