Luke 17:22-18:8 English Standard Version*
And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
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?”
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Parable of the Widow and the Judge; the Persistent Widow © Parva Press
At a quick glance, the parable seems to illustrate the teaching, ‘Show persistence in prayer and get a speedy answer.’ Well that’s easy! Finished! Time to go home!
But actually, that is not what our Lord is teaching. It is not quite like that.
So, may I invite you to look a little more closely at the setting, at the parable itself and at the application that the Lord himself gave.
First, the setting or context.
There is a similar parable in St. Luke and chapter 11 where our Lord teaches the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and then tells the parable of the friend in need of bread for his guest. He shamelessly rouses his unwilling neighbour, at midnight, persisting until he gets all he needs. The application the Lord gave is prayer; ‘Ask and it will be given you: seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.’ We are urged to shamelessly pester the Lord God, our heavenly Father, until we have all that we need to live for his glory in this world. Very specifically in Luke 11 we are urged to pray for the Holy Spirit; God at work in our lives and overruling all our circumstances.
But here in Luke chapter 18 the focus is different. It is not, ‘all we need day by day’ but about holding fast to the justice of God in a very unjust world. It is about keeping faith when all around us men are giving up. It is about waiting, watching and being ready for the return of the Son of Man; the Lord Jesus Christ.
How can we be certain of this? Well, we can because, from verse 22 of chapter 17, the Lord has been teaching his disciples about the ushering in of the kingdom of heaven, the return of the Son of man. He warns them that first he must suffer many things and be rejected. He warns them that time would pass. He warns them that men and women, totally forgetting God and ignoring God, will be eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building – just as it was in the days of Noah or of Lot . . . until judgement fell. It will be like that on the day the Son of man is revealed. The return of the King will be sudden and dramatic and will bring judgement and the ushering in of the kingdom of heaven.
What a frighteningly relevant warning for our own times. In secular society, men and women and their leaders imagine themselves totally self-sufficient; with no need of God. We are taught to live our lives, buy and sell, plant and build without any reference to Him at all . . . just as it was in the days of Noah or of Lot. But the return of the King will be sudden and dramatic and will bring judgement and the ushering in of the kingdom of heaven.
When the disciples asked, ‘Where, Lord?’ he said, ‘Where the body is, there the eagles or vultures will be gathered together.’ A very strange answer, a dark saying to our ears; he did not say where, he gave them a picture as familiar to them as maybe seagulls are to us. Throw bread in the open in winter and within a few seconds there will be a cry and a dozen seagulls will be circling and swooping, squawking, crying and diving for it. Or if a farmer pulls, draws his plough just a few metres the same thing happens. Why? Because the seagulls have been alert, watching, waiting, ready – and that is how disciples are called to live as we await the Lord’s return.
But the going will be tough; like their Lord, disciples will be despised and rejected, whipped, imprisoned and, maybe, put to death. At times we will find ourselves in a hostile world and very unjust world – hence this parable with its opening and concluding sentences.
The parable was addressed to disciples, ‘. . . to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart’, and ‘. . .that he, God, will vindicate them,’ honour and secure justice for them in the fullness of time.
‘Nevertheless’ . . . in the light of the grinding opposition and seemingly endless delay, the terrible question is asked in verse 8, ‘ . . . when the Son of man comes will he find faith on earth?’ Will he find a people alert, watching and ready?
That is the challenge, that is the setting – are we eagerly praying, looking, watching; ready for the return of the King?
And so, secondly, to the parable itself; the widow and the judge
First the widow; always the most of vulnerable people in society, passed over, not noticed, ignored, open to exploitation and abuse; especially so in the days of our Lord in the Middle East. Remember the charge of the Lord to the religious leaders, ‘. . . devouring, gobbling up, widows’ houses’.
The Lord’s picture is of a widow who could not get justice. She was not seeking revenge, only justice, yet it was being denied her. Almost certainly, unlike her adversary, she had no reserve of money to bribe the judge and no powerful advocate to put pressure on him on her behalf. It was just herself, a helpless widow, and a judge who scoffed at, who ignored her plight. However, she really meant business, she would not let up, she did not give up, she kept on coming to him with her plea.
Then the judge; a thoroughly bad man in high office. That is very bad news! Magistrates, judges and people in positions of authority are called before Almighty God to maintain justice, to be advocates, protectors of those who cannot protect themselves; as Wilberforce was for the slaves, as Shaftesbury was for the child labourers, widows and orphans of his day, and as the Lord God himself is described in Psalm 68 verse 5 the ‘. . . father of the fatherless and protector of widows.’
As the Old Testament king Jehoshaphat appointed judges, he said to them, ‘. . . consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord . . . now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you, take heed to what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.’
People with power are always vulnerable.
– Vulnerable to being lent on, subjected to pressure, vulnerable to being bribed, to showing partiality. A modern judge before a particular case received a discrete message from the president, ‘You will, of course, find this man innocent.’ Before God, he found him guilty . . . and also found it necessary to flee the country!
– Or vulnerable, as the judge in the parable was, to ignoring their God-given responsibilities and simply enjoying the privileges and financial rewards of high office. (As an aside, heralds of the gospel of God can fall into the same trap – enjoying the privileges, the splendour and ceremony, the esteem, the political power and failing to proclaim the gospel of God. Beware!)
