Pray, and Don’t Lose Heart: Thoughts on the Parable of the Persistent Widow

Sir John Everett Millais (British, Southampton 1829–1896 London)

This post is a reflection on the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unrighteous Judge in Luke 18.  But before considering this parable, I’d like to start by reflecting upon a Psalm:

O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.  Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!  For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.  I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.  You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you.  Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah

Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?  Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?  But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.  O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?  Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.  Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.  They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.  You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.

More astute readers of the bible may recognize this as Psalm 88, a Psalm that is unique in the entire book of Psalms in that there’s no silver lining in the distress expresses by the psalmist.  It is a bleak Psalm, one of desperation and struggle and questioning, much like periods of life that I’ve experienced, when the silence of God thunders its loudest.

I find the Psalms to be an amazing book of scripture, capturing with raw authenticity the full range of human emotion.  Critics of the Bible who paint it’s message with the broad brushstrokes of simple minded fairy tales would do well to read the psalms with all their self awareness, nuanced wisdom and honest questions.  Is it no wonder that the God who gave mankind life and breath and who fashioned the mind and heart after his image would inspire a book of praise that included such prayers as Psalm 88?  Would he not himself know this cry intimately in the person of Christ as he faced the cross on Calvary and bore upon himself the full wrath of God for the sins of mankind?

The Parable of the Persistent Widow is a parable about prayer and teaching about prayer, to be instructive, I think, must fully face the reality of prayer life from the gracious and pleasant answers to the striving silence of God before aching, fervent and consistent prayer.

“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” -Luke 18:1

What Is Prayer?

Have you ever given thought to the question, “What is prayer?”  As different people and you’ll likely get different answers.  Communication with God.  Making requests.  Praise.  For some, it’s chanting or meditation.  For others, a way of disciplining our minds, of exercising self control.  There are no shortages of philosophies of prayer, but what exactly is Christian prayer?

Jesus taught on prayer in many places in the Bible as well as provided examples in his own life.  We think of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew & Luke.   In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he encourages followers of Jesus to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  In Philippians 4:6, Paul again exhorts us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

We may read the Psalms or think of the great prayers by Moses or Solomon or Jehoshaphat.

While Christian prayer is multi-faceted, at it’s core it is essentially an exercise of man acknowledging his ultimate need for God and bringing before Him the needs, requests and desires of the heart.  Prayer is likewise an act of faith, for prayer without faith in the God who hears is but empty words lost upon the wind.

But what is Jesus teaching us in Chapter 18:1-8? 

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?”

Why do you think Jesus needs to encourage us to always pray and not lose heart? If I judge myself rightly, my answer to that question is because I’m all too quick to neglect prayer and when I do pray, I’m all too quick to lose heart, become discouraged, grow tired and bored and, in Jesus’ words, lose heart.

To properly understand this parable we need to read it as an argument from the lesser to the greater.  He is saying, of course, that if an unjust judge is willing to eventually do what’s right even though he neither cares to nor cares for the one with a cause, how much more will God – who does regard man and is just and who has a loving disposition & great patience toward people – hear and answer our requests?  

So let’s breakdown the Passage and compare the & contrast the woman and the judge with what the Bible teaches us about ourselves and about God:  

She was a stranger to the Judge.

There was no familial or friendly relationship.  In fact, in Jesus’ day and age a woman, and a widow at that, was looked down upon and had little standing in society.  She was vulnerable at best and more often exploited.  Yet the Bible teaches that followers of Jesus are considered friends of God.  No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (John 15:15)

She was just one person

This woman was on her own to plead her cause to the judge.  But the followers of Jesus are part of the body of Christ and the communion of saints.  For we are members of one another and when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.  We are taught to Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16)

She had no advocate

Jesus didn’t say that there was a widow in the city that kept sending her attorney to the judge to plead her case.  She didn’t have a court appointed arbitration specialist.  She was on her own.  Christians, however, have a divine mediator in the person of Jesus Christ.  The apostle John tells us, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1)

She had no encouragement to come

Quite to the contrary, she was thrust aside and rejected as this unrighteous judge refused to grant her relief.  But this is not how we find ourselves in Christ.  Rather we are bidden to draw near to God where we will find grace.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:16)

