Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 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.'” And the Lord said, “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?”
“Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This is one of two instances in this Gospel where Luke tells us the purpose of Jesus’ parable before relating the parable itself. The other instance is the next parable (18:9-14).
Prayer is important in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus prays (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 22:41), and sweats drops of blood in the agony of prayer on the Mount of Olives (22:44). He also teaches the disciples about prayer (6:28; 11:1-13; 18:9-14; 19:46; 20:47; 22:40, 46).
The parable that follows tells of the persistent prayer of the widow. More importantly, it tells us of the character of God.
The parable raises a question: Is the purpose of prayer only to bring our hearts into line with God’s will or does it also change God’s mind?
There is no question that persistent prayer—continuing communion with God—reshapes our hearts to God’s original design. Once this happens, clogged channels are cleared to receive God’s mercies.
Of course, we prefer prayer to grant what we ask as we ask it—and quickly. We expect physicians to give instant relief. We expect motion pictures to inspire instant joy or sorrow. We expect technology to provide instant communication. We expect the stock market to bestow instant wealth. But God does not promise instant answers to prayer. Consider it a blessing! Imagine the chaos if God answered every prayer quickly and as asked. A loving God could never give every person unlimited power.
However, this parable seems to teach that God’s will—always good—is swayed by persistent prayer. In Psalm 18:6-16, David recounts how God interceded with earthquakes, smoke, and fire to answer David’s fervent prayer.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” (v. 2). Moses charged judges to render fair and honest decisions irrespective of the wealth or social standing of the petitioner (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)—but we cannot expect justice from this judge, who does not fear God or respect people.
Fearing God is a positive attribute in both Old and New Testaments. When Jehoshaphat appointed judges over Judah, he counseled them, “Now therefore let the fear of Yahweh be on you. Take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with Yahweh our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of bribes” (2 Chronicles 19:7). Luke has mentioned that God’s “mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him (1:50). When Jesus tells us that this judge does not fear God, we know that the judge is not to be trusted.
Kenneth Bailey says that the word translated “respect” in the NRSV (entrepomenos) has to do with shame-pride and should be translated “has no shame” here. In that time and place, People would have regarded such a shameless man with contempt (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 132). A parallel construct in our culture might be a sociopath—a person without conscience or compassion.
“In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.‘” (v. 3). Widows are symbols of vulnerability in both Testaments. With no means of support, they were dependent their grown children–or on charity (Raymond Bailey, 429).
Because of their vulnerability, the scriptures demand protection for widows:
• God has a special affection for widows, orphans and aliens (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
• Just as God provided relief for the Israelites from their Egyptian captivity, God requires Israel to provide relief for other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17-21).
• Those who fail in this responsibility shall be accursed (Deuteronomy 27:19).
• God will kill the person who abuses widows and orphans, and the abuser’s wives will become widows (Exodus 22:22-24).
• Jesus condemns those “who devour widow’s houses” (20:47).
• The early church provides food for widows (Acts 6:1-6).
• Widows are honored, because of their dependence on God (1 Timothy 5:3-5).
This widow, like the man who demanded bread from his neighbor in the middle of the night (11:5-8), persists in asking. Her feisty character is unusual for a woman in that patriarchal society, but she has the weight of scripture and justice on her side. She dwells on high moral ground, and everyone knows it. This judge would not tolerate this nagging behavior by a man, but even a judge who knows no shame must exercise forbearance in the presence of a woman who enjoys the protection of scripture and the sympathy of the community.
“For a while he refused;” (v. 4a). Perhaps the judge is waiting for a bribe. Perhaps he reserves favorable treatment for wealthier or more influential people. Perhaps he just doesn’t want to be bothered.
“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.” (vv. 4b-5). The word translated “wear me out” is hypopiaze—literally “hit under the eye.” While the judge cares nothing for God or man, he recognizes that this woman can create problems for him. There are two possibilities for the judge’s concern:
• One is that he is simply tired of her nagging presence and wants to be rid of her.
• The other is that he might get a “black eye” in the community for mistreating a widow. Some scholars discount this explanation, because Jesus tells us that this judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people” or “has no shame” (v. 2). However, judges tend to be politically astute. This judge might have no respect for people and no sense of shame, but he knows that people expect him to help widows. His continuing refusal to do so could undermine his position in the community—might even cost him his job.
But it makes no difference to our understanding of this parable why this judge gives the woman what she wants. This judge is not a “stand-in” for God. Instead, this parable contrasts this evil judge with our loving God.
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones” (eklekton) (v. 7a). Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If the unjust judge will do the right thing for this widow, even if for the wrong reasons, can’t we expect God to do the right thing for us? Can’t we expect a loving God vindicate “his chosen ones”?
The idea of chosen ones (or the elect) is found throughout both Old and New Testaments. God chose Abram and Abram’s descendants, bringing them into a covenant relationship that made Israel to be known as God’s chosen people (Genesis 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 7:6). The New Testament continues this understanding, but with the church as the new people of God–the new elect (Colossians 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 2:9).
“who cry to him day and night?” (v. 7). This story suggests “that every word of prayer must penetrate to a depth of the heart that can be reached only by unceasing iteration” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together). The passion of those who cry to God day and night reminds us of Jesus’ prayer just before his death. “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44). The Father did not respond by removing the cup of suffering, but by redeeming it.
“I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” (v. 8a). The widow asks only justice and the judge grants only justice. This parable does not suggest that God writes blank checks. Instead, unceasing prayer grinds away at the sharp edges of our lives until our will is conformed to God’s redemptive purposes, making it right for God to answer our prayers.
God’s justice might not seem quick to us, because God measures time from a broader perspective. Nevertheless, we can be assured that God will vindicate those whom he has chosen.
In difficult times, we hear people say, “The only thing that we can do is to pray”—as if prayer is a weak substitute for meaningful remedies. This parable teaches us that prayer is itself a meaningful remedy—that it engages God’s power, making everything possible.
“Will he delay long in helping them?” (v. 7b). The NRSV reads, “Will he delay long in helping them?”
The Greek is kai makrothumei ep autois—literally “and he is patient or longsuffering with them.”
Most scholars interpret verses 7-8 as Jesus’ promise that he will return quickly. But in his earlier discourse on the coming of the kingdom, Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (17:21), and warned that before the Son of Man can return, “he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (17:25).
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v. 8b). This is the point of the parable. Jesus wonders if he will find faith when he returns at the end of time. He implies that persistent faith is possible where there is persistent prayer. The faithful will pray, and their prayers will increase their faith (Evans, 267).
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