The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18)

the parable of the persistent widow

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In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of a widow who nags a corrupt judge into giving her what she wants. Many today use this parable to support the argument that God is telling us we ought to nag Him as well, because like humans, He can be harassed into giving us our way. Does this sound right to you?

One of the ways we learn to be discerning Christians is by understanding some basic truths about who God is and how He views us.   God loves us dearly—that’s obvious after we see what He did for us on the cross. God is intimately involved in our lives. He is always paying attention to us. He knows our needs, and He is always directing our paths. Given all of these things, an alarm should go off in your mind when a pastor gets up and tells you that God wants you to nag Him to death about a particular issue. When we pray for the same thing over and over again, we are treating God with disrespect. God is not deaf, He does not have short term memory problems, nor does He need our advice on how to take care of us in life. Any interpretation of Scripture which leads you into behaviors that dishonor God is a wrong interpretation. Sometimes you can’t see what the right interpretation is—that’s because the Holy Spirit isn’t interested in discussing that particular issue with you right now. When this happens, you need to set that passage aside and go on to something else. Understanding every passage in the Bible is not at all necessary for you to thrive in your relationship with God. Treating Him with honor is far more important.

Think about your current prayer patterns. Are you sharing your heart with God or are you always telling Him what to do? “God, I’m worried about my friend,” is sharing your heart. “God, please help my friend,” is directive. God always wants you to share your heart with Him. He’s not so keen on you telling Him what to do. God’s wisdom is far better than your own, and He isn’t going to compromise His methods to accommodate your shortsightedness and misguided priorities. As maturing Christians, we want to move away from trying to assist God with constant suggestions and news updates. God already knows what is happening in the world and in your life. He wants you to share your heart with Him as you would to your best friend. He doesn’t want you to talk to Him like He’s some bumbling Deity who keeps losing His train of thought.

So if Jesus isn’t encouraging us to insult God with faithless prayers, what is He saying in this parable? Things become more clear when we back up a chapter and see what Jesus was talking about right before He launches into the story about the widow.

Jesus’ disciples are very dependent on Him. He’s the leader, they are the followers. This is all fine and well, but what will happen to these boys when Jesus ascends into the clouds and is no longer around to guide them through their problems?   Far too often the disciples hide behind Jesus’ tunic when the religious leaders start throwing verbal grenades. They let Him do all the fighting, and then they wait until they’re alone with Him to ask their questions. They’re listening to His teaching, but they’re not absorbing as much as He wants them to. Their faith is still very weak, and having Jesus in a three dimensional form isn’t helping matters. Faith can’t thrive in the midst of a bunch of sensual confirmation. The real test for these boys will be when Jesus is no longer around in a visible form. Jesus knows that that day is coming sooner than anyone thinks, and He also knows that His guys are going to be majorly traumatized by His absence. How do humans react to losing a relationship that they depended on in life? They get depressed. They lose hope. They shut down on God and decide that life is pointless. These are the natural reactions that Jesus wants to steer His boys away from.

Then He said to His disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.” (Lk. 17:22)

Jesus knows that His absence is going to be brutally hard on His disciples. What hope can He give them to offset their coming grief? The promise of His sudden return will do nicely.

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.” (Lk. 17:26-30)

Jesus emphasizes that His return will be sudden and unexpected. There won’t be any prior warning. Life will be going along business as usual one day and then, bam, Jesus will suddenly be there. Such a promise is perfect for disciples who Jesus knows will never see His second coming. What He’s giving them here is a big scoop of false hope—but it works fabulously. If you read through the New Testament epistles, you will find Jesus’ disciples hanging onto the hope of Him coming back at any moment. They’re so convinced He’s at the door, that they believe they are living in the end times.

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (1 Pet. 4:7)

This is Peter talking. Peter believes he’s living in the last days and that Jesus will come back any second. He then urges believers to stay focused on God through prayer. Yes, this is exactly what Jesus wanted His boys to do: cling fast to God after He was gone. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Don’t think it was all for nothing.