She had limited access to the judge

Being a woman and a widow in ancient Israel was a vulnerable place to be.  She likely would not have any social standing or be able to command an audience with teh judge.  In fact, she would have likely found herself at his mercy insofar as access was concerned.  We on the other hand have access to the Father as we are his children.  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15)

She had a just claim

Even the judge eventually acknowledged, “I will give her justice.”  But what about us?  “…as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12).  Yet we take heart, for while we were still in our sin Christ died for us and credited His righteousness to us such that we are, “…found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:9)

He was provoked and irritated by her

The judge found her entreaties annoying and wearisome, and although he had no regard for her or her justice, he was susceptible to her irritation.  The Father on the other hand regards our prayer as acceptable.  The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him. (Proverbs 15:8)

He put her off and wasn’t inclined to help

This judge had more pressing matters to attend to than to pay attention to a widow for whom he didn’t care.  Her justice wasn’t a matter of his attention.  In fact, her persistence rendered her odious to him such that perhaps by means of ignoring her and refusing aid, she might go away and stop bothering him.  Contrast this unrighteous judge with our heavenly Father: And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:15)

He was unrighteous

The judge’s character wasn’t consistent with his office.  As a judge, it was his duty to be impartial and uphold the law.  Yet God doesn’t administer justice because it’s his job.  He’s not one who begrudgingly does what duty requires.  No, the Father acts consistent with his character such that his works and his heart are indistinguishable.  Therefore we can pray in the spirit of Christ, O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.” (John 17:25)

He had no respect for man

Yet God regards the smallest of creatures.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

What then does this parable teach us about our prayer lives?  It teaches us that Jesus’ people are to be praying people and Jesus’ people are to be persistent and not faint.  This means that we can have confidence in the kind character of the King of heaven and rest assured that he has the power and the will to work out all things for the good of those whom he has called.

But what can we expect as we pray?  Does this widow not illustrate for us adversity and disappointment?  Jesus gives us this parable precisely because we tend to become discouraged and experience what we may assume the widow does when she persistently brings her requests before this judge to no avail.  The illustration is given to us because we are likely to paint such a picture of God in our minds, so Jesus preempts us to draw a contrast between what we may be tempted to believe about God and the true character of the Father. 

What can we be assured of?  Therefore we can be assured that God will avenge his elect & that he will set to right the wrongs that we experience and that we see around us.  And furthermore, we can be assured that God will act in his time. Jesus says, in contrast to the judge, “Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”

Here then are some questions to consider:

  • Is Jesus teaching here that we will get what we want?
  • How does this square with what we experience in life?
  • Is God’s timing our timing?

Jesus’ Question

Jesus ends this parable with an interesting question and one that might, at first glance, appear to be out of place. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

To answer this question, it might be helpful to visit one of the great faith passages in scripture.  You might be tempted to think that we’re headed to Hebrews 11, but I suggest to you that we are in a great faith passage already.  Let’s take a step back and see how this parable fits into the broader context of Luke.

Remember that in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem (9:15 & 13:22) where he knows that he’s going to be tried and executed by the Jews and the Romans.  On his journey, he teaches and heals and foretells of future events.  Are these just random collections of teachings like we may see in Proverbs or does Luke have some design here?

Let’s look at the progression of the passages starting back in chapter 16.  This chapter ends with something of a prelude to chapters 17 and 18.  This prelude is the parable of The Rich Man & Lazarus.  Here we have a very interesting teaching by Jesus about faith.  Remember the story?  The rich man who is suffering torment in Hell asks that God send Lazarus, the poor beggar in his previous life, to his family to warn them of the danger to come.  If they could just hear from someone who miraculously came back from the dead, well then… they’d believe whatever he said.  Seeing is believing, right?  But Jesus counters with something that puts us to the test.  If we have Moses and the Prophets and their testimony & instruction doesn’t elicit a faith & corresponding change of life then, Jesus says, seeing someone come back from the dead won’t help either.

That’s a stern warning indeed.  And a dramatic statement about where faith comes from.  Jesus’ disciples get the message and in what is like a bookend to this faith passage, they said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  

“Increase our faith!”

