Parable: A friend in need; a persistent widow
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they I should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).
I have often struggled with prayer. I am quite honest with people about that. I do love to pray. It is so beneficial for the soul, so uplifting and vital for the Christian faith. Yet, at the same time, it can often feel as though prayer is a one-way street, where hope goes unanswered and where I’m left wondering, Is God even listening? A quick glance at Jesus’ life reveals that He modelled the importance of prayer and a connection with the Father that is essential. The gospel writers record that Jesus would retreat into solitude for prayer (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12; John 6:15). Yet, if prayer is so essential, why can it also be so difficult at times?
I’m not the only one who has struggled in their personal prayer journey. Those closest to Jesus weren’t good at prayer either. While Jesus prayed, His followers slept (Mark 14:32- 42). The disciples struggled to pray, which is probably why they asked Jesus to teach them how. His response has become the most well-known Christian prayer in history, The Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4).
Immediately following The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shares a fascinating parable. “Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, “A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat’” (Luke 11:5-6).”1
The house was likely a single room, where all family members would sleep on a mat together. If the father were to get up and unlock the large bolted door, he would undoubtedly wake the whole family in the process.2 This is an understandable reason not to assist his friend. However, the friend had a cultural and moral obligation to provide food and lodging for his visitor who had journeyed through the night, because “to share friendship was to share honour”.3 This obligation extended not just to the home that was hosting the visitor, but also to the entire community—including the father in the story. Yet, Jesus explains that it is not because of friendship, or because of his moral obligation to help a friend or stranger, that the father decides to get up. Rather, it is because of the friend’s “shameless audacity” (11:8)4 that he will give the friend what he needs.
So, how is the reader supposed to understand this parable, especially in the context of prayer? The parable is followed immediately by this threefold poetic statement by Jesus, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (11:9,10). Is prayer the twisting of God’s arm until He says yes and grants me everything that I have prayed for? If I say the right words in prayer and give the right reasons, will my prayers be answered? Will God only answer my prayers if I have the same shameless persistence as this friend at midnight?
To truly unpack the meaning of this parable, and more specifically of this famous statement, we must keep reading.
Jesus immediately follows up the parable with a rhetorical question: “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? . . . Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (11:11-13). The key to understanding the parable is found within the words how much more (11:13).5 Jesus wants the audience to understand the reality that God is willing and eager to give good gifts to those who ask.
The intention of this passage is not to compare, but instead to contrast our Heavenly Father with earthly parents and bad friends. While the reluctant friend may only answer the door out of annoyance, God is eager to answer the door to those who knock. While a father may recognise the danger of giving bad gifts, our Heavenly Father is waiting patiently to lavish good gifts upon His children. Jesus wants the listener to know that God hears and answers prayers. Finally, the gospel writer ends this passage by identifying the greatest answer to prayer one could ever receive: the gift of the Holy Spirit (11:13).
A similar parable is later told by Jesus. In this story, a widow seeks out a crooked judge with the plea, “Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy” (18:3b). While reluctant to help the woman, as it was seemingly of no benefit to the crooked judge, he eventual does help, saying “this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!” (18:5).
These parables are often considered connected for a few reasons. The most obvious link is persistence. While the first parable is nestled within a passage of how to pray, the second parable begins with “Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up” (18:1). In both parables the father and the judge eventually decide to help because they’re annoyed at the persistence of each character. It appears that both parables are intended to be understood as a contrast. Jesus wants the listener, or reader, not to compare God to the main characters, but rather to understand just how much better God truly is.
There is further context that should be considered when reading the parable of The Persistent Widow. In this parable, Jesus poses the question, “So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!” (18:7-8a). Interestingly, the story immediately prior is a discussion about when the kingdom
of God would come (Luke 17:20-37)—when God will bring justice to His people. These two stories are closely connected through both theme and audience, with an emphasis on justice and a desire for the coming of God’s kingdom.6
This parable is a call for the believer to be patient, with faith through prayer, that God will someday soon execute His promised judgement (Romans 12:19). Justice is to be desired, and in fact longed for and cried out for, as if it’s the one thing we so desperately want, just as the widow in the parable. Even if not for ourselves, we should cry out for justice for the billions of people who have lived through and suffered because of great injustices caused by sin and evil. Although we may not know the exact day, hour or year, Jesus promises that justice will come. God is not like the unjust judge, unwilling to act and in need of persuasion. God will act, and He will act soon.7 The return of the Son of Man is promised, and with Him a new kingdom will come, where there will be “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
One of the great struggles in faith is a prayer that has gone unanswered. We have all heard stories of miraculous answers to prayer: lost keys that have been found, university fees paid for, even healing from sickness. But how do we respond to stories of unanswered prayer? How do we explain the times when it feels like God is not listening? Or when pain does not go away and sickness becomes terminal?
These two parables give some insight into the heart of God toward the one who cries out to Him in need. Jesus wants the listener to be assured that a prayer in faith will be answered (James 5:15). There is a Heavenly Father, far greater than any earthly father, who is listening and cares about His children. There is a Heavenly Judge who will soon bring justice to the oppressed and help to those in need. It seems these parables are largely silent on many of the questions I have asked, instead focusing on the faith required to persevere in prayer with the knowledge that God cares. Only an all-powerful, all-knowing God who understands the beginning from the end can truly understand the impact— good or bad—that a single answered prayer may have.
I’m certainly not a prayer warrior. At times prayer remains difficult for me. However, rather than give in to the feeling that God isn’t listening, I choose to remind myself of these parables and the promises that lie within. I choose to have the persistence of the friend and the widow; not because I feel as though I need to twist God’s arm, but because it is so comforting to know He hears me when I call out to Him.
At times it may feel as though He is not listening and will not answer, but the truth could not be farther from that feeling. “We can be bold because he cares. We can seek his face because he is there.”8 In Jesus we have the opportunity to boldly approach the throne of God in prayer, crying out to Him with shameless audacity, with full confidence that He hears us.
Jonathon Gillard is a pastor and chaplain at Gilson College, Victoria Conference.