Does God respond to nagging in Luke 18?

The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 18 in Year C is the Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow from Luke 18.1–8. A surface reading, confirmed by most online comments on it, is that basically we need to be nagging God before he will answer our prayer! But a more careful reading, locating the episode within the context of Luke’s wider narrative, points to some important new perspectives.

Following the story of the healing of the ten who had a dreaded skin disease (last week’s lectionary reading), Jesus responds to a question from the Pharisees about the coming of the kingdom of God, stating that ‘the kingdom of God is amongst you’ (not ‘within you’ as some have suggested). Then in Luke 17.22, Jesus turns to his disciples and makes a series of compressed statements about the ‘days of the Son of Man’, most of which find their parallel in the fifth block of Jesus’ teaching, on eschatology, in Matthew 24. (It is quite striking here that Luke avoids recording Jesus using either the language of the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ which alludes to Dan 7.13, or the language of the parousia of the Son of Man—perhaps a reflection of his writing to a mostly Gentile audience.) The key idea is introduced at the beginning of these sayings:

Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.” (Luke 17.22)

In other words, the theme here is about patience in waiting whilst living through the delay of Jesus’ return, and it is this idea which Jesus appears to pick up on at the beginning of our reading. So the theme of his teaching here is not merely persistence in the experience of unanswered prayer (which is more the focus in the similar passage in Luke 11) but specifically enduring in our longing for justice whilst we await Jesus’ return.

The general and stereotypical nature of the scene is made clear by Jesus introduction: ‘There was a certain judge in a certain town…’ (κριτής τις ἦν ἔν τινι πόλει), a little bit like us introducing a story with ‘Once upon a time…’ Some commentators have suggested that the characterisation of the judge as someone ‘who neither feared God nor cared what people thought’ could be construed positively, showing that he is disinterested in his dispensing of justice. After all, in Mark 12.14, the Pharisees flatter Jesus by saying ‘You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.’. But parallels of the double phrase in contemporary literature make it clear that this is a negative assessment. Josephus describes King Jehoiakim as ‘neither reverent towards God nor fair to human beings’ (Ant. 10.283) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus portrays some Roman conspirators as ‘neither fearing the wrath of the gods nor regarding the indignation of men’ (Ant. Rom. 10.10.7; both from Mikeal Parsons p 263). And Luke frequently portrays those who ‘fear God’ as being virtuous (e.g. Acts 10.2).

In contrast with this powerful, arrogant man, Jesus introduces this vulnerable, dependant woman. In any patriarchal society, where income, protection and security depended on having a man for support, being a widow (like being an orphan) was to be in a unique position of vulnerability. God’s concern for the vulnerable and marginalised means that care for widows and orphans is a consistent feature of God’s command to his people, in both Old and New Testaments (see Lev 19.9–10, 23.22, Deut 14.28–29, James 1.27 and numerous other texts). There are three particular things about this woman which highlight her need. First, she has to represent herself; courts are normally the province of men, and it appears that she has no male relative who will represent her. Second, she has to return continually, which means that she does not have the financial resources to offer a bribe and have her case settled quickly (not an unusual issue in many courts around the world today). Thirdly, she appears to have been denied justice, and the implication is that she has perhaps been deprived of her rights in inheritance. It might be that she has been deprived of her living from her late husband’s estate; later rabbinic law suggests that widows did not inherit directly, but makes provision for her living from the estate for that reason.

What is striking about her, though, is rather than coming across as a ‘hopeless, helpless victim’,

This woman assumes unusual responsibility for her own well-being, adopts a self-presentation of shocking initiative, and thus continually returns to the magistrate in her quest for justice (Joel Green, NICNT p 640)

She thus follows a line of biblical tradition represented by the figures of Ruth, Tamar and other widows, as well as in Luke the woman with an issue of blood in Luke 8.43–48. This pictures fits with Luke’s wider portrayal of women as active practical, moral and spiritual agents, and models of discipleship in one way or another.

Jesus’ parable and stories in Luke frequently turn on insight given by an inner soliloquy—for example, the younger son coming to himself in Luke 15—and here the judge articulates his own calculation. It is striking that the judge’s assessment of himself matches precisely the assessment by which he has been introduced; his action is motivated by not a shred of concern or altruism, but simply by self-preservation and what will make his life easiest. Here, Jesus uses a comic image, and it is important that we do not miss the humour through pious reading. The judge fears that in the end the woman will come and ὑπωπιάζω him. Some translations take this metaphorically as ‘wear me out’, but the word actually comes from the realm of boxing and means ‘to beat’, perhaps in the sense of ‘giving a black eye’. The only other place the word comes in the NT is in 1 Cor 9.27 where Paul talks about ‘beating my body’ as a metaphor for physical discipline.

