Note: It is important before we get into the Parable of the Persistent Widow to understand the context in which Jesus tells the parable. The context is provided in chapter 17, in which we have the account of Jesus' response to a question from the Pharisees about the coming of the kingdom, followed by Jesus teaching the disciples about His second coming. He instructs them about a delay in His return, and He tells them about its visible and sudden nature when it does occur. So, in order to get the context of the parable clear in our minds, it is important to begin reading the text at least as far back as 17:20.
Introduction: Warren Wiersbe has written that “The ability to calm your soul and wait before God is one of the most difficult things in the Christian life. Our old nature is restless … the world around us is frantically in a hurry. But a restless heart usually leads to a reckless life” (Men’s Life, Spring, 1998, as cited here).
He is right about that, isn't he? We are all pretty bad at waiting on the Lord, aren't we? Yet the Bible is filled with instruction about waiting on the Lord, and it is one of the most important lessons any believer can and must learn. For example, the Prophet Isaiah emphasized the importance of waiting on the LORD, and he told us of the LORD's promise to those who wait upon Him:
NKJ Isaiah 40:28-31 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. 30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, 31 but those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
The Apostle James also encourages us to wait patiently for the return of the Lord Jesus:
NKJ James 5:7-8 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Thus waiting for our Lord's return requires patience, but it also requires persistence in prayer, and this is the reason for the parable we are studying this morning, to which we shall now turn our attention. We will examine the parable under three primary headings: 1) the aim of the parable, 2) the assertion of the parable, and 3) the application of the parable.
I. The Aim of the Parable
We find the aim of the parable in verse 1.
NKJ Luke 18:1 Then He [Jesus] spoke a parable to them, that [πρός] men always ought to pray and not lose heart [ἐγκακέω], [Note: πρός is used here with the accusative, “indicating the subject or aim of the parable” (Expositor's Greek Testament, p. 596).]
Luke gives us a two-sided description of the purpose Jesus had in mind in telling this parable, from both a positive and a negative angle.
Positively, Jesus wants us to be persistent in praying. He wants us to pray “always,” or at all times, no matter what the circumstances, but especially in the face of the trials that will be our lot as we watch for His return (for this is what the preceding context is about).
Negatively, Jesus wants us not to be discouraged in praying. Actually, the Greek word translated by most modern translations as “lose heart” can have the idea, “to give in to evil, to become weary, to lose heart, [or] to turn coward” (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, p. 194). Thus the Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament aptly observes in its treatment of the word that “real courage requires that we leave the problem with God” (p. 194).
Jesus assumes, then, that we will face some sort of opposition to persistent prayer and that it will be difficult for us to be steadfast in prayer. He knows that persistent prayer in the face of evil can be hard. He knows that we get tired. He knows that we can all too easily become discouraged. And He knows that we can actually be afraid to trust God with our lives. But He doesn't want us to give up!
This is why, Luke tells us, that Jesus related this parable. Luke is also letting us know that, after we are finished studying this parable, we should be encouraged to be persistent in prayer as we await Christ's return, and we should be better able to leave our lives in God's hands, trusting that He knows best, no matter what our circumstances may suggest. And this leads us to our next major heading.
II. The Assertion of the Parable
We find Jesus' assertion of the parable in verses 2-5.
NKJ Luke 18:2 saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man.”
The description of this judge identifies him as a godless man, who has no concern to keep either of the two greatest commandments. He loves neither God nor his neighbor! This is basically what Jesus means when He says that this judge “did not fear God nor regard man.” What a terrible judge for a desperate person to have to come to hoping for justice! Yet Jesus goes on to describe just such a desperate person continually coming before this awful judge.
NKJ Luke 18:3 Now there was a widow in that city; and she came [Imperfect > ἔρχομαι, she kept coming, which is brought out better in most modern translations, such as the ESV and NASB] to him, saying, “Get justice [ἐκδικέω] for me from my adversary.”
First we are told that the person is “a widow,” which means that we are dealing with a desperate person who could not get justice at all if the judge would not help her. Klyne Snodgrass describes the plight of such a first century Palestinian widow this way:
Since women married in their early teens, widows were numerous but not necessarily old. Widows were often left with no means of support. If her husband left an estate, she did not inherit it, although provision for her upkeep would be made. If she remained in her husband's family, she had an inferior, almost servile, position. If she returned to her family, the money exchanged at the wedding had to be given back. Widows were so victimized that they were often sold as slaves for debt. (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 453)
Thus, although Jesus does not give any details about this widow, those who heard the parable would have understood her as a person who had no one to stand up for her, especially since she has had to resort to relying on such a terrible judge for help.
What the woman was seeking from the judge was what she could not get otherwise, namely “justice,” as the Greek word is rendered in the NKJV. But the word could also be taken in slightly different ways. For example, the King James Version renders that widow's plea, “Avenge me of mine adversary.” And the New American Standard Bible has the widow saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.” However we understand the verb here, the point is still that the widow wanted the judge to help her by providing justice, whether it was punishment that an adversary deserved or whether it was legal protection from such an adversary.
It is also worth noting that we should assume that the woman's cause was indeed a just one. Otherwise the parable would hardly make sense as an analogy for prayer that we should expect God to answer by granting our request.
At any rate, given that this was a judge who did not care either about what God would have him do or about the woman who kept coming before him, he refused for a while to grant her justice, as the next verse says.
NKJ Luke 18:4-5 And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, “Though I do not fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge [ἐκδικέω] her, lest by her continual coming she weary [ὑπωπιάζω] me.”