Jesus replies that even a small dose of faith, the size of a mustard seed, is enormously powerful.  Then in chapter 17, Jesus encounters and cleanses 10 lepers of whom but one is truly healed in both body and soul.  Notice that it’s the leper’s faith that was commended after Jesus cleansed him.  This is the real miracle, that the leper’s soul was healed as well as his body.  How often are we content with temporal relief when our souls are terminally ill?  It is the leper’s faith that brings about his holistic salvation.

The coming of the kingdom

Jesus next tells plainly of a coming judgement in the days of the Son of Man and that first he must suffer.  The end of all things is in view and Jesus is instructing his followers how to conduct themselves.  Faith is completely baked into this.  

Do you really believe what Jesus is saying?

  • There will be an end to all things
  • God’s people should watch and be ready
  • Our longings and heart’s desire should not be for the temporal pleasures that we can see, but for the glories of what is to come when Christ brings about his kingdom

If you do, it follows that you must be willing and able to lose your life for Christ, that is to say, willing to sacrificially give all you are for service to the kingdom of God.  In light of what Jesus is saying, anything less is incomprehensible.  But the necessary ingredient for this to make sense is faith.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Now with a view of the end times clearly at hand, Jesus opens Chapter 18 with our parable and the question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Constancy in prayer requires faith.  Without it, the sail is deprived of it’s wind.

Jesus illustrates powerful prayer in vs. 9-14, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Faith is behind the expectation of the tax collector – that he would come to God, a sinner, and yet find mercy.

In 18:15-17 the children illustrate a simple faith. 

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

What is it about the children?  It is their childlike trust that God is who he says he is and therefore will act according to his character & his word.

The Rich Ruler

18:18-30 – This episode begs the question, where are we placing our faith?  Are our loyalties divided?  Do we believe what Jesus says about leaving the things of this world behind to gain many times more in the world to come?  Do we even believe there is a world to come?

“One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.

In the contest between faith and wealth, we give our enemy and unfair advantage.

“They will kill him.”

“And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things.

For all his teaching in parables, Jesus couldn’t be more plain here.  And although the saying was hidden from them so they didn’t understand, he is increasing their faith by telling them plainly what will happen to him.  John 2:22 says “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

Later in this book, Jesus will say to Simon Peter,“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

The Answer to the Question

Finally Jesus meets blind Bartimaeus and here he closes this chapter with the answer to the original question.  Indeed he does find faith.  He finds it in the blind eyes of the beggar and he will find faith in his faithless disciples and he will find faith in us when he comes again.

Don’t miss this point… here’s a man like us; he could not see Jesus, he could only hear what people were saying about him.  Like Bartimaeus, we’re not only blinded by our sin, but we’re blind to the spiritual realities around us.  We think that “seeing is believing” but Jesus says “believing is seeing.”  We have it backwards.

So where does this faith come from?

Ephesians 2 tells us, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The gift of God refers to the whole package, the grace and the faith.  They are given to us by God’s kind hand, not ginned up by our own efforts.  And for those of us that struggle with our faith, vacillating between belief and doubt, who like the man with the epileptic child in Mark 9:14-28 says “I believe, help me in my unbelief” or like the apostles in chapter 17 who say, “Increase our faith!” Jesus answers, not with a condescending word, “if only… but too bad you don’t.”  No, it is with a heart of encouragement that even if you only “have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Isn’t that amazing?  Isn’t that a source of tremendous encouragement?

Look, faith isn’t some kind of pipe dream or wishful thinking about stuff we wish we had or circumstances we wish were different.  No, brothers & sisters, Christian faith is based on things God has said to us in his word which he demonstrated to us with power that it is true.

Jesus told the people that were following him that he was going to be killed and that he would subsequently rise up from the dead.  He told them lots of other, very important things, some of them quite outlandish, but his credibility completely depended on his resurrection from the dead.  Without that, there’s no Christian faith.  With that, we can take his words to the bank.

So Christian faith boils down to believing what God tells us in his word.  About ourselves, about himself and about how we can have a relationship with him through Jesus Christ.  And if the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrates that we can take Him at his word, then we can trust what he teaches all throughout the rest of the bible.  

