Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Importunate Widow and the Friend at Midnight


Luke 18:1-8; 11:5-13

In the introduction to the parable of “The Importunate Widow”, Jesus emphasized the need to pray always and not to lose heart. The parable of “The Friend at Midnight” follows the Lord's Prayer and also underscores the need for persistence in prayer.

The first parable deals with a judge who is described as one "who neither feared God nor had respect for people" (Luke 18:2). Jesus describes an immoral, unsympathetic judge. He is a man who uses his power to enrich himself rather than to execute justice and consequently demonstrates no concern for the poor and unfortunate.

A poor widow who has been mistreated is denied justice. The judge knows that she has no money to pay him a substantial bribe or the influence and power to pressure him to act in her behalf. He feels no need to do anything, and he assumes that in time she will give up her appeal. However, she pesters him incessantly. "She could only plead with the persistence of despair. So she pleaded even against hope. She entreated the judge at his tribunal. She waylaid him as he went home. Wherever he might go, there she would be, waiting to pour her intolerable tale of woe upon him. He could not escape her." 1 Finally he relents, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming" (Luke 18:4-5).

Bailey has provided us with cultural background that enables us to better understand this parable. The following is a description by Tristram of a court scene he witnessed in Nisibis, Mesopotamia. A judge is seated with his assistants around him. While men shout out their appeals in the hope that their cases will be heard, other cases are considered first because the judge and his assistants have been bribed. A poor woman continuously interrupts the proceedings with loud cries for help but is told to keep silent. She refuses. Finally exasperated, the judge asks, "What does that woman want?" She explains that her son has been taken into the army, and she cannot work the farm by herself. She is being required to pay tax even though as a lone widow she could be excused. After some questioning, the judge exempts her. 2

In the Middle East, women do not ordinarily appear in court. The fact that a woman asks for her case to be heard in a courtroom indicates that there is no man in her family to speak for her and strongly suggests that she has nowhere else to turn for help. Jesus chooses a widow, Bailey implies, because only a woman could behave as she does, persistently clamoring for attention, pestering, and making herself an indisputable nuisance. A man who behaved in this manner would be punished, even killed. "Men can be mistreated in public, but not women. Women can scream at a public figure and nothing will happen to them." 3 When Jesus wanted to illustrate the need for persistent, desperate, judicial pleading, the story of a poor woman was an obvious choice.

The second parable concerns three friends. The first friend comes at midnight to visit the second friend. The second friend is caught by surprise, and he has nothing to offer him. In the Middle East, custom demands that visitors are provided with food and refreshment regardless of time of day. Duty requires hospitality, and hospitality requires the best that you have, better even than your family’s regular fare. But the host in this parable has “nothing”—an exaggeration, meaning nothing worthy to set before him—and is faced with two choices. He could be inhospitable and tell his guest that he is sorry he cannot offer him anything. This would be an insult of the highest order. Or he could make an acceptable excuse, slip out the back door, wake up the third friend irrespective of the hour, obtain what he needs, and meet the requirements of hospitality.

Bailey notes that in the Middle East, when a woman baked bread, she baked enough for an entire week, and the people of the village knew who had baked bread most recently. Based on this information, he believes that the third friend whose wife had baked recently was asked for the needed bread. The reason for the three loaves, Bailey believes, is simply that he could give a whole loaf to the guest which was more than adequate, and offer a second for courtesy’s sake. The third loaf would be for himself in order that he could share the meal with his guest. 4

The third friend understandably puts off the second and tells him he's already bolted the door. The children in bed with him are sound asleep and he can't get up. He knows his friend is in a quandary and wants to help him out but not enough to make him get up and honor the request. So he puts him off, perhaps hoping he'll ask another neighbor. But the second friend does not give up. He keeps shouting out his predicament. The friend in bed is not so concerned about his friend's predicament as he is about his own. To get some sleep and avoid waking the town, he gets up and supplies the bread. "I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs." (Luke 11:8)

Both of these parables contrast the way God deals with us and the way we are sometimes treated by other people. If an immoral, corrupt judge will finally grant the persistent claims of a poor widow, and a sleepy, angry friend who doesn't want to be bothered will finally get up to supply the needs of his persistent neighbor, how much more willing to supply our needs is a gracious God, a righteous judge and a caring friend?

These parables also inform us that God does not always answer our prayers immediately and that persistence is sometimes required for prayers to be answered.

Persistence is important because it discourages flippant, casual requests. If our original petitions aren’t really important, we will not persist. Too much prayer is glib, flippant, superficial, and perfunctory. We pray for missionaries and colporteurs without seriously and genuinely thinking about them. We pray for the leaders of our country or of our church because it seems appropriate to do so without feeling any real concern for them. We pray for some great virtue without any serious thought of the effort needed to attain it. "Any loitering student can cheaply pray to be learned; any idler in the market place can pray to be rich; and an irresolute dodger of duty can pray for a vigorous character. But such praying is not really prayer.” 5 Persistence teaches us that with God, the get-rich-quick philosophy does not work.

Persistence is important because it purifies our motives. If our prayer is not immediately answered, we ask ourselves why? Are we praying for something that will make us better human beings? Persistence requires that we search our hearts for the answer. There would be no need to reflect, no need for introspection if all our prayers were answered immediately.

Persistence is important because it leads us to prioritize the dominating concerns of our lives. According to Fosdick:

The fault of the Pharisees who prayed on the corners was not that they were asking for unworthy things. Their petitions were doubtless excellent, springing out of scriptural ideas and couched in scriptural language. But the prayers did not represent the inward and determining wishes of the men. The petitions were not sincere. The lives of the Pharisees blatantly advertised that their habitual ambitions did not tally with their occasional supplications. When the Master bids us make prayer private, to think of God when we pray as "the Father who seeth in secret," to use no futile and repetitious formulas but to go at once to the pith of our want (Matt. 6:5ff), he is making a plea for sincerity. Prayer to him is the heart, with all its most genuine and worthy desires aflame, rising up to lay hold on God. It is no affair of hasty words at the fag-end of a day, no form observed in deference to custom, no sop to conscience to ease us from the sense of religious obligations unfulfilled. Prayer is the central and determining force of a man's life. Prayer is dominant desire, calling God into alliance. 6

Persistence implies urgency and controlling desire. If we do not persist, it is obvious that there is no urgency; there is no controlling desire. Our passing fancies and whims do not deserve persistence. But if we desire something urgently, ardently, and intensely, we will not quickly give up. If it becomes our dominant desire, what we want more than anything else, our attention is focused on it and our life becomes organized around it. Buttrick puts it beautifully when he says that Paul, Carey, and Livingston prayed for the triumph of Christ with all their hearts and then hurled their lives after their prayers. 7

1. Buttrick, page 169.
2. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 134
3. Ibid, pp. 134, 135.
4. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 122.
5. Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer (New York: Association Press, 1920) p. 147.
6. Ibid, p. 149.
7. Ibid, p. 150.

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