Don’t Give Up


Luke 18:1-8

The editors of the ESV entitle this paragraph “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” You may remember that it was always called in ages past “The Parable of the Importunate Widow.” But “importunate” has fallen out of use in our English language nowadays and “persistent” is a  synonym.

Text Comment

v.1       The “them” implies that the audience continues to be the Lord’s disciples, to whom he had been speaking through the latter part of chapter 17.

v.2       What the Lord here describes was hardly only a theoretical problem. The perversion of justice by the taking of bribes or the wielding of influence is mentioned so many times in the OT that it must have been a common problem. [Caird, 201] Corrupt judges were common enough in the days of the NT that the problem is mentioned frequently in Jewish literature and we know enough about Middle Eastern life to know that it’s a problem still today. Alfred Edersheim, in his famous Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah describes judges in the city of Jerusalem who were known by the people as “Robber Judges.” [II, 287] A judge has your life in his or her hands, so a corrupt judge is a terrible thing. Here we have a judge who was beyond shame; his judicial misconduct didn’t matter to him.

            As you may remember, the Romans’ policy was to allow the Jews as much independence as was consistent with Roman interests. As a result they allowed the Jews to handle most of their internal legal matters. [Bock, ii, 1447]

v.3       It is significant that the woman was a widow. In the ancient world the widow was the typical symbol of the powerless and the oppressed because, unless she were wealthy, and very few were, she was helpless and dependent upon others for her welfare. [Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 133] In the OT judges were especially responsible to see that they got justice. This woman as a widow was too weak to compel the judge to give her justice and too poor to buy it from him.

            “Give me justice” suggests that the widow was in the right, but needed the judge to enforce her legal rights.

v.4       Did the judge refuse to act on her behalf because her adversary was influential or because he had paid a bribe? It isn’t said. But she wasn’t going to be able to make it worth the judge’s while, so he did nothing for her. Given the description of this judge in v. 2 and then again in v. 4, we may assume that there was some nefarious purpose behind his inaction on her behalf.

v.5       In other words, this widow was getting on the judge’s nerves.

v.7       The nature of the Lord’s argument here is what the rabbis called qal waḥomer and what we know in Latin as a fortiori, from the light to the heavy or from the weaker to the stronger. If this woman, weak and helpless as she was, got relief from this judge, corrupt and unjust as he was, how much more will the children of God get justice from their heavenly father?

            As Archbishop Trench observes in his great work on the parables, “None might have ventured on this comparison [between God and an unjust judge], it would have been overbold on the lips of any, save only of the Son of God.” [486]

            The last sentence of v. 7 is difficult and various translations have been proposed. One commentary lists twelve different options for a translation! [Bock, ii, 1451-1454] Scholars also differ as to whether it should be rendered as a question, as in the ESV, or as a statement. One possibility, instead of “Will he delay?” — which, in context, would clearly mean, “Will he delay in granting justice to his people?” [Bock, Green] — is that the words reproduce a Semitic form of words that mean “He will postpone or delay his wrath.” That is, as we read elsewhere in the NT, the Lord makes his elect wait for their vindication in order to provide more time for others to repent. [Bailey, Morris]

v.8       “Speedily” suggests at least some measure of delay and the final statement indicates that the delay will prove a temptation to many.

Now, it is always helpful to be told straightaway what a parable is about and what it is intended to teach. Here Luke says that the story Jesus told about the unjust judge and the pestering widow was designed to teach us that we ought “always to pray and not lose heart.” That is a lesson we are taught elsewhere, of course. Paul puts it very simply in 1 Thess. 5:16 — “Pray without ceasing” — or in Col. 4:2 — “Continue steadfastly in prayer” — and at greater length in Ephesians 6:18:

“[Pray] at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.”

Pray, pray and pray some more. In addition to such statements as those, think of the Canaanite woman who pleaded with Jesus for her daughter who was possessed by a demon and who would not take “No!” for an answer. Or think of Jacob wrestling all night with the Lord at the Jabbok or Abraham haggling with God over the fate of Sodom or Moses again and again pleading with him not to destroy Israel in the wilderness. And, supremely, think of the Lord Jesus himself, who prayed all his life and often long into the night and early in the morning that his Father would bless him and his work. Importunity or persistence or perseverance in prayer is a theme in the Word of God. And the reason is, as hard work as prayer can be it often proves exhausting, spiritually as well as physically. Wrestling with man can be tiring enough; wrestling with God can sap a soul’s strength.

