Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

143. The Importunate Widow (Luke 17:20,21; 18:1-8)*

At this point in his narrative, and with no apparent connection with what had gone before, Luke brings together three self-contained sections about Christ's coming again:

  1. 17:20,21. The Pharisees'enquiry about the coming of the Kingdom,
  2. 17 :22-37. Details, nearly all of them paralleled in the Olivet prophecy, given to the disciples about the second coming,
  3. 18 :l-8. Prayer for the second coming.
Since by this time the claims of Jesus had split the Pharisees into two parties—those bitterly hostile, and those vaguely and tentatively sympathetic—the question: "When does the Kingdom of God appear?" can be taken in two quite different senses. The first group would certainly put their enquiry in a mocking cynical spirit. The others would be sincere enough, even though not altogether convinced.

Happily this ambiguity does not affect seriously the meaning of the Lord's answer, which in its own right is problematical enough.

These Pharisees asked: "When is the kingdom coming?", their present tense indicating a real excitement or feigned scepticism about the possibility that Jesus would at any time now proclaim himself king of the Jews.

"With observation"

The Lord's immediate answer asserted baldly: 'There is to be no kingdom of that sort now—"The Kingdom of God is not coming (i.e. just now) with observation."

But what did Jesus mean by that expression "with observation"? There is more than one possibility here:

  1. "As you look eagerly for it."
  2. "Accompanied by signs provoking eager observation."
  3. "As you look for it in critical and hostile spirit."
The second of these gets some support from the Greek preposition meta. The third is suggested by the use of the verb pamtereo in a hostile sense (in five passages out of six; Lk.6 :7; 14 :1; 20 :20; Mk.3 :2; Acts 9 :24).

"The kingdom within you"

But then followed one of the Lord's most mysterious sayings: "The kingdom of God is within you." Modern interpreters nearly all take this to mean the rule of Christ in men's hearts. But is it conceivable that Jesus would say this to Pharisees of any type?

An alternative, made to depend entirely on a phoney reading in the Emphatic Diaglott is; "God's royal majesty (in the person of Jesus) is in the midst of you." Here "in the midst of" is distinctly possible but not inevitable. But "royal majesty" (for "kingdom") is quite without adequate support.

Then what was Jesus saying? Possibly this- that just as Israel at Sinai was called God's kingdom (Ex. 19:5,6), so now the Lord's disciples, the New Israel, were the kingdom of God in the midst of a Jewry which did not recognize them as such.

Alternatively, this saying can be read as a striking example of the dramatic present. This idiom (in such passages as Acts 10 :11; Jn.12:8; Mt. 10:20; 26:2; 24:20 Gk; Mk. 9:2) imparts a degree of urgency or sense of suddenness into a statement where normally a past or future tense would be used. In that case the idea is: 'All at once, when you are not aware, the kingdom is here, it has come to the complete surprise of people like yourselves, but not catching my disciples unawares (v.22-37).'

"Pray and not faint"

A very impressive idea binds together the various parts of this 18th chapter of Luke: that it is not the self-righteous Pharisee (v. 11) whose plea is heard, but those who persist in prayer (v.1-8), and such as the humble publican (v.l3 and babies (v. 15) and the blind (v.35) and those who are ready to leave all (v.22)—these are the people who have God's ear.

Only rarely do the gospels explain, either in the words of Jesus or by way of commentary the aim and purpose of the Lord's parables. This parable about the widow is an outstanding exception. Jesus told it "to the end that that ought always to pray and not to faint." But this is only half the explanation, for at its conclusion Jesus provided an even more pointer application.

This parable is also an exception in another respect. Jesus quarried many of his parables from the Book of Proverbs, but this one comes from the Apocrypha! —Ecclesiasticus 35 :17-19 Quite half a dozen of the Lord's phrases are traceable there.

"Pray always," he said. How often is that? Jesus defined this incessant prayer as "crying flight and day unto God." The lesson of the Law of Moses regarding this is clear and plain. Incense was to be burned morning and evening in the Holy Place before the Lord (Ex.30 :7,8). Daniel and David prayed three times a day (Dan.6 :10; Ps.55 :17). But by "always" Jesus also meant never abandoning this pertinacious seeking of help from God. And since this parable is about the Second Coming (as will be seen by and by) there is surely an implication here that the Lord's return could happen (could have happened) at any time (note Lk.21 :36; Mk.l3:33).

The parable also describes the quality of the prayer—not the flat uninspired repetition of routine phrases, but an earnest intense persistence like that of this poor woman who knew her own need and who was convinced that help could come from one person and from him only.

It is necessary (Gk: dei) that disciples of Jesus pray like this. And it is equally necessary that they never flag or become discouraged. The antithesis: "to pray and not to faint,”' is a plain declaration that prayer is strength, (cp. v.39,42), and non-prayer is weakness, fainting. The examples provided by the Canaanitish woman and by blind Bartimaeus show that importunity is more than just psychological in its value and power.

Unjust Judge

How well the character of this hard unprincipled judge is sketched in a mere few words. The judges of Israel were bidden remember that "ye judge not for man, but for the Lord ... Wherefore let the fear of the Lord be upon you." There must therefore be "no respect of persons" (2 Chr. 19:6,7). But this unscrupulous fellow feared neither God nor man; and he took pride in the fact. In truth he could hardly have been less suitably qualified for his judicial office. This comes out even more dearly in his soliloquy. His reason for at last taking notice of the poor widow's plea was neither compassion nor devotion to the principles of justice but sheer personal dislike of the ceaseless pestering he was subject to: "Because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me'—a strange form of 'respect of persons'! The expression he used so very sardonically really means: "give me a black eye" (same word: 1 Cor. 9:27; and for idea, cp. Mt. 15:23), but was probably intended figuratively, rather like the more modern word "browbeat."