The language Luke uses is startling, perhaps even humorous, coming as it does from the boxing ring, for it invokes images of the almighty, fearless, macho judge cornered and slugged by the least powerful in society. Thus Jesus accents the astonishingly uncharacteristic initiative and persistence of an allegedly impotent women in the face of injustice. (Green p 641)

There is definitely scope here for a short, entertaining drama as part of a Sunday sermon!

As with earlier parables in Luke, Jesus is instructing his disciples to learn something about kingdom realities from realities in the real (and distinctly ungodly) world around them—but always with a twist. Jesus tells them (and us) to ‘listen’ to what the unjust judge says—but in doing so urges us to move from the lesser to the greater. If this is what an unjust judge will do, how much more will God listen to us, since God is indeed passionate about justice and does consider the needs of his people.

But if God is unlike the judge, we are to be like the widow! She offers a model of assertive confidence in the cause of justice. Like her, we are to cry out for justice ‘day and night’, just as the widow Anna prayed in the temple ‘day and night’ looking for the consolation of Israel. We are like the souls of those under the altar in Rev 6.10 who ask ‘How long, O Lord, before you judge the world?’ We long not just for justice for ourselves, but for God to come and bring justice to the whole world, and judge in favour of those who have been exploited and oppressed.

But here is the edge: if we are to be like the widow in our attitude, it will be in part because we are like the widow in situation. The end of this story connects back to the beginning of this narrative section—we will indeed long for the ‘days of the Son of Man’ (Luke 17.22) as we experience injustice and rejection in this world. The context of apparently unanswered prayer is not merely the frustration of our own desires and needs, but the cosmic time we live in, in the overlap of the ages so that we remain in this, passing age, whilst also experiencing the resurrection life of the age to come in Jesus, which we long to see fully expressed in his return. The context of our prayer is our patient waiting for Jesus’ return—hence Jesus’ challenging question that he ends with: will he find us as patient, persistent widows, crying out for justice in both hope and patience when he comes?

This kind of eschatological perspective is found in Pete Greig’s teaching about unanswered prayer, both in his book How to Pray and in this short video summary. We appear to see prayer go unanswered because of God’s world, because of God’s ways, but also because of God’s war—a spiritual battle which will only be concluded when Jesus finally returns.

(The illustration at top is from a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais.)

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20 thoughts on “Does God respond to nagging in Luke 18?”

  1. In a pre-technological age the vast majority of women depended on men. They bore children often over many years and required a provider. Patriarchy was the norm in every society (according to Mary Douglas). It was not an evil but an inevitability. I’d say, part of God’s design. Only, the advent of proper contraceptive has changed the dynamics of society. I’m not really so sure that working mothers and toddlers/nursery/after school care is a better deal for the family.

    Regarding the woman’s prayer the distinction I like to maintain is persistence not insistence. The former allows God to be God, the latter doesn’t.

  2. Persistence is fine (and sometimes in spiritual warfare there is struggle which also needs a kind of persistent entreaty) but it should be understood in the context of trust.

    Prayer relationship is developed in that context of trust. That trust is a big part of what it means to love God. It often grows through ongoing habit of prayer.

    So effectively, it may be fine to keep ‘nagging’ God (though that word has bad connotations) providing its done on the underlying grounds of trust, givenness, and love. As John says, it’s not insistence, it’s appeal.

    In our prayers, we trust in God, or ask God to help us when we waver. Sometimes we are meant to pray ongoing prayer, almost like keeping watch. Sometimes we don’t even know exactly what we’re supposed to pray, but it’s laid on our hearts to offer up prayer. Our journeys with God are not a sprint, they involve endurance. You need trust on that long journey, trust that God is the strong presence, even when we feel weak. Persistence can be a quality, if it’s grounded below the surface of our wavering feelings in the trust in God and God’s goodness.

  3. Generally agree with the points raised here. However, on the final question, I suspect it should be: “When the son of man comes, will he find faith *in the land*?”

    In short, I think Jesus is referring here to his present ministry, to his coming to Israel (“the land”) to inspect her and bring judgement against her if she is unfaithful. Like Ezekiel (the original “son of man”), he comes to an unfaithful people and will bring a curse against her if she continues in unfaithfulness. So I think this is most likely about his first rather than his second coming. Repeatedly throughout the Gospels, Jesus finds himself disappointed at the lack of faith of many in Israel, culminating in his cursing of the fig tree, a powerful symbol of his disapproval of Israel for their lack of faith (which, interestingly, also becomes a parable for how to pray).

