God is a righteous judge, so the righteous should persistently pray expecting deliverance from human adversaries; but since no one is righteous before God, do not pray to him in pride expecting exaltation—only the humble repentant sinner will be justified and exalted before him.
Introduction – Sometimes we forget the Gospels are books in which one passage flows into and informs the next. Luke is not a collection of disconnected stories. These two familiar parables teach distinctive stand-alone lessons, but their power is enriched and our understanding deepened when we consider the questions that arise from observing their connections.
It has been nearly 2000 years since Jesus promised to return, and believers are still praying for God to establish final justice and peace. We are still waiting for King Jesus to bring his kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. Why the delay? Does God hear our prayers? Does he have reason to ignore us?
I. God Hears Persistent Prayer
A. The parable of the persistent widow (vv. 2-5)
1. A judge who neither fears God nor respects people. The two most important attributes a judge must possess are love of justice (fear of God) and compassion for people (2 Chron 19:5-7). This judge didn’t have either quality. One who does not fear God would lack the wisdom to judge fairly (Prov 9:10). Lots of people would bring their complaints, but the judge would only try the cases of those approved and accepted by his assistants. In this situation a bribe was useful—to call the judge’s attention to a particular case.
2. A widow in need of justice against her adversary. A widow is literally a woman whose husband has died. Widows in ancient cultures often had three strikes against them. First, they were women, and women did not possess much of any standing before the law. Second, they were husbandless, so they lacked the legal advocate married women enjoyed. Third, they were often poor and thus could not afford to pay a bribe to a judge in order to “grease the wheels” of justice. For a married woman, becoming a widow was a potential catastrophe. The Bible counts widows among the most vulnerable in ancient society (along with orphans and foreigners), and requires us to provide them assistance (Ex 22:22-24). Widows had a particular claim to justice in Israel (Dt 27:19) and in the church (Acts 6:1). Thus the widow in this parable is a character who is oppressed, poor, and needing justice. Her only asset is persistence.
3. But her persistence was enough. She made herself a total nuisance by continually calling upon the unjust judge for justice against her opponent. He resisted her for a time, but she kept coming and coming and coming until she wore him out. The language is vague enough for us to imagine her confronting him even outside the courtroom (on the street, in the market, outside his home). The Greek uses an idiom for the woman’s beating the judge down that literally says “she is striking him under the eye”. A more literal translation might say, “I will give her justice so that she will not box me in the face by her continual coming!” He’s sick of hearing her, so he gives her what she wants just to send her away! It’s his only way to escape getting beat up.
Parents know the feeling. Children, we know your tricks. Your constant asking for what you want does sometimes wear us down. For years my kids have been begging for a dog. Instead we tried to satisfy them with fish. Then guinea pigs. As of last Thursday we now have no pets and they’re pressing on us hard for a dog. Our hands are full with 5 kids. So far I’m holding strong. But I feel a little like the unjust judge, nearly ready to give in to make it all stop!
B. The reason for the parable: to encourage continual prayer (v. 1)
Jesus had just taught his disciples that his return would come suddenly (Lk 17:24). But it might be a long way off. So this delay might discourage them in prayer. Luke tells us why this parable is necessary, and how we should respond. Pray like the widow, never giving up hope, when God seems to delay giving his people justice. We all know people who despair of God and prayer when an answer doesn’t come soon. Jesus doesn’t want us to give up on prayer as we wait for his return. Justice is coming! Don’t give up praying!
C. The lesson of the parable: God is supremely just (vv. 6-8)
Hear what the unjust judge says! Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If this corrupt, careless human judge finally gives the persistent widow justice out of annoyance, how much more will God, because of his great love, give justice to his chosen ones who pray. What’s the lesson? Don’t stop praying because, unlike the unjust judge, God is supremely just and compassionate. He hears when you pray, and he will act.
II. God Hears Humble Prayer
A. The reason for the parable: to rebuke the proud (v. 9)
It is significant that the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector follows the parable of the Persistent Widow. What kind of person would likely respond in self-justification to the first parable? The person who prays much and who has a reputation for praying much. Without the second parable, the self-righteous religious person who is impressed with how much he prays and obeys God in his praying “day and night” might be confirmed in his pride. But Jesus is too clever to let prayerful people off the hook. In this parable he subverts their view of themselves as the real prayer warriors. Not only do people who consider themselves righteous look down on “less spiritual” people, they act on this belief by treating others with contempt. Their religion and morality is ugly to behold. Thus the two parables are connected. Disciples who learn that God desires persistent prayer, now learn on what basis to approach God in prayer.
B. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (vv. 10-13)
1. There are two characters in this parable: a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both go up to the temple to pray. Just by putting these two in the same story Jesus makes us uncomfortable. It’s like starting a story, “Once upon a time there was a nun and a terrorist who went to church.” You know something funny or shocking is coming.
