Last week, the speaker of the Australian Federal Parliament resigned over a scandal involving her use of travel entitlements. (I mention this for the benefit of international readers; if you’re local, you can’t have missed it!) Among other things, this speaker was renowned for ejecting opposition members from the parliamentary chamber. One of the newspapers put together a mosaic of her face, made up of smaller pictures of the 400 members of parliament she had ejected over the past two years. A close-up view is on the left, and the full mosaic on the right. Some very clever, painstaking work. (In the future, it’ll take some convincing for me to believe journalists when they say they’re understaffed.)
This week in Coffee with the King, we’re going to do the same sort of thing with a series of short stories in Luke chapter 18 (and a little bit of chapter 19). Each story is a little picture in its own right, and we’ll look at what it’s trying to teach us. But at the same time, we’re going to step back and look a the big picture; what are these stories telling us the way Luke has assembled them in his Gospel? To do this second bit, keep track of the relative status of each of the characters in the story. Who “wins” and who “loses” in each story?
But first, the little picture. We start off with a parable about a poor widow:18:1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
That kind of takes the suspense out of it, doesn’t it? We know the point of the parable before we’ve even heard it. (Some manuscripts include “Spoiler alert” at the start of verse 1, but they are probably scribal additions.*) Keep that in mind for later.18:2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.
Hard to believe, I know.18:3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
It wasn’t easy for a person of low status (a poor widow) to get justice, particularly if her adversary was wealthy and could use his status and connections to work the legal system. Again, hard to believe.
But this wasn’t an unusual situation. In fact, a remarkably similar scenario is reported by a Western traveller visiting Iraq in the 19th century:On a slightly raised dais 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 the fray, but held whispered communications with the secretaries, passing bribes 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 taken for granted that judgment would go for the litigant who had bribed the 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. The judge asked her a few questions, and ruled in her favour. Thus her perseverance was rewarded. Had she money to bribe a clerk, she might have been excused long before. (From Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it make a difference?)
In Jesus’ parable, we see the woman’s persistence pay off:18:4 For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think…
People can be remarkably self-aware in parables, can’t they?18:5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!'”
And then Jesus brings the point home:18:6-8 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
If even dishonest, uncaring judges will be worn down by persistent cries for justice… how much more will God respond to the persistent cries of his children?
[This was a common way for rabbis to argue, called qal wahomer – arguing from light-to-heavy. If this is true in a lesser case (with sinful humans), how much more will it be true in a greater case (i.e. with God).]
So the simple point is – as we already noted in verse 1 – pray, and don’t give up. Know that a God who is good will answer our prayers.
OK, but why?
Now of course, this raises more questions than it answers. Such as:
- Why do we have to ask, if God knows what we need in the first place?
- Why do we have to persist in prayer, like we’re trying to wear down an unjust judge?
- Why aren’t all our prayers answered? (And how is that linked to the final verse of this story?)
We’re not going to be able to answer those today. Probably not in this lifetime, to our complete satisfaction. And today’s really just about raising the questions, like the parable does. (Note that Jesus doesn’t answer them here!) If you’re interested in exploring these questions further, I recommend Philip Yancey’s Prayer: Does it make any difference? I can also summarise some of his points for you to whet your appetite, but at the risk of being overly simplistic:
- Why do we have to ask? Jesus prayed. Prayer displays God’s glory and our trust. Prayer invites us into partnership with God.
- Why do we have to persist in prayer? Persistence shows we’re serious. Persistence draws us to God. Persistence changes us.
- Why aren’t all our prayers answered? Sometimes it’s the prayer (trivial or self-centred or untrusting). Jesus had unanswered prayers. Prayer is not a superpower; it remains a mystery, with God as sovereign rather than a genie.
Think about some of these questions today.
But the point of this story in Luke is simple enough: persist in prayer. Because even a sinful, self-centred human gets worn down by persistence; how much more confident should we be in a loving, gracious God?
One more thing…
Before we finish, just a quick eye to the bigger picture. In this parable, who “wins”? Is it the rich adversary? The judge? Or the poor widow?
Let’s start keeping a scorecard:
- rich people with high status in this world – 0
- poor widow with low status in this world – 1
* Gk: βλεπετε το ἀπολλυονον. Cue Greek nerds to critique my attempt.