    • That’s interesting. But why do you think that?

      ‘When the Son of Man comes’ is surely a reference to something in the future. And ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς can mean ‘in the land’ or ‘on the earth’.

      The discussion about delay surely means that the second meaning fits the narrative…?

    • Hi Chris

      It certainly seems that the focus is on the future throughout the chapter. It Is the day of evaluation /judgement/assessment that is to the fore. In my view the land (Canaan in the OT) opens out to embrace the whole earth in the NT. Christ’s kingdom ultimately embraces heaven and earth.

  4. It would be interesting to find out how much comment blog articles on prayer would garner, just as it was interesting how Peter Greig? touched on biblical systematic theology to answer, unanswered prayer. As is well known, much could be and has been said and written on the topic of
    whole Bible prayer and the Person of God (including attributes) to whom we pray.
    And while this is not suggestion for passivity, the title of Andrew Murray’s book, *Absolute Surrender* may be a suggested launchpad. Others have expressed it slightly differently as the Lordship of Christ over and in every area of our lives, body, mind, will and emotions, desperation, lament, tears and laughter, joy, sorrow, grief, anger, hatred, love, judgment, justice, mercy; war and peace; past, present, future: conception, inception, terminus, fulfillment, eternity.
    Of course there is more!

  5. There are strong parallels between this parable and that of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1f) and Jesus’ teaching on prayer (Luke 11:1f). In particular Luke, in the second context employs the illustration of “the friend” to highlight (a) the boldness of the one seeking sustenance from the friend [8] secondly, to *actively and continually* implore God (ask-seek-knock) [9-10] and finally God , The Father’s, loving concern for His children.
    However, as we have already been reminded, Luke 18:1f expresses in sharp relief the contrast between the unjust and uncaring nature of the judge (not forgetting his sceptical unbelief) and the justice and mercy of God [7-8] (an interesting aside here is that it is the judge himself who declares this). In this parable also justice is the heart cry of the woman.
    Addendum: I’m not so sure I agree with Chris’s interpretation of land/earth given that what precedes it pertains to the coming of the Kingdom

  6. Excellent article and comments
    Two incidents come to mind.
    Daniel A man of persistent prayer 10:12 Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words.
    10:13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days: but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me; and I remained there with the kings of Persia.
    10:14 Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days: for yet the vision is for many days.
    Persistence may be considered as an engagement in spiritual warfare,
    The second incident is post- Transfiguration. Jesus coming down the mountain says to his hapless desciples “This kind goes not forth but by much prayer and fasting” In the case of seeking justice how much do we want it? Is it just a casual concern or of intense involvement?
    As Jesus said, tell John that, “the violent are pressing into the kingdom”

  7. By way of observation: the previous post(re the current state of the C of E) garnered 230 comments; the present, to date only 8! Is there a possibility that for some people at least, that Scripture’s primary value is essentially political i.e when it either supplies “answers” to issues or on the other hand can’t or won’t supply answers. Without questioning the value of this approach, I personally love to follow the lectionary readings where Scripture itself sets the agenda.

    • I agree. It is a bit daft. And most of the comments there are made by a very small group of people all having a go at each other and achieving nothing. What’s to be done?

      • Well – the lack-of-comments isn’t really so daft – I (for one) read the piece on Luke 18 with great interest (as I do with all the other pieces about the lectionary readings) – but I’m not qualified to add anything useful here – and below the line comments should probably be left to those who are.

        I don’t think the number of comments below the line is a useful barometer for anything.

      • Maybe set a limit on the number of posts any one individual can make on a particular page/article? 3? 5?

        I applaud the openness with which you, Ian, allow posts with a range of views. Sometimes my posts, I know, are probably too lengthy.

        I’ve tried to address this by attempting to make sure any post relates to the actual article (admittedly this is an exception, in response to your question ‘What is to be done?’. In addition I’ve self-imposed a maximum of 3 posts on any page.

        This in effect means I only really seek to engage with (a) the author, and/or (b) you as the host.

        In the previous article, one individual has (to date) made 42 comments. I think a maximum posts rule would help cut down de-railing and possibly reduce ping-pong back and forth arguments.

        Another approach would be to make comments ‘by invitation only’ and to home in on voices who are better recognised in their roles and service in the Church of England. That could be extended to offering invitees a platform for articles on your website, subject to approval, which you already do to an extent.

