The Persistent Widow

Ordinary 29C

Luke 18: 1 8

Introduction

This reading, and the following one (the Pharisee and the Publican at Prayer) form a single lesson taught by our Lord to encourage humble yet patient prayer. There is a close connection with the preceding chapter of Luke. It is the mention there of the Second Advent which leads Jesus to speak now of the need of prayer and watchfulness in view of it. St Luke carefully reflects the questioning mood of the infant Church so that it will not faint under trial or give up prayer in despair.

In the unfolding Christian Year (which comes to an end just before Advent begins) the two readings present our last two parables and they are about prayer. Each balances the other, and provides us with plenty to ponder over.

Some Notes On The Text

Verse 1

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

The word "then" is a deliberate link with the latter part of Chapter 17 (as discussed above). What follows is unusual, in that the meaning of the parable is explained first. This tends to emphasise the importance of the teaching contained in it.

The beautiful expression "always pray" (or as we are perhaps more used to, "pray always") is also echoed frequently in the teaching of St Paul. (1 Thes 5: 17; 2 Thes 1: 11; Rom 1:10; Eph 6: 18)

In case a reader is unfamiliar with this admonishment, we hasten to explain that it does not mean we should be incessantly performing an act of prayer. It encourages us to keep up the habit of prayer, and endeavour to be always in a prayerful frame of mind.

Verse 2

Jesus said, "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people".

It seems here that our Lord has taken an example from a non-Jewish context. Traditional Jewish tribunals consisted of three judges and, despite some exceptions, generally were not of evil reputation. Indeed they were required to have a seven-fold qualification of: prudence, gentleness, piety, hatred of mammon, love of truth, be much beloved, and of good report.

In our parable we have the proverbial description of a thoroughly bad person in high office.

Verse 3

The parable continues: "And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary'."

Her adversary (notice the legal term — she does not call him her enemy) was probably a rich neighbour, who, taking advantage of the death of her husband, had stolen her land. Her request is principally to have restored to her only what is rightfully hers.

Verses 4 and 5

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about others, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won 't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

There is a hint in the account that the judge has been holding out for a bribe but eventually it seems he realised it was not worth the trouble. Ryle (1886) has an interesting if slightly quaint comment to make on the judge's assessment on the situation (specifically the phrase "wear me out", or "weary me").

The Greek word translated "weary," is very peculiar. It signifies literally " to strike under the eyes" Some have thought it very strange that a man in the judge's position should use such language, and express any fear that a poor, weak, defenceless woman could trouble him so much as to require such a strong phrase. Yet a moment's reflection will show us that selfish, worldly, wicked men are just exactly the persons who employ such violent expressions, in order to express their sense of annoyance even on trifling occasions. How often, for instance, people talk of being "tired to death," or "worried out of their lives," when there is nothing to justify the use of such language.

Verses 6 and 7

Our Lord now tells his listeners, "Listen to what the unjust judge says." (Notice the same use of language as for the unjust steward, Luke 16: 8). Then after that pause he continues, "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?

An anonymous source offers a useful comment to us.

The moral difficulty that in this parable God seems to be compared to an unjust judge, is best met by saying that in reality God is not so much compared as contrasted with him. The argument is: if justice can be obtained by persistence even from an unjust judge, how much more can it be obtained from the Author of all justice. It is true that God is said, like the unjust judge, to delay justice. But His motive is entirely different. His delay is due to love, love of the saints, whose faith He designs to purify and strengthen by much waiting, and love of their adversaries, to whom He gives a space for repentance before the day of vengeance comes.

(See also our Summary Overview later)

Verse 8

Our Lord concludes his commentary on the parable: "I tell you, he (God) will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find (the) faith on the earth?" (By "the faith" he means the unshaken confidence in the certainty of his second coming which he hopes to find.)

There are two sentences in this verse. We offer a note on each from an anonymous source.

First sentence

Concerning the reference to "quickly" or speedily:

Christ's coming, though it may seem to be long delayed will be as speedy as the scheme of God's providence, which takes account of the needs of the whole world, will permit. It will not be delayed an instant longer than is necessary.

Second sentence

The sense is, in spite of the warning and encouragement I am giving you, the faith of many will have waxed cold at the time of my return.' Christ does not mean that the elect will have lost their faith altogether, but that on account of the trials and disappointments which will precede the Second Advent, and also on account of its unexpected delay, they will be discouraged.

Our Lord's closing words do reveal a touch of anxiety. Ryle in his notes on Luke gives us a sobering view — not so popular in our times. However, when our Lord bares his soul, he is usually in close harmony with this kind of rabbinic resort to the ancient Scriptures. We offer it as a possible aid in sharing the deep concern Jesus has for his flock and the trials he knows they will need to endure.

Our Lord teaches that there will be comparatively few true believers upon earth when He comes again. True faith will be found as rare as it was in the days of Noah, when only eight persons entered the ark, and in the days of Lot, when only four persons left Sodom. He is speaking, we must remember, in close connection with the account of the Second Advent, and His own vivid comparison of the days of Noah and Lot with the day when the Son of man shall be revealed.

There is doubtless an implied lesson here, that persevering prayer is the secret of keeping up faith. St Augustine says, "When faith fails, prayer dies. In order to pray, then, we must have faith; and that our faith fail not, we must pray. Faith pours forth prayer; and the pouring forth of the heart in prayer gives steadfastness to faith."

The unbelief of man on the subject of both advents is strikingly shown in the beginning of Isaiah 53 and of 2 Pet. 3.

Summary Overview

Focus 1 The Judge

Jesus pictures the judge in the strongest possible contrast to God.

How are they different?

Judge

God

No reverence for God Models what he commands
No compassion for man Greatest caring/sympathy
Doesn't know the woman Knows each person
Finds her troublesome Welcomes our petitions
Uninterested in her needs/fate Concerned in our needs and fate

Focus 2 The Woman

What does the woman teach us? If this poor woman can have enough faith that eventually, despite all delay and discouragement and seeming hopelessness, something will be done to help her should not we persevere in making our requests known to God and believing they are heard!

Focus 3 The Church

What is Jesus asking the Church to demonstrate?

  • The Church will always have her adversaries and will need to be on guard against worldly influences.
  • The Church must continue to long for and pray for all the blessings promised and expected at Jesus' return.

Conclusion

The Jerome Commentary closes off the section in a compact statement: "The final parousia
(the Lord's return) may be long in coming, but it will come surely, speedily, and in a completely unexpected way".

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