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The Parable of the Persistent Widow

February 3, 2013, Speaker: Pastor Wilson Tan (Luke 18:1-8) Part of the Luke sermon series, preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Luke, 路加福音

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Sermon on Luke 18:1-8

This parable was told to Jesus’ disciples, after some Pharisees had asked about the kingdom of God in the earlier chapter. Jesus introduces two characters here: 1) an unrighteous judge and 2) a widow who is seeking justice against her adversary. This widow, a victim of social injustice, with no one else to turn to, turns to the one judge who was known to be unrighteous. Ironic, isn’t it? There is almost always a twist in Jesus’ parables. Here, a widow is seeking justice from an unrighteous judge! She had no choice. He was her only hope for justice.

It was intentional for Jesus to identify the widow as a main character in this parable. The mention of a widow puts every Jew into an alert! From a very young age, every Jew was taught to care and protect the needy in their community: widows, orphans and aliens. We are told in Exodus and Deut, “Justice must not be denied to the widow (Ex. 22:22-24; Dt. 24:17 LXX; 27:19)” (Tannehill, 263). A widow would have lost the protection and economic support of her late husband. She is “likely to be poor and vulnerable to exploitation” (Tannehill, 263). Without a husband, the responsibility to take care of her falls on the entire people of God.

But in this parable, the responsibility for her well-being fell on one person, an unrighteous judge (v. 6) who neither feared God nor respected man. A powerful and evil man. A man who believes only in himself. He has absolutely no regard for God or man. He cares only for himself. He prides himself above everyone and everything. A self-made man. The widow who lost the voice of her husband to speak for her, needed the judge to speak justice on her behalf.

The judge did not give in to her request easily or immediately. We were told that she was beating him down with her “continual coming”. Day after day, night after night (colloquial), she would come to his house and beg for justice. “For a while he refused” (v.4), but because of her persistence, the unrighteous judge relented and gave in to her demands. It was not by merit of her case that led to her reprieve. But rather it was her constant persistent plea to seek justice that made the unrighteous judge act justly. He acted “justly” out of his own convenience. Out of his own selfish reason. He simply did not want to be further disturbed.

What lessons can we learn from this parable? I believe that there are two main ones to consider.

Persistence in prayer
The first lesson we draw from this parable is a persistence in prayer. This was stated clearly in the first verse. Jesus told this parable to his disciples, “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (v.1). The distinguishing characteristic of this widow is not her poverty but her persistence. The widow was persistent in asking for justice, she got what she asked for, even though the judge was unrighteous. But does this mean that we will get everything we pray for? It doesn’t matter, what we pray for, as long as we are persistent enough, God will give it to us? What exactly is this persistence in prayer about?

I believe that this prayer here is not referring to a daily general prayer of petition. It is not about asking for our daily needs or wants. Strictly speaking, it is a prayer for justice. But even with that, I believe that it is more than just a prayer of justice. We have to consider the context of this parable. We need to know why Jesus mention this parable to his disciples in the first place. This parable is closely linked to its preceding chapter: Luke 17:20-37.

Here, the Pharisees were asking Jesus questions about the end times. They asked Jesus when would the kingdom of God come, to which Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed” (Luke 7:20). The kingdom of God will come when least expected. The Pharisees were concerned with their own salvation. They want to know when the kingdom of God will come so that they could be well prepared for it. But Jesus tells them that this is not the way. No one will know when the kingdom of God will come. The kingdom of God is not a physical place. It is among you. That means that the kingdom of God is already here among us! We cannot simply prepare for it in the future! We need to prepare for it now!

We live in the end times. The kingdom of God is already here and Jesus knows that the disciples will face dark and difficult days ahead. This is precisely why Jesus tells his disciples that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart (v.1).” The Message writes “to pray consistently and never quit” and the KJV, “always to pray, and not to faint.”

The KJV translation stands out! To stop praying is to faint! We faint when there is not enough oxygen in our brains. We faint when we are tired, over-work, something goes haywire in our body. When we stop praying, we dry out. Persistent prayer is like constantly waiting upon the Lord, like in Isa. 40:31,

“But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Prayer of faithfulness
But what exactly was Jesus asking his disciples to pray about? Technically, Jesus does not specify the content of one’s prayer here, but from the context of the kingdom of God, I believe that this prayer is a prayer of faithfulness. The prayers as advocated here are not prayers about general living petitions, but rather, kingdom-specific prayers. And I am not saying that praying for our daily needs is not important. They are, just not highlighted in this parable. I am saying that the call for persistent prayer here specifically refers to a kingdom-minded prayer of faithfulness. Simply put, “Lord, may you find us faithful.” It is a prayer of watchfulness. The disciples are asked to be watchful and faithful because we are all living in the end times.

Jesus does not tell us exactly how to pray this prayer of faithfulness. Neither does he give any formulae to how one should pray. He simply says “always to pray and not lose heart.” Just keep on praying, don’t give up talking to God, even when all things fail. Prayer here must be understood from the context of discipleship faithfulness.

Praying is breathing. When we stop breathing, we die. Likewise, when we stop praying, we also die, spiritually. Praying is our life-line. When we stop praying, we lose connection with our Father. We are isolated, alone and lost. When the recent M1 telecommunication broke-down for 3 days, I was very frustrated. I could not message or call my wife when I was waiting to pick her up from work. Couldn’t check my Facebook updates. Emails were sporadic. I couldn’t connect with my family or friends and they also could not connect with me. I was, for three days, disconnected with the world. I felt isolated, alone and lost.

