“A Parable of Persistent Prayer” (Sermon on Luke 18:1-8, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“A Parable of Persistent Prayer” (Luke 18:1-8)
The parable Jesus tells in the Holy Gospel for today, from Luke 18, is traditionally called the Parable of the Importunate Widow. “Importunate” is an old-timey kind of word. It means “persistent in making a request,” even to the point of becoming something of a bother. And that would describe the widow portrayed in this parable. She was importunate. She was persistent in her seeking justice from an unjust judge. And Jesus is saying, through this parable, that this is how we in the church should be–importunate, persistent. Thus our text today is “A Parable of Persistent Prayer.”
The parable is introduced with a brief explanation that sums up the main point: “[Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” The “them” here would be Jesus’ disciples. He wants them–and that would include us–to be persistent in our praying and to not give up, not lose heart, not grow weary in our life as Christ’s disciples in this world.
It can be wearisome, it can be discouraging, to be the disciples of Jesus in a hostile world, a world filled with heartache and heartbreak and suffering, all the afflictions and ailments that come with living in a fallen world, plus the added tribulations that come with bearing the name of Christ and bearing our cross. It’s not easy to be a Christian. It calls for endurance. That’s the situation in which we find ourselves.
In the verses leading up to our text today, Jesus told his disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” In other words, Jesus is saying to his disciples: “After I leave you and ascend into heaven, it will not be easy for you. As my followers, you will endure suffering and persecution. You will look back and recall how nice it was during those golden days when your Master was walking with you and doing all those acts of blessing. So now you need to be ready for when the going gets tough.”
That’s the background, that’s the setting, for the parable Jesus is about to tell them, so that they will be persistent in prayer and not lose heart. And so the parable begins: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” OK, we first meet an unrighteous judge. He’s a judge. He has power. He’s called upon to make decisions and render justice. But he’s not a very moral judge. He can’t be counted upon to act out of good character.
Now who’s next? “And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’” A widow. Typically, rather powerless. Marginalized in that society. Not expected to have much pull or clout in getting what she wants, much less from an unjust judge. And what she wants is justice. Her adversary has wronged her, and she wants a remedy. She wants somebody to be on her side to give her the help she seeks. And so she comes to this judge. Repeatedly. Persistently. She doesn’t give up. She “kept coming to him,” our text says.
At first the judge refuses. He’s an unjust judge, remember, and he neither fears God nor respects man. And he certainly doesn’t care much about this widow. And yet. . . .
And yet, finally, he relents. He gives in, because the widow doesn’t give up. Her persistence pays off. The judge accedes to her repeated requests. The judge says to himself: “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” It wasn’t that this judge was such a good guy. He wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was filled with compassion and mercy for this poor widow. He wasn’t. It was just that he got tired of being beaten down by the bothersome begging of this persistent plaintiff. The widow was wearing him out. Justice is served, even by an unjust judge.
And so now Jesus makes the application of the parable: “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”
You see, this is one of Jesus’ “how much more” parables. Jesus tells a bunch of these. He takes one situation in which a certain outcome occurs, and then he amps it up by saying “how much more” will that be the case when we’re talking about God. For example: If God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, how much more will your heavenly Father care for you, his dear children. Another example: If you fathers, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father–who is most definitely not evil–give good gifts to you? He will indeed! If your neighbor gives you a loaf of bread at midnight, because you keep pounding on his door and he just wants to get rid of you and go back to sleep, how much more will your heavenly Father–who wants you to pray to him, at any hour–how much more will he hear your prayers and grant you what you need. You get the idea. These are “how much more” comparisons.
And that’s what Jesus is doing here. Even an unjust judge helped the importunate widow. How much more will God, the merciful and righteous Judge, help his own people when they cry out to him in persistent prayer. He will indeed! He will give us justice. And he will do so speedily. So don’t give up. Always pray, and do not lose heart.
So this is a parable of persistent prayer. But it has a particular focus. Certainly Jesus would have us be persistent with all sorts of prayer, when we ask for various good things from God. And he gives us plenty of teaching like that elsewhere. Here, though, the focus seems to be on the prayers of the church in the midst of her sufferings in this world, as she awaits the return of Christ when everything will be made right. Remember the background in the verses leading into this parable. Jesus was teaching about the coming of the kingdom of God, that the disciples would endure hardship during this time, that we would be longing for Christ to come again and to restore all things. That’s the situation in which we find ourselves. We live in a hostile world. The church as a whole, and we individual Christians–we are enduring great difficulties. It would be easy for us to give up. The church cries out, “How long, O Lord, how long?” “When will you return, O Lord, and set all things right?” “Maranatha! Our Lord, come!”
You see, this is a parable of persistent prayer, but it is persistent prayer with a focus. We are looking for our Lord’s return. And Christ will return on the Last Day, on the Day of Judgment. Then he will restore all things the way they should be. Justice will be meted out. The church is suffering now, but on that day–that day will be a day of vindication and victory for all who have trusted in Christ.
So do not despair in the midst of hardships, beloved. Rather, keep your faith in God’s mercy and kindness and care. Keep on turning to him in prayer, even when it looks like he’s not listening and you’d be tempted to despair. Especially then. “Call on me in the day of trouble,” the Lord says. “I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.” This is God’s promise to his people, and he is persistently faithful to his promises.
How can you know this? How can you be sure? Because God has said it, and he is a merciful and righteous Judge. Because Christ Jesus himself is telling us this, and he is the reason for our confidence and our boldness and our persistence. Jesus is the one who secures justice for us, and this is justice in a good way, a favorable hearing. You know, if God were to dispense justice toward us simply on the basis of our keeping the demands of his law, we’d all be sunk. That justice would call for us all to be sent away forever. And that prospect would indeed cause us to despair.
But God is merciful, and Jesus is our justice. He is our justification. Speedily will the justice come. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem as he tells this parable, and very soon he will be there. Justice is coming, our justification is coming. For in Jerusalem, Christ Jesus our Savior took the guilt of our sin and bore it on the cross, thus removing it from us. There Jesus defeated our adversary, Satan, crushing his evil empire. Death is defeated; life is ours now in Christ, eternal life in the kingdom of God. God is favorable to us now; our sins are forgiven. The barrier is removed; access is restored. God hears our prayers for Christ’s sake. This gives us children of God the boldness and the confidence we need to pray. We know a kind and loving heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And so even in the midst of difficulties and heart-rending adversities, we call on God in prayer. We know he hears us and cares for us and will do the right thing for us. And we know, in the end, at Christ’s return, all things will be set right. Creation will be restored, new and vibrant and perfect. Our bodies will be raised, glorious, transformed, no longer subject to death. Our sinful nature will no longer war against us; we will be at home in the everlasting reign of righteousness. Blessings will abound on every hand. This is what we have to look forward to, my friends.
And this is what Jesus would have us pray for, and pray toward, persistently, so that we not lose hope. The parable that we have heard today, a parable of persistent prayer, has a forward focus. We are longing for the day of Christ’s return. “Maranatha! Our Lord, come!” “Thy kingdom come!” Amen.