The Parable of the Persistent Widow
In the light of Jesus' teaching about his Second Coming, he gives this parable to encourage us to be persistent in prayer.
In the light of Jesus' teaching about his Second Coming, he gives this parable to encourage us to be persistent in prayer.
Hello, and welcome to Series 10 and Episode 3, ‘The Parable of the Persistent Widow’. We're in Luke 18: 1 - 8, which we'll read shortly.
Introduction and Recap
If you've been following through the beginning of Series 10 and the end of Series 9, you'll know that we are in that period of time when Jesus is on the long journey from his home territory in Galilee in the north, to Jerusalem. He's travelling around from place to place. For much of the time, our story is carried forward by Luke and John who give us the majority of material in this particular period of time. We've been in Luke's Gospel in the last couple of episodes and they're quite significant, particularly the episode that comes immediately before this, Episode 2, which is very closely connected.
Going back two episodes, we saw that Jesus was travelling around in the border between Galilee and Samaria, and there was a remarkable healing of ten lepers. After that, with some unknown time gap, comes a question from the Pharisees. It's directly connected to our text in a way which is often not noticed. As always with reading the Gospels, context gives us a much more accurate sense of meaning of the things that happen, and that Jesus teaches. Context is going to help us here very much. I'm always keen to read the Gospel narratives as a flow of events and not allow the chapter divisions, for example, to hinder us from seeing the connections.
Going back to that episode, which is Luke 17: 20 to 37, the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about the Kingdom of God: when is the Kingdom of God coming? How do we know that it's coming? Jesus spoke to them saying, ‘The Kingdom of God, in one sense, has already arrived, through his presence, through his discipleship community, through salvation, through miracles.’ Then he spoke to his disciples and said, in more detail, that there was a first coming and a second coming, and this is the time in Jesus' ministry when it's becoming increasingly clear about the concept of a return to earth that Jesus will make, at some unknown time in the future. We call it the Second Coming and we call Jesus' earthly ministry his first coming. In the passage that we just looked at, in the last episode, Jesus made a number of points which link with the passage that we are going to study now. He made the point that the disciples are going to live in the time between the first coming and the Second Coming. They won't experience the Second Coming in their earthly life. He also makes the point that the Second Coming will be totally different from the first one. The first one comes through his earthly ministry, bringing salvation, bringing the offer of God's grace and love to people, which they can voluntarily accept or not.
The Second Coming is going to be a public event, known to all of humanity who live on the earth at that particular time. It'll be at an unknown time and it'll be a coming in power, and authority, and judgement, which will lead to a final division of humanity between those who believe in Jesus the Messiah, and those who don't. It's going to be a very sudden event that will not be anticipated by human society in general, rather like in the days of Noah and the flood - the forthcoming flood; no one anticipated there'd be universal flood while Noah was building the Ark. A bit like in the times of Lot in the Old Testament, no one anticipated when Lot left his home in the city of Sodom that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed by God's divine judgement immediately afterwards, without any survivors. This is the teaching that Jesus has been giving to his disciples in the passage that we've just looked at in the last episode.
One of the implications of that passage is working out how disciples of Jesus should live their lives, knowing that they're living between the first coming and the Second Coming. That's a fundamental skill of Christian discipleship. We need to keep our eyes on the first coming; what did it mean? What did the Gospel mean? What is salvation? What is atonement? What is forgiveness? How can we be born again? How can we experience the power of the Spirit and God's miraculous gifts? How can we build the Church and develop the mission of the Church? All that's to do with the first coming. The Second Coming is to do with the finalisation of this age, of the cosmos, and the bringing in of a new age of the Kingdom, where evil will be removed. How do we live in the middle of those two things? That's quite a difficult, creative tension because, to some extent, we experience the power of the Kingdom now but we also experience a lot of darkness in this world - a lot of human evil, a lot of brokenness, a lot of poverty, a lot of conflicts, a lot of difficulties in the natural world, a lot of difficulties with food supply, a lot of danger with warfare in the world. So many things - disease and decline - and the Church is caught up in all this. We can't escape the reality of those things around us. They affect us to some considerable extent, sometimes very drastically, and yet, we believe in God's Kingdom, and we believe that Jesus is going to come again. How do we live with faith when we're waiting for something that hasn't yet happened? We're waiting for the return of Christ where he'll overturn all the evil forces and human sinfulness that causes difficulties for us as disciples of Jesus. How do we live in that context? That's the question that arises from that previous passage that we studied in the last episode. The answers to that question are not given within the passage.
One of the answers to that question is in this parable, and that's why it's interesting to connect the two, and helps us to understand what Jesus is talking about. Let's turn to Luke 18. We're going to read the parable through and then think about the significance. Verse 1,
‘Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them they should always pray and not give up.’Luke 18:1, NIV
Notice in this translation, the NIV, and in many other translations too, it starts with ‘Then’. The word in Greek suggests a connection in time and theme between this parable and the previous passage. In other words, that question we were left with, ‘How do we live when we're waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God when Jesus comes again?’ That question that we're thinking about, has a partial answer in this story and this parable.
