What Jesus Teaches about Prayer in the Parable of the Persistent Widow

“Dad, can we get ice cream?”

“No, not today.”

5 minutes later. “Dad, can we get ice cream, now?!?!!?

“Not today, I said”, the dad says a little more sternly.

10 minutes later. “Dad, I’d really like some ice cream. Come on! Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. I’ll clean my room afterwards.”

Kids are persistent. They have something they want and they aren’t going to stop until they get it. As parents, we labor to train our kids to not be quite so “persistent.” It’s important that kids know that when mom and dad say “no” they need to respect that answer.

But, that’s not really the whole story. In Scripture God tells us he rewards persistence. We see this in the story of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8.

Where Do We Find This Story, and What Happens?

The parable of the persistent widow is found in Luke 18:1-8. But this is one of those sections in Scripture where it might be better to grab a marker and blot out that big number 18 and try to read it connected with the previous teaching on the coming of the Son of Man. Luke wants us to see this parable as part of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees asking about the coming kingdom (Luke 17:20-21).

I’m thankful that this is one of the parables where Jesus tells us this meaning. In 18:1 we see that Jesus told this parable to encourage people to keep praying and to not give up. And that is set against the backdrop of the coming Kingdom. In reading through the preceding verses, it is clear that as time marches on, things will get discouraging and confusing. People will want to give up. And we will be longing for the Kingdom of God to come. We should not give up, Jesus says, but continue to pray “Thy Kingdom come.”

In order to show this, Jesus gives the story of an unnamed widow in an unnamed city who is crying out day and night to an unjust judge for help. A powerful judge holds the fate of a vulnerable woman in his hands. And he is corrupt. We know what corrupt men do in such a situation—they continue to protect the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. And this is precisely what the wicked judge does. He doesn’t care about her receiving justice. Time after time he dismisses her case. But she keeps coming back. We get the idea that the judge become annoyed with hearing the case and he says “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice…”

Her persistence gets her justice. But what are we to make of this story? Does it mean that if you keep asking God over and over for something he will eventually buckle and give you what you want? Is this about a kid getting ice cream when he finally breaks his parents down?

Why Does Jesus Tell This Story?

Jesus tells us why He gives this parable. He wants us to keep praying and keep hoping and not give up. But what is the object of this prayer? We can tell from the context what type of prayer Jesus is talking about. In verse 8 Jesus closes the parable by asking a question: “when The Son of man comes, will He find faith on the Earth?” Will there be persistent widows when Jesus returns? That is His question.

What, then, is the context of that prayer? It is to continue praying and hoping and longing for God’s Kingdom to come. Joel Green gives a helpful disclaimer here.

“Jesus counsels continuous prayer; indeed, such prayer is advanced as a necessity for his followers. He does not promote thereby a particular technology of prayer, as though one ought to pray for the same thing over and over, as though through repetition one could wear God down so as to achieve one’s objective. Rather, ‘prayer’ in this context serves as a metonym for confidence in and openness to the benefaction of God.”

What Jesus is doing in this parable is arguing from greater to lesser. That is why it seems so strange for Jesus to use an unjust judge in His parable to represent God. Certainly, God is not an unjust judge. God always does that which is justice. Every widow will eventually receive justice from her adversary. This is why Jesus’ argument works so powerfully. A wicked judge — who does not want to give justice — is worn down by her persistence and he eventually gives what he does not want to give.

But God isn’t a wicked judge. He wants to give justice. All the promises of the Kingdom He delights to give. Consider Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” The point, then, is not that God doesn’t want to give something and we have to wear Him down in prayer. The point is that if persistent asking can wear down an unjust judge, how much more should we be persistent in asking a Judge who delights to give that which we are asking for?

What Does This Story Teach Us about Prayer?

Sometimes when studying the Bible, it’s helpful to take a step back and ask different questions. Here it is helpful to consider the context of this parable and ask why a person might lose heart and stop praying.

When hardship comes, we can be tempted to think that God had abandoned us. In the story the widow could have easily given up after her first attempt at justice. “Well, that’s just the way things are. This is just the way things are always going to be.” But she didn’t do that. As MLK would say years later she believed that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” When we stop believing that, we stop praying and we lose heart.

Furthermore, we stop praying and we lose heart when we become like those in Noah’s day or like Lot’s wife, and we become so wrapped up in day-to-day existence that we forget God’s bigger story. Prayer and hope keep us grounded in God’s story. There are seasons where it can seem like we take a punch to the throat every day. But picture that widow. I am picturing a long line of those waiting on the rulings of this corrupt judge. And I’m picturing the blow she must have felt each time he ruled not in her favor. But what did she do? She picked herself up and got into the back of the line to have her case heard again.

This is what Jesus is calling us to in prayer. She certainly did not have confidence in the judge’s character—but she had confidence that God could turn hearts. She had confidence that justice would eventually win. And so, she kept at it. We are called to do the same in prayer because of the character of God. We must keep going to Him and praying that His Kingdom will come.

If God Doesn’t Give Us What We Ask for, Should We Keep Bugging Him?

Is this story teaching us to be like the little kid who wants ice cream? It depends. What if the child in our story is lactose intolerant? Would a good father give their kid ice cream if he knew it would not be in his benefit? Of course not. If we are asking for bread God will not give us a stone. And if we’re asking for a stone, because we’re foolish creatures, God might give us that stone for a season, but he’s ultimately working to change our taste buds (and probably giving us a new set of teeth because we wrecked the old ones chewing on rocks).

This text isn’t about being persistent in the stuff we want. It’s important what we are asking for and the context tells us that it is about the kingdom. This does not mean that God does not value the things on our hearts. Yes, we should be persistent in praying about those things which are deep longings of our hearts. That is what a relationship does. But I don’t think this verse is necessarily talking about that. It’s talking about not giving up hope and to keep praying “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It’s about longing for things like justice and all the world to be made new by the power of Jesus.

Keep praying.

We have a beyond AWESOME Father Who is a just Judge. God will always do what is right. Don’t lose hope.

Published by Fellowship of Praise: ALL praise to God our Reason, Hallelujah!!!

To God be The glory. Let us praise God together for His ALL in our lives, Amen.

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