2. Next we get to eavesdrop on their prayers. The Pharisee’s prayer (if it can be called that!) is more of a boast. He essentially asks God to be impressed with him. “I thank you God that I’m so great!” Five times he makes himself the subject of his prayer. “I, I, I, I, I.” Was his “prayer” even for God at all? Or was he really announcing his righteousness to other worshipers while giving the nearby tax collector a tongue lashing? Either way it’s clear he despised his neighbor and suggested to God there was nothing he needed himself. He fasts twice a week, although the law only required fasting once a year on the Day of Atonement. Moreover, he meticulously tithes of all his income to meet the letter of the law, and then tithes on everything else he acquires which was exempt from the law (Lev 27:30-33; Dt 14:22). This man is going way beyond the call of duty. One gets the impression that this Pharisee thinks he is doing God a favor, an extra religious work for which God owes him thanks and reward. The sum of his “prayer” is that he is a lawkeeper (not an extortioner, not unjust, not an adulterer), he glorified God with his body (fasted twice weekly) and his estate (tithed on everything he acquires), and he is thus better than others at being good. It’s hard to argue with the Pharisee’s prayer. He’s obviously a very “good” person. But he’s also not very nice.
“If humility toward God and compassion for neighbor are excluded, the Pharisee possessed an impeccable life-style. But humility toward God and compassion for neighbor are the essence of true piety.” ~ Robert Stein
3. By comparison, the tax collector’s prayer is only 7 words long. Whereas the Pharisee seems to stand as close to the altar of sacrifice as possible, the tax collector stands far off. He comes into God’s presence, not to present himself before God for approval, but to humbly ask for mercy. The Greek word for mercy is associated with propitiation, thus the tax collector is pleading with God for a mercy that pours God’s wrath due for his sin onto a substitute sacrifice. He is asking for God to forgive him, to atone for his sin by turning his wrath away and be satisfied with his plea for mercy. He beats his chest in self-derision and will not even lift his eyes to heaven. As the Greek reads, he even sees himself as “the” sinner, not just “a” sinner (1 Tim 1:15). By this he, ironically like the Pharisee, puts himself in a class by himself. But how striking the contrast! It is a simple sinner’s prayer, a model of requesting forgiveness through pardon (Ps 51:1).
Richard Crashaw, son of an English Puritan, wrote a beautifully simple poem (“Two Went up into the Temple to Pray”) that captures the difference in the Pharisee’s and tax collector’s prayers.
Two went to pray? O rather say
One went to brag, th’other to pray:
One stands up close and treads on high,
Where th’other dares not send his eye.
One nearer to God’s altar trod,
The other to the altar’s God.
C. The lesson of the parable: God justifies the humble (v. 14)
This is shocking to some. To “justify” is to declare someone righteous. The Pharisee obviously possesses lots of righteousness, and he prays for God to take notice. The wicked, traitorous tax collector who has no righteousness at all cries out for mercy. God responds to both, justifying the tax collector not the Pharisee (Rom 3:21-25a)!
When you approach God, do you bring your own righteousness? How might this sound? Adoration: God, you are great in all the ways I am good, but in a greater way. Confession: Forgive me for not being even better than I am right now. Forgive me of my sins even though I can’t think of any particular ones, and forgive me for not being perfect even though nobody is. Thanksgiving: Thank you God for all the ways you’ve made me good in comparison to others. Supplication: God, please make me happy and bless me for others to see how good you can make me look. In Jesus’ name, Amen! I’m exaggerating of course, but so was Jesus to show us what self-righteous prayers sound like to God and others. You might want God to justify you with such a self-exalting prayer, but nobody else wants God to hear you!
III. How God Answers Prayer
A. The (seemingly) bad news (vv. 7, 14)
1. He delays giving justice to his elect who pray faithfully (v. 7). For a culture that expects instant gratification, the widow teaches us that prayer is not like ordering from a menu.
Why might God delay? William Hendriksen suggests five reasons: (1) That we might learn patience, faithfulness, perseverance, and other virtues that are fruits of the Spirit. In other words, how would you know if your prayer is rooted in faith if you didn’t have to persevere through a season without an answer from God? (2) To make our thanksgiving sweeter when God finally answers (i.e., delayed gratification). (3) God may have a greater blessing for us. Our prayer may be good, but he may will something better for us. (4) God may have reasons that lie (at least partly) outside the realm of human experience (Job 1:6-12). (5) God may have a reason that he decides to finally keep from us, hidden in his mind. To remind us that he is sovereign, and does not owe us any explanation for his actions.
