The relationship between church and state can perhaps best be grasped in the parable of the unrighteous judge:
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!”
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? (Luke 18:1–8)
Had it not been for the widow in this parable, all would have gone on as usual. But she was an obstacle… The church is the widow, placed in the town to carry out her mission. She is poor, without influence and without rights, like the early Christians. She is the little flock described by the prophets as “the remnant of Israel.” She is among the humble celebrated by Mary in her song (Luke 1:46–55). This is the true nature of the church.
But the poor widow is not resigned to her lot. To be sure, she is no revolutionary waiting to overthrow the judge’s authority. She respects his authority even in its injustices, and she appeals to him to grant justice. But she will not give in and does not seek alms. She is oppressed, taken advantage of by her adversary, and seeks justice.
Here is the widow in intimate contact with the unjust state. Is she going to convert the judge, bring the state to repentance, have it confess its fault and fall at the feet of God? No. After a lengthy resistance the judge, thinking the case over, will make an exception. She pesters him, comes back again and again to drive him crazy. To get rid of her, he sees justice done. Does the judge give in merely because he is weary? Does not the worst tyrant feel some mysterious respect for the man or woman of courage?
The judge yields. He does not henceforth adopt the Sermon on the Mount as his norm, yet he gives in on one point. And so other plaintiffs, and the widow herself, will be able to invoke the precedent to obtain justice once again. In this way the church will fulfill its function in society. It will not itself govern, but it is the cornerstone of divine justice, and the state must either build on it or else stumble over it to its own condemnation.
For Jesus the state – the unjust judge – is encircled. Its position is a precarious one between God, who holds it in his hand and judges it from on high, and the church, whose ceaseless prayer will be answered.
Some readers will say this parable was intended merely to show us that we must “always pray and never lose heart.” Indeed we must. But is the prayer that Jesus taught us, “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” simply an affair between God and the individual soul? Is it only concerning their own salvation that the elect cry day and night to God? Is it only for their forgiveness, for assurance of their redemption?
In this parable Jesus speaks of the need for a justice of a far broader kind. He is saying to the church: Pray; pray the prayer I have taught you, that is, claim from God the restoration of justice on the earth, a resounding victory over evil. The church is not just a little flock of souls saved from death and awaiting God’s final judgment of the world.
No, for Jesus the state – the unjust judge – is encircled. Its position is a precarious one between God, who holds it in his hand and judges it from on high, and the church, whose ceaseless prayer will be answered. For the judge will be obliged to yield, so persistent are the widow’s pleas. Our prayer is a lever, its fulcrum God. Bearing down on it with all their weight in the name of divine justice, the believing ones move the mountain of injustice in the world.
The parable ends with a new twist. Yes, it is God who brings about his justice on earth, it is he who makes the claims. However, he will do nothing without his elect. He expects the church to have faith, that is, to intercede below as a forerunner of the divine justice that comes from on high. If justice is not done promptly, if the widow continues to be exploited, if the judge persists in his contempt for God and humanity, if the church remains unheard, then the fault lies in its lack of faith, the mediocrity of its protests, its lack of a true spirit of prayer, and its tendency to compromise with evil and the unjust authorities of the world.
What a strange conclusion. The church, if unfaithful, is no longer compared to the widow suffering injustice, but to the salt of the earth that has lost its savor and is, therefore, responsible for the corruption of the world.