Luke 18:1-14 (AD 30)
Just in case our interpretive engines were running low on fuel, along come two parables where the primary meaning is given to us as a headline and/or footnote. No need to grind our gears through context or frown at the hermeneutical satnav.
Each of these two parables consist of a challenge in the introduction, an encouragement in the parable itself, and another, related challenge.
- Always pray, don’t lost heart (ESV)/give up (NIV)
- If even an unjust judge will respond to a persistent complainant, how much more will God answer the prayers of his children…
- …and that’s not in doubt – what IS in doubt is, are any of you faithful enough to be persistently asking?
- Do you trust in your own righteousness and hold others in contempt? Don’t, it’ll get you nowhere.
- An overwhelming sense of your own sin and indebtedness to God carries far more weight than a diary filled with religious activity.
- If you try to place yourself above others, God will ultimately bring you down. But if you place yourself in a position of unworthiness and call out to God for forgiveness, he will bring you up.
As with many parables, it’s important to remember that they are not providing us with a comprehensive theology of the area they address. They merely provide a very specific lesson that needs to be understood as part of a more nuanced whole.
The Parable of the Persistent Widow isn’t everything you need to know about prayer, and we cannot draw conclusions about prayer that go beyond the specific lesson (don’t give up) that Jesus provides. So for example, Jesus is not saying that everything you ask for you will receive, so long as it seems to you to be a good thing. Seeing as this is such a big deal for so many people and the cause of so much discouragement, disillusionment and doubt, here’s that reminder again:
you will not get every good thing you ask for, no matter how righteous the request and your attitude.
Fifteen years ago a pastor I knew was dying of cancer. His church prayed for healing, his community, his family, he himself prayed for healing. Many people were sure he would be healed, and said as much, because a.) God hears and loves to answer our prayers, b.) God is the God of healing, c.) God loves us and d.) These were good prayers. To them, it was simply a matter of whether people believed it enough.
But nobody was to blame. God answered the prayers of his people and the answer was “No”. That doesn’t mean there will be an obvious silver lining (there often isn’t), or a clear way in which the “No” offers a superior outcome that we can see (it usually doesn’t).
There are countless other stories of people who have prayed for someone’s miraculous healing, or for their miraculous salvation, and God has said yes. Most Christians are a living example of God saying ‘Yes’ to someone who prayed for them, and there are countless cancer survivors who came back from the brink after people prayed for them.
So then, what kind of faith is Jesus looking for (v.8)? It’s not the faith of presumption that says I will get everything I asked for because I asked for it. It is the faith of knowing that as I honour God through my continued requests, I know that he hears and loves to answer, that he does everything right, and that I will continue to love him whatever the answer he gives.
It’s the faith that says the ONLY person who can make the difference here is God, so I will pray to him every day until I get my answer. That means we persevere for decades in praying for those who don’t know God, because God never says No to us about that – we just don’t always hear a Yes.
And on other issues, where there is a No, it means doing the hard thing of thanking and praising God through our sadness, grief and disappointment. Safe in the knowledge that ultimately God is a God of Yes, who will keep us with him in joy and safety forever.