2. He humbles good people praying for affirmation (v. 14). Your frequency in praying and attention to law-keeping is no guarantee God will hear you. The Pharisees prayed often and tried harder than anyone to please God by obeying him. We know this because they prayed in public for people to notice. But Jesus condemns prayer that approaches God as a good person.
B. The (truly) good news (vv. 8, 14)
1. He gives speedy justice to his elect who pray faithfully (v. 8). The justice from God may not always seem to come speedily to God’s elect, but from God’s perspective his response in giving justice is speedy (2 Pet 3:8-10). Precisely because God’s justice may seem delayed from the human perspective, we must be persistent in prayer. As persistent as the widow who did not give in or give up until she received justice. At the end of this verse, Jesus includes a peculiar comment that seems out of place. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” When Jesus returns, he will be looking for those who are still praying and watching for his coming—not with a sense of idleness or other-worldliness, but living as disciples in the midst of the world. Will you remain faithful through trials before the Son of Man comes (Mt 24:10-12; 2 Thess 2:3; 1 Tim 4:1)? Will you keep praying for Christians in the midst of trial and persecution?
Think of something or someone you used to pray for often but stopped for whatever reason. Why did you stop praying? Doubted God would answer you? Got tired of praying the same petition? Stopped believing in the power of prayer? Stopped believing in the compassion and goodness of God as your Father? Stopped believing in the power of God to fulfill prayer requests? Concluded that a delayed answer must mean a final no? Became angry at God who seems distant? Grew ashamed of your sin and therefore stopped praying? Concluded that God’s no was due to your sin? Figured God was ignoring you? Wondered if God could really hear you? Wondered if God really answers prayer? Wonder if God is really there? Some of you need to examine your heart for the reasons why you stopped praying. Perhaps there is some form of unbelief that you need to repent of. This is not the cure, just diagnosis. But don’t miss Jesus’ point in his parable. Eventually you have to take your eyes off yourself and look to God. This is the cure for your unbelief. To focus on God faithfulness and goodness and not your lack of these. Look to the many ways God kept his OT promises in the coming of Christ. Look to the many OT and NT promises God will keep in the second coming of Christ. Then consider that you live right in the historical center of God keeping his promises, of God giving justice to his people.
2. He exalts bad people praying for mercy (v. 14). The tax collector seems to have nothing going for him. He is a wicked beggar who doesn’t deserve any kind of praise for what he is or does. But Jesus doesn’t see him that way. As the Son of God, he comes to inform us that God views this tax collector as a justified sinner. Because of his humility, he goes home justified in God’s sight. Instead of relying on something good he might have found in himself, he relies on God’s mercy. And God was pleased to give it.
Someone will agree this is good news for sinners, but it not really useful for good moral people. The person who does not believe in justification by grace alone, of free forgiveness, of pardon for sins, will necessarily take one of two roads straight to hell. Either he will turn to self-righteousness, doing his best to be very good in order to earn approval from God or men, assuming he must only go just a little farther down the road he walks to find God’s approval. Or he will turn to despair, giving up the hope of ever getting rid of his guilt. The first turns to man-made religion, moralism, or some form of activism to assuage his guilt. The second turns to atheism, hedonism, or suicide to heal the pain of his guilt. Do not be deceived (Rom 3:10b-12).
3. He gives us a husband advocate and a propitiation for our sins in Jesus Christ. The widow in the first parable is persistent to a fault. Her refusal to give up shows us the ideal prayer life. Be honest with yourself. You know you haven’t prayed with her persistence. What you need is not another guilt trip about prayer. What you need is an advocate who will plead your case before the judge for justice. Widows need a husband who will protect them, fight on their behalf, and assure them that their prayers will be heard and answered. The tax collector in the second parable prays for mercy from God. He knows his sins must be propitiated—that God’s righteous anger against him be averted and diverted onto a substitute sacrificial offering. How can a supremely just God answer this sinner’s prayer? Only by diverting the just punishment onto himself as that sacrificial substitute (1 Jn 4:10-11). Do you see how the gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes? When you begin to really believe that Jesus is your husband advocate who is willing and able to rescue you from the worse human injustice, and that he is the atoning sacrifice who is willing and able to rescue you from the justice of God against your sins, then you’ll find your prayer life transformed like the persistent widow, and your love for God and others grow to be like Jesus. God’s love for you, viewed through the lens of the cross, will make your prayers courageous and your heart humble. You’ll be filled with love for God and neighbor.
Conclusion – If God left you to yourself without Jesus, your prayers would cease in despair or you’d redouble your efforts and become like the Pharisee, proud before God and despising others who don’t live up to your standard. But God did not leave you to yourself. Behold God’s love for you in Christ Jesus! In him you have everything you need to pray with persistence and humility so God will hear your prayers.