The Parable of the Persistent Widow
In a first century world dominated by an empire that seemed invincible, along with a religious community that often laid heavy burdens on those it was meant to nurture and uplift, Jesus encouraged those around Him to persevere and not give up.
In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus speaks of a judge who had no interest in God or others. This judge eventually exacts the right justice, not because of any genuine care or concern for others, but because of the persistence of a widow and his concern for self-preservation: he did not want to look bad.
The point that Jesus is underlining is this: If a person who has little care or concern for anyone but himself can dispense justice, how much more can the One True Judge, who commands people to look after the widow and orphan and administer justice, give justice? From this we see that the parable is along the lines of a ‘how much more’ argument that was often used in Jewish circles. For example, following another parable Jesus uses this ‘how much more’ argument when He says, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13).
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”
Jesus had been speaking about the coming of the Kingdom of God – of God’s rule and reign. God is not some sort of absentee landlord who has no concern for His world. He has been involved in His world right from the beginning (Rev 13:8)
“…This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time…”
2 Timithy 1:9
Life is not about getting God into our plan, but seeing the bigger plan of which He calls us to be a part. He has not given up on us, will not leave or forsake us, and cares for us in immeasurable ways. Paul realises our need to know this when He writes:
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-18
In the Bible, Judges were called to reflect the love and compassion of God in dealing with everyday matters that came up in law. The judges did this by bringing the wisdom, knowledge and understanding of God (Prov 3:5-6) to bear on everyday life and did so in order to protect freedom and help develop a God-centred caring community. In light of this the whole purpose of the office of a Judge was to reveal the heart of God for all people – including those who had got it wrong and those who were unable to contribute to society due to circumstances. God challenges His people to treat all people with respect.
“So not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.”
“…Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
The Judge in Jesus’ story was the complete opposite of what a judge should really be like and was totally unwilling to see the evil in his own lack of concern in the presence of a widow whose situation should have stirred his heart. The widow was without power, money, or someone to stand up and support her. In a real sense nothing very much was going for her, and on top of this someone else, probably had the ear of the judge and was trying to ‘get one over’ on her. Yet despite all that was against her, this widow persisted and eventually the judge gave her justice. Just stop and think about that for a moment: a totally selfish and unjust judge made a right decision.
Jesus is pointing out that if such results can come about in a worldly scenario, then why don’t people see how willing His Father is to hear and reach out to those who persistently come to Him? Whilst recognising this we also need to recognise that our persistence does not earn us any right to demand things from God, but enables us to engage with the One who, through grace, mercy and sacrificial giving, is already present.
In this context true persistence reveals the attitude of heart whereby a person is always open to God – even when nothing seems to be going right, or when the one approaching God has been in error. Note for example, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:10ff). The Tax Collector knew that he had no claim on God in any way shape or form, yet he was still able to receive mercy, this revealing God’s loving-kindness towards those who approach with the right attitude of heart.
In all of this we see the need to focus on God and not get caught up in what we think will or will not happen. All too often we can slip into thinking that God is not interested in us, hasn’t heard us, or hasn’t got time to get involved with what is going on. Our focus needs to be on God and as James writes we need to submit to God and come near to God who will come near to us (James 4:8). God is always perfect in all His ways, and that includes timing. What we need to be doing is making sure we approach with the right motive and attitude of heart.
Sometimes we are so fixated with how we think God is going to answer prayer that we forget that the most important thing is to know His presence and realise that He is with us at all times.
Many years ago when I was a student I was given a ‘new’ old car. I immediately went about advertising the Hammerite-pink Morris 1000 that I had previously been driving. I asked God to help me get the money I needed from the car, and assumed the amount would include enough for a few decent clothes (after all, I was a student) and other items I thought were necessary. I was aware that Morris 1,000’s were becoming collectors’ items and expected a good price. So how much did I sell the car for? I ended up with £60 and for a short while was a little annoyed that God hadn’t really answered my prayer. It was not until later that I realised all I had really needed was the money to tax the ‘new’ car for six months. In those days six months tax was £55, and I had received £60. My idea of how God should have answered prayer initially prevented me from seeing what He was really like and being thankful for what I already had. Don’t get caught up with your plan, and give up praying when things don’t seem to happen. Get caught up with knowing God.
An attitude in prayer
Through the parable of the persistent widow Jesus is not telling His disciples that prayer is more effective the more one repeats the prayer. He’s talking about the attitude of heart and mind that can be seen in the way the woman conducts her life. The widow in the parable was set on getting justice and likewise we need to be focused on the One who brings about justice.
"This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”
Prayer is not about what we generate, by way of emotion or good works, yet many people seek to generate prayer in order to conquer such things as fear and anxiety. Prayer is about focusing on the One we are praying to – it is about knowing His nature and character and continuing to seek Him in prayer even when nothing seems to be going on; it is about knowing our Father. If a struggling woman in a seemingly hopeless situation before a self-centred bigot of a judge can find justice, then why is it that we sometimes think God will not bring justice?
We need to be persistent in our prayer life, and scripture contains many examples of people who overcame great difficulty in order to meet with Jesus.
Take, for example, the friends of the paralytic man who made such an effort to bring him to Jesus (Mark 2:9). They persisted to the extent of taking radical action and lowering their friend through a roof to get to Jesus. Note also the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25ff). For twelve years she’d tried every method under the sun to get healed, yet to no avail. According to the teaching of the day she was not allowed to be in a crowd, and yet she ‘ran the gauntlet’ so to speak in order to touch the hem of His cloak (the tassel on his prayer shawl). She persisted despite all the odds.
On another occasion we read of an ex-prostitute who entered the house of Simon the Pharisee with a bottle of ointment to anoint Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36). She must have been fully aware of some of the ridicule she was going to receive – yet she had seen something in Jesus that told her it was going to be alright. Her understanding of Jesus and desire to reach out to Him overcame any embarrassment she could have felt. And how did Jesus respond to this extravagant outburst? Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” We could also note the story of the Syro-Phoenicia woman (Mat 7:26-27), and of the blind beggar who persisted in calling out to Jesus despite those around him who were trying to shut him up (Luke 18). All of these people saw something in Jesus, which helped them persevere in one way or another, despite the odds. Their faith was not a drumming up of power or emotions, or a resting on any good works. They all caught a glimpse of what God was really like – someone who cared for them, and someone who reached out to them.
At the end of His parable about the persistent widow Jesus says, “”Will there be faith found on earth when he comes?” Here Jesus is talking about the real faith that is rooted in God alone, rather than faith in a perceived outcome that we think should occur.
I used to have a friend who had owned a small Christian bookshop for 27 years and reached out to many from a New Age background. We would spend many hours talking in his shop, and met all kinds of people. Years later, long after the shop had been sold, my friend died of an easily preventable illness. He simply believed that God was going to heal him, and did not take into consideration anything else. He thought that his own plan was God’s agenda, and suffered the consequences. One day he collapsed and went into a coma, eventually dying a few weeks later.
Jesus is asking whether He will “find (the) faith on earth when he comes.” This faith is in our Heavenly Father and speaks of knowing and trusting His nature and character, rather than being deflected into trusting a plan which may or may not be of God.
The faith that Jesus speaks of is a deep knowing and abiding in God, come what may. We must always remember that God wants us to trust in Him and not our strength our circumstances, as can be seen from many of the events in scripture such as the reduction of Gideon’s army from 30,000 to 300, followed by great victory.
“The Lord said to Gideon, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her...”
In every way God wants us to see that He is our heavenly Father and provider of all things. We are to trust in Him, and in doing so move in the strength that He gives (Isaiah 40:31, Psalm 138:3, 2 Cor 4:16). He wants to encourage us to be in experience (at the leading and empowering of the Spirit Rom 8:14 (sons of God)) what we are in position (through the work of Christ alone John 1:29, Eph 2:6 (seated in heavenly realms)). We are holy - those who are set apart as special and who truly belong to God in every way.
“…but religion is more than an aid in the development of the merely human; its goal is to raise the human to the level of the holy” A.Heschel in, “Man’s Quest for God”, p 136.
It’s hard to persist in prayer if we have the wrong image of God in our minds or have our own ideas concerning what He is going to do and in living like this we end up doing everything in our own strength – and how far did that every get us? When we seek to trust in God and rest in His ways we become more open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Then, even if nothing much seems to happen when we think it should do, we are still rooted in Him and aware of the peace of His presence that surpasses all understanding.
Just as a surgeon doesn’t have to explain the most complicated details of an operation to those undergoing them, so too God does not always give us insight into all He is doing. What our heavenly Father does do is tell us is that He loves us and that His Son will one day return for all who are His. When Jesus returns is He going to find people who have given up because their faith was too rooted in their own plans or expectations; or will He find people who genuinely know and understand God?
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
We know that God is faithful by all that He has done in the past and through the sending of His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. We know that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and that, as Paul said to the Philippian church, “… that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil 3:6. In light of this let us always approach God with an open heart as to who He is before anything else and out of that intimacy of fellowship place all our thoughts and hopes before Him. God is a God of justice and One day Jesus will return to exercise justice over all the earth.