Interestingly, this was not the way the Jews thought about prayer in the days the Lord Jesus was among them. They actually thought we could tire the Lord with our prayers, as this woman wore out the judge. Three times a day was regarded as the maximum. Not so in the Bible!

Luke is deeply interested in the whole subject of prayer, mentions it more often than any other Gospel writer, and includes material about prayer that the others omit. This parable is a case in point.

But it is not clear that the Lord meant in this parable to speak about prayer in general. No doubt what he says here applies to all sorts of prayer, to all of a Christian’s life of prayer, but he seems here to be speaking of a particular prayer, not of prayer in general.

The way 18:1 follows on the previous paragraph about the Second Coming and the closing thought in v. 8 alike suggest that what prayer the Lord is talking about here is prayer for his return, prayer for the coming of his kingdom. This connection between prayer and the Second Coming is found again in Luke 21:36, where we read:

“But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

For these reasons, most commentaries on the Gospel of Luke assume that the Lord Jesus was here still talking about his coming again and the need for his disciples to be ready for it, looking for it, and asking for it. And to make that point he used this memorable little story. Like so many of his parables, it springs to life when one learns more about the culture of the Middle East. Commentators have long referred to the fascinating recollection of an English Anglican clergyman and scholar by the name of H.B. Tristam who traveled extensively in the Holy Land and the greater Middle East in the later years of the 19th century and wrote about his travels in several popular books. Here is his description of what he once saw as he entered a middle-eastern city.

“Immediately on entering the gate of the city on one side stood the prison, with its barred windows, through which the prisoners thrust their arms and begged for alms. Opposite was a large open hall, the court of justice of the place. On a slightly raised dais at the further end sat the kadi or judge, half buried in cushions. Round him squatted various secretaries and other notables. The populace crowded into the rest of the hall, a dozen voices clamouring at once, each claiming that his cause should be the first heard. The more prudent litigants joined not in the fray, but held whispered communications with the secretaries, passing bribes, euphemistically called fees, into the hands of one or another. When the greed of the underlings was satisfied, one of them would whisper to the kadi, who would promptly call such and such a case. It seemed to be ordinarily taken for granted that judgment would go for the litigant who had bribed highest. But meantime a poor woman on the skirts of the crowd perpetually interrupted the proceedings with loud cries for justice. She was sternly bidden to be silent, and reproachfully told that she came there every day. ‘And so I will,’ she cried out, ‘till the kadi hears me.’ At length, at the end of a suit, the judge impatiently demanded, ‘What does that woman want?’ Her story was soon told. Her only son had been taken for a soldier, and she was alone, and could not till her piece of ground; yet the tax-gatherer had forced her to pay the [tax], from which as a lone widow she could be exempt. The judge asked a few questions, and said, ‘Let her be exempt.’ Thus her perseverance was rewarded. Had she had money to [give] a clerk, she might have been excused long before.” [Tristam, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands, 1894, 228-229 cited in Bailey, 134]

Such is the sort of scene the Lord’s parable would have conjured up in the minds of those who first heard it that day. A poor widow clamoring for justice, yelling above the crowd, until she so got on everyone’s nerves that she was given what she wanted. But, as we said, the prayer that the Lord was particularly concerned with that day was Marantha. You remember that word. It was one of the few Aramaic or Hebrew words that were carried over into Gentile Christian usage in the first century. You find it in the NT at 1 Cor. 16:22 in many English translations, but sadly not in the ESV. It is translated in the ESV and so the reader can’t tell that “Our Lord come,” which is what Maranatha means, is not a Greek word, but an Aramaic or Hebrew one, like “hallelujah,” “hosanna,” or “amen.” According to the Didache, a very early manual of church teaching, typically dated in the late first or early second century, Marantha was one of the prayers said at the end of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. A single word, a whole prayer: “Come, our Lord.” [Didache 10.6] Mara is Aramaic for “Lord,” the n is the possessive pronoun “our,” and atha is the verb “come” in the imperative. “Come, our Lord.”

The Lord’s point is a simple one. When his people cry out to him to bring his kingdom, to return to the earth, to vindicate those who have trusted in him, when they see no sign of the answer they have been longing for so long, they can grow discouraged and lose heart. In that discouragement, they cease to pray. We may pray “thy kingdom come” every time we recite together the Lord’s prayer, but as the true longing of our hearts, as the earnest petition of our prayers, the Second Coming has often slipped from our active expectation or hope. We know it is so.

