Learning from the Parables of the Persistent Friend and Widow

Luke 11:5–13 and Luke 18:1–8

by Troy Lacey on December 2, 2022
Featured in Parables of Jesus
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In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells two parables with very similar themes, the persistent friend and the unjust judge with the persistent widow. While sometimes the focus of the second parable is missed because of the character of the unjust judge (and the fact that Jesus instructs us to listen to what such a man has to say), it is not uncommon for Jesus to use negative examples in parables (think of the parable of the rich man who stored up things for himself but was not rich toward God—Luke 12:13–21). Both of these parables are instructive for Christians to be prayerful and not to lose heart.

The Persistent (Late-Night) Friend

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:5–13)

Jesus uses an example of a man whose friend comes to him at midnight, asking to borrow some bread for another friend who has just arrived after a long journey. Perhaps to the modern Western mind, this seems like a strange way to start a parable. But recall that during Jesus’ time, this was an agrarian society which basically “closed up shop” and went to bed not long after the sun went down. There were no late-night restaurants and convenience stores open. Another thing we may miss is the importance of hospitality in Mideastern cultures during that time (and even today). It was almost a sacred duty to care for a guest’s needs while he was in your home, and to be stuck without any flour to be able to make bread would have been extremely shameful to the host.

Notice the way Jesus phrases this: the man would not have gotten up and given his friend any bread if he had just asked for himself, but because of his impudence (most versions here say “insistence” or “persistence”) he will get up and give “whatever he needs” (perhaps implying he gave even more than bread—like lamb, olives, dates, or figs). What may be lost in translation (and cultural difference) here is that the man recognizes how embarrassing the situation is to his friend and maybe even to the entire village since hospitality to guests was often a village responsibility. Perhaps he even thinks how he would feel under such circumstances. Because of the situation, the man was motivated (even against his sleepiness) to help his friend.

The Backdrop for and Aftermath of the Parable

Jesus tells his disciples this parable right after teaching them the Lord’s prayer (often called the “disciple’s prayer”) in Luke 11:1–4. Quite probably, the words Jesus had just spoken—“Give us each day our daily bread”—were still in their thoughts as he told this parable that involved bread. The petitioner in the parable was asking for bread, and even though his friend was grudging, he gave him some.

Jesus then goes on to say to his disciples that this should encourage them to pray to the Father often and ask for their petitions. Notice that Jesus next uses the examples of what human fathers give to their sons—food that is good for them, not something poisonous or inedible (Luke 11:11–12). Loving human fathers do their best to provide for the needs of their children. All humans (except Christ) have evil within them yet give good things (Luke 11:13). How much more would an all-good and loving heavenly Father provide for his children? Jesus is using an argument from the lesser to the greater. If evil men can do good deeds, how much more and better could God—the very definition of good—do? Jesus then moves past material things and explains that the Father will also provide for their spiritual needs by sending the Holy Spirit (as he did on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2).

The parable encourages the disciples of Jesus, and us today, to lift up our daily needs before God, and those needs include both physical and spiritual ones. After acknowledging and reverencing God’s holiness (Luke 11:2), the greatest needs we have are to be forgiven of our daily sins, to have a forgiving spirit toward those who have wronged us, and to desire to be kept from temptation to sin (Luke 11:4). In this parable, Jesus takes a cultural taboo and turns it into a way to meditate on the Lord’s goodness and prompt us to seek him in prayer for every need. And while it is only inferred in this parable, notice that it is “needs” and not “wants” that Jesus is speaking about—both in the parable and in the disciple’s prayer. God knows that we need food, water, and clothing (Matthew 6:31–32; Luke 12:29–31), and we are to ask him for his provision. Yet we are also to “seek his kingdom,” meaning to seek after the things of God. This is not a blank-check promise from God that he will give us whatever we want. But as we prayerfully follow him, he will take care of our needs if we ask him.

The Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1–8)

In this parable, Jesus again is using an argument from the lesser to the greater to teach about prayer and perseverance. Like the parable of the persistent friend, this involves a cultural situation that we today know little about—justice for widows. Because most Western nations have assistance programs for those in need, and some churches have food pantries for those less privileged, we often don’t consider such things to be judicial matters. But in this parable, there is a widow with an adversary who has taken or withheld something from her which was hers by right. Whether it was a matter of property or even a cloak (Deuteronomy 24:17), widows in Israel were to be treated with special consideration, including leaving gleanings in the field for them (Deuteronomy 24:18–21). In Israel, a judge was expected to be impartial, to judge righteously, to not accept bribes or be intimidated into making bad decisions, and to recognize that judgment ultimately belongs to God, just as Moses told the judges of his time (Deuteronomy 1:16–17). God set the standard to execute “justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 10:18). God even pronounced woes on those who robbed widows of their rights and property (Exodus 22:22–23; Deuteronomy 27:19; Isaiah 10:1–3; Luke 20:45–47), and parts of the tithes of produce that the Israelites paid were to support widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 26:12–13).

Jesus does not specify who this adversary was or what he had done to the widow, but it likely involved taking her cloak as a pledge and not returning it by nightfall (Exodus 22:26), refusing to let her glean from his fields (Leviticus 19:9–10, 23:22), or not providing food for her during the Feasts of Weeks and Booths (Deuteronomy 16:10–14). But this widow goes to the judge to get him to execute justice, and because he ignores her pleas, she decides to keep coming to him. Finally the judge reasons that she will never give him peace until she gets a just ruling, so even though he does not care for her at all, he rules in her favor.

It is here that Jesus draws us to the thoughts and actions of this unjust judge. If an evil judge can make a good ruling, even though he has been forced to because he has been asked time and time again, how much more will the perfectly righteous “Judge of all the earth do what is just” (Genesis 18:25)? People sometimes get confused by this, because God is not being compared in any way to this unjust judge, rather he is being contrasted in the most extreme way possible. If evil men (including judges) can still do what is right, then how much better and more readily will God the righteous Judge execute justice (Luke 18:7–8)? God doesn’t ignore our pleas but hears them (1 John 5:14–15). God doesn’t hate to see justice served, because he is just (Deuteronomy 32:4). God does not get burdened by our petitions or grudgingly act out of compulsion, but he loves to hear our prayers (1 Timothy 2:1–3).

The Just Judge and the Persistent Christian

God loves and freely gives to his children just as he commanded the people of Israel to do with a glad heart (Deuteronomy 15:9–11).

God loves and freely gives to his children just as he commanded the people of Israel to do with a glad heart (Deuteronomy 15:9–11). Because God is just, and because he loves to give good things to his children, he also loves a cheerful giver. Paul taught that God then uses that mindset to further “increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Corinthians 9:7–12). When we seek to help those in need, through a heart of thanksgiving to God, he strengthens that desire and uses it to care for people’s needs and, more importantly, to cause them to glorify God because they can see him reflected in our desire to serve him (2 Corinthians 9:11–13). As Paul had earlier said, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). And what is the end result of being a persistent Christian with a heart that seeks God’s kingdom? Why, it’s just as Jesus taught—it causes us and others to be more prayerful, generous, and thankful (2 Corinthians 9:13–15).

These two parables teach us to be prayerful and generous (even though the examples used are negative ones of grudging acquiescence) and remind us that we are to be just, righteous, and acknowledging that every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:17), the invariable and perfect Judge. James goes further, and his words parallel these two parables in Luke’s Gospel when he reminds us that God’s laws of liberty are perfect, that we should be doers and not just hearers, and that we are to be compassionate and care for those in need.

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:25–27)

When Jesus Comes Back, Will He Find Faith on Earth?

At the very end of the unjust judge and the persistent widow parable, Jesus makes a comment that at first seems out of place. Jesus had just stated that God will speedily give justice to his children. That would seem like a natural place to end the parable. God hears and answers our prayers and is a loving God who is just. Why does Jesus then mention his second coming and a seemingly pessimistic musing on whether he would find faith on the earth?

