This week’s Gospel lesson has close ties to the scriptures that precede it (17:20-37) and follow it (18:9-14; 19:11-27). There are also close parallels to 11:5-13.
The church of Luke’s day is experiencing persecution and longing for the Parousia (Second Coming), which they expect to vindicate them and to end their suffering. However, the Parousia seems long overdue, and disciples are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their faith.
Jesus’ discourse on the coming of the kingdom addresses those issues (17:20-37). The coming of the kingdom will not be a dramatic, visible event (17:20), but is among you (17:21). Jesus says, “The days will come, when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (17:22)—exactly the situation of the Christians to whom Luke is writing. The disciples are reminded of Jesus’ suffering (17:25), the routine of life in the times of Noah and Lot (17:26, 28), and the events that disrupted that routine (vv. 27, 29). Jesus reassures the disciples that “It will be the same way in the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (17:30).
Our Gospel lesson (18:1-8) continues to address the issues of faith in difficult times, and reassures the disciples that God hears their prayers. It calls us to maintain hope through the darkest of days. It tells us that discipleship is not an easy road, but reminds us that God will vindicate faithful disciples.
The next parable, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14), is also about prayer. Its most significant relationship to the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, however, is the vindication of those who ask for justice (the widow) or mercy (the publican).
Shortly, Jesus will give The Parable of the Ten Pounds (19:11-27) in response to the disciples’ expectation that the kingdom of God will appear immediately (19:11). That parable too promises vindication to those who serve faithfully while waiting. It also promises punishment for “those enemies of mine who didn’t want me to reign over them here” (19:27)—which Luke’s church would interpret to mean those who are persecuting the church.
LUKE 18:1. THE NEED TO PRAY AND NOT TO GIVE UP
1He also spoke a parable to them that they must always pray, and not give up,
This is one of two instances in this Gospel where Luke tells us the purpose of Jesus’ parable before relating the parable itself. The other instance is the next parable (18:9-14).
Prayer is important in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus prays (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 22:41), and sweats drops of blood in the agony of prayer on the Mount of Olives (22:44). He also teaches the disciples about prayer (6:28; 11:1-13; 18:9-14; 19:46; 20:47; 22:40, 46).
The parable that follows tells of the persistent prayer of the widow. More importantly, it tells us of the character of God.
The parable raises a question: Is the purpose of prayer only to bring our hearts into line with God’s will or does it also change God’s mind?
There is no question that persistent prayer—continuing communion with God—reshapes our hearts to God’s original design. Once this happens, clogged channels are cleared to receive God’s mercies.
Of course, we prefer prayer to grant what we ask as we ask it—and quickly. We expect physicians to give instant relief. We expect motion pictures to inspire instant joy or sorrow. We expect technology to provide instant communication. We expect the stock market to bestow instant wealth. But God does not promise instant answers to prayer. Consider it a blessing! Imagine the chaos if God answered every prayer quickly and as asked. A loving God could never give every person unlimited power.
However, this parable seems to teach that God’s will—always good—is swayed by persistent prayer. In Psalm 18:6-16, David recounts how God interceded with earthquakes, smoke, and fire to answer David’s fervent prayer.
LUKE 18:2-5. THE WIDOW AND THE UNJUST JUDGE
2“There was a judge in a certain city who didn’t fear God, and didn’t respect (Greek: entrepomenos) man. 3A widow was in that city, and she often came to him, saying, ‘Defend me from my adversary!’ 4He wouldn’t for a while, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, 5yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out (Greek: hypopiaze) by her continual coming.'”
There is a similar story in Sirach 35:15-25 with which Jesus was probably familiar. If Jesus borrows from that account, he adapts it to fit his purpose.
The judge and widow represent opposite ends of the social spectrum. The judge is the epitome of power—bound by neither jury decisions nor courts of appeal—and the widow is the epitome of powerlessness.
“There was a judge in a certain city who didn’t fear God, and didn’t respect (entrepomenos) man” (v. 2). Moses charged judges to render fair and honest decisions irrespective of the wealth or social standing of the petitioner (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)—but we cannot expect justice from this judge, who does not fear God or respect people.
Fearing God is a positive attribute in both Old and New Testaments. When Jehoshaphat appointed judges over Judah, he counseled them, “Now therefore let the fear of Yahweh be on you. Take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with Yahweh our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of bribes” (2 Chronicles 19:7). Luke has mentioned that God’s “mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him (1:50). When Jesus tells us that this judge does not fear God, we know that the judge is not to be trusted.
Kenneth Bailey says that the word translated “respect” in the NRSV (entrepomenos) has to do with shame-pride and should be translated “has no shame” here. In that time and place, People would have regarded such a shameless man with contempt (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 132). A parallel construct in our culture might be a sociopath—a person without conscience or compassion.
