The Parable of the Persistent Widow
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'
4 "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually come and attack me!' "
6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
13 "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
14 "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
“But it’s my turn,” he whined. “He played forever and now it’s my turn and he won’t give me the controller so that I can play.” “No,” retorted his brother, “he had it for twenty minutes and I just started playing and now he’s trying to claim that it’s his turn again.” This was a recent and fairly reoccurring type of disagreement between my two sons. If your a parent perhaps you can relate to the principles behind the argument if not the cause for the argument itself. Whenever they have these sorts of disagreements, though, it doesn’t take long before they turn to me or my wife to play the role of judge. They get to a point where they cannot work things out on their own and so before long they come to us to arbitrate the case and decide who is in the right. They both present their cases, although not always as calmly and collectedly as we would like. Oftentimes, as they are laying out their cases it starts to become rather clear, based on the testimony, who is in the right, but that simply points to the final verdict. Things are not really settled until my wife or I make a decision in the case (although we often tell them to work it out on their own, but that part of it falls a little outside of the point of this analogy). Once we have declared one of them to be in the right, the situation is resolved and the other one realizes that they need to change their perspective and their actions if they want to align themselves with the side that has been declared to be in the right.
At the heart of these two parables is just that idea. Justice in the ancient world was not like the court systems that we have today. You didn’t have a government that would bring cases for people and prosecute on behalf of the people. All cases, whether they were property disputes or a case of murder or theft, involved one person taking another to court as a dispute. There would be a judge that would hear the case and then decide who was in the right. As the case wore on, it might become obvious who was in the right, but that merely anticipated the final verdict that the judge would make. Things weren’t resolved until he made his judgment. When he finally did declare someone to be in the right, that verdict was called the justification. One was justified, the other was shown to be in the wrong.
As we read these parables, then, we would do well to remember that parables were used by Jesus to teach a truth about his ministry and the coming of the kingdom of God. We also need to remember that perhaps the primary theme of this journey to Jerusalem section from Luke 9-19 has been the warnings to Israel about being replaced as the people of God by the faithful Messiah and those who would place their trust in him by dying to themselves and entering into his family. The old Temple, as it were, was facing a showdown with the New Temple and that meant that those who would cling to the old Temple would find themselves in dispute with the new Temple. Thus, God would be turned to by both parties to act as judge. The cases would be laid out and the judge would have to decide which group would be vindicated, which group would be justified.
It is also important to keep in mind that each of these parables has a specific point within the immediacy of Jesus’ ministry but a broader principle that can be applied as well. The truth is that with both of these parables most people jump right to the larger principle without ever even considering the primary original meaning of Jesus’ words within the larger Lukan context. Yet, as we consider that here, we don’t want to only focus on that and forget that there are larger principles at play as well that apply to all Christians everywhere.
The first parable was a common type situation in the first century. Jesus painted a picture of a widow who had been wronged by an un-described adversary. The only recourse that she had, though, was to appeal to a judge that was quite unwilling to hear her case. Jesus’ crafting of the characters makes the situation particularly urgent as widows were a common symbol for the weakest members of the society that were in the most need of compassion and care. The judge is not a godly man and cares little about justice. Eventually, though, he grants justice to the widow because she has persistently clamored to be treated fairly. The widow was relentless because she believed in her cause, she was desperate to be declared in the right, and she knew that the judge was the only one who could do that.
Luke says, in verse 1, that this parable was intended to teach the disciples about the need to be persistent in prayer, but verses 7-8 round out the context. They are to pray persistently in all things of course. That is certainly a universally true principle, but the specific topic that Jesus was urging them to pray about was concerning the coming judgment upon Israel and the vindication of the Son of Man (and thus, his people) that was the subject of the previous passage. They should continue to pray for God to declare in no uncertain terms that the Messiah was in the right and that his people were the ones who would be justified. If an unjust judge will grant justice because of the persistence of the woman, how much more will God? Thus, in a specific sense, Jesus seems to have cast his disciples in the role of the widow.
They might seem helpless and powerless in the world and the face of their adversaries, but they would need persistence in prayer to God. If they continued to believe in the Messiah alone, were desperate to be declared in the right, and know that God was the only one who could do so, then they would be persistent in prayer and God would justify them. The big question, however, was “would the Son of Man find faith when he returned”? The term “ge” which is translated “earth,” can mean “land,” ranging from a field to a specific area like a country, or it can hold the meaning of the “whole earth.” It is the context of the sentence that determines the meaning. It is just as possible then, that Jesus was specifically asking if he would find faith in the land of Israel when he returned, which would seem to fit even better with the context of the passage.
The second parable isn’t as obvious in it’s theme of justification but it is a continuation of that theme as is indicated by an “also” that is in the original language of verse 9 but has been removed from the TNIV for ease of reading (as in “Jesus also told this parable”). The issue of the second parable makes all the sense in the world if we understand the above discussed meaning of the first parable. If the issue that Jesus was discussing was the need for his people to cling to their future justification and vindication and to persistently ask God for it to come, then they would need to be reassured that the confidence of the people that clung to the old system was not something that should sway them.
It is human nature to be intimidated and even begin to doubt oneself in the face of a very confident adversary. This second parable in this passage warns against that. The Pharisee, who represents the entirety of the Jewish leadership and those opposed to Jesus are not in the right and they will not be vindicated. What are they like? They are like a self-righteous Pharisee who separated himself from all of the sinners and thanked God that he was not caught in the three nets that cursed the Jewish people (see commentary on 16:14-18 for a full explanation of the three nets of riches, blasphemy, and adultery). He was not like those folks in his own mind and according to his boastful declaration. No, he was not a sinner, but Jesus has already, in 16:14-18, made the case that the Pharisees were guilty of those precise sins. All of his self-righteousness, his looking down on others, and his extraordinary observance of the law did him no good. He would never be in God’s family with such an attitude.
God’s people would be like a tax collector. They were the people that were of no account in the culture. They were reviled and certainly not considered to be religious by any cultural standard. This tax collector didn’t bother to separate himself from others, in fact, he knew that there was nothing special about himself. He didn’t rely on his own righteousness or observance of the law as advance signs of what the final verdict would be. Jesus’ people would be those that, like this tax collector, threw themselves on the mercy of God as self-recognized sinners. It would not be those who remained with Israel, represented by the Pharisee, but those who were like the tax collector, Jesus’ people, that would find themselves justified before God. They would be the ones that were declared to be in the right and that would find themselves in the right family. What they needed to do, though was to be like the widow and cling to that goal of justification as their sole focus and at the heart of their prayers.
The principles of this, though, cannot just be limited to the first century issue of the true people of God being vindicated as the old Temple was replaced by the new Temple. These passages, once properly understood, do still offer rich principles of what Jesus’ people should look like. We are people who should take seriously the call to be God’s family that are vindicated in the eyes of God and our adversaries. This should be at the heart of our prayers. We need to consistently petition God for him to show us to be his people and to empower us to live like it. At the same time, we need to be like the humble tax collector. We need to constantly and actively remember that we are God’s people solely because of his mercy. We will never seek the justification of being declared to be in the Messiah’s family if we think we have things about us that cause us to be worthy of standing before God. We need to humble ourselves before God as sinners and know that, only then, will we be lifted up and justified.
Do you ever find yourself feeling a lot more like that Pharisee than the tax collector? Do you truly pray with the kind of persistence that the widow demonstrated? What can you learn from these two parables that causes you to specific action today?