To the theologically sophisticated prayer can sometimes seem to be an odd spiritual practice. If God is all-knowing, sovereign and all-caring, then why bother him with our requests? Interestingly, Luke's portrait of Jesus highlights prayer. He prays before receiving the Spirit (3:21-22), all-night prayer precedes the selecting the Twelve (6:12), and two parables focus on prayer (11:5-13; 18:1-8). The answer to the dilemma of prayer is that it is not intended to do something for God, but for us. It is one of the mechanisms of relationship that God gives to his children to be in touch with him. God may not need prayer, but we do.
This parable highlights that point, as verse 1 makes clear: Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. Since Jesus was speaking to his disciples in 17:22-37, the same audience is assumed by the NIV to be present here, since the Greek says only that he told them a parable. Jesus shows that God responds to prayer and listens to his children. He does not wind up the universe like a watch, as the deists of old argued. He does not merely send the universe ticking on its merry way and sit back to observe as an uninterested spectator; God relates to his creation. This is especially the case when our prayers cry out for justice and the righteous treatment of his children. In such cases, when God acts, his response will be swift and certain (v. 8).
One of the strengths of Jesus' parables is that they are filled with interesting characters. This is especially true of this parable. Two characters are central to the story: a nagging widow and an independent judge who does not show preference to anyone. I am sure all of us know someone we would call a nag. Such persons are always complaining about something, and if there is an important issue or principle involved, they will not let it go until it is fixed. Such a woman is the example in this parable. We are to pray just as she nags, especially when we desire God's vindication of our commitment to him. We are to pray and keep praying for this.
Now, of course, we need not whine in our prayers to God, but simply express our sincere desire to see him and those who are his vindicated. Often when we pray we do not share our true feelings with God (as if he does not know them already!). It gives me pause to realize that the most common type of psalm in the Psalter is the lament. The mature Old Testament saints were honest about their feelings before God. Yet often as we voice our concerns to God, he renews our faith and trust in him. So when we pray, we should express our deepest feelings, even our complaints, as we urge God to bring justice. Perhaps the prayer found in Acts 4:24-32 is an example. There God's people pray, in essence, "Lord, give us boldness and show your presence."
Yet it is significant that the encouragement not to grow weary in such prayer (Lk 18:1) indicates that God's response may not always come when we want it. We may have to wait for it. Jesus did teach that God's vindication of the saints might take some time. Prayer can help us stay in touch with God and stay patient in the interim.
It would be a mistake to assume that the woman in this story is old. In the ancient culture, women married in the early to mid teens, and the life expectancy for men who reached adulthood often did not exceed "thirtysomething" (Jeremias 1972:153). Yet being a widow, she was among the most vulnerable people in her society. She was to be cared for by others (Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; Ps 94:6; Is 1:17, 23; 10:2; Jer 5:28 LXX; 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7; Mal 3:5; as God does, Ps 68:5; 146:9; in Judaism, m. Ketubot 4:12; 11:1-6; m. Gittin 4:3; L. T. Johnson 1991:269). Her precarious position parallels the risk believers experience in an often-hostile world.
One other bit of cultural background helps us understand the account. In a civil dispute the judge would be responsible for dealing with the woman's claims. Since she is alone, if she is to find justice, the judge must supply it. Although the judge is not known for his compassion—he neither feared God nor cared about men—he still is responsible to hear her case.
The woman takes her problem to the judge again and again and again and again! Like a great defensive lineman rushing the passer or a famous goal-scorer sweeping down on the goal, she just keeps coming. Her message is, "Grant me justice against my adversary." Simply put, she wants justice. For some time the judge resists. Exactly how long he holds out we are not told. Apparently he thinks his nonaction will get rid of her. He does not wish to act on her behalf. But every time he holds court, she is there. She had the right to keep coming back, because in that culture her case had to be heard (Stahlin 1974b:450 n. 86). Finally he responds: "Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out by her coming!"
The description of the judge being "bothered" is rather picturesque. What she does is "cause him trouble" (to parechein moi kopon). She gets on his nerves. In fact, the judge characterizes himself as "beaten down," using figuratively a term that refers to having a black eye (hypopiazo). Though some argue that the judge is worried about being shamed (Nolland 1993:870), this cannot be the meaning, since he does not care about his public reputation. The woman has just worn him out. Her constant intercession has brought success.
Jesus applies the picture to prayer for God's action to bring justice for his children. Like 11:5-13, this is not a carte blanche to ask for whatever we want. Rather, it is designed to encourage us to pray for God's righteous ways to be revealed. The argument follows the popular Jewish "how much more" style: if an unrighteous judge responds this way, how much more will a righteous God!
In two rhetorical questions Jesus makes it emphatically clear (ou me) that God will vindicate his elect and that he will not delay over them (or he will have patience concerning them—see discussion of views below). Vindication is clearly the issue, since it repeats the terms of verses 3 and 5. Judgment against those who persecute the righteous will come (Ps 149:7). Chosen ones is a term Luke uses only here to describe believers. Their constant calling to God day and night will be heard.
The idea of God's nondelay has caused much discussion, given that the final judgment has still not come. Though many explanations have been offered, two are more likely (Bock 1995: on Lk 18:8).
The first possibility is that rather than meaning God will not delay long over them, it means God will show patience to them (L. T. Johnson 1991:270). In other words, he will be patient about their request and honor it by vindicating them. This view fits Sirach 35:19 LXX, which appears to be a conceptual parallel. Texts like 2 Peter 3:8-9 show that God's patience reflects his merciful desire that more come to know him.
Another possible meaning is that God will prevent excessive persecution of the community until the vindication comes (Catchpole 1977:81-104). "Patience" can refer to the delaying or putting off of a consequence of an action (Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Joel 2:13; Sirach 5:4). Thus God will lighten his people's suffering until vindication comes.
It is hard to be certain which of these ideas is meant, though the first option seems less subtle. Regardless, it is clear God will vindicate his saints.
Jesus closes by making two more points: (1) God will act quickly. (2) When Jesus returns, will he find faith on earth—that is, will people persevere in looking for his return? Jesus' second remark assumes that his people will need faith and trust as they consider how history is proceeding. This notion helps to explain the first point. Jesus is not promising that God will come soon—that is, in a short period of time; otherwise God's people would not have become discouraged, which seems to be the assumption behind Jesus' second point. Rather, his coming is soon in that it is next on the eschatological calendar. Prophetic texts often foreshorten the timing of events to show their sequence (for example, Is 61:1-2 and the two comings of Jesus). God has not forgotten the elect. Next on the calendar is his bringing their vindication in justice. Until the vindication comes, it seems a long way away, especially in the midst of persecution, but after it comes and is established for eternity, it will not seem so delayed.
So Jesus urges prayer and perseverance. God will vindicate his saints. Trust him to do so and keep praying for his return, which is the vindication of the saints. We should pray because, unlike the judge in the parable, God is not grudging about granting our desires for justice. And we should keep asking for the vindication of the people of God; our patience and willingness to make this request should never run out. By continuing to make the request, we stay sensitive to the need for justice to come. So like the nagging widow, just keep asking.