by: Denise Robinson
The Parable of the Widow and the Judge
So, there’s supposedly this true story (it was on the internet, so it must be true) of a country woman who was the last in the county to get wired for electricity. Finally, years behind everyone else, she calls the electric company, pays the fees, and they come out and power is installed in her home. However, after a couple of months, the electric company noticed she wasn’t using hardly any electricity. Thinking there might be a problem with the hookup, they sent a meter reader out to check on the matter. The man came to the door and said, "We’ve just checked your meter and it doesn’t seem that you’re using much electricity. Is there a problem?" "Oh no" she said. "We’re quite satisfied. We turn on the electric lights every night so we can see to light our oil lamps and then we switch them off again." Now, why didn’t this woman make more use of her electricity? She believed in electricity. She believed the promises of the electric company when they told her about it. She went to a great deal of trouble and expense to have her house wired for it. But she never made the most of the power she had access to.
I suspect there are people who do the same thing with prayer. They believe in God; they believe in God’s love for them; they know of the promises God has made regarding prayer. They’ve even read and heard stories about answered prayers. But they use prayer’s power sparingly … praying once a week maybe or for a few seconds a day while they’re sitting at a red light. Or responding to a tragedy with the phrase, “thoughts and prayers” or to a request for prayer with a quick FB response “praying” or the prayer emoji. And the actual prayer never gets another further than that – a good intention at best. Maybe they, maybe we, don’t understand how prayer works. But unless you are an electrical engineer, you don't really understand how electricity works either. But that doesn't keep you from turning on lights or plugging in a cell phone or turning on the television.
Then again, maybe we think it doesn’t really matter whether we pray or not. We say to ourselves, “Well, God’s going to do what God’s going to do anyway – so why bother? But if that's the case, we've got a bit of a problem. Because God has told us to pray, Jesus taught us how to pray, and Scripture teaches us about the power of prayer.
I'm afraid most of us treat prayer like the woman on the farm who just turned the lights on long enough to light her oil lamps. We use prayer as a supplement to our own efforts or as a last resort when our own efforts fail. But in our heart of hearts, we don’t view prayer as making that big an impact on the decisions we make every day. And we might even have doubts about whether it works.
I think that’s why Jesus told the parable we are looking at this morning, the Parable of the Widow and the Judge from Luke 18: 1-8 (READ). First, notice Jesus prefaces this parable with an explanation: It’s a parable to show us that it is necessary always to pray and not to lose heart.” So, we go into this parable knowing it’s about prayer – and it’s pretty easy to get the basic point. The widow wants something from the judge and keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming – and finally, the judge gives in and gives her what she wants so she will stop bothering him. So, our lesson is when we want something from God, we keep badgering God in prayer and ultimately God will get tired of us and give us what we want. Case closed, right?
Doesn’t it perplex you just a little that Jesus makes the point this is an unjust judge? God is many things, but not unjust. And God tells us we are to pray and pray often. So, would our frequent prayers really bother God? And why does Jesus make a point of saying that this woman is a widow? Is that perhaps of some importance to the parable? If we dig a little deeper, we will find a perplexing parable that makes a profound point. The parable tells a basic story, but there’s also something unexpected. Jesus was a great teacher and he knew that students learn better if they are a little disturbed. The lessons that really stick with us often are a little unpredictable, a little surprising.
We get the point. So, let’s look at Luke 18:1-8 again.
The parable has two characters in it. First, there is the judge. For Jesus’ audience hearing this parable, when he used the word “judge,” they knew immediately that this was not a Jew. Commentary author William Buckley explains: Jewish disputes, following OT law, were not taken to court but to the temple where the elders, sitting in judgment, heard and decided the cases. Under Jewish law, there would always be three elders hearing every case: one chosen by the plaintiff, one by the defendant, and one independently appointed. Since Jesus clearly stated that there was one judge, what we have here is a paid magistrate appointed either by King Herod or by Rome. These judges were called Dayyaneh Gezeroth (which means judges of prohibitions or punishments). But popularly they were called Dayyaneh Gezeloth (which means robber judges). Decisions were made based on the amount of the bribe that was paid or the power that could be exerted. When Jesus tells his audience that this judge neither feared God nor had respect for people, it made perfect sense.
Our second character is pointedly a woman and worse yet, a widow. A widow in Jesus’ day had no resources; she was the symbol of all who were poor and defenseless. She had no ability to pay a bribe or bring pressure to bear on the judge to force him to hear the case. The one thing she has going for her is her tenacity. Day after day, perhaps multiple times in the same day, she comes to the judge demanding justice.