Let's read it through, starting at verse 1 again. Luke 18: 1 - 8.
‘Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 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 what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see she gets justice, so that she won't eventually come and attack me!’” And the Lord said, “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 earth?”’Luke 18:1-8, NIV
The Corrupt Judge
Let's think about the story. In the ancient world the judge had huge power. The judicial system or process was immensely influential in society. That was definitely true in ancient Israel where legal rulings, locally and regionally, were very important, especially in matters of dispute between citizens in the community. Here we have a judge who is corrupt. Some of you know what I mean by that - a corrupt judge - plenty of them around in today's world. This judge was totally selfish. He didn't seriously make any attempt to follow the law and bring about justice for people. He didn't believe in God and he didn't really care about what happened to people. In other words, he lived for himself. The description is very stark, very strong - that's the sort of person we're talking about. The responsibility of judges, legal officers, is to uphold the law. They're there, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of society, to keep the stability of society secure by making sure that justice is done, laws are followed, and criminals are punished. He had no intention of doing that. He didn't really care what happened to people. His judgements were arbitrary and presumably he could be bribed because if he was selfish, he'd be open to bribing. Many of us know that bribery is hugely corrosive to society. It brings terrible corruption, and injustice, and double standards into all parts of society, not least the legal system, which is the situation described here.
The Persistent Widow
We have a widow in his community. We don't know anything about her, except this very simple fact, she's got an enemy, an adversary, someone who's making a claim against her. We can imagine what this might be: it might be something to do with the property, claiming her property; someone might be claiming that she's insulted them in the marketplace and deserves to be punished. Who knows what the claim was? Someone had taken offence at her, taken against her, and was wrongly accusing her of illegal and unjust actions. It's interesting in the story that the person in question is a widow. A widow is particularly vulnerable, because in ancient Jewish society, it was the responsibility of her husband to protect her and that would include representing her in the legal process. But he's died. There's no man there, and in those days that gender distinction really mattered before the law. A woman's testimony wasn't always considered to be as reliable as a man's testimony anyway. So she was in a hugely vulnerable position. Someone was wrongly accusing her of something. It was a persistent claim and she could not get any protection. She couldn't get protection from her family; we assume based on the fact she was a widow, and she couldn't get any protection from the legal system because the judge didn't really care about her case, and wasn't prepared to intervene. He dismissed it every time she came.
She would arrive, perhaps at his home, certainly at the place where he would carry out legal judgements, and she'd be standing there calling to him, interfering with other things that are going on, walking nearby when he's walking, asking him to intervene, speaking to him, calling to him, demanding action. That's the sort of scenario that Jesus wants us to imagine in our minds that is taking place here. Then the judge has a change of mind, not based on any good motive whatsoever. Quite frankly he's just fed up with her. She's just a hassle and he's genuinely afraid that she's getting so agitated she might even physically attack him. So, he says, ‘I'll give her justice.’ That's interesting, isn't it? That means he knows that she is being wrongly treated, but he's not prepared to do anything about it. So, this unjust judge finally relents and he gives her what she wants. He gives her a good judgement and gets her opponent, or adversary, out of the way, rules against him. That's the implication of the story.
The significance of this is that Jesus compares the unjust judge with the totally just, righteous, and good God of Israel, and says, ‘If the unjust judge can, under pressure, do the right thing, how much more will God himself protect his own people?’
“Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?”Luke 18:7, NIV
The Meaning of the Parable
There's several things that we need to say about this story, to give a little more meaning to it. I've already mentioned the fact that it's about having faith, active faith, in the time between the first and the Second Coming, hence the expression in the last sentence, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This is a reference to Jesus' Second Coming. Will people still be following him? Will they be trusting him? Will they be active disciples, or will they have given up because they're waiting? The widow didn't give up because she waited; she carried on and on, until she got justice. One dimension of this story that's implied, is that ‘God's chosen ones’, to use Jesus' expression, disciples of Jesus, are facing an evil enemy, even a demonic enemy, even the forces of darkness are against us, and will have to be overcome.
The main point of this parable is very clear, and we know that parables are designed to have one main point and our interpretation of them is always strongest when we've identified what that one main point is, and we focus on that and build our understanding around that point. The point is obvious - perseverance in prayer is a vital discipline of an active and mature Christian. That perseverance is based on the fact that we know the end of the story. We know that Jesus will come again. He'll overturn all darkness and evil. All human societies that resist the faith will be overturned, will be judged. But we need to be persistent in calling on God to help us in the intervening period, when those evil powers and evil societies are still active, and often very hostile to the Church community, in the same way that this judge was hostile to this widow. He didn't have any feeling for her whatsoever, any concern for her, she was just an irritant to him. He didn't want to see her again. So we face opposition, and some of you will know what that means in your own lives. This teaching today is given to you to strengthen you. One of my prayers is that this particular message will strengthen those who are living life under pressure, like this widow was living under the pressure of injustice.