Here was a man who cared neither for God nor man; feared not God, feared not man, so for whom the expressions, ‘for God’s sake help her’ or, ‘for pity’s sake help her’ would cut no ice; carry no weight. He neither feared God nor regarded anyone but himself. All was ‘at his pleasure’. His ignoring of the woman and his subsequent attention to her case came from the same motive – selfishness. He found it troublesome to attend to her case but it became even more troublesome not to! ‘She will give me a black eye,’ that is the underlying word. ‘She will wear me out! She will be the death of me! Because she bothers me so, I will vindicate her; I will secure justice for her.’
And thirdly, the Lord’s application of his parable.
‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God secure justice; vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night.’ Beware of equating God with the unjust judge. Our Lord is contrasting them, not likening them. It is a ‘how much more’ parable. If an unrighteous judge can be moved to action by the constant pleas of a widow, a total stranger, how much more will our heavenly Father hear the cries of his own chosen ones, the ones on whom he has set his love . . . of course he will hear them.
Therefore, hold fast. Hold fast despite the injustices, the cold shoulders, the slurs, the persecutions, the labour camps, and the apparent long delay in the coming of his kingdom. He is not slack as he exercises the patience and persistence of his chosen people. He is not slack as he delays the day of his judgement out of patience with those who despitefully use us. ‘He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.’ Pray for those who despitefully use you. Though he delays long, he will vindicate his elect.
Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord himself can be and are marginalized, laughed at, scoffed at, the butt of many jokes . . . but the day will come when all will see him King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Judge of all the Earth. And on that day, his people, his chosen and elect, will be seen to be the ones most to be envied, kings and priests; the jewels of his kingdom shining like stars. ‘He will vindicate his elect speedily.’ ‘Speedily’? – not meaning, ‘in a short time,’ his chosen people had already been crying to him day and night, but meaning suddenly, dramatically they will be vindicated by God himself, God our heavenly Father. ‘He told them this parable to the effect that they should always pray and not lose heart.’
These words of our Lord were not words to entertain or tickle disciples’ ears then, or our ears now, but words to warn and strengthen the backbone. They are words to prepare us and encourage us to cry to God day and night for the coming of his kingdom. Words to encourage us to pray for ourselves through difficult situations and to pray for our fellow believers crushed and oppressed by a hostile world – knowing, believing, holding fast to the fact that the Lord God is just, that he knows our situation, that he, our heavenly Father, is in control and that justice will be done; his chosen and beloved people will be vindicated.
In the mean time, scoffers will scoff, ’There is no final justice.’ ‘There is no second coming, no return of the King.’ ‘We can do as we please.’ ‘We can do as we like.’ ‘We shall enjoy crushing you.’
And the challenge for us, today.
Firstly, are we ready, suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically to face the King of Kings, God’s appointed Judge? Larry Norman used to sing of that day, ‘I wish we’d all been ready.’ Are we ready? Are you one of his chosen people; his elect, ‘ransomed, healed, restored forgiven,’ a disciple of the Lord Jesus? If in the secret depths of your own heart you know that not to be the case, turn, cry to him for mercy. ‘Whoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely.’ ‘God so loved the world,’ and that must include you and me, ‘that he gave his one and only Son so that those who believe on Him will not perish . . .’
Secondly, Christian brothers and sisters fellow disciples, will we grow weary and uncertain? Will we grow prayerless? Will we grow cold, lose heart and lose faith? Will we be gradually so ground down by the God-denying society all about us that we grow to doubt the promises of God; and the words of his Son? Or will we sing and encourage one another and pray and by God’s grace hold fast? Augustine taught that the pouring out of the heart in fervent prayer and praise builds and strengthens the heart of faith.
‘When the Son of man comes will he find faith on earth?’
A parable to the effect that disciples ‘. . . should always pray and not lose heart.’
Heavenly Father, when the world grinds us down and the heavens seem as brass, help us to remember this parable, encourage one another and to cling to the fact that your love is steadfast; that you are in control; that our very breath and all our circumstances are in your hands. And that ultimately justice will be done, your elect will be vindicated.
‘Thy kingdom come O God,
Thy rule O Christ begin,
Break with thine iron rod the tyrannies of sin.’
‘Devouring widows houses’ Mark 12:40
‘Not wishing that any should perish’ 2 Peter 3:9
‘Pray for those who despitefully use you’ Matthew 5:44
‘Do as we please’ See Psalm 73 4-11 for a description of the godless person’s thinking.
‘Drink of the water of life freely’ Revelation 22:17
‘God so loved the world . . .’ John 3:16
‘Breath in his hands’ Daniel 5:23
Questions for discussion or reflection
- How does the picture of the ever-alert birds help and challenge us?
- Do widows or other groups tend to be discounted, overlooked or ignored in our society? What can we learn from her in godly matters?
- As our Lord prepared his disciples for hard times, can you think of any times of great difficulty that disciples down the centuries have met?
- Has any Christian disciple you know been at the receiving end of some abuse of power or of privileged position?
- Why is it easier to allow injustice to embitter us and eat away at our spiritual walk with God rather than to entrust justice into his hands and get on with living our lives for him? How true is it that the pursuit of justice, although right up to a point, can become a life consuming and ultimately fruitless use of our time, energy and resources?
- At home or at work, most of us like the judge are responsible in some measure for maintaining justice. How do we see our responsibility before God?
- Have you ever faced pressure for injustice? How watchful do we need to be?
- How can we best pray for those in possession of great power?
- In what ways is God our heavenly Father is entirely different from the unjust judge? What comfort and encouragement can we draw from this?
- How can the chosen people of God live in a hostile and unjust world for the glory of God? How can we encourage and support one another and so not get ground down?
- In what ways does our Lord’s parable particularly help you?