Our prayer of faithfulness does not grant us salvation for salvation comes from Christ alone. Faithfulness only keeps us safe in Jesus’ embrace. Think of faithfulness as falling in love. When we are in love, we remain faithful. When we are unfaithful, we fall out of love. Faithfulness in Christ is staying in love with Christ. Faithfulness is not working to gain love from Christ. This love is already given to us all. Freely given, but not without a cost. Faithfulness is simply staying in love with our Savior.

Staying faithful requires hard work. Keeping love alive requires hard work. To stay in love, we need to stay connected with our love ones. Sometimes, through emotional connection. Sometimes, through physical connection. We need to stay connected with Jesus all the time. This is the reason for the message of persistent prayer. Prayer is connection with Jesus. Persistent prayer is constant communication with Jesus. When we are connected, our hearts’ desires are one with God’s. In prayer, we know God and God knows me. We belong to God.

This parable is primarily an encouragement for the disciples. The time is coming for them to face great persecution, great injustice. Like the widow, the disciples will soon experience great despair. But there is hope. Look, even the widow was granted justice by an unrighteous judge.

6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. (Luke 18:6-8)

Pursuit of justice
Here lies the deeper meaning in the parable. It is not just a lesson in persistent prayer, rather it is a parable that is concerned with the pursuit of justice. The widow’s persistence in prayer was for a specific purpose: justice against her adversary. Nothing was mentioned about the crimes of her adversary. Nonetheless, after some persistence and delay, the unrighteous judge gave her justice. But in vv. 6-8, Jesus tells us that God will give justice to his elect speedily.

Now, the focus has shifted from the widow to God. Looking deeper, this parable is actually about God – a God of justice. Unlike the unrighteous judge who gave justice out of his own convenience, we have a far greater and just God who gives justice to his elect. While the unrighteous judge was slow in his giving, God will give justice speedily. Speedily does not refer to the speedy end of injustice on earth. But it refers to the eventual justice in heaven. Speedily does not mean “immediately”, but rather, “definitely” or “truly.” God will truly and definitely give justice to the elect. Seen in the context of the kingdom of God, the elect will be given justice at the Final Judgment. During that time, justice will be served most “definitely.”

The argument in this parable is fairly easy to understand. It contains a “lesser to greater” argument (a minore ad maius). “If a corrupt judge, unconcerned about human need and divine law, would grant an insistent widow justice just to get rid of her, how much more will God, the righteous judge, speedily vindicate his elect when they cry to him” (Talbert, 197-8). Beneath the message of a persistent prayer life, I believe it is also a message about God’s faithfulness. We worship a God who hears our prayers and acts justly. We worship a much bigger God than the unrighteous judge in the parable. God will give justice to his elect.

But here we are confronted with another question. Who are the elect (v. 7) whom Jesus was referring to? I believe that the elect refers to those who remain faithful when the Son of Man comes. I believe that they refer also to “faith” in v. 8.

“when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v. 8)

This is quite a thought provoking question! Why did Jesus ask such a strange question at the end of his parable? Again, we need to return to the preceding chapter which speak about the coming of the kingdom of God. The Pharisees asked “when?” Jesus tells them, “Now!” Now is the time to be faithful! Now is the time to start praying! And do not stop praying, for if you do, you will lose heart and be discouraged. The entire parable lies in the context of preparing the disciples for end times. Jesus was talking about prayer in the context of the kingdom of God. The need for persistence prayer is necessary because the disciples are living in dark and difficult days of the end times. The disciples will be persecuted, faced great injustice, just like the widow. But fear not! They come to a Judge who is righteous and just, unlike the one in the parable. He will give justice to his faithful believers. They are the ones whom Jesus will find to be faithful when he comes again. They are the ones who persisted in their faith and prayer.

So, will Jesus find “the faithful” on earth when he comes again? I say yes. Who are they? They are the elect. And who are the elect? They are the ones who were faithful. And who will remain faithful? They are the ones who stayed connected to God through persistent prayer. Will praying save you? No, praying keeps us connected to God. Praying does not save us, only Jesus will.

Contemporary Significance:
Sometimes we wonder if our prayer is effective. Sometimes, God does not seem to be listening to us. Maybe we think we are not good enough or not spiritual enough and so God does not listen to our prayers. Many Christians feel themselves as failures, especially in their prayer life. If you do not know what to pray for, may I suggest, pray for the sick, the needy in the world. Pray for justice to be done. Allow me to end the sermon with these two summary points.

Firstly, God listens to us, our prayers, ALL THE TIME. Even if they are not good prayers, not spiritual prayers, not even kingdom-minded prayers. That is not the point. The point is, God wants to connect with us in anyway we can. Like the widow, we should be encouraged by her persistence. Never give up! Just keep on praying.

The second point I wish to share is this: God is righteous and just. When confronted with great injustice in our lives, do not lose heart. God knows how much you have suffered in your lives. When confronted with great difficulty, like bringing your case before an unrighteous judge, do not give up! Fear not, for God is always with you. Keep calm and pray. It is through great endurance and patience that we learn to be more dependent on God. Less of me, more of Him. Just keep on praying.

So, the take-home message from this parable is this. God listens to your every prayer. God will grant us justice at the end of it all. Pray at all times. Pray alone. Pray with your loved ones and family. Pray with your church. Pray with your non-Christian friends, if they do not mind. Remember: Prayer is Life! Just keep on praying. May God continue to teach us to be faithful in our prayer life. Let us pray.

• Talbert, Charles H., Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (Smyth & Helwys, 2002)
• Bartholomew, Craig G (eds), Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation (Zondervan, 2005)
• Jeffrey, Lyle David, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke (Brazos Press, 2012)
• Ryken, Philip Graham, Reformed Expository Commentary: Luke Vol. 2: Chapters 13-24 (P&R Publishing, 2009)
• Gonzalez, Justo L., Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)

Luke 18:1–8 (Listen)

18:1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”