After offsetting the depressing news of His absence with the hope of His sudden return, Jesus then launches into the parable about the widow. Luke introduces it like this:

Then Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” (Lk. 18:1-5)

Whenever you find Jesus referring to God in the Gospels, He’s referring specifically to Yahweh. Jesus’ Jewish disciples have grown up under the Old Covenant, and Yahweh is the only God they are used to focusing on. No one is grasping Jesus’ Divinity yet—they’re still trying to figure out what it means that He is Yahweh’s Messiah.

Now often in Jesus’ parables, there is a male character who represents either Yahweh or Jesus. But notice how in this parable Jesus makes a point of saying that this judge doesn’t revere Yahweh. This guy is a spiritual rebel. He’s not just too busy to deal with the widow—he’s evil-hearted. It’s very important to note that Jesus does NOT want us to interpret this judge as a personification of God. Instead, He presents this judge character as one who acts oppositely to how God acts—not caring about justice, ignoring the plight of a widow who has been mistreated, and finally only helping her out of fear that she might personally harm him.  Notice how Jesus emphasizes the judge’s lack of reverence for Yahweh twice in order to emphasize how much his reaction to the widow has nothing to do with how Yahweh reacts to us in our hard times. And yet for all this, we often read this parable and come away thinking that God views us like annoying little pests with trivial problems who just won’t leave Him alone. No, He most certainly does not. God is extremely compassionate and kind. Justice is very important to Him. God always listens to us. He never takes our concerns lightly, nor does He ever feel threatened by us. When you read about this judge, you need to put him in an entirely different mental category than God, for the two have nothing in common. If you view God as being anything like this nasty judge, you’re going to end up with all sorts of upsetting conclusions and fears.

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:6-8)

Why is Jesus talking about justice all of a sudden? Because He’s still prepping His disciples for His absence. He knows that when He is gone, His followers are going to be brutally persecuted and slaughtered. What happens when Christians find themselves being persecuted on earth? They wonder where God is and why He isn’t stepping up to help them. If we lose our confidence in God’s good Character, we quickly crash down into fear and despair. The point of this parable is to remind the disciples of something they are already supposed to know: of course God is good. Of course He will never forget about them. Of course He will act swiftly on their behalf.

This parable assumes that you have a decent understanding of God’s goodness before you hear it. You’re supposed to be comforted by the reminder that God is nothing like a corrupt judge, who only acts after he’s harassed into it. God, on the other hand, always responds with swift and immediate aid to those who cry out to Him for help. This is what Jesus is saying. Is this going to always be your experience of God? Not at all, but this is what He’s saying. Those last questions He throws out are meant to remind His disciples of truths they already know.

“And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

And after reconfirming what is supposed to be a super obvious fact—that God is good and can always be counted on to rush to the aid of His people who are in trouble—Jesus ends with a challenge to stay faithful.

“However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

So then, what’s the correct application of this parable? Keep nagging God for what you want? No. Have confidence in God’s goodness. Have confidence that He is always listening and always helping you. Have confidence that He is a just and loving Lord.

This parable has nothing to do with how to pray. It has to do with God’s Character. Jesus isn’t saying people ought to cry out to God in panic day and night. Instead, He’s describing how God responds when that situation occurs. When God sees His people in trouble, He cares and He rushes to their aid.

So, if this is Jesus’ point, why don’t we see it? Why do we read this parable and come away thinking we ought to keep nagging God? Even Luke is focused on prayer in his summary of this parable:

Then Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

Well, not quite. Luke’s summary is a bit off base. This story is about reassuring believers about God’s goodness by comparing Him with a corrupt human judge and showing how totally different the two are. Once we are confident that God is good, we feel motivated to persevere in serving Him. And of course we should always pray, because to not pray would mean turning away from God in our hearts by refusing to talk to Him.

