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20 October 2019
Luke 18:1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This parable is found only in Luke’s Gospel where it has a parallel in another parable, The Friend at Midnight (see below). Generally, scholars would say that the parable predates Luke. The evangelists has provided a heading in v. 1 and a conclusion in v. 8b. Vv. 6-7ab sound like the comment of an early Christian prophet. The comment is slightly inept because God is equated to the unjust judge. Vv. 7cd-8a sound like a reassurance as people adjust to the delay in the second coming. V. 8b comes from Luke when the expectation of the parousia had relaxed significantly.
Kind of writing
This is a parable, which means that the details cannot be pressed too hard. Usually a parable has a main point to make. In this passage, Luke gives the parable a heading which points us clearly to the message: Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. The “surprise” in the parable is in the strength of character shown by the widow. She is not defenceless, meek and passive—anything but! There is even a possibility (see below) that the judge feels physically threatened by her.
Some “reception history” is embedded in the text. V. 1 comes from Luke. Vv. 6-7 may come from an early Christian prophet, commenting on the parable. God, inappropriately, becomes the unjust judge. V. 8a may represent a stage when the end of time was expected. V. 8b is a more generalised comment by Luke himself, framing the parable.
Old Testament background
(i) Judges were supposed to treat everyone equally, on behalf of the Lord himself:
He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment. Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes. (2 Chronicles 19:5–7)
(ii) Widows and orphans were regarded as especially vulnerable.
You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. (Exodus 22:22)
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. (Deuteronomy 10:17–20)
As a whole, the parable teaches that continual prayer is not simply passive waiting but entails an active, vigorous quest for justice.
New Testament foreground
(i) There is a considerable background to the parable in Luke’s teaching on prayer. Jesus praying: 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:29; 11:1; 22:41, 44-45; 23:46. In particular, he prays before his Baptism, the choosing of the Twelve, asking who do people say he is, the Transfiguration, the Lord’s Supper, Gethsemane and several times on cross. Likewise, Luke shows many people at prayer in this Gospel: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the angels and the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, the disciples and frequently Jesus himself.
(ii) Luke also gives women a high profile in this Gospel: Elizabeth, Mary and Anna (chs. 1-2); a widow whose son had died (ch. 7); a woman in the house of the Pharisee (ch. 7); Mary Magdalene, Johanna, Suzanna and “others” (ch. 8); the woman with the haemorrhage (ch. 8); Jairus’ daughter (ch. 8); a woman in the crowd (11 ch.); the woman bent over for 18 years (ch. 13); the widow at the Temple (ch. 21); the “daughters of Jerusalem” (ch. 23); Women at the cross and burial (ch. 23); Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women on Easter Sunday (ch. 24)
(iii) A good parallel is found in this parable and the comments which follow:
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:5–13)
See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:15–19)
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8–9 NET)
Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honouring one another. Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. (Romans 12:9–12 NET)
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that the faith you share with us may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to you in Christ. I have had great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 1:4–7 NET)
Verse 1 Luke often puts a heading over a parable, so that his meaning would be super clear. The risk of losing heart has a strong resonance today.
Verse 2 Judges were supposed to be even-handed and fair. This judge is three times described as unjust, once by the narrator, once by himself (!) and finally by the Lord. He really was unjust.
Verse 3 The widow is very, very persistent, rather like the friend in Luke 11:5-13.
Verse 4 The change is attitude is marked by a shift to internal monologue, as in the case of the prodigal son (“he said to himself”).
Verse 5 Her persistence bears fruits and he’s afraid of being worn down and exhausted. The word for “wear out” has potentially a shocking force. The basic meaning is to blacken the eye, by striking in the face. It could also have a more simply metaphorical meaning of to bring into submission in constant annoyance. Either way, the woman shows considerable spirit.
Verse 6 The comment by the Lord in 6-7b is really an a fortiori argument, along the lines, “all the more so will God…”. The shock of comparing God’s role to that of judge who requires badgering is defused by this comment. If bad people eventually give in, how much more will God give to his beloved. A comment of St Augustine may help:
Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realise that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it), but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires!
Letter of St Augustine to Proba
Verse 7 It is often thought that lines 7cd were not original but were added in the course of transmission to give an end-time urgency to the parable. This urgency is in some tension with Luke’s theology of time because he foresees a (long?) period of the church before the end.
Verse 8 To bring the teaching into his own worldview, Luke added this last verse. Now is the time to have your faith grow and flourish. It is, of course, a verse that resonates with us today.
Pointers for prayer
1. The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind, but to change ourselves and we can be slow to move. When have you found that persistence in prayer strengthened your faith in the presence of God with you in that struggle?
2. The context of the story may be a concern about the delay in the final coming of the Lord. Have there been times when your persistence in prayer, or action, was eventually rewarded after a period when you had doubts about the outcome? What were the fruits of your persistent prayer?
3. Behind the story lies the final question of Jesus: Who does have faith? Who have been models of faith and trust in God for you? How has that trust been shown in their lives? How is it shown in yours?
Lord, tireless guardian of your people, always ready to hear the cries of your chosen ones, teach us to rely, day and night, on your care.
Support our prayer lest we grow weary. Impel us to seek your enduring justice and your ever-present help. Amen.
Thought for the day
There can be no “part-time” discipleship. Likewise, there can be no part-time prayer. The deep reason behind this is that God loves my whole person and desires all that I am. Constancy in discipleship demands constancy in prayer; and constancy in prayer builds discipleship. In other words, they can be no separation of life and prayer—the goal is the same, the integration of my whole self into the Christian project. However, the relationship is primary. It is not that practical action is more important and prayer helps, but that prayer is more important and how I live is the test of my prayer.
God, who love the human race, your love touches our deepest selves and fills us with joy in believing. Help us to respond to your love in constant prayer and faithful discipleship. Amen.