The story is familiar. In the Gospel of St. Luke (17:20 – 18:8), Jesus has just finished talking to the disciples about the coming of the kingdom, “the day the Son of Man is revealed.” It’s an unsettling passage, and it finishes with an unsettling image – of vultures around a dead body.
Then he tells them the parable of the persistent widow – or the parable of the unjust judge. The purpose of the parable is made explicit from the beginning – “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” That, too, is unusual – the meaning of most of the parables is made clear after they are told. But not this one.
The story is simple. A widow brings a complaint to a judge, to defend her against her adversary. The judge, “who neither feared God nor cared about men,” ignores her, refusing to deal with the issues. This apparently goes on for some time, until the judge finally gets tired of it all. The woman is clearly going to keep coming and bothering him. So he decides to deal with it and grant her plea.
The first time I read this passage years ago, I wondered if this parable was truly about prayer, why Jesus seemed to be comparing God to the unjust judge. Then I read further, and realized that wasn’t what Jesus was saying at all. In fact, he wasn’t comparing but contrasting, that God will answer the pleas of his “chosen ones” because, unlike the judge, he does care about men.
The story is simple, but the lesson seems more complex, wrapped as it is in what Jesus had been saying about the coming of the kingdom. But it’s clearly about persistence, and it’s clearly about persistence in prayer.
“Jesus is explicitly addressing the matter of delayed answers in this parable,” writes Bob Sorge in The Fire of Delayed Answers. “He is affirming there are times when God designs a delay in order to produce a specific work in us through the pain of unresolved suffering. His purpose is that we maintain our persistence and intensity of cry until His work is complete in us.”
What the context of the passage suggests is that Jesus is telling the disciples to be persistent in prayer – and the prayer for the coming of the Kingdom. What they will hope for, what they pray for, may be long in coming. But they are to be persistent, because the Kingdom will – one day – come. Interestingly enough, Jesus recognizes that unanswered prayer – that answer so desperately desired – can sap one’s faith. He says, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith?”
Persistence will eventually prevail. God will hear the pleas of his children, and the pleas will be answered.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Fire of Delayed Answers. To see more posts on this chapter, “Jesus’ Teaching on Delay,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.