Does God respond to nagging?

John Everett Millais

This Sunday’s lectionary reading from Luke’s gospel (Trinity 18, 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 lepers (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.


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9 thoughts on “Does God respond to nagging?”

  1. That photo of Nancy Pelosi ( although not in any way a poor widow) standing to argue with Trump at a table full of men reminded me of this parable.

  2. There are readings of this parable which link God with the widow not the judge. She is the one who will see justice prevail, despite the apparent power disparity and the solidity of the opposition to justice. We look for the power of God in forms of power that we recognise, but Jesus is teaching that the power of God will be seen through the most unexpected and “weak” forms.

    Such a reading of the parable does mean that we also have to question whether Luke has himself fully understood it, or whether his intro and ending (as with some other parables) seems to be his editorial setting. Most of the parables starting “There was a certain” I think go on to show how the certain rich man or noble, or whoever is not a good example, but to be resisted, or at least they are open to being read that way.

    For me the dagger question is the end of the passage: “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth? There is a potential frailty to the widow, and many of us give up rather than continue to fight when it seems so difficult. If we have enough ourselves we protect what we have; others turn to violence to get what they don’t have; others despair; many are trampled down.

    If Jesus turned up on Sunday would he find us like the widow campaigning for justice, confronting what is wrong, doing not just saying – living the gospel and justice, spending ourselves on behalf of the poor (Isaiah 58:10)? There are many “unanswered” questions in the gospels but this is one of the most trenchant and I think it allows for the answer “No” – as with the sleeping bridesmaids of Matt 25 and the sleeping disciples in Gethsemane – “Could you not even pray an hour?” It is an uncomfortable challenge to a church or to me to realise I may not be showing faith when the Son of Man comes (because I found it too hard-going).

    • Thanks Peter. ‘There are readings of this parable which link God with the widow not the judge’ but I don’t think they can be convincing! Jesus in Luke draws a strong parallel with the widow’s asking and our prayer. If we need to tell Luke that he made a mistake because we know better what Jesus really meant, I think we have a problem!

      That said, I agree with your uncomfortable application, which does not depend on such a reading.

    • In addition to Dr. Paul’s points, I don’t think this parable really lends itself to the fight for societal change through social activism. Rather the context seems to suggest that God will take punitive measures against those who harm his people on the day of the Lord. The widow asks the king not for justice in a general sense, but that he might avenge her against her enemy, presumably by inflicting a punishment on the opponent (ἐκδίκησόν με, cf. Revelation 6:10). And so according to Luke’s interpretation in 18:7-8, the parable illustrates that God will avenge his elect when the son of man comes in judgement against their persecutors.

  3. I don’t think it is us “telling Luke that he made a mistake because we know better what Jesus really meant”, but acknowledging that Luke is developing his sources and materials to form a gospel and an argument.
    Your helpful studies of previous chapters have exposed some of the tensions of this editing, and a careful reading of texts requires us to consider at least the editing role. Was this parable / story told originally and explicitly for us to pray and not to lose heart and if so was that about praying for justice and an end to injustice, or what sort of prayer is in mind?
    When we look at how Luke rearranges material or re-works material compared to Matthew or Mark, we have to acknowledge this editorial role by the writer, using material already provided by others in a new way or re-framing it. We then also look at the “material”, the texts, and with due humility, we are alert to the tensions of the Lucan Jesus or the Matthean Jesus, and the search for the “real” Jesus, all three of which are constructs which shape our construct of who Jesus is / was and what he is not. Our theological convictions shape our reading of texts possibly more than we realise, and Luke shaped his gospel and developed his language for his purpose writing to his particular readers and audience.
    All four gospel writers are also theologians, not journalistic note-takers.
    Maybe the tension and richness of this parable is in the tension between the judge and the widow, and in what way God will grant justice to his chosen ones, in what way it seems God does not grant justice. Seeing the goodness / godness of the widow’s actions in the face of such opposition, I think is required of us.
    As an aside the use of the “Lord” in 18:6 is similar to the “Lord” in 16:8, another parable with interpretation where Luke’s version at the least leaves us with further questions. Is this section of Luke, where he is fitting a lot into the “on the way to Jerusalem” section, a section where the Lucan editing is more to the fore – just as Matthew’s grouping of teaching into blocks is his editing / shaping, or as John develops signs and key metaphors.
    What will congregations make of this remarkable story and how will we, who are preaching on it, help / enable deeper reflection and a truer discipleship? – the former without the latter is for the curious, the latter without the former is brittle and disempowering.

    • “I don’t think it is us “telling Luke that he made a mistake because we know better what Jesus really meant”, but acknowledging that Luke is developing his sources and materials to form a gospel and an argument.”

      Well, unless you want to launch a fourth, fifth, sixth etc Quest for the Historical Jesus, you will have to accept that we are not Christ-appointed apostles or Spirit-guided evangelists and that they tell us what Christ wanted us to hear. In any case, this parable is found only in Luke. I don’t know what the ‘tensions’ are: do you mean ‘substantial contradictions’ or just different sides of one personality?


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