The Parable of the Persistent Widow

Luke 18:1-8

Luke says the lesson of this parable is that people ought always to pray and not lose heart. But for what shall they pray? And on what shall they never give up?

About this time of year, when I was a child, the Sears and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs would come, and I would make my list for Santa Claus. Some look at prayer as something like giving my wish list to God. There is – and always has been – the great religion of “Getting the Gods to Do What I Want.”  Is this the kind of prayer that Luke is talking about?

Let’s look at the parable itself and see what Jesus had to say.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow

There’s a crooked judge. Judges are supposed to be fair, impartial and honest. They’re not supposed to let the rich and powerful just do whatever they want, but throughout Israel’s history there seems to be an ongoing problem with bribes. The prophets are constantly denouncing crooked judges who only thought about themselves when making decisions.

There’s a widow. Widows were usually poor and powerless. There was no social security system. No retirement plan. No survivor benefits. If a widow didn’t have a family member to take care of her, she was in deep trouble. And if some unscrupulous person wanted to take advantage of her weakness – to take away her property – she depended on the judges to set things right.

This woman got the shaft from the legal system – like so many did – but for some reason she didn’t give up. She just kept bugging the judge to make things right. Eventually, just to get rid of her, he gave her what? Justice!

Understanding the Parable

This is one of those “how much more parables.” If this self-centered jerk eventually did the right thing, how much more will God do what is right.

Jesus says that God hears the cries of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night. And what will he give them?  Again, the answer is justice.  That word is the key to understanding what Jesus meant.

At the time Jesus spoke, Rome occupied the land of Israel and ruled with an iron fist. God’s people were politically oppressed, robbed of their property and abused in their homes and in their streets. The Jews prayed to God for deliverance, but the Romans remained.

The collaborators said, “That’s life. Just make the best of it.”

The revolutionaries said, “Get your swords. We fight to the death.”

Jesus said, “Keep praying. Don’t lose heart. Trust God.”

How does that make sense? To the radical reformers, it looks like surrender. To unbelievers, it looks like naïve and groundless optimism.

Jesus’ teaching only makes sense in the light of the cross. God can even bring triumph from tragedy. He can win a victory in a Roman crucifixion. Even if the messiah should die, God has the power to raise him from the dead. God has not surrendered the world to evil, but he will not win his final victory through the power of the sword.

After Jesus was raised from the dead, Christians, too, found themselves suffering for their faith. In the New Testament, persecution of Christians comes to a head in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. Here, too, we find Christians praying justice

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Revelation 6:9-10

How long, O Lord, before you judge the people of the earth? How long before you bring justice to the land?

In the Old Testament and in the New, we find God’s people suffering at the hands of the world. Do you see a common theme here? Do we think the world has changed since then?

What is Justice?

We have a justice system. It gives an approximation of justice in establishing laws, attempting to stop crime, apprehending suspects, holding trials and imposing punishments. It’s a necessary system and I would hate to live without it, but we all know how far from perfect our justice system is.

When I think of justice, I simply think of the question, “What does right look like?” What did God create the world to be? And then I ask myself, “How does our world deviate from that.” This is a wonderful, beautiful world, but it is messed up in so many ways. When I look at the world’s brokenness, it breaks my heart.

Here I see that the world is not simply made up of good guys and bad guys, but that the things that mess up our world have invaded every part of existence. I, myself, am part of the problem. Even nature needs fixing. The apostle Paul calls Death the last enemy to be overcome. Justice is not just a matter of putting the bad people in their place. It’s a matter of repairing everything that’s tragically wrong in God’s wonderful creation.

Learning from Miss America

In a way, I’m asking you to learn a lesson from Miss America contestants. If you could give one thing to the world, what would it be? Her answer is always something like this: establish world peace – end world hunger – make sure all children get an education – and so forth. I want you to want these things more than Miss America wants them. I want you to want them with all your being. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” I think Jesus wants us to mourn for the world’s sorry condition, and to be consumed with a hunger and thirst for things to be made right.

Praying with God’s People

So join God’s people in praying for justice in all its fullness. Pray always, and don’t let the world’s problems make you lose heart.

  • Pray for the victims of crime or violence.
  • Pray for families that are falling apart.
  • Pray for communities where people live in fear or turmoil.
  • Pray for the hungry and oppressed.
  • Pray for the oppressed Christians in the troubled spots of the world.
  • Pray for the parents who watch their children suffer with debilitating disease.
  • Pray for children who watch their parents struggle with the diseases of old age.
  • Pray for those who weep at the graves of their loved ones.

These are the kinds of prayers that Luke is talking about. They are the prayers of those who know that the world is good, but that it is broken and needs God’s mending. They believe God’s promise of the kingdom in Jesus Christ – the good news, remember – and they ask him to bring it into being sooner rather than later.

Praying for the Kingdom

This is just another way of Jesus telling us to pray for the coming of the kingdom. Do we really want that?

There’s an old joke. Get ready to groan. A preacher walks into a children’s Sunday School class and asks the children, “Who wants to go to heaven?” All the children except little Timmy raise their hands. “Timmy, don’t you want to go to heaven when you die?” the preacher asked. “Oh, that’s different,” Timmy replied, I thought you meant who wanted to go today.”

I want you to pray for the coming of the kingdom, and I do mean today. On my first trip to Italy, my group was approached by children begging for handouts. I remember thinking, “What kind of world is this where children beg,” and for the first time realizing what the Lord’s coming would really mean for the world. It turns out the children were pickpockets, not beggars, but that didn’t change my prayer. What kind of world is this where parents send their children out to steal? In a world where children have to be pickpockets, Lord come quickly.

This is what the early church prayed for. The oldest prayer in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 16:22. It’s a single word in Aramaic. Maranatha. Our Lord, come! Jesus will come at the end of the age to make all things new. Death will be swallowed up. Creation will be transformed. The city from heaven will become our home. The kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.

Even as we wait for his appearing, we know that we also see foretastes of the kingdom in our life together – in what Joni Tada called “sneak previews of heaven.” But the thing about a preview is this: it makes you want to see the whole show. When you sample a tiny spoonful of ice cream at Baskin Robbins, it makes you want the full three-scoop bowl.

What a great day it is when God brings remission from cancer to one that is suffering, but what an even more wonderful day it will be God wipes that disease even from our memories. If today is the day of Christ’s appearing, hallelujah, that’s what we’ve been praying for. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

The Lord’s Prayer

Every Sunday we pray together for the coming of Christ’s kingdom to set things right.

Our father … thy kingdom come … thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

We pray to see the kingdom come in small ways in our life in this age, and in all its fullness in the age to come.

We also pray for our basic needs … give us this day our daily bread.

So pray for everything. Nothing is too small. Pray for parking spots. Pray for your ball team. Pray for good weather for outdoor activities. Pray for your finances and your job. We should pray for everything we are involved in.

But most of all, pray for something bigger than yourself. Pray for justice. Pray for the kingdom in all its breadth and depth. Don’t give up on it. Don’t lose heart. It’s been 2000 years, but don’t let that fool you.

Will not God grant justice to His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay to help them? I tell you that He will swiftly grant them justice. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find that faith on earth?

Updated: 20 October 2013

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