Luke 18:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
18 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
An old spiritual reveals the very foundation of prayer:
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.
Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.
We pray because we stand in need of prayer. It’s that simple; that basic. As Augustine puts it in the Confessions: “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you . . .. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” [Confessions, Book 1.1, Pine-Coffin, p. 21]. We pray because it is in our bones. We also pray because we stand in need of help, help that only God can provide. Therefore, according to the lectionary reading from Luke 18, we should keep on praying and not lose heart, because God will respond.
When it comes to revealing the kingdom of God, something Jesus often does through the medium of parables, he often will compare and contrast human actions with divine actions. For instance, in Luke 11, in a similar conversation about prayer, Jesus asks whether a human father would give his child a scorpion, if the child asked for an egg. The answer, of course, is no. No human father, at least a decent one, would give his child something dangerous rather than what was asked for. We who are parents want to give good gifts to our children. Then Jesus declares: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).
In the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, as well as in other parables, Jesus wants to raise our awareness of the character of God. The only way he can do this is through comparison. Jesus assumes that if we are created in the image of God, then something about God is reflected in our being. But, God’s being is not perfectly reflected in humanity. That’s the point of Genesis 3 and the story of the fall. It’s why we are called to confess our sins before God, and even before that, Jesus suggests we should take care of any dysfunctions in our human relationships before we try bringing our gifts to the altar. This word of wisdom is not found in Luke; it’s present in Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” There Jesus declares: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). As Richard Beck suggested in his sermon at the recent Streaming’s Conference, if we want to be like Jesus, then spiritual disciplines, as important as they might be, won’t get us there unless we first take care of things like our relationships with one another. Problems at the horizontal level can impede our conversations on a vertical level.
Recognizing our own distance from God’s goal for our lives, we return to the question of God’s character. If we take the position, as outlined by the prologue of John’s Gospel, that Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1-14), then Jesus reveals the character of God. Of course the record in the Gospels is complex. Jesus often says things that can make us uncomfortable, but both in his teaching and in his life he reveals to us something about God’s character. This parable is designed to reveal something about that character, especially when it comes to prayer.
In this parable a judge is petitioned by a widow seeking justice. The judge is not that interested in doing so. He has better things to do. After all, she is probably poor and has no influence in society. There are others whose influence puts them at the head of the line when it comes to the judge’s attention. Even in America, money can buy justice. Indeed, you can get away with murder if you suffer from “affluenza.” This is the human justice system at work, and too often those without means give up. But in this case, the widow refuses to give up. She wants justice, and she won’t let it go until the judge grants her the justice she seeks. In the end, the judge gives in. The judge decides that this woman whom we can imagine comes every morning to the court house and sits in the front row, and requests an audience, won’t go away until he addresses her concern. When he tires of her appearances, he gives in and gives her the hearing she desires, and thus justice is served. It’s not because of her wealth and influence, it’s because she refuses to give in until she is heard.
If an unjust judge will grant justice to a plaintiff due to persistence, then what about God? Will God delay in responding to our requests? Does God need reminding? That shouldn’t be the case if we are right in ascribing to God the virtues of justice and mercy? Won’t God respond favorably to those whom Luke calls God’s chosen ones, and by chosen ones I don’t mean the upper crust, the ones with the most power and influence.
In the context of the New Testament, the chosen ones are the people of God. While we might want to expand the definition of to whom God is listening, at least foundationally, we should affirm that Jesus has in mind the same ones Paul declares to be the “elect” (Rom. 8:33). I will leave it to the interpreter to decide how far to extend the definition of whose cries God hears, but it’s clear that God hears the cries of those who call out to God.
As for what God will do. God will act without delay in responding to the cries of those suffering injustice. It’s good to remember here that the situation for a widow in the first century was precarious. There was no social welfare net—no Social Security, no pension benefits, no Medicare or Medicaid. The only resource they had was a judge, someone who could advocate for them. In this case the judge was not just or merciful. Indeed, the judge did not even fear God, and fearing God was central to life among the people of God, for fearing God was linked to keeping the commandments (Deut. 5:29). Despite not responding out of a just heart, the judge does respond out of sheer exhaustion of having to face this widow everyday as she appears in his court to plead her case. God, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be badgered. At least that seems to be the message of Jesus.
When we attend to parables like this it’s good to remember that in general the parables are vehicles by which the kingdom of God is being revealed. In this case, a core value of the kingdom is justice and the God who metes it out. And God both hears and responds with dispatch! The question posed to us is this: “Will the Son of Man find faith when he returns? As Arland Hultgren puts it:
The church is reminded by this parable and its application not only of the need to be persistent in prayer, but also to be accountable. The Son of man will come in judgment. The question of “faith on earth” will be paramount. Evidence for faith on earth will be a church that prays with persistence, even in the face of possible persecution. [Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, p. 260].