        A website like this will be vibrant, if it attracts continuing intelligent articles, and commentary from a range of viewpoints and experience. People come here mainly to read the lead article. The problem with a comments section of mass postings is that visitors can hardly see the wood from the trees. Some really good individual comments get lost in the sea of lightweight froth and point-scoring. I accept that some of this is fervour, and desire to defend faith, but sometimes it feels a bit o.t.t.

        There are some really interesting comments from individuals ‘below the line’. I’d prefer a smaller set of comments, more akin to thoughtful standalone statements on a subject, rather than quarrels that descend to school debating levels. When voices dominate, they crowd out the individual posts of more interesting people.

        Finally, thank you for an important website in the Anglican set of online platforms (Thinking Anglicans is another). You and I have easily-recognised differences of view, but your hospitality is generous.

  8. Yeah. Seconded. I’d love to comment more. Like the pen of a ready writer I’m poised. But I comment too often, I’m now holding back.
    I get a lot from these posts By Ian. I was particularly struck by Jacob’s ladder being only an ordinary ladder not a ziggurat or similar. Simple things please my simple mind.

    • Unfortunately, however, Jacob’s vision was of something he would have interpreted as a ziggurat, and the ‘ladder’ a stairway. You may ‘get’ a lot, but it’s not all true.

      • I can’t find the post now but Ian pointed out the word ladder is of the domestic kind. It made me think of Jesus reply “ you will see the angels of God going up and down upon the Son of Man”, thus equating Himself with Jacob’s ladder. Jacob said “surely this is the house of God and the Gateway to heaven.” Its a lovely image : Jesus is the Ladder and the Holy Spirit goes up and down upon Him. I’m working on a picture to illustrate this.
        Jesus is a Temple but by identifying Himself as a ladder he becomes much more accessible on a human level. God is not remote atop a ziggurat. The Angels of God are upon Him.

        • I’m afraid you have misunderstood the saying in John. Its significance relies on the ziggurat image. Ziggurat stairways were cruciform and ideologically linked heaven and earth by enabling the gods (exact equivalents to the ‘angels of God’) to walk up and down them. Jesus was saying that he himself, on the cross, would be the means whereby populated heaven and populated earth would be reconciled and united (as before the Flood). When Jesus returns, he will return with the angels (Matt 16:27).

          • Well, interesting. Thanks Steven.
            I feel the ‘angels’ refers to the sevenfold spirit of God going out and returning , ref. Job.
            Anyway, this is off topic and “below the line” and not admissible stuff of serious theological / sociological debate.

  9. Back to the unjust judge…
    We tend to think that she obtained justice from the Unjust Judge. No. She was getting from an unjust judge, Justice.
    Ramber, Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life. He is the object of ultimate satisfaction, He is Justice. indeed, He is not even an object because He is not a thing made but the source of all. We tend to think, like the 9 lepers, that healing is the ultimate thing but Jesus is showing us that He is the ultimate desirable outcome in every circumstance. With Peter we should make Him our goal by making every effort to add to our basic faith one step after another up the ladder to Love.
    The unjust judge was a barrier to Justice. The unjust judge was a type of Persian power that Michael fought. We have an advocate, the Spirit of Jesus , fighting for us as we pray.

  10. Such an interesting blog. Thank you.
    We lived in Africa for a while and saw how this worked. In fact I saw first hand an instance of a powerful man making a (foolish) decision because a supplicant came to his office every day for over a year. In a culture where everything is public the only weapon a powerless person has is her presence, again and again. This is felt, I think, as an almost physical assault making the use of a word that could be about a physical attack very apposite. The judge did not “fear” people but that doesn’t mean that he is immune to a passive aggressive assault that is astonishingly stressful. I don’t think the woman is showing any unusual responsibility for her own well being, she is simply using the only weapon she has, continually showing up and putting social pressure on the judge. it is what everyone does in such a culture. The parable is using a situation that would be almost commonplace to illustrate a proper attitude to prayer namely a recognition of complete powerlessness and vulnerability with no rights except the open hands of supplication, and the requirement to go to what would be for us (and maybe them) extreme lengths of perseverance. Maybe it clarifies Luke 11 which could be taken to mean you just have to ask (once?) and job done (I have certainly had that said to me in the past). This passage is a supplement to that.
    To me this makes Jesus’ final comment on faith so relevant for when he comes will he find a faith that is totally expectant and anticipatory and persistent come what may.

    • Great comment, you’ve reminded me of a Bill Bryson story (I think) about a sacked employee who kept returning to his desk every day and just sat there until, eventually, the employer gave him his job back. Hang in there buddy. Makes me think every parable Jesus told was gleaned from a true story he adapted to shield the identity of real person(s).


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