“A widow was in that city, and she often came to him, saying, ‘Defend me from my adversary!'” (v. 3). Widows are symbols of vulnerability in both Testaments. With no means of support, they were dependent their grown children–or on charity (Raymond Bailey, 429).
Because of their vulnerability, the scriptures demand protection for widows:
• God has a special affection for widows, orphans and aliens (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
• Just as God provided relief for the Israelites from their Egyptian captivity, God requires Israel to provide relief for other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17-21).
• Those who fail in this responsibility shall be accursed (Deuteronomy 27:19).
• God will kill the person who abuses widows and orphans, and the abuser’s wives will become widows (Exodus 22:22-24).
• Jesus condemns those “who devour widow’s houses” (20:47).
• The early church provides food for widows (Acts 6:1-6).
• Widows are honored, because of their dependence on God (1 Timothy 5:3-5).
This widow, like the man who demanded bread from his neighbor in the middle of the night (11:5-8), persists in asking. Her feisty character is unusual for a woman in that patriarchal society, but she has the weight of scripture and justice on her side. She dwells on high moral ground, and everyone knows it. This judge would not tolerate this nagging behavior by a man, but even a judge who knows no shame must exercise forbearance in the presence of a woman who enjoys the protection of scripture and the sympathy of the community.
“He wouldn’t for a while” (v. 4a). Perhaps the judge is waiting for a bribe. Perhaps he reserves favorable treatment for wealthier or more influential people. Perhaps he just doesn’t want to be bothered.
“but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming'” (vv. 4b-5). The word translated “wear me out” is hypopiaze—literally “hit under the eye.” While the judge cares nothing for God or man, he recognizes that this woman can create problems for him. There are two possibilities for the judge’s concern:
• One is that he is simply tired of her nagging presence and wants to be rid of her.
• The other is that he might get a “black eye” in the community for mistreating a widow. Some scholars discount this explanation, because Jesus tells us that this judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people” or “has no shame” (v. 2). However, judges tend to be politically astute. This judge might have no respect for people and no sense of shame, but he knows that people expect him to help widows. His continuing refusal to do so could undermine his position in the community—might even cost him his job.
But it makes no difference to our understanding of this parable why this judge gives the woman what she wants. This judge is not a “stand-in” for God. Instead, this parable contrasts this evil judge with our loving God.
LUKE 18:6-8. WON’T GOD AVENGE HIS CHOSEN ONES?
6The Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. 7Won’t God avenge his chosen ones (Greek: elekton), who are crying out to him day and night, and yet he exercises patience with them? 8I tell you that he will avenge them quickly. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
“Won’t God avenge his chosen ones” (eklekton) (v. 7a). Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If the unjust judge will do the right thing for this widow, even if for the wrong reasons, can’t we expect God to do the right thing for us? Can’t we expect a loving God vindicate “his chosen ones”?
The idea of chosen ones (or the elect) is found throughout both Old and New Testaments. God chose Abram and Abram’s descendants, bringing them into a covenant relationship that made Israel to be known as God’s chosen people (Genesis 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 7:6). The New Testament continues this understanding, but with the church as the new people of God–the new elect (Colossians 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 2:9).
“who are crying out to him day and night” (v. 7). This story suggests “that every word of prayer must penetrate to a depth of the heart that can be reached only by unceasing iteration” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together). The passion of those who cry to God day and night reminds us of Jesus’ prayer just before his death. “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44). The Father did not respond by removing the cup of suffering, but by redeeming it.
“he will avenge them quickly” (v. 8a). The widow asks only justice and the judge grants only justice. This parable does not suggest that God writes blank checks. Instead, unceasing prayer grinds away at the sharp edges of our lives until our will is conformed to God’s redemptive purposes, making it right for God to answer our prayers.
God’s justice might not seem quick to us, because God measures time from a broader perspective. Nevertheless, we can be assured that God will vindicate those whom he has chosen.
In difficult times, we hear people say, “The only thing that we can do is to pray”—as if prayer is a weak substitute for meaningful remedies. This parable teaches us that prayer is itself a meaningful remedy—that it engages God’s power, making everything possible.
“and yet he exercises patience with them” (v. 7b). The NRSV reads, “Will he delay long in helping them?”
The Greek is kai makrothumei ep autois—literally “and he is patient or longsuffering with them.”
Most scholars interpret verses 7-8 as Jesus’ promise that he will return quickly. But in his earlier discourse on the coming of the kingdom, Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (17:21), and warned that before the Son of Man can return, “he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (17:25).
“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (v. 8b). This is the point of the parable. Jesus wonders if he will find faith when he returns at the end of time. He implies that persistent faith is possible where there is persistent prayer. The faithful will pray, and their prayers will increase their faith (Evans, 267).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan