Luke 18:1-8, Pray without Quitting

[October 20, 2013] In today’s Gospel-reading Jesus tells another parable “to show that at all times [His disciples] ought to pray and not to lose heart”: the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge. As such, the parable can stand by itself and the meaning is clear enough. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 that we should “pray without ceasing”; and in Ephesians 6:18 he also tells us that “by means of all prayer and petition” we should be “praying at every time in spirit and watching unto this in all perseverance concerning all the saints.” The meaning of the parable has to do with persisting in prayer and not being discouraged by the seemingly long delay in God’s response.

As always, however, the parable’s relationship to its immediate context and the context of the larger gospel not only shows us the hand of Luke’s craftsmanship in the arrangement of his manuscript but takes us deeper into the parable’s meaning, and its application to us.

While some would press that allegorizing the parable is artificial and impairs its meaning, that Jesus tells the story only to illustrate a single simple point, I beg to differ. That Jesus chose a widow was no accident and that she is asking for vengeance against her adversary (an uncomfortable point blurred by modern translations) should also not be overlooked. We are reminded of the souls of the martyrs under the altar crying out for the same justice (ekdikēsis) in Revelation 6:9-11. If we consider things well, we should also not overlook that the parable which follows in Luke 18:9-14 is also about prayer and justice (setting right, dikaioō), and might be told to balance the telling of this parable in light of Luke 18:15-17. The task before us now, after understanding the parable itself, is just to try to understand the connection of our present parable to the teaching that preceded it in 17:20-37—without, that is, spending an inordinate amount of time on this preceding text.

Let us then first understand the parable and its elements.

The Parable Itself (Luke 18:1-8)

We have a judge who has no fear of God and no respect for people (verse 2). He is an example of what the Old Testament condemns in a judge (Exodus 23:6-9; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:16-17; and 2 Chronicles 19:5-7). He stands in contrast to God (verse 7). We can compare this method of contrasting to 11:5-8 and 11:11-13 (which were also about prayer): “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

There is also a widow, one who has lost her husband and therefore is particularly vulnerable in her society. A widow was considered to be suffering God’s judgment against her for her own or her ancestors’ sins, and therefore was shamed by others. She was frequently subject to abuse, especially by her husband’s family. The Old Testament condemns this kind of treatment of widows and considers them under God’s special care (Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; Psalm 68:5; 146::9; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; 49:11; and Malachi 3:5; see also James 1:27).

The widow lives in the same town as the judge; more than that we are not told except that she has an adversary (antidikos) against whom she wants retribution or vengeance (ekdikēsis). She wants her enemy to pay for what he has done, to be punished or to make amends, in order to set things right and even the score (or restore balance). The NASB has her plead, “Give me legal protection from my opponent,” and the judge finally say, “I will give her legal protection.” I think this is a poor translation of “ekdikēson me apo tou antidikou mou,” and “ekdikēsō autēn.” The word in question means to avenge a crime that has been done by bringing retribution against someone; it has the sense of restoring the balance of things, thus making them fair again (for example, it is translated “vengeance” or “to take revenge” in Luke 21:22; Acts 7:24; Romans 12:19; and Hebrews 10:20; “avenging of wrong” or “punishment” in 2 Corinthians 7:11; “to punish” in 2 Corinthians 10:6; “to inflict or deal out vengeance or retribution” or “to punish” in 2 Thessalonians 1:8; “punishment” in 1 Peter 2:14; and “to avenge” bloodshed in Revelation 6:10 and 19:2). Of course I am not saying that this is a sound way to think, only that it is what the word means within the linguistic framework of the culture within which it was spoken. Perhaps (though we do not know), the crime has to do with the death of her husband, that which made her a widow in the first place. The parable never questions the justice of her cause.

The judge ignores this widow, but she keeps coming to him even though he ignores her until she not only—finally—gets his attention, but she makes herself a nuisance (kopos) to him, and such a nuisance that he is worried that she will wear him out (hypōpiazō). This shows what a bad judge he is, not taking seriously his responsibilities at all. The word for wearing him out literally means to slap him in the face or give him a black eye, and is used to mean “bruise, browbeat, mortify, greatly annoy or wear out,” and also means, more figuratively, to treat roughly or to torment. (Paul uses the word figuratively in 1 Corinthians 9:27 to describe how he “buffets” his body to bring it under control, like an athlete in training.) This is how much this woman pestered the judge. As a result, he gave in to her request and punished her adversary.

Notice that she does not attempt to take vengeance herself. She takes the wrong-doing to the judge and insists that he deal with it. This seems to be part of the message that Jesus is conveying, which would be consistent with His teaching throughout Luke: that His disciples renounce being judges but leave that in the hands of God.

Jesus then asks His disciples that if such a bad human judge would do this in the case of this widow, “will not God avenge His elect who cry to Him day and night?” The answer is “yes, for certain.”

Then Jesus says or asks, in Greek: kai makrothumei ep autois. The word makrothumeō means to be long-suffering or patient. The words are translated either as a statement: “even though He is long-suffering over them,” meaning either, over their oppressors, or with His elect (the last corresponds to the parable more); or as a question: “And is He long-suffering over them?” meaning, He is not taking His time the way the unjust judge did. “I tell you that [God] will avenge them quickly.”

The fact is that we do have to wait a long time for God to answer our prayer for “justice.” Why God should delay is not disclosed here, but the fact of it is clear enough. What Jesus implies, however, is that God is delaying no more than is necessary—God is not like the unjust judge. God also is long-suffering toward our cries, meaning, God does not get impatient with us or is indifferent to our cries, but rather hears us when we pray. Moreover, while God will avenge us, His delay gives people an opportunity for salvation. In Romans 2:4 Paul rhetorically addresses the unrepentant, “Do you despise the riches of His kindness and forbearance and long-suffering, not knowing that God’s kindness is leading you to repentance?” Peter in 2 Peter 3:9, 15 say to his readers, “The Lord does not delay regarding the promise, as some count delay, but is long-suffering toward you, not intending that any perish but that all advance to repentance … Count the long-suffering of our Lord to be salvation.”

In verse 8 Jesus says, God “will avenge them quickly.” This does not mean that there will be no delay—for obviously there is—but when He comes, He will make a speedy end of things, as in 1 Samuel 3:12 (“in that day”—“when the Son of Man comes”).

“Nevertheless,” Jesus says, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” The Son of Man figure is taken from Daniel 7:13. When the Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven, all dominion will be taken away from the “beasts” and given to Him, and He will be given “an everlasting dominion.” The question of whether He will find faith on the earth is about us, His disciples. The word faith (pistis) means trust but it also means good faith, trustworthiness, or faithfulness. Will there be those who have prayed like the widow in the parable did? Or will they have given up?

This does not mean that He will not find any who are still faithful, but rather it expresses how frustrated Jesus feels about how little there will be (compare Luke 9:41, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you?”).

There are some puzzling things we have opened up here. The meaning of persistent praying is clear enough, but obviously Jesus is comparing us to a widow who has an adversary who is either harming her or who has caused her harm and against whom she wants revenge or retribution. How is this an appropriate comparison? This is the area where “careful” commentaries refuse to go. However, where this question takes us is not into fanciful flights of the imagination but to the previous verses in 17:20-37, and especially to the immediately preceding verse 37: “Where the corpse is, there also the vultures (or eagles) will be gathered.” Probably this verse describes the very retribution that the widow cries for.

The Context (17:17:20-37)

Let us consider chapter 17 for a moment. In verses 20-21, the Pharisees want to know when the kingdom of God is coming and Jesus tells them that it is not coming “with signs to be observed,” that is, it will not be manifest as such, or in such a way that people can say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” No, it is hidden. In fact, “the kingdom of God is [standing] in your [very] midst.” In other words, Jesus is saying to them, He Himself is the kingdom of God and they need not go looking for it anywhere else. Before it becomes manifest for all to see, it is here now, among them, and the important thing is for them to not miss it here and now.

But, Jesus goes on to say in verse 22-25, to His disciples (not the Pharisees), “The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there! Look here!’ Do not go away, and do not run after them.” This describes the time in which we live right now. While to the Pharisees He says that the kingdom of God is in their midst, He says to His disciples that that will not always be the case. The Son of Man is leaving them, and they will be left alone. If, as He said another time, He is the Bridegroom, and the days will come when the Bridegroom will be “taken away from them” and will no longer be with them (Luke 5:34-35), then they will be as though widowed and bereft of Him. Indeed, for their Husband will not simply go away but He will be murdered (Luke 9:22, 44; 13:33; 18:33), for before He comes in glory, “like the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, [and] shines to the other part of the sky,” “He must first suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” If He has left us because He has been rejected (and murdered) by this generation, then the parable in chapter 18 seems quite appropriate, for it compares us to widows, left alone without a husband.

Nor are we left wondering who the adversary is. It is not the devil, per se, but “this generation” that has rejected—and murdered—our Husband, our Lord, the Son of Man. That adversary is eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage (men and women), buying and selling and planting and building (17:27-28), as if nothing at all is wrong, yet it is they from whom retribution is due.

Nor do we have to wonder what the vengeance is that the widow seeks: it is like “the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all” (17:27), or “the day that Lot went out from Sodom [and] it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all” (17:29). “It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (17:30).

Jesus goes on to talk about how just as Noah entered the ark and Lot went out from Sodom, so we will also escape the things that will come upon the world—if we do not look back as Lot’s wife did, or try in any way to keep our soul (17:27, 29, 31-33, 34-36). That, however, is not part of this discussion since it does not bear on the parable in chapter 18.

However, verse 37 probably is. Either the “body” that the “eagles” snatch are the ones who are rescued from the coming wrath (see what I wrote in the previous paragraph), or—more likely—the “corpse” where the “vultures” gather to feed is “this generation” that has rejected the Son of Man. This generation is either already (spiritually) dead or will die “on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.” The corpse represents corruption and the vultures those who administer God’s wrath (the angels?).

So in 17:20-37 Jesus, who takes up the way of the cross, not executing but bearing God’s judgment against the human race in obedience to the Father, leaves us. We are now in the world as He was—by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and accompanies us along the way—walking “the way of the cross,” not seeking to keep our soul but losing it (17:33), and submitting to the judgment of God upon the world, not rebelling against it but subordinating ourselves to it as Jesus Himself did. We do not take our own revenge but give all vengeance to God. We judge no one but rather love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us and praying for those who mistreat us. This does not mean that God ignores all that is done to us, and what was done to His Son (by us, remember), but we do not lay a hand upon this—that is God’s affair. We are a widow in this world, bereft of our Husband and with no one to help us except God, Who is the Judge of “this generation.” We should be familiar with this position from all that came before chapter 18 in Luke’s gospel.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that we are living in the Lord’s Jubilee, but spiritually, inwardly, and among us, in a hidden way; it is not manifest yet and will not be until the Son of Man Himself is revealed.

So are we praying for God to punish, to take revenge on our neighbors? After all, we ourselves are indicted in the crime against Christ. Would we not be praying also against ourselves? And does not Jesus also tell us to love our enemies and to bless them and pray for them (Luke 7:27-28)? When Jesus speaks of “this generation” in 17:25 and the widow’s adversary in 18:3, who or what does He mean? Probably it is not as simple as equating this adversary with the people around us, even the people who persecute us because we bear the Name of Christ. Perhaps we can listen to Paul for help. When Paul speaks of the “age” he probably means the same as what Jesus means by “generation.” He does not just mean a period of time but rather something like the “world.” The world however is not simply the people who are under its spell. The age, the generation, the world is something psychic—Paul calls it psychikos—meaning soulical. It is the collective entity that has formed a gestalt and operates together, as a whole, in concert against God. It is like a mental sphere in which people enter and become enslaved, unable to free themselves, and which blinds them to reality—the reality of God and creation. Instead of reality all they really perceive are their own representations of reality. These representations of reality, however, are not innocent. They are intentionally designed—by the emergent powers of the gestalt—to isolate and insulate us from God (and therefore from creation, which does not—and cannot—exist as something independently of the divine).

So Paul tells us that our warfare, our wrestling “is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenlies” (Ephesians 6:12). When we pray for vengeance, it is against these, for this is our adversary—the same that assaulted Christ—which assaults us day and night, and not only us (for we experience a measure of relief) but everyone in the world. When Christ returns in glory and His dominion is revealed, the dominion of this adversary will be destroyed and will cease. This is what we are praying for, not the harm of our neighbors, however much they may harm us.

(This consideration may make us want to reflect more on the significance of the destructions caused by the waters of the deluge and fire that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah.)

This is how the following parable is a corrective. For if we pray as a widow seeking justice, we must not pray self-righteously. We need to be unencumbered by any righteousness of our own, but rather we must “receive the kingdom of God like a child.” If we are completely unencumbered, like those who—unlike Lot’s wife—do not go back into the house to take anything in our hand—we will “enter the kingdom of God.” Only those who are ready to enter the kingdom can pray as they ought.

Summary

What then is the lesson of the parable in 18:1-8? In view of the rejection of the Son of Man by this generation in which we live, and His absence from us, we are to pray to God continually, and without let-up, for His kingdom to come—for the Son of Man to be revealed manifestly, to end the dominion of this world and bring in His kingdom of peace.

The world as a collective psychic entity (something deeper than what we mean by “culture”) has us all in its thrall; its powers enslave us, and its end is misery and self-destruction. What enables it is a lie; we may even say that the world is a massive delusion. The light of reality dissolves it. This light is the revelation of Jesus Christ—Who He really is (God and human being [creature], undivided and inseparable yet unconfused and unchanged), which is hidden by His self-emptying but revealed in our spirit by His resurrection—which is the hidden (eschatological or eternal) reality of all that is. When this becomes manifest, the delusion of the world cannot survive it. The resistance that the world offers to this revelation now shows the extent to which it “feels” this threat.

Since we exist in this life as Christ did, living in submission to the judgment of God upon the human project, loving God in the inevitable “way of the cross” (if we are faithful), depending and living through the Holy Spirit, our only resource and recourse is God. Existing in this life, we live in prayer and by prayer, in a sort of impatient patience—that is, impatiently waiting for and calling upon God while we patiently and persistently call upon God without giving up. Our life is framed and defined by this prayer, as many have observed. Having said that, let us also say that it also means that we pray in practice: the Christian prays. We pray because, until Christ returns, we are strangers (aliens) and pilgrims living in a foreign land, a “land” that has murdered Him.

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