The Importunate Widow
Glen Burnie, Maryland
And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; saying, there was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: and there was a widow in that city, and she came unto him, .saying. Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for awhile: but afterwards he said within himself, though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me: I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you he will avenge them speedily, nevertheless when the son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth "(Luke 18:18).
This is a parable that offers us some dazzling conclusions. Jesus is telling us that our prayers determine God's response to our needs-not just the little everyday needs, but the way in which the world touches our lives. God is doing nothing less than offering those who pray a part in His government of the world. God gives a certain power through prayer to the child of God over the events of nations and rulers (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We know that the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah hung upon ten righteous souls and one praying man (Gen. 18:20ff). We recall the account of Moses lifting his arms in prayer during the battle against Amalek and how the course of the struggle varied according as he held his arms high or let them drop in weariness (Ex. 17:11ff).
We Can Pray
But, these events do not mean much to us in this world of superpowers. We look to history and see the vast array of political, economic, and social power that was behind those men who made history. We may inform ourselves as to the relative size of the armies of the East, the strength of their nuclear weapons, or their gross national product, and say in meekness these are the real factors of power in the making of history. The great doers are the ones who change history, not the prayers. Obviously, we think, it is the action of the doers who direct the game of power.
And then, scripture tells us that God invests the prayers with a share in the future of nations and peoples. God informs us that we may pray for peace (Jer. 29:7; 1 Jno. 5:14, 15), for favorable weather (Jas. 5:17, 18), and for liberation from tyranny (Jer. 18:6-10; Dan. 2:20, 21). And if this assertion that prayer is a power in the world is to be taken seriously (and it must, if we walk by faith), then this is a message that should cause us to wake up and tremble.
But, beyond this, something even greater is implied in the parable. In the parable, the praying Christian is presented in the figure of a completely helpless widow - one entirely at the mercy of her adversary. A widow is a woman who has lost the protection and intercession of a man, and therefore is often victimized. Most people are pitiless and cold enough to be moved only by someone who has power behind him. A widow is often a negligible quantity, a non entity that can be overlooked or brushed aside.
Are we to believe then that this church, which is represented by a defenseless widow, which folds its hands in defenseless supplication, by its intercession before the throne of God, actually shares in the divine ordering of conflict and peace, of curse and blessing? Is not this simply too much to believe? And yet, nothing less than this we are assured and promised.
Nations have found that might in bombs, armor; and armies have never ultimately brought about the end they sought. Are not all the armies and armories of the world nothing more than pieces on a board controlled by Another? Has a single one of all the doers ever actually carried out a program in which he realized his own will? In the End, was not all that he did always deflected from its original course, taken out of his control and swept away by mysterious waves? Was he not himself only a part of a plan drawn up by Another? What did Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, what did Hitler and Stalin really know about their role in the drama which Another had written, the last act of which will end before the throne of God at the coming of Jesus Christ? The church of Christ is in truth a defenseless widow, and when she engages in politics and strategy it will never succeed - this is nothing more than a feeble arrow launched at a tank.
How To Pray
The widow rests in the heart of God, and God has promised her that His ear will not be deaf to her pleadings. The one who has influence upon the heart of God rules the world. The poor widow is truly a world power. There is a good reason, then, to consider how she prayed. The first thing that strikes us is the intensity with which she presents her petition. In her distress she knows that only one man can help her. This one man needs only to say a single word and her troubles are over. This is precisely what our Lord is saying to us: If you take seriously the fact that God reigns, that He holds your personal destiny in His hands as well as peace and war among nations, if you take seriously that everything depends on this one thing and this One Man, then you too would keep dinning your prayers in the ears of God with the same persistence, intensity, and importunity.
Some may think the "dinning of our prayers in the ears of God" infers some basic disrespect. If this is our idea, then we think on a human level, and take ourselves too seriously. With God, we are not a nuisance, but a joy. When we keep "pestering" Him we do not show lack of respect but faith and trust in His promises. If we did not have Jesus, and could not see what God and the Son were willing to give for us, then it might be presumptive. But God is interested in us, and God rejoices when we implore and importune because then He knows that we understand His will, and are no longer "pious" and superior, but dare to come to Him as helpless children.
It is sheer hypocrisy for us to say, "I will not come to God with my petty affairs-I will not pray for what I want or need. My Father knows what I need (Is He not omniscient?) Let His will be done." God takes no pleasure in this kind of super-piety and patronizing resignation. The one who says "Thy will be done" before he opens his mouth in reality has no trust in God at all. He is actually saying in his heart, "Fate still runs its course. Dear old God has retired to His sphere and has no intention of intervening on my account." The pious people who merely say, "Thy will be done" are not taking seriously the fact that God has given His children the right to speak on anything that concerns them. Why pray at all if God is not moved to grant our requests? In order to offer a serious, worthy petition I have to know what I need. Our prayers often may be merely foolish talk, but we do communicate with God. Our prayers may make all kinds of false diagnoses of our needs, false estimates, and false interpretations of the real situation. But have we fathers and mothers who take offense because their children ask for something that is not best for them? Children quickly become, reconciled to our refusal and hold no grudge against us because they know we mean well by them.
So, after we have spoken frankly and openly in our prayer we should draw the clear line at the end and say, "Your will be done. You will do what is right and good - choose what is good in my foolish prayer. You know above all what I really need, and I want your will to be first in my life."
Heaven Is For The Desperate
Secondly, we see the intensity with which the widow pleads with the judge - she kept "coming to him." The judge was a man who did not respond immediately. He was not a man who gave away his justice easily.
It seems to be said here that God remains silent in order that men may not submit in fatalistic resignation, and content ourselves with the cheap snap judgment that says "whatever happens must happen" (cf. Psa. 22). Is not God encouraging us to remain in constant contact with him? God loves those who take the Kingdom by force.(Matt. 11:12). Barclay quotes the commentator Denney as saying "The Kingdom of God is not for the well meaning, but for the desperate. No one drifts into the Kingdom. Salvation only opens its doors to those who are prepared to make as great an effort to get into it as men do when they storm a city."
When we are all too sure of a person whom we love, our passion begins to cool. Even in love the cheap certainties in which there is no doubt or concern, are dangerous. May not God therefore often wait and remain silent to make me seek him more passionately and persistently? Was not this the case with the importunate widow and the Canaanite woman as well (Mk. 7:24-30)?
Will He Find Faith At His Return?
Finally we must consider the last essential feature in the Lord's parable. The whole parable is directed to the day of judgment. Will God find any spiritually awake at His coming? The rich fool when he heard "This night your soul is required of you" was suddenly aware that he had dreamed his life away. Here was a man that never missed a trick, took into account even the smallest details, and yet he dreamed away the fact that everything depends on this one night, when he must appear before God. And now the Lord says to us: The man who prays (not the man who works only, but the man who prays) is the man who is awake to what is real, and has a realistic sense of the proportions of life. The man who prays knows that there is only one thing that really counts and that is getting straight with God.
We understand, then, why Jesus' parable concludes with the question of whether there will be those who pray on earth when He comes from heaven. One thing is sure: Our prayers are heard above. But are there petitioners here below. That is the problem, not whether our prayers are heard, but are there those who pray? Men continually ask, "Where is the God who hears my cry?" Which of the two is the right question?
When He comes again will the lamps of the virgins be extinguished? Will the trumpets of judgment speak only to ignorant and wondering ears because God has been consigned to nothingness by the silence and sleep of men? Will He find your lamp of prayer burning bright in the darkness? Will He see there is one who has been waiting for Him and has not fallen asleep, or is out of oil, running about going nowhere?
Truth Magazine, XVIII:42, p. 6-7