Now, the Greek verb translated weary – hupōpiázō – literally means to “strike beneath the eye” or to “give a black eye” (Friberg #27682, BibleWorks). But it has to be taken here in a figurative sense, much as when we say today that we give someone a black eye when we embarrass him or damage his reputation in some way. As Klyne Snodgrass puts it, “even though [the Greek word] connotes physical violence, its use here is surely metaphorical or sarcastic. The judge fears not that the woman will strike him but that she will annoy him to death” (Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 458). Or as the Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament says, the Greek verb is used here “in the sense of 'to annoy' or 'to disgrace' in the sense of losing prestige” (p. 194).
But, whether the judge simply grew tired of what he viewed as an annoyance, or whether he was concerned that the widow would eventually damage his reputation by making him look as bad as he really was, Jesus' point is clear: The widow will get the justice she seeks because she persists in her request and does not give up. And with this we come to our final point.
III. The Application of the Parable
We find Jesus' application of the parable in verses 6-8.
NKJ Luke 18:6-7 Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. 7 And shall God not avenge [ποιήσῃ τὴν ἐκδίκησιν, do justice] His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?”
Here we see that Jesus intends this to be a how much more parable, in which He draws a contrast between some other person and Himself or God. In this case, Jesus is basically saying that, if even an unjust judge will grant justice to one who is persistent in her request, then how much more will God grant justice to those whom He has chosen to be His own, to His elect.
When Jesus says that He “bears long with them,” He may be describing the fact that God answers in His own time, as the KJV and NKJV translations seem to take it. Or He may be asking an additional question, as the ESV and NASB take it:
ESV Luke 18:7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?
NAU Luke 18:7 … now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?
The Greek can be taken either way, and either translation may fit the context. On the one hand, Jesus clearly thinks of God as bearing with His people since they are said to “cry out day and night to Him.” This means that they are anxiously waiting for a response that will come in God's own good time. In this case, they are like the souls under the altar in the book of Revelation:
NKJ Revelation 6:9-11 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge [ἐκδικέω] our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
On the other hand, one could say that Jesus also thinks of God as acting without delay in responding to the requests of His people for justice, especially given what Jesus says in the next verse.
NKJ Luke 18:8a I tell you that He will avenge [ποιήσει τὴν ἐκδίκησιν, do justice] them speedily [ἐν τάχει].
Although we may “cry out to God day and night” (vs. 7) and his justice may thus seem to us to be delayed, Jesus assures us that in God's plan it comes “speedily,” that is without delay.
It is clear that this cannot mean that God will answer our prayers for justice immediately as we await the Lord's return, for in this case why does Jesus bother with telling the parable? Why does He prepare us for the necessity of being persistent in prayer and not giving up, if He actually thinks God will always answer right away?
The apparent difficulty is alleviated when we remember that this parable is given in an eschatological context – dealing with the second coming of Christ – and that, in such a context, God's timetable and ours are not the same. What may seem long to us is right away to God, for it is right on His timetable.
Remember when Peter later dealt with scoffers who asked, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). After pointing out that the underlying premise of the question is wrong – all things have not continued as they were from the beginning of creation; there was, for example, a worldwide flood – Peter goes on to say:
NKJ 2 Peter 3:8-9 But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
In other words, we cannot judge what is soon to God by our own standard of time. We cannot assume that, because we are tempted to be impatient, God is somehow too slow in His timing. We cannot assume that God must work in accordance either with what we think must be done or when we think it must be done.
I think Bob Deffinbaugh gets the point of the parable right when he says:
[T]he Christian is taught to persist in prayer because of the character of God, which is the opposite of that of the judge. God is righteous; the judge was unrighteous. God has chosen His disciples—they are called “His elect” (v. 7), and He cares about His disciples because He has chosen them. But the unrighteous judge has no feelings and no relationship to the widow. He has no compassion toward her, while God has great compassion on His elect. The unrighteous judge delayed because he didn’t care about God or man; the Lord Jesus delays out of compassion on guilty men, giving them time to repent and be saved. The unrighteous judge only cared about reducing his “pain,” while the righteous Judge came to suffer the greatest pain of all—the just wrath of God—in order to save fallen man. The unjust judge brought about justice slowly and reluctantly, but the Just Judge of all the earth will hastily bring about justice when He returns to the earth. (Piety, Persistence, Penitence, and Prayer)
As I have already indicated, I think it is right to thus interpret the parable in the context of Jesus' second coming, since that is what leads up to His telling the parable in the first place. But just in case we missed this emphasis, Jesus makes it clear in His final question.
NKJ Luke 18:8b Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?
That is, when Jesus comes, will He find the kind of trust in God that persists in prayer without giving up, despite all the temptations to quit believing and to quit praying? This is what Jesus must have in mind here.
Conclusion: I will end with another quote from Bob Deffinbaugh, who is again helpful when he writes:
The parable of the persistent widow is occasioned by the fact that Jesus’ coming will not be immediate but that it will occur later on in time. In addition, during this time of “delay” men will react to and resist Christians just as they did Christ. Thus, there is a real danger of Christ’s disciples losing heart and ceasing to pray for the coming of His kingdom as they ought. This is suggested at the beginning of the paragraph and at the end as well. The last words of our Lord in this paragraph are, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
I believe Jesus is saying something like this: “You can count on the fact that I will return and that I will bring about justice on the earth when I come. The issue for you to concern yourselves about isn’t whether I will fulfill My promises, but whether you will be found faithful when I return.” We need not worry about our Lord’s faithfulness, but only our own. (Piety, Persistence, Penitence, and Prayer)
I think this hits the nail on the head! Jesus wants us to take His faithfulness as a given, but He also wants us to admit our own weakness in this regard and thus continue to trust in His faithfulness rather than our own strength. He knows how fickle and fainthearted we can be, so He wants our faith to be anchored in His faithfulness. For it is only when we trust in His faithfulness that we ourselves may be found faithful.