Don’t you love this image? In my mind I see my grandmother – not well off, not well educated, more than a bit stubborn, full of faith in God – ready to take on this judge who thinks he’s too important for her. After all, this judge is described not once, but twice, as not being afraid of God or any person. Why, then, does the judge give in? Jesus tells us she is seeking vindication, a word used by the widow and by the judge, hinting that her request has merit. But that’s not why the judge rules in her favor. He does so because her continued visits are bothering him and, interestingly, as v. 5 says, she is wearing him out or exhausting him. What is really interesting, however, is that the Greek word that is used is not best translated as wearing him out. The word used, literally translated, means to punch someone in the face. The NIV translates it this way: “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
So, is Jesus telling us in this parable that we are really supposed to be the little old lady who is so persistent with her requests that an unrighteous judge is afraid she’s going to beat him up? Is that how we are supposed to approach God in prayer? Well, the answer is yes.
Before we can get there, though, we first have to understand that the unjust judge is not God or anything like God. The parable is contrasting God to such a person. Jesus was saying that if, in the end, an unjust and corrupt judge can be wearied or badgered or scared into giving a widow justice, how much more will God, who is just the opposite, give to those who love Him? You see, here is the deeper meaning of this parable: the real purpose in prayer and our persistence in prayer is not to change God, it is to change us, change our hearts, change our minds, change our attitude about prayer. Because now we get to verse 8, a verse we often skip: “I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them (His chosen ones, those who believe in and follow Christ). And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” What is Jesus saying?
There are three lessons about prayer from this parable:
1) Prayer is our only hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a promise that God has a plan for each of us, a plan that we have a future with hope. That when we call upon God and pray to God, God will hear us. But there’s a caveat. We are to seek God with our whole heart. The widow in our parable is helpless. She doesn’t have anyone to help her. There’s no plan B. If we’re honest, we often have plans A, B, C, and D, and God is our last resort only if all the other attempts fail. We need to learn to turn to God and God alone, and trust that God will show up for us. When we are busy using our own strength, resources and connections, we end up too busy running around to be able to pray like the widow in this parable. When we realize God is the only source of our future with hope, then we turn to God.
2) Prayer is to be persistent.
Jesus doesn’t give us an easy answer as to why there seems often to be a delay in the answer to prayer. He says that God will quickly grant justice, but Jesus’ definition of “quickly” and our definition seem different. And, sometimes the answer to our prayer is not the answer we want, so we pretend the prayer wasn’t answered at all. More specifically, though, in Luke 18:1, Jesus instructs us to keep praying and not lose heart. That’s easier said than done, isn’t it? If you have an established prayer life and pray often, you know there are times you are talking to God and suddenly it seems like you or God have entered a dead zone and the signal is dropped. You try to reconnect, but there are no bars or no one seems to be picking up on the other end. What do you do?
Maybe one of our problems today is that we are addicted to the immediate. It wasn’t so long ago when to communicate with someone we wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, dropped the letter in a postal box, and then waited. It took a week – or two – to get an answer. Or maybe you remember calling someone on the good old rotary phone and if they weren’t home you had to call back later. No voicemail; no text messaging. You had to wait, call back, and hope they answered. I remember going on vacation and really being on vacation … Abraham waited for years between when God called him and God fulfilled his promise to him that he would have a son. Moses and the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years from the time of deliverance from Egypt until they entered the promised land. Job’s life imploded all around him. David prayed to feel God’s presence, when he more often experienced God’s silence. Paul pleaded with God to alleviate his suffering and was martyred for his faith. Jesus prayed before his crucifixion that the cup would pass from him and ended up on the cross. In each case, their prayers were in earnest, and yet God’s response to prayer seemed a long time in coming at best.
I know that I’m speaking to people today who struggle with questions—real questions. I’m speaking to people who wonder why God would choose to be silent when they cry out. You have faith and yet you wonder why it seems as if God is ignoring you. You wonder what could be wrong with you that God is silent. I am convinced that God is not ignoring you. God loves you. Our parable for today, tells us to keep on asking and to keep the faith. Someone once said, “Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.” God kept his promise to Abraham. Moses and the people of Israel needed time mentally to recover from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, time to adapt to governing themselves and rediscovering their identity. Job’s patience in suffering revealed truths about God’s love and faithfulness. David found the strength to proclaim with confidence, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” Paul left us 2/3 of the New Testament and spread Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome. And for Jesus, death on the cross was the path to a resurrection that gives each of us here today hope.
3. But finally, and most importantly, prayer reflects the strength of our faith. James 5:16 says that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. The prayer of one who has faith.
The question for each of us here today is the question Jesus asks at the end of this parable: “Will he (Jesus) find faith on earth when he returns?” If we demand from prayer the answer we want and an answer according to our timing, we will give up on faith. We are called to have faith necessary for difficult times: faith that perseveres and endures. We are called to hold onto God’s faithfulness and trust in God’s promises when nothing is happening as far as we can see. Prayer is answered when our faith deepens, not when we get what we think we want. And that’s a hard lesson. God wants us to learn to be people who will continue to pray and trust in Him and never give up praying. And what should be our prayer? It’s pretty simple actually. You know the words: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.”
You can pray. Pray with persistence. Pray boldly. Keep the faith.Pray.