Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Luke 18 1-8 The judge and the widow

We are told that this parable is about prayer. The suggestion seems to be that we are to be like that terrier of a widow woman snapping at the heels of the judge until he eventually gives her justice. We are to be persistent and nagging in prayer: God will finally, if reluctantly, relent and we will be vindicated. But such an interpretation would have terrible consequences: it would portray the church as a poor defenceless bereaved widow with no-one to plead for her: forced by circumstances to plead her own’ case: having no advocate. This hardly seems a biblical’ picture: for throughout the New Testament both Son and Spirit are described in precisely those terms as advocate that is what comforter means (one who is strong and comes alongside like a “friend” in a union dispute; one who pleads for the church. Indeed the church is not a widow but the bride of Christ. Secondly it portrays God in a poor light, too. He only gives in because he is afraid for his own reputation as judge.

But this parable is a typical bit of ancient logic: the Jews called it qal—wahomer we might say an argument from lesser to greater: the NT is full of it. Sometimes it is obvious and it says, “How much more...” Here we are left to work it out for ourselves.

On the one hand here is a poor widow pleading her case with a totally venal judge: despite her weakness. and his corruptness he eventually grants her request. On the other here is a lovely bride, whose eloquent husband is pleading her case before a judge whose mercy is unassailable, whose justice is unquestionable, whose power is irresistible. This is qal wahomer on a colossal scale.

The parable, then, is a great reassurance. Luke’s gospel is notable for its taking or board anxieties about the Lord’s delay.’ The old prayer ‘How Long so prevalent in the psalms and prophets was beginning to creep into the prayer life of the church too. It is surely significant that this parable is not reported by either Matthew or Mark. Luke places it right at the end of his discourse on the coming of the Son of Man. The book of Revelation describes the martyrs in heaven crying in desperation to their God, “How long Sovereign Lord before you judge the people of earth and avenge our death?” The widow’s request is couched in similar terms: “I want justice against my enemy”. The question How long is posed 15 times in the psalms alone! It is a question somewhat unfashionable in modern worship. But is that a reflection on our comfortable life style? The how long question has always been on the lips of martyrs and the oppressed - not the oppressors it was always the question of the widow not the well-off. Debtors longed for jubilee: creditors were glad that the steam had run out of jubilee theology. A desire for Christ’s coming burned bright in the church of Paul and Luke. It no longer burns with passion in our souls: where it is talked about it is more dreaded than welcomed. The How long, has become a Not quite yet Lord!

But the parable is notable for another echo of Revelation, too. The barbed question with which it ends: “But when the Son of Man comes will he find any faith on earth?” That is the other classic prophetic question. For the how long question could be posed of God’s people too! Thus it picks up the demand “Be thou faithful until death”. The question has now been turned inside out. God’s faithfulness is not in doubt - he will come and not be slow. The reason for his delay is not his injustice but his mercy. He is delaying to give man time to be faithful.

Thus this parable is less about prayer than it is about faithfulness. When his people are as passionate about justice as God is, then his kingdom will come. The parable comes at the end of a passage which begins with the observation: the kingdom of God is among you. Now perhaps we can begin to see that if it is about prayer at all it is about prayer in the sense that can be defined as an exploration of the will of God - a journey into his heart. It is about the most important petition prayer “Thy kingdom come — thy will be done”. The classic question

“Is not the judge of all the world just?” can only be answered affirmatively. “Will he find faithfulness on earth?” receives a more conditional response: only if his people become so committed to his will in prayer and action that they are bringing in his kingdom.

And so the parable turns on the hearers as they do so often. How much do you want God’s justice? On which side of the fence will we be? Are we among those who beg him to delay - or are we among those earnestly seeking his triumph? Are we enemies of the widow? They had no desire for the judge to act - indeed they might have been those bribing him not to intervene. They carry on living their lives content that the judge has been seen off with a few bribes of hymns and prayers; they marry, buy, sell, drink, eat, plant and build as if their time were all their own: widows, starving, poor, don’t enter into the equation: we are back in the same line of teaching as the parable of the rich fool: his error was not that he was rich - but that he thought he had all the time in the world and never let the coming of the kingdom enter his thinking.

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