Persistence in Prayer
I want to think about this theme of persistence. The point is made very simply and clearly in the parable. But then it occurs to me that this is not the first time that Jesus has spoken on this subject. It comes up in his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke's Gospel it comes up particularly in Luke 11 where Jesus teaches about the Lord's Prayer, and then he tells a very vivid story which is very closely connected to the theme of our parable here, and I want to link the two together, to strengthen the teaching on this point. Luke 11: 5 - 8. Jesus tells a story to illustrate how we should be praying.
‘"Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need."’Luke 11:5-8, NIV
Some of you will remember us studying this passage in Series 8 Episode 10. I'm not apologising for repeating some of the material here because it's so closely connected to what we are talking about. The situation is one of great difficulty. How do you persuade somebody who's locked up in bed late at night to open the door? It's something we always are reluctant to ask anyone to do in our communities. This man continued knocking until he could get his friend to give him the food that he needed to give to his guests who were arriving. Luke describes in verse 8 his attitude as 'shameless audacity’, shameless boldness, sheer boldness. He pushed through, he called, he knocked, until the door opened. Jesus goes on in Luke 11: 9
‘"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you'll find; knock and the door be opened to you."’Luke 11:9, NIV
As I mentioned in Series 8 Episode 10, the verb ‘ask’ has a sense of asking with urgency; the word ‘seek’ has a sense of trying to get something from someone with urgency; the word ‘knock’ has a sense of knocking persistently. Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Then he goes on to say that if we ask God, "How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
I'm drawing a comparison between these two passages for an obvious reason. They've got the same theme of persistence. In this period between the first coming of Jesus and the Second Coming, disciples are going to need to be persistent in their praying, seeking God to intervene when pressures and difficulties come from many quarters. This parable tells us that God will reward our perseverance, and our insistence on asking his help, and his intervention, in the same way that the widow's determination led to a change in her circumstances, and a breakthrough in terms of the oppression she was experiencing, at the hands of her opponent or adversary.
There's some reflections I want to make as I draw the threads together of this very important parable. My belief is that earnestness in prayer is a characteristic of mature discipleship. I want to ask you the question, do you set aside time to pray individually and do you pray together with other people? Do you persist with the things that you're asking God for, bearing in mind that sometimes it takes time for his answers to come, as with the widow? It didn't happen immediately, she kept on asking.
My second observation is to suggest that we should be encouraged by the fact that God always listens to our prayers. He isn't like the unjust judge who tried to ignore the pleas of the widow, until he just couldn't ignore it any longer. No, our God is listening. My conviction is that he hears your prayers and he prepares an answer to your prayers, often far in advance of the answer actually coming, but he remembers the things that you prayed in the past and he'll often answer your prayer sometime in the future. He's always listening and he always remembers. God answers perseverance by intervention, but not always in the way that we anticipate. He doesn't promise us an easy life, and I think I've made that point clear when I've been describing Jesus' teaching on discipleship, particularly in recent series when we've been looking at the material in Luke's Gospel on this matter. Our fundamental conviction should be that God will overturn the strategies of our spiritual enemies in the heavenly places, and as represented by humans, if we put our trust in him, pray to him, and ask him for his divine intervention. That's what God wants to find within us. This is not to say that we may not go through some very hard and difficult times. We will, but even in difficult times that perseverance is storing up blessings for the future. That's why this passage helps to shed some light on what Jesus meant when he says in the Lord's Prayer that we should pray, calling out to God the Father, and pray for his Kingdom to come. Let me read the version given in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6: 9 onwards.
‘“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”’Matthew 6:9-10, NIV
That's an incredibly important prayer. It's describing the desire that God's will is done on the earth now, and in the immediate future, but it's also describing the belief that God's will is going to be done on the earth fully at the time of the Second Coming. "Your Kingdom come," at the time of the Second Coming. What we're doing now, as we are faithful to God and pray in difficult circumstances, is we're winning battles that are all part of a process of preparing for him to come again. I want to encourage you to be positive and proactive in prayer, not to give up when things are difficult. Remember the widow. Remember the man whose friend called on him and needed hospitality, and he went to his other friend knocked on his door, even late into the night, and knocked and knocked until he opened up to give him some food to share with his new guests. Remember these people, remember their attitude, and seek to cultivate a similar attitude. I recommend specific times of prayer, I recommend praying with other people in a very focused way, and I recommend always using the Lord's Prayer as a framework for your own personal prayers. I found this to be an invaluable discipline in my life, as I've mentioned in previous episodes, and it comes to mind again now as a helpful thing to say in the context of this remarkable and powerful parable of the persistent widow. Thanks for listening.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What do you feel about the widow? Would you have answered her?
- Do you pray regularly and persistently like the widow in the parable? What was good about it?
- How could you improve your prayer life?
- Revisit Series 8 Episode 10 or read Luke 11:5 - 9 to compare Jesus’ teaching with this passage.