Okay, so if Jesus is really trying to pep up His disciples with a parable about how caring and helpful God is, why don’t we feel pepped up when we read it? Because the thing sounds like someone is striking a bad note on a piano. It rings very false to those of us who have experienced God ditching us in our hour of need. And indeed, there is a major false note in all this that Jesus is putting in quite intentionally. In Chapter 17, He strongly implied that the original disciples would be around for His return—which they won’t. Now He assures them that God will always rush to their aid in times of crisis. Fine. Where was God when John the Baptist was being beheaded? Where was He when Stephen was being stoned and James was chopped down with a sword (Acts 7 & 12)? When we flip over to Revelation, we find Jesus painting a metaphorical picture of martyred believers in Heaven groaning for justice that they’re not receiving.

They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev. 6:10)

This is a very disturbing scene. If God is so swift to execute justice, why do we find Heaven filled with a bunch of malcontents who accuse God of dragging His feet? And how does our glorious Judge respond to these souls? Does He rush to their aid? Not quite.

Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Rev. 6:11)

Nice. God’s response is “Sit down and wait—I’m not done slaughtering you yet.” Hm. So much for Jesus’ assurance that:

“I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Lk. 18:7)

So how do we resolve this conflict? Jesus supplied the parable in Luke, and He also directed the visions of Revelation. Jesus sounds rather two-faced, doesn’t He? Well, that’s because He is.

It’s not hard to find God contradicting Himself in the Bible. Those who are looking for excuses not to submit to God like to compile lists of these contradictions and say, “See! God is a hypocrite! Who needs Him?!” The problem with this argument is that what they’re really saying is, “I shouldn’t have to believe in God until I approve of how He operates.” Well, no, this isn’t how it works. No one will escape the torments of Hell by pulling out the “but I didn’t approve” card. God doesn’t care if we approve of His methods or not. He simply introduces Himself to us—contradictions and all—then He DEMANDS that we submit to Him. If we defy Him, He retaliates by torturing us forever. We might think this system is unfair, but God thinks it is fabulous.

If you are serious about wanting to know God, He will help you with the many questions and fears that arise when you’re faced with contradictions. But if you want help with these issues, you need to approach God in a respectful manner. Calling Him a bunch of names isn’t going to get you very far. It’s important to be honest about your frustration, but respect needs to be in the mix.

God has great empathy for human beings and He fully understands how distressing our experience of Him can be. When you are crying out to God and He doesn’t seem to be answering, it’s very easy to start picturing Him as that nasty judge who really doesn’t care about your problems. When you repeat your request a billion times and God finally does what you want, it’s easy to fall into the delusion that you coerced God into doing what you wanted. This leads to ridiculous theories that there is power in numbers, power in repetition, and power in emotions. The next thing we know we Christians are grouping up in church, hyping up on music, and turning on the waterworks as we cry out the same requests to God for hours on end. But for all the celebrating we do about the times when our prayers “worked,” who is being honest about how many times we don’t get the answer we wanted?

Retaining a selective memory is critical if you’re going to cling to the delusion that prayer is a powerful means of controlling God. To really think you are coercing Him into doing anything, you have to be working hard to deny how many times He turns down your request. It is quite true that God always answers us when we pray—but often His answer is “no”, and often it comes in some pretty distressful forms: icy silence, stone walls, angry vibes. Demons love to get involved in our prayer lives, and they are always supplying us with negative sensual feedback that they want us to believe is coming from God. If you are in a place right now where it feels like God is glaring down at you whenever you try to talk to Him, what you’re experiencing is harassment by demons that God is choosing not to block. It’s the same when we feel like our prayers are bouncing off of lead skies, or that God is off vacationing in another universe. Sensual “evidence” of God’s disinterest in us, rejection of us, or His absence can be overwhelmingly strong. Without the Holy Spirit intervening with some powerful reassurance, we are quickly driven into fear and despair.

This is real life: God does not always rush swiftly to our aid. Often His best plan for us involves some major strife and grief at the current time. And because we can’t see things from His perspective, we can’t help concluding that God isn’t as good as He claims to be.

