Spring 2019

Persistent Prayer

By Matt Williams

Why should we persevere in prayer? Great question. Here is Jesus’s answer, from Luke 18:2–7:

In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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?”

To understand this parable, we must enter into its first century context. Today, widows receive social security, life insurance or an inheritance. “Widow” in our society does not mean “destitute” or “defenseless.”

In the first century, though, widows were the most vulnerable members of society. They were basically powerless, with no husband to protect them from exploitation.

And because of this powerlessness, God takes a special interest in protecting them. “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:17). God calls on his people to plead the case of the widow.

In our parable, the widow goes to the judge alone because she has no one to plead her case. That would have been shocking to the first century audience. In the first century, a woman’s testimony in court was not seen as reliable as a man’s testimony. This widow evidently has no sons and no father — not even brothers or uncles.

She is helpless and powerless, and the judge doesn’t help her.

The widow, though, shows remarkable persistence. She refuses to give up. Instead of being walked on, she keeps bothering the judge until he finally grants her wish.

The second point this parable makes is about the judge. In our society, if you have a problem, you hire a lawyer, and he pleads your case before a judge. If you don’t like the judge’s decision, you can appeal to a higher court. And judges are required to act according to the law.

In the first century, though, winning in court was often a matter of bribing the judge. We have ancient evidence of this. Jewish rabbis spoke about the corruption of judges in Jerusalem. The name given to judges in Hebrew was Dayyaney Gezeroth (judges of prohibitions or punishment), judges who acted with justice to punish evildoers. Later rabbis made a play on these words by changing one letter, “r” to “l”, which resulted in the name Dayyaney Gezeloth (judges of thievery), because they perverted justice through bribery. The Jewish Talmud speaks of judges who were easily bribed by just a dish of meat. Buy them dinner and you win the case.

The widow in our parable is in a bad situation because she has no money or influence.

But there is also something else going on here: This judge neither feared God nor cared what people thought. Mediterranean culture was an honor/shame culture. The highest value was placed on the honor one received in the community. This judge’s action of ignoring the widow would have been shameful. That shame should have moved the judge to act on the widow’s behalf. But it does not.

That sense of honor and shame helps us to understand the analogy drawn to God in the parable. The judge is not like God. God will not be shamed. He would never allow his name to be dragged through the mud. He would never allow his people to suffer injustice. God always listens to our prayers. He will vindicate his people in the end.

Do you ever have trouble believing that God is just and righteous or have trouble persevering in prayer? This parable reminds us that God is just, and calls us to persevere in prayer. We may not get what we want, but we can rest assured that God will answer us, with a righteous answer. It may take until we reach heaven’s shores until we fully understand, but we can trust that God is just and righteous, and cares for his people.

 


This issue’s Last Word is from The Good Book Blog, the faculty blog of Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, and originally posted on Jan. 22, 2019. This adapted article is from Mark Strauss’ video teaching in the DVD Bible study series, The Prayers of Jesus, edited and directed by Matt Williams. The six-session DVD series and participant guide are available for purchase on Amazon and Christianbook.com.

Matt Williams is a professor and chair of New Testament in the undergraduate Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Talbot School of Theology.

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