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The widow’s prayer

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?, Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus’ story about a poor widow who seeks vindication against her adversary is usually read as a model of Christian prayer in a quite general sense (see, for example, these commentaries collected at textweek). This approach certainly yields some important insights, but it also illustrates a widespread tendency to disregard the eschatological-historical context of Jesus’ teaching.

As the widow pleads with the judge to ‘get justice for me against my accuser’, so the disciples will cry out to God day and night for vindication against those who oppose and persecute them. The assurance given is that God will not delay but will ‘vindicate them quickly’ (vv.7-8; cf. Sir. 35:12-20). The parable immediately follows teaching about the coming of the kingdom of God and the judgment of a sinful generation in a manner analogous to the flood or the destruction of Sodom (17:20-37). It opens with a pointed reference to ‘a certain city’, and concludes with a question: will the Son of man find faith on earth when he comes?

The story is told, therefore, not to a global audience but to the few who had started down the difficult narrow path that leads to life, who were about to enter the dark tunnel of Israel’s eschatological crisis, not knowing when - or even whether - they would emerge from the other end. It is not a general parable about prayer but a parable specifically about the vindication of Jesus’ disciples. If we wish to learn lessons from the parable for our own circumstances, we should at least begin from this eschatological starting-point and generalize from it only very carefully. Jesus promised his followers that when they cried out to God for vindication against their adversaries (the Jewish authorities, Rome), God would certainly hear them; he would not delay long (18:7). Can we draw the conclusion from this, however, that under any circumstances perseverence in prayer will get results?

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