“Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” The “they” are Jesus’ disciples to whom He has just spoken about the dark days of the end. And now He speaks about prayer. Persistent prayer. Nagging prayer. Prayer that for all intents and purposes looks like a pesky widow coming to a crooked judge who simply wears him down with her persistent petitioning.
That’s a much different image from that of the small catechism, where prayer is like a deal little child coming to his or her dear Father in heaven. But, as any parent knows, kids too can be persistent when they want something. Pesky too. Downright irritating at times. But at least kids are cute, unlike the depiction on our bulletin cover. Still, it’s odd, don’t you think? Jesus compares the life of prayer to a bothersome widow seeking justice from an unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor respects men and is probably on the take. It sounds a bit like my hometown of Chicago, or most any court in these gray and cynical days when no one believes much in the judicial branch of government any longer.
Jesus was probably using a familiar image to his disciple, both of the widow seeking justice and of the disreputable judge. This was probably commonplace in Jesus’ day. Widows had no one to speak on their behalf. Women had only marginal legal standing in the court without a man to argue on their behalf. And judges were notoriously crooked, as the prophets to Israel could well attest. Bribery and corruption were the ordinary way of life, and the neglect of widows was well known. In fact, the early church made its mark in society by being a community that cared for its widows, especially those who had no family at all and had to fend for themselves. Widows are numbered along with the orphaned and the poor precisely because they had no one to speak for them and were at the mercy of society.
The widow in the parable was at a double disadvantage. Not only was she a widow who had no advocate to speak on her behalf, she also was going before a crooked judge who couldn’t care less about justice. She had no money to bribe him; she had no influence in the community; she couldn’t afford a decent attorney. All she could do was show up day after day in his courtroom with the same set of papers in her hand seeking justice against her adversary.
Even the judge admits to himself that he couldn’t care less about this widow much less her case. He says, “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 harping.” And this is supposed to be an image of faithful prayer? This is how we ought always to pray and not lose heart?
Well, yes, it is, when you stop to think about it. First of all, we’re like that widow when it comes to our standing in God’s courtroom. We don’t have a legal leg to stand on. We’re guilty under the Law and don’t even have a case against our adversary. And who is our adversary? The devil, the world, our conscience. They all testify against us and accuse us with the law reminding us on a day to day basis that we are sinners to the core in our thoughts, in our words, in our deeds. This is the great attack of the devil against the faithful. He uses sin and the Law against us. He tempts us to sin, he cuts a deal with our old Adam, and then when we sin, he holds up the Law and says, “Look at you! You call yourself a Christian? Ha! Some Christian you are! You can’t even keep ten little commandments and you spend most of your waking moments plotting ways to break them. What kind of Christian are you, anyway? Or maybe you really aren’t a Christian after all! Maybe you’re just one of the hypocritical “carnal Christians,” not a true “spiritual Christian”.
Our conscience goes along with this. The conscience is our inner attorney, both a prosecutor and a defense attorney wrapped up in one. It either accuses us with the Law or it attempts to justify our thoughts, words, and deeds by making excuses. We have this endless legal loop going on in our heads. We’re convicted of our sin by the Law, we feel guilty for what we think, do, and say, and then we begin to justify ourselves and make excuses, usually at someone else’s expense.
So we come to God’s court seeking justice. The problem is that we are guilty under the Law. Imagine a criminal who has warrants out for his arrest going to court seeking justice for a speeding ticket. It’s not going to happen. The judge will take one look at the guy and say, “Forget about your speeding ticket, you’re under arrest!”
We’re painted into a corner by the law. We may come to God seeking justice, but that justice is going to turn against us. The Law we point at others is also a mirror reflecting back in our own faces. It’s like that thing parents used to say to their kids about not pointing the finger at others. “When you point at others, three fingers point at you.” When you focus the Law at others, the Law focuses its mirror back on you. If you come to the bar of God’s justice against your enemy, you expect the Law to turn on you as well.
But here is where the parable takes a strange turn. The crooked judge winds up giving the pesky widow what she wants, not on the basis of the law, but simply to get her out of the courtroom. What appears to be a mockery of justice winds up doing justice. And if that’s how it is in the crooked courtrooms of men, will not God, who is just, give justice to His elect, who cry to Him night and day? You bet He will!
God will certainly do justice, but in a way that the world will perceive as crooked. He does justice to our sin by justifying the sinner! What your conscience and the Law cannot do, God does in His Son whom He sent to be our Sin. God does justice to our sin in His elect, sinless Son. He elects the Son to be the world’s sin, to take the full brunt of the law, to have the books thrown against him so that the sinner might be justified, declared righteous, sentenced “not guilty”. The Father has made peace in the death of the Son; the adversary and accuser has been thrown out of the courtroom; the law books have been shut, and the judge is handing out “not guilty” verdicts to convicted criminals who come like pesky widows. Is that any way to run a courtroom? No, not in the temporal kingdom. But in God’s eternal kingdom, it is.
Take note. This is not about asking God for whatever you want. This is about justice under the Law. This is about being justified under the Law. This is about the very thing God delights to do – justify the sinner by grace through faith for Jesus’ sake. This is why the Father sent the Son to die, so that the sinner might be justified in the elect Son.
The question at the end of this parable is not whether the Son of Man will find justice when He comes on the Last Day. It’s not whether He will find good stewardship or nicely behaving citizens or a moral society or whatever we think God wants. The only question is whether the Son of Man will find faith on the earth when He appears. Faith. Simply trust in the promise of God that the sinner is justified before God’s bar of justice for Jesus’ sake, on account of His death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
That’s a good question, too, considering that the church, which is supposed to be a faith in Jesus broadcasting company seems to be broadcasting anything but faith in Jesus. The church these days seems busier with public policy, the courts, the legislatures, the executive branch of government than in preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus for repentance and faith. The justice of God that the church preaches is not social justice or temporal justice but the justification of the sinner in the death of Christ. It’s a justice unlike any justice in the world, where One dies for all, so that the guilty might be justified in One who is Sinless. In the world’s eyes, that’s worse than the most corrupt, bribe-ridden courtroom on earth. In fact, there are atheists who call the redemption of Christ “barbaric, sick, and perverse,” that the Father should receive the unjust death of His Son as the justification of the Sin of the world. You can see their point.
Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth? That’s what Jesus cares about. Faith. From faith, everything else proceeds, including works of mercy, love, and compassion. But before God and His bar of justice, the only thing that matters, the only thing that counts as righteousness is faith in what Jesus has done for us.
And it’s on that basis that faith prays like a pesky, persistent widow coming to God’s version of Night Court. We come to our Father in heaven not because we have a case, but because the case against us has been dismissed. We come to our Father in prayer not on the basis of our own merits but on Christ’s merits. We claim the right to be heard because we have been baptized by the Father into His elect Son so that we might claim the status as one of God’s elect. We come to our Father in prayer not to enrich ourselves or to make our lives easier but to seek justice against the devil, the unbelieving world, our own sinful flesh and our conscience that accuses us.
Faith is persistent in prayer. Even when God appears absent, silent or uncaring. Faith prays “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Into your hands I commit my spirit” at one and the same time. Faith prays because God is faithful and swift to justify for Jesus’ sake. Faith prays because God is so much more than a crooked judge for you and you are so much more than a nuisance to Him. You are His child. He is your good and gracious Father in heaven. Go ahead and bother Him with your prayers. Be persistent and pesky. He loves to hear from you. He loves to justify you for Jesus’ sake.
In the name of Jesus,