During his earthly ministry, Jesus often mentioned that he did the will of his Father (John 5:17, 5:43, 8:28–29, 8:42), and one of the things his Father gave him to do was to come back to earth again to execute justice (Matthew 16:27; Luke 9:26). Since these two parables of Jesus deal with perseverance, justice, and faith, it is only natural that he looks forward to his second coming when these two characteristics are noticeably lacking.

Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God],” and the verse goes on to further state that we must believe God is just (“that he rewards those who seek him”). In fact, Hebrews 11 deals just as much with believers persevering as it does with faith. The “by faith” statements usually mention an Old Testament saint believing God’s promises, being obedient to him in difficult circumstances, and ignoring the consequences of the society around him.

But man’s “descent from faith” is documented all throughout Scripture. And in the New Testament, Paul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews lay out this “descent” manifesting as people who will be lovers of self, devoting themselves to spiritism and demons, “people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth,” treating “godliness as a means of gain,” contentious, going on “from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived,” insulting the Spirit of grace, enticing people to “sensual passions of the flesh.”1 And as Romans 1:29–31 states, these people are “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

This is a lengthy list of evil, which we cannot help but notice is an apt description of our present society. Keep in mind that Jesus was speaking these parables to people who knew the truth of God’s Word, who at least outwardly worshipped God and had respect for that Word. How much worse will it be for those who reject God, dismiss his Word, and mock his Son? Jesus did not lightly tack this lack of faith statement onto the end of the parable. Being God in human flesh, he knew that this would be the direction of mankind’s heart. Jesus’ faith statement here is not spoken in isolation but contrasts with God giving justice to his children (Luke 18:8), to God meting out judgment to those who oppose him at the end of the age (Hebrews 9:27; 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 20:11–12). Jesus is telling his hearers that they will need to persevere in the faith amidst fierce opposition.

Persevering in Petition

Christians are to persevere, but do so while always praying and to “not lose heart.” As Paul stated it: “[P]ray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), or as the author of Hebrews said, do “not grow weary or fainthearted” when experiencing difficult circumstances (Hebrews 12:3). In the case of the widow, she had an adversary who wronged her and a judge who disdained her. She could have easily lost heart (given up). But she did not let circumstances stop her, and this is what Jesus is focusing on. As followers of Jesus, we are not to be discouraged by circumstances. That shows a lack of faith in God. And as the days grow more evil, we will need more faith to persevere. This is why Jesus at the close of this specific parable asks the question if he will find faith when he returns.

Will Christians let an unjust judge (or court or judicial system) deny justice and silence freedom of speech and religion? Will we not cry out to God while babies are murdered in the womb and elderly and disabled persons are being euthanized? Will we lose heart and just give up, telling ourselves that after all we’re only ordinary people, not politicians, lawyers, or judges? How quickly we forget the very words Jesus said in this very parable “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?” (Luke 18:7 NIV).

Yes, we have a responsibility to vote, to petition our representatives, to speak out against evil. The widow in the parable didn’t just sit home and wring her hands: she acted. But we also have the privilege of serving the God who created the heavens and the earth, who cares for us, who took care of our greatest need by sending his Son, Jesus, to be a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and in these two parables to pray often. God is not a grudging neighbor or an unjust judge, and when we pray for those not able to defend themselves, doesn’t God hear those prayers and act? When we pray that God’s name and God’s Word should be honored in public discourse (thy kingdom come, thy will be done), will God not hear? Christians in America have prayed for almost 50 years that Roe v. Wade would be overturned, and by God’s grace it was. Will we now lose heart, lose faith, and stop praying because some states want to enshrine abortion “rights”? Christians are those who walk by faith, not those who shrink back into the shadows.

The author of Hebrews may well have had these two parables in mind when he wrote the following about perseverance, faith, and the judgment of the faithless:

For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:36–39)

Finally, we know that in this fallen world that there will not be full justice until the Lord deems it time to return and restore things to a pre-fall Edenic state in a new heavens and new earth. There, God will dwell with his people and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Therefore, let us not lose hope as we patiently wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Footnotes

  1. See Romans 1:28–31; 2 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3–5; 2 Timothy 2:16–19, 3:1–3, 3:13; Hebrews 10:28–30; and 2 Peter 2:18–21.

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