There are two sorts of things we rarely pray for. The first is those things we always seem to have anyway. Again, we may pray for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer, but if we have a good job and have never missed a paycheck for years on end, we come to feel or, at least we act as if we feel that there is no need to pray for the money we need to live. The second sort of prayer we find it difficult to pray is that for things that seem utterly unlikely: whether the salvation of a person so hostile to the Christian message, so sure of himself, and so content with his unbelief or the return of Christ after now two thousand years have passed and still he has not come. But the Lord’s parable is designed to disabuse us of that indifference and, in particular, this indifference to praying for the Lord’s return. We are, as he says in v. 7, to pray that prayer to him “day and night.”

The final statement, in the second part of verse 8, in the context thus means, “Will the Lord, when he returns, find people who are actively waiting for and looking for and calling for his return, or will they have forgotten that he is coming?”

This is hugely important, brothers and sisters, more than we know. Our faith holds that Jesus is coming again. That Second Coming is the great fact of the future that completely determines the meaning of the present. We must be, you and I, according to the universal teaching of the NT, Second Coming people, people who are, as we read at the end of Hebrews 9, “eagerly waiting for him.” You can’t live the Christian life in its fullness and power and goodness and beauty if you are not eagerly waiting for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. You must be one who remembers that, as Paul put it in Col. 3:4: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Like many things in life that come to us in steps and stages, it is not until the last step has been taken or the last stage has been completed that we actually have what we have worked for and longed for. I have been for more than a year, actually almost two years, in the process of arranging for the construction of an addition to my family’s mountain cabin in Colorado. I have had to do many things so far, talk to many people, spend a lot of money, and still the project is hardly begun. The county requires us to buy more land from the rancher so that there will be room for the larger septic system that will be required. We have had to have our current property and the proposed additional acreage surveyed, the septic field designed and staked. We have had to hire an architect to produce the plans for the new building and, even more important, to negotiate with the county permission to leave the existing structure largely untouched, even though it was built before anyone had ever thought of building codes. Things we never had before we are being required now to obtain, such as a formal easement from the rancher to use his road into our property, the road we have used now for some fifty-five years, and so on. Much has been done but we haven’t yet even applied for a building permit. When all of that is done and when the country has granted its permission the addition will still have to be built! I’ve been encouraged as one problem after another has been resolved, but the fact is, after all of this work, after all of these steps have been taken, the property looks precisely as it has always looked and it is as small as it has always been. None of this activity will matter if the addition isn’t eventually actually built!

Well, in the same way, but far more seriously, for all that has happened so far in our salvation, all that has been done for us and all that has been given to us and all that happened within us, until Christ returns our salvation is, in a very real respect, only in prospect, only in anticipation. Theoretically, and, of course, only theoretically, were Christ not to return, the cross, his resurrection, our faith, and following him thus far through our lives, would amount to nothing. Paul makes that point explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15. If the day of resurrection never dawns, our salvation will never come. In that sense you are not yet saved. No one is yet saved. That is how essential to the whole the last part actually is.

There is a famous story told of B.F. Westcott, one of the great biblical scholars of the 19th century. In fact, this is the Westcott of the famous Westcott and Hort, the ground-breaking edition of the Greek New Testament that was the foundation of the Greek New Testament in use by all biblical scholars today. Westcott was a believing man and a defender of the authority of the Bible in his day. Well, it happened, so we are told, that he found himself in the same railway car with a girl from the Salvation Army. When she discovered that her traveling companion was a bishop of the Church of England, knowing what passed for Christianity among many Anglican bishops of that day, she rather boldly asked Bishop Westcott if he were saved. He had been reading his Greek New Testament and so replied, “Do you mean sotheis, sothomenos, or sothesomenos? That is, do you mean “have I been saved?” “Am I being saved?” or “Shall I be saved?” We have no record of the girl’s response. I hope the bishop went on to explain and gently what he meant and that he had an interesting conversation with this Christian girl who was, after all, just trying to stand up for the Lord.

But it is an important point that he was making. The Bible speaks of salvation in three tenses, or three acts, if you will, if not more. We were saved at the cross long before we ever lived. Remember what the angel said about Jesus before he was born: “he shall save his people from their sins.” Remember Jesus saying of those the Father had given to him, “I will give them eternal life.” He was speaking about his death. But we were also saved when we believed in Jesus Christ, as Paul told the Philippian jailer, you remember: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved and your house.” But we are also saved when Jesus comes again as we read in Hebrews 9:28: “he will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The same verb in all cases. Our full and complete salvation awaits the Lord’s return. As necessary as was the cross or the empty tomb, so necessary is his coming again because what the Bible means by salvation has not been yet experienced by anyone and won’t be until it is experienced by everyone on the great day.

