A deacon’s meeting had gotten out of sorts. Tempers flared, temperatures rose, and words got ugly. One deacon tried to calm the group by saying, “I think we should just stop and pray.” Another deacon said, “Has it come to that?” Why is prayer often a last resort as opposed to a first concern? Prayer is never passive. It actually is an active way to solve problems (Matthew 9:35-38).
Luke 18 (toward the end of Luke’s famous travel narrative, 9:51-19:28) begins with two parables dealing with prayer. The second parable concerns humility in prayer (18:9-14). This is really the only parable that Jesus ever told that was religious in content and took place in a “church” (temple) setting. The first parable (our text) concerns persistence in prayer.
The disciples had earlier requested that Jesus teach them to pray (11:1). Now Jesus enjoined them to pray and not give up (lose heart). The context makes it abundantly clear why Jesus gave this teaching. Jesus was nearing Jerusalem and people assumed that the kingdom of God would appear suddenly. Jesus knew that vigilant prayer would be necessary on the part of his disciples for the days ahead and the days of waiting.
Many things can cause disciples to become discouraged. The troubles of this world (John 16:33), the ministry we have to perform (2 Corinthians 4:1), and growing older (4:16) all cause wear and tear on disciples. These challenges are met by being vigilant in prayer.
Inexperienced preaching students sometimes try to clarify their sermon ideas with stories that actually illustrate the opposite of what they are talking about. It is not always ideal. But actually, Jesus does that here. He likens prayers getting answered to a pestered judge. Normally in a parable a judge would play the God role in the story. Here God is not likened to an unjust judge, but he is likened to a judge who acts swiftly. It is the opposite of the character of the judge. Notice the name of the lesson, “The widow and the unjust judge.”
Jesus’ parables always start out in reality before they move to fiction. The situation Jesus posed was real. Widows (“silent ones,” in the Hebrew language, meaning those for whom others had to advocate) could be pretty needy. It is not surprising that Luke, who is interested in God’s wide embrace of all people, included this parable in his Gospel. We are not told the nature of the widow’s problem, but it is possible that she was being taken undue advantage of by creditors who looked on her as helpless (see 2 Kings 4:1-7). She was desperate for help and refused to take no for an answer (see Matthew 15:21-28). What we do know is that she had a very real adversary.
The judge did not deserve his title. He did his job out of obligation—not privilege and helpfulness. He had both vertical and horizontal problems—he did not fear God and he did not respect people. The judge could hold the widow at arm’s length for a season. But soon her persistence wore him down. He acted on her behalf for totally selfish reasons.
God is not like this judge. Jesus called his disciples to learn from the judge, but from the flip side of what he did. In contrast to the apathetic judge there is a proactive God just waiting to answer our prayers. God will defend widows. God will enact justice. God will listen to those who cry out to him. God will not put his people and their requests at bay. God will act quickly.
But does he? Sometimes it certainly does not seem so (Revelation 6:10). We often hear that God is rarely early but never late. But that is not how it seems to us. Our impatience and lack of eternal perspective hinder us from believing that God will act soon. The last verse is as important to the interpretation of this parable as the first verse. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” This is not some disjointed additional teaching. The kind of faith that Jesus is talking about is the faith that shows up in persistent prayer. An active prayer life is evidence of faith. An active prayer life enlists the good judge from above to take up the causes of his people.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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