  • We can trust the bible’s teachings about God’s faithfulness, even when it’s not easy to see.
  • His kindness and pre-disposition towards his people, even in the most difficult circumstances.
  • The coming kingdom, even when it seems that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
  • The cost of discipleship, which is real and expensive.
  • The blessings of fellowship and of the world to come, even when we feel alone and hopeless.

And therefore, we can come to God in prayer, as children to a loving father, and engage in persistent prayer as Jesus instructs us in the parable we’re studying.  So, I want to end with some practical thoughts around prayer

  • Christian prayer is based on a relationship with God through Jesus Christ
  • It is not meditation or reflection or a way of achieving inner peace
  • Prayer is personal and intimate
  • Prayer is petitionary in nature and is based on the belief (Faith!) that God hears and acts.  Where does that belief come from?  God’s demonstrated acts throughout scripture in the Old & New Testaments and through the testimony of countless followers of Christ in our very own day.  Faith is based on promises.
  • The bible doesn’t tell us specifically how to pray, but does provide instructive guidelines and models.  Specifically in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ examples of prayer, throughout the Psalms and in many other parts of scripture.
  • There are no physical requirements that make prayer effective.
  • Prayer should be in the name of Jesus Christ (not as some kind of password, but through identification with Christ)
  • Prayer is mediated by Christ (see John 14; John 16:23)
  • Prayer is prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26)
  • Prayer should be offered in accordance with God’s will.  Although we don’t necessarily know God’s will in specific circumstances, we do know through scripture what God’s general will is.  And it is in the work of earnestly striving to discern what God’s will is that we are often sharpened to it.
  • In the Bible there seem to be what C. S. Lewis calls two “patterns” of petitionary prayer. On the one hand, there is the wrestling that strives with God to change God’s will and/or the circumstances. On the other hand, there is the resignation to God’s will and to the circumstances (Source).

And lastly, an excerpt from author and professor Donald S. Whitney from his extraordinarily beneficial book, Praying the Bible:

A Man of Prayer

George Mueller (1805–1898) is widely considered one the greatest men of prayer and faith since the days of the New Testament. He lived nearly the entire nineteenth century, two-thirds of it in Bristol, England. He led four far-reaching, influential ministries, but we know him best today for his orphanages.

During a time in England when most orphans lived in miserable workhouses or on the streets, like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Mueller took them in, fed them, clothed them, and educated them. Through his orphanage in Bristol, Mueller cared for as many as two thousand orphans at a time—more than ten thousand in his lifetime. Yet he never made the needs of his ministries known to anyone except to God in prayer. Only through his annual reports did people learn after the fact what the needs had been during the previous year and how God had provided.

Mueller had over fifty thousand specific recorded answers to prayers in his journals, thirty thousand of which he said were answered the same day or the same hour that he prayed them. Think of it: that’s five hundred definite answers to prayer each year—more than one per day—every single day for sixty years! God funneled over half a billion dollars (in today’s dollars) through his hands in answer to prayer.

Mueller’s Great Discovery

How did George Mueller pray? He said that for the first ten years of what he called his “life of faith”—referring not to when he was unknown but to ten years of trust in God and remarkable answers to prayer—he often struggled to get into the spirit of prayer, in other words, to really feel like praying. Until, that is, he made one slight alteration in his method. Here’s how he described the change:

The difference, then, between my former practice and my present one is this: formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer. . . . But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then really began to pray.

I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental [today we would say “experiential”] fellowship with God, I speak to my Father and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word. It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point.

So Mueller would sometimes flounder for half an hour to an hour trying to pray, fighting to focus his thoughts and to kindle feelings for prayer in his heart. Only after that long, determined struggle would he finally enter into a sense of communion with God.

But once he began the practice of conversing with God about what he found in the Word of God, he “scarcely ever” suffered with those problems in prayer again. Praying through a passage of Scripture as he went “walking about in the fields” was the uncomplicated method that transformed the daily experience of one of the most famous men of prayer in history.

And it can transform your prayer life just as easily.

 

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