Even those who have died in Christ have not yet been saved in the full sense of the word. They have not experienced the perfection of human nature, body and soul, and cannot until the resurrection. And lest we think that a small thing, Paul dares even to say that those in heaven still groan waiting for what is still to come. Indeed, they may be more impatient for it in heaven than they ever were on earth because a pure soul knows better than an impure one what it is missing!

Again and again in the Bible we read something akin to what the Lord says here: “he will give justice to them speedily.” “Behold I am coming quickly,” the Lord says near the very end of the last book of the New Testament. But then we are also prepared for a wait. The Lord told another parable of a landowner who went on a long journey and whose servants were tempted to ignore their duties because he was so long in coming home. He spoke of great things that had to be done before he could return, such as the evangelization of the entire world.

Well, that is where we are: somewhere between the “speedily” or “quickly” and the master taking a long time to return. But our eye has always to be on that great day to come, our hope must be fixed on the Lord’s return, our whole sense of ourselves and our present life, our privileges and our duties, must rest on the certainty that Christ will appear someday in the clouds of heaven, with the trumpet call of God and the shout of the archangel,, the dead shall rise, and then we who were eagerly awaiting his appearing shall ever be with the Lord. In the NT believers always live in hope of that day!

Woody Allen, that great American philosopher, wrote in his work God (A Play): “The trick is to start at the ending when you write a play. Get a good strong ending and then write backwards.” Well that is what we have here: a good strong ending, very strong indeed, as we read last week from 17:22-37. That ending determines the meaning of the entire story. The whole plot is a vehicle to get us to the end, the climax, the fulfillment. If our lives are difficult, punishingly difficult, if they take twists and turns, what does that matter if on the great day we will be vindicated for our faith in Jesus and granted entrance into his eternal kingdom?

The fact is we are well aware of this principle, in regard to the great events of redemption that lie behind us. When we sin we immediately return in our minds to the cross, an event that lies behind us now some two thousand years, and take our comfort, real comfort, from the fact that those sins were already paid for by our savior on the cross. When we must face death, our own or that of a loved one, our thoughts immediately hark back to the empty tomb and the Lord’s triumph over death. If he could die and rise again, then what need have I to worry in the hour of death, if I am with him and he is with me?

But if events that lie two thousand years behind us can wield that kind of power over our lives today, why not an event that lies in the future, even if it should not occur for another two thousand years? He said he would bring justice speedily, but as Peter reminds us, he does not calculate time as we do. Of course not, he is the eternal God. For him a thousand years are but a day. And, in comparison to eternity, what are a few thousand years even to us? Why should not that soon coming event, that public, history-ending appearance of the Son of God reach backward, as the cross and the empty tomb reach forward, to overshadow our lives? If our faith can behold the Savior hanging on the cross for us; surely it can behold him in the sky descending at the head of a mighty host to bring salvation to those eagerly waiting for him.

But if so, then that prospect must animate our faith and in the Bible that is the same thing as animating our prayer. Prayer is the language and the expression of faith. If it is not in our prayer, it is not in our faith! Do you want justice, like this poor widow wanted it? Do you want justice in this world, in your own heart and life, in the life of your loved ones? Do you want God’s truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ to be vindicated before the world; do you want the proud and arrogant, who get so much time and attention in our world today, I say do you want them to be made to shut up? Do you want sin to be seen for what it is and hated for what it does, in your heart and in the hearts of others? Do you want the glory of God and the greatness of our Savior to be shouted from the housetops everywhere in this world? Do you want to see love, and peace, and joy fill the hearts of all of God’s people and never to be diminished? Do you long for such things? If you do, you will pray Marantha. Every day pray Marantha. Every day you will pray for that. And praying that prayer you will be kept in mind to live as you will want to have lived when the shout of the archangel and the trumpet call of God are heard in the sky and the thrill of final triumph shoots through your soul like a bolt of lightning.

When you think of others, think “what will become of them on the great day?” When you face some great trial, think “what will I think of this on the day my Savior appears in the sky?” When your heart is full of the love of God, remember this, “when Christ comes again, my heart will be like this and more every day, all day.” Again and again bring the last day near and live in the active expectation of it, speak of it to God, and pray for its coming.

And then, whatever may be true of others, when he comes the Son of Man will at least find you eagerly waiting for him!