But this wearing down of the judge's indifference was not easily achieved. The Greek verbs imply that the widow kept on coming to him, and he kept on turning her away. None would be more surprised than the widow and her adversary at the judge's sudden willingness to put the case through. It has been well observed that, by contrast, the Righteous Judge is "wearied only when we are silent." (For other examples of importunity, see Lk. 18:39,42; Mt. 9:27-29; 15:22-28; Mk. 4:38, but also 2 Cor. 12:8).

Second Coming

The conclusion of the parable makes very plain that the Lord designed it not with general reference to any and every personal need presented before God with importunity, but with special application to certain special circumstances—the suffering and need of God's people in the Last Days. The discourse leading up to this parable (17 :20-37) is all about the Lord's second coming; the parable itself is introduced with the phrase: "And he went on to say . . ."; and fts conclusion is this: "Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" So the primary reference of this vivid little parable must be to a situation at the end of this age. And since Jesus meant to teach that "men ought always to pray" for Messiah's coming, he implies that the Lord's return could have happened, and yet can happen, at any time, and not just at some predetermined calendar date (cp. "always" in 21:36).

It is usual to emphasize that in telling this story Jesus was using the argument a fortiori (as in Mt.7 :11). If ceaseless importunity can cause even a hard selfish unprincipled judge to take notice, how much more readily will the counsels of heaven be influenced in the last great hour of need by intense persistent pleading to 'he gracious God of heaven!

Reference to Israel

This approach is hardly adequate. Certain Old Testament passages show that Jesus deliberately framed the details to provide a marvellously appropriate picture of God's relations with the people of Israel. "A judge of the widows is God in his holy habitation" (Ps.68 :5). And Israel cast off is described by the prophets as a widow: "How is Jerusalem become as a widow, she that was great among the nations and princess among the provinces" (Lam.l :1). And in the time of her restoration she is comforted: "Thou shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more" (ls.54 :4).

More than this, throughout the long period of Israel's casting off and scattering among the Gentiles, the God who made His rich promises to the fathers must have seemed to generations of persecuted Jews rather like a judge with the power to "avenge them of their adversaries" but who has nevertheless almost cynically held off from sending the help due to them. To them he has appeared not to follow His own declared principles of fair and kindly judgment; an unjust judge, in fact (cp. Mk.4 :38).

The language of the bewildered prophet Jeremiah as he appealed to God to fulfil the early assurances of immunity from disaster is almost an anticipation of the Lord's parable and of Israel's calamitous experiences among the nations: "O Lord . . . remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors; take me not away in thy longsuffering (that is, God's toleration of the prophet's wicked adversaries) ... thou hast filled me with indignation. Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed? Wilt thou be altogether unto me as a deceitful vision, and as waters that are not sure (a mirage in the desert)?" (15:15,18).

In the parable the widow's plea: "Avenge me of mine adversary," has baffled the commentators, so that in desperation they (and quite a few modern translators with them) have tried to make the word mean: "do me justice." But in truth this Greek root means "avenge", and nothing but that, in fifteen other New Testament passages.

It may be doubted, with some justification, whether the Jews have at any time in their tragic history bombarded heaven with importunate prayers for help, like the widow in the parable. That time is still to come, in the last days, when a stricken Israel, beaten to her knees by the terror and triumph of a host of enemies, will turn in desperation from an age-long self-reliance to a pitiful agonizing plea to the God of Abraham. Then, and not till then, will God really "avenge his elect, which cry day and night unto him (cp. Acts 26 :7), though he is longsuffering (with the God-less nations) regarding them" (cp. Is.40 :27; Ps.68 :5). And then, He will avenge them speedily (2 Pet.3:9). There is a seeming contradiction between this word "speedily" and the widow's sustained importunity, for clearly she did not get a response at first asking. In the application of the parable to Jewry in the Last Days the difficulty evaporates. Through the centuries there has been long drawn-out Jewish need, apparently ignored, But when there is repentance in Israel, if only in a minority, then God will act speedily (Mt.24 :22; see "The Time of the End", HAW, Ch.2).

Isaiah has two powerful passages which chime in perfectly with this interpretation: "Judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off ... Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment. . . therefore his arm brought salvation ... he put on garments of vengeance for clothing . . . fury to his adversaries, recompence to his enemies..." (59 :14-18). "Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate. I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that are the Lord's remembrancers, keep not silence, and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth . . . say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh" (62:4,6,7,11).

Yet there is something very wistful about Christ's last comment on his own parable: "Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith in the Land?" —as who should say: "If there is a faithful remnant among the chosen people in that day, it will surely be onlya remnant!"

Notes: Lk. 18:1-8

Avenge me. But judges do not dispense vengeance. Here is another instance of a parable not being true to life.
For a while. Lit: upon a time. The same sort of "time" as in Dan. and Rev.? Note again the application of this parable to Jewry.

Afterward. Lit: after these things. What things? The events of ch. 17?
This widow troubleth me. Here prayer has effect because it is urgent; in the next parable (v.13), because it is humble.

She weary me. The Just Judge is wearied only when His people are silent. Other examples of God's desperate for help: 2 Pet.3 :9,15; Rev. 6 :10; Ps.74 :10; 94 :3; Jn.ll :4; Mt.14 -.24,25.
Which cry unto him. A loud cry of need: Jas.5 :4;Gen.4 :10.

Longsuffering. A word used always in a good sense; 2 Pet.3 :9; Ecclesiasticus 35 :22 (and context).

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