How did John the Baptist feel when he was arrested and thrown into prison? He felt like any of us would have: depressed and abandoned and full of doubts. Then his friends told him that Jesus left the area the minute He heard about John’s arrest. Nice. Standing up for Jesus is the whole reason John was arrested, and this is how Jesus repays him? He ditches John in his hour of need? This is tough stuff, but those of you who are going through a spiritual valley of your own can identify. Then Herod throws a party and some creep of a girl says she wants John’s head served on a platter. The next thing John knows, he’s being dragged out of his cell and over to the chopping block. Where is God in his hour of need? Waiting to embrace him in Heaven, of course. What is the greater form of help—sparing John’s life and letting him continue a difficult ministry or taking him on to his eternal reward? Getting beheaded was the best thing that ever happened to John because he ended up in the arms of Jesus in Heaven. Jesus is God, and God is everywhere at once. While He walked around in human form on earth, Jesus was also in Heaven and in a zillion other places, holding the molecules of His creation together. So while Jesus seemed to abandon John in the flesh, in reality, He never left him.

Our three glorious Creators are always with us and They never leave us. But They don’t let us see Their master plan for our lives, They don’t explain Their reasons for everything They put us through, and They don’t always provide sensual confirmation of Their involvement in our lives. The challenge for us is to learn to live by faith, not sight. We need the Holy Spirit to help us learn how to root our confidence in the goodness of our Gods instead of in our ability to understand Their behavior. When hard times come, our first question is “why?!” We want God to explain and justify His actions to us. But this isn’t how God operates. Instead of giving us explanations, He reminds us that He is good and that He loves us. God is always taking the best possible care of us—and that means guiding us down paths that will lead to our long-term spiritual best. Certainly we can choose not to go down those paths. We can turn away from the concept of trust and reach for control instead. This is what we’re doing when we refuse to stop telling God what to do in our lives and we refuse to acknowledge that He heard us the first time. When we keep repeating the same requests to God over and over again, we’re practicing doubt instead of trust, and over time this only ends up weakening our faith and confidence in God.

In His parable in Luke, Jesus assured His Jewish disciples that Yahweh’s Character was good. Today we know that all three of our Creators—Yahweh, Jesus, and the magnificent Holy Spirit—are good. They can be trusted, even when They are putting us through things that frighten and hurt us. They see our futures, and They know what we need to maintain some sense of hope. Sometimes They will intentionally mislead us about what to expect, as Jesus did by hinting that His disciples would be around for His return. Sometimes They will paint an overly simplistic view of the way They work, as Jesus did when He said Yahweh always rushes to the aid of His people in trouble. Our Gods know how we think and They know when we are drawing false conclusions from the things that They say. Often They leave our wrong assumptions uncorrected, for our delusions will serve us better than a Truth that we are too frail to grasp.

The New Testament epistles are filled with a sense of urgency, as Jesus’ followers kept expecting to see Him appear in the sky at any moment. In Revelation, Jesus encouraged this “on the edge of your seat” anticipation to continue. Four times He says He is coming soon…and here we still are. Do our Gods always tell us things as they actually are? Not even close. They withhold a ton of information from us. Yet before we get all huffy about this, let’s not lose sight of motivation. Jesus wanted His disciples to succeed in His absence, not crash and burn. He taught them to anticipate His swift return and to cling to the goodness of God’s Character. He assured them that God would be with them in the hard times. He boosted their faith in the invisible Yahweh so that they would have a firm foundation to stand on when their visible Messiah disappeared. It is very difficult to go from talking to your Savior face-to-face to having to press on without Him. Yet what we find in the New Testament epistles are Jewish men who are very confident in the goodness of Yahweh, as well as in the nearness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They didn’t crash and burn after Jesus left because Jesus knew how to prepare His guys for what was coming. Today the Holy Spirit is preparing you as well for what He knows is coming in your future. We won’t always like God’s methods, but we need to trust in His Character and love for us. Even when He’s raising false hopes, God is equipping us to thrive in our walks with Him.