The Art of Persistent Prayer: The Parable of the Persistent Widow

Thanks for joining us on this 30-Day Bible Reading Challenge! This year’s focus is on prayer so we invited professor Matt Williams to share some of the Bible’s essentials on prayer.

Guest post by Dr. Matt Williams, Talbot Theological Seminary

Why should we persevere in prayer?

Great question. Here is Jesus’s answer, from Luke 18:2-7:

In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 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 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?”

To hear this parable as it was meant to be heard, we have to enter into its first century context.  The word “widow” would have conjured up a different idea in the first century than it does for us. Today, widows often receive money from life insurance policies, or even an inheritance when their spouse dies.  Even if there is no inheritance, there is social security, or a social welfare system to take care of them. “Widow” in our society does not mean “destitute” and “defenseless.”

In the first century, though, widows were in a very different position.  They were the most vulnerable members of society.  They were basically powerlessness and without social status, having no husband to support them, or to protect them from those who would exploit them. 

And because of this powerlessness, they are also the ones God takes a special interest in protecting.  Listen to Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” God calls on his people to plead the case of the widow. That’s very applicable to our story, where no one is pleading the widow’s case.

The very fact that the widow goes to the judge alone shows us that she has no one to plead her case. That would have been surprising to the first century audience. Normally a woman would send a male in her place to plead her case. Even today, in many places in the Middle East, women do not ordinarily go to court. In fact, in the first century a woman’s testimony in court was not viewed as reliable as a man’s testimony. This widow evidently has no sons, no father, not even brothers or uncles. She is helpless and powerless.

Not only is she helpless, but this judge is not inclined to help her. Her situation seems hopeless.

Yet ironically, despite this position of powerlessness, the widow shows remarkable persistence. We expect her to be passive and vulnerable.  Instead she is persistent and successful.  She absolutely refuses to give up.  Instead of being walked on, she is beating the pulp out of her opponent.  I once read an interesting parallel story.  A true story which occurred at the close of the war in Vietnam. A woman’s husband had been imprisoned by the Communists.  Every day she would go to the prison and knock on the office door, asking the officials to release her husband. She sat on the steps of the prison. She would not go away.  Day after day after day she went back to plead the innocence of her husband. And one day they simply went and released him from his cell and let him go. Her persistence won out!

That’s like the judge in our passage. He just wants the woman to stop.  She’s driving him crazy. So he finally grants her wish.

The second point that this parable makes is about the judge.  Again, we have to enter into the first century world to understand the situation.  In our society, if you have a problem, you hire a lawyer, and he pleads your case before a judge. If you don’t like that lawyer, you can hire another one. If you don’t like the decision of the judge, you can appeal to a higher court.  And judges are compelled to act according to the law.

The situation in the first century was often quite different. Local judges often achieved their positions not because they were the wisest or best trained.  Winning in court was often a matter having enough money to bribe the judge, or enough influence to gain his favor. We have ancient evidence of this. The rabbis spoke about the corruption of judges in the city of Jerusalem. The name given to judges in Hebrew was Dayyaney Gezeroth (judges of prohibitions or punishment). In other words, judges who acted with justice to punished evildoers.  Later rabbis made a play on these words by changing one letter, “r” to “l”, which resulted in the name Dayyaney Gezeloth (judges of thievery; robber-judges, because they perverted justice through bribery).  The Jewish Talmud speaks of village judges who were so easily bribed they were willing to pervert justice for a dish of meat (B.T. Baba Kamma 114a).  Buy them dinner and you win the case.

The widow in our parable is in a bad situation because she has no money or influence.

But there is also something else going on here. It is said about this judge that he neither feared God, nor cared what people thought. Mediterranean culture was an honor/shame culture. The highest value was placed on the honor one received in the community. This judge’s action of ignoring the widow would have been viewed as shameful. He would have lost face in the community. That shame should have moved the judge to act on her behalf. But it does not.

That sense of honor and shame helps us to understand the analogy drawn to God in the parable. The judge, in fact, is not like God. The point is that God will not be shamed. He would never allow his name to be dragged through the mud. He would never allow the people who are called by his name to suffer injustice. He will vindicate his people in the end. God always listens to our prayers.

Do you ever have trouble trusting that God is just and righteous? Do you ever have trouble persevering in prayer? This passage in Luke 18, when understood correctly in its context, teaches us that God is just, and calls us to persevere in prayer. We may not get what we want, but we can rest assured that God will answer us, and that His answer will be a righteous answer.  It may take until we reach heaven’s shores until we fully understand, but we can trust that God is just and righteous, and cares for his people.

If you want to know more about this story, see the video teaching by Dr. Mark Strauss in the video Bible study series, The Prayers of Jesus. Most of this blog came from his teaching. It is our hope that this study might motivate both individuals and groups to prayer.

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