The parable of Jesus in Luke 18:1-8 has been titled “The Unjust Judge” and “The Persistent Widow. Which is it? Is the parable about an unjust judge or is it about a persistent widow? It’s about both and if we put them together we catch the theme of this story: persistence in the face of injustice.
It is not unusual to give primary attention to the first five verses, but without verses 6-8, we will miss Jesus’ point. In those verses Jesus talks about avenging His elect and the coming of the Son of Man, both of which must factor into our understanding of what Jesus was teaching in this parable.
Luke gives a summation of the parable as he begins: we must continually pray and not give up praying. But this continual praying is focused on something bigger than simply an unanswered prayer in our individual personal lives. In verses 6-8, Jesus has a time period in view, namely the intervening time between his earthly ministry and his second coming (“when the Son of Man comes”). While waiting for His return, do not give up on prayer. It is the antidote for not losing heart; it is what keeps faith strong.
That Jesus talks about God avenging His own elect who cry out to Him day and night is a reminder of what this intervening time will be like for God’s elect. Circumstances will be such that the elect will cry out for deliverance and for vengeance (Revelation 6:10). Deliverance may or may not come, but God’s promise is that vengeance will come with the return of Christ. This end must be kept in view throughout this period of redemptive history. No matter how dark things become, no matter how pessimistic the outlook, no matter how difficult it gets, no matter how much Christianity seems to make no advance but is in retreat, no matter how corrupt politicians become, no matter how irreverent, divided and violent society becomes, no matter how faithless preachers become, no matter how far they stray from the gospel, no matter how many professing Christians walk away from the truth, no matter how many churches cave in to cultural pressures, no matter how many times our prayers for unsaved neighbors go answered, we cannot give up on prayer. Why? To give up on prayer is to lose faith, and to lose faith is to give up the hope of the coming of Christ.
During this intervening time, God’s elect will often be treated the way the widow is initially treated in the parable. She was seeking justice from an adversary. Given the characters and the setting, it is likely what she was seeking was something she was owed; perhaps a service or commodity had been provided but she had not received payment. As a widow, she was vulnerable—easily ignored and taken advantage of, with no social status, and no husband to stand up for her. The judge is a jerk who did not fear God or care for people. Who knows, it may have been one of the judge’s cronies who owed the widow because he ignored her plea.
In this period of time court decisions, legislation, executive orders, company policies, and school rules may be discriminatory and unjust against Christians. They certainly are in many places in the world and such actions are popping up increasingly in our society. We rightfully plead our case, we ask for justice, but it often falls on deaf ears. Even as I write, a prayer request is on my mind shared in our prayer group regarding a missionary who is in prison in another country on false charges and awaiting trial. If condemned, he may be looking at being in a foreign prison the rest of his life. “How long, Lord?”
The judge in Jesus’ parable finally relented because he realized he was risking his reputation and gave the widow justice. This sometimes happens for Christians, too; sometimes they win. For example, after being unjustly treated by the governing authorities in Philippi, Paul charged them with violating his rights and insisted on them making amends, which they did (Acts 16:35-40). But even it doesn’t work out that way, the point to observe is that this widow got her day in court because she continually asked for justice. She persisted until the judge gave in.
Jesus’ point: be like the widow with regard to prayer. This widow had to deal with an unjust and uncaring judge, but she still got her request because she wouldn’t back down. The elect have a Judge to whom they can appeal – God, who is watching over them and who deeply cares for them. If this woman got action from an unjust judge who cared nothing for her, do not for a moment think the elect will get no action from just God. He will certainly vindicate them in the end, and he will do it suddenly. The crucial question Jesus raises is this: will his elect remain faithful (and therefore prayerful) until He appears? Apparently, continual prayerfulness is a mark of that kind of faithfulness.
We struggle with the immediacy issue. We want justice now. But what if it doesn’t happen now? How many people have gone to their graves as victims of true injustice. What about them? They didn’t get justice before they died. That’s what we want. If someone lies about us, we want vindication in our lifetime. The trajectory of our world leading up to the coming of the Lord continually raises questions among God’s elect like, “When, Lord? Why, Lord? Do you not see? Why do you not answer? Why do you let them get away with that?” Questions like these are so prevalent the temptation (inspired by the Tempter) is to give up, to stop praying because it does no apparent good. “Prayer changes nothing!” he tells us.
In this parable Jesus pushes back against that tempting lie and exhorts us to see the bigger picture and to derive hope and renew faith from it. That bigger picture is the coming of Christ, which will be in power, glory, and justice. But his coming will be preceded by difficult times. In that period of waiting, we cannot become weary, but must persist in prayer. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13), and to the Galatian churches, “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:9). Even if no one responds to our “doing good,” even though harassment for our Christian faith puts us at a disadvantage, don’t lose heart, don’t grow weary, don’t lose faith. Defy every urge, every temptation, every rationalization to give up on prayer.
There is a story from history that powerfully illustrates the overarching lesson Jesus was driving home in the parable. On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches in Parliament. He had been Prime Minister for less than a month, and it was a dark time for his nation. European nations were falling like dominoes to the Nazis, as country after country was either overrun or simply capitulated to Hitler. Everyone around Churchill was telling him to sue for peace. It was the only way, they claimed, that Britain would survive. One research organization reported that civilian morale was low and claimed everyone looked suicidal. The report indicated that only half the population expected Britain to fight, which means the other half expected surrender. This is a description of weary citizens who had lost faith in their ability to survive as a nation.
Churchill disagreed. He did not lose heart and he inspired his fellow leaders, and through them, a whole country to the same hope. On that June day in 1940, he stood before the House of Commons and spoke these rousing words:
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Churchill’s lethal weapon against the enemy in those dark days was his oratory. Ours is prayer. As long as we can pray, we can fight. Continual prayer is our declaration, “We will never give up!” until Jesus returns.