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The persistent widow (Summer Encounter 2011)

These are my notes from the talks at Summer Encounter, the annual conference of CMS in South Australia.

Dr David Williams is the head of development and training in CMS. His talks covered the three parables in Luke 18:1-30.

1. The persistent widow

These three parables are culturally very strange for us. We’re going to take a non-Western cultural perspective on them. Although these stories are familiar to us, their culture is different to ours: an honour-shame culture. Each of the stories involves status reversal: the big person is  brought low and the little person is honoured. Although status isn’t that important in Australia (tall poppy syndrome!), it is in much of the world: important people are honoured and unimportant people are shamed. If on a school visit Julia Gillard ignored the school principal and just talked with the kids, we might be okay with that, but if that happened in Asia, it would be an intentional and severe shaming of the principal. As Westerners, we miss the shock of these three stories.

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8):

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.  He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

‘Persistence’ in the Christian life is not like New Years’ resolutions: it has to work! This parable is about unfailing persistence. Some parables don’t have an obvious application, but this one does: we ought always to pray and not lose heart.

(The parable’s context is Luke 17:22ff: will you be ready when the Son of Man returns? When the Son of Man returns, life will be continuing normally — there won’t be signs!)

Why has the woman gone straight to the judge, without hiring a lawyer? Why are we told that the judge doesn’t fear God? Why tell a story about a widow and a judge in the first place?

This judge ‘neither fears God and (literally) before people he was never ashamed,’ words that instantly transport us into an honour-shame culture. It’s not about right-wrong, but what will bring honour or shame to a family. In Australia, a lifeguard blows the whistle, and everyone stops to watch who’s doing wrong. But in the Middle East, someone blowing a whistle doesn’t get any reaction, because people don’t have a right-wrong mindset. In Australia, we think of ourselves as individuals with personal rights, but in honour-shame cultures, people think about themselves in relation to their families and what will bring honour or shame. An extreme example is honour/shame killings. When David Williams was walking in Nepal once, he came to a fork in the road and asked a local, ‘Is this the track to Amppipal?’ The response: ‘Yes.’ But it wasn’t! David took the wrong track and of course thought that the person had simply lied to him Because it’s an honour-shame culture, however, a response of ‘No’ is completely inappropriate. In Nepalese culture, David had asked a ridiculous question.

First-century Palestinian culture held honour-shame and right-wrong in tension, and this judge is a total disaster on every cultural count. The judge’s role is to implement God’s law, and the fact that he won’t is a disaster for the widow. But there are additional social expectations, to bring honour and harmony to the community, yet the judge won’t do this either. He’s shameless, which is completely out of place in this culture. And it means that no one can make any appeal to him according to either standard, because he refuses to be bound by any. The widow’s situation appears hopeless. Her plight is symbolic of the most dispossessed and powerless people: the widow, the orphan, the alien. We know that the widow has no one to care for her because otherwise, she would have sent a male relative to speak to the judge. Ironically, here, the widow’s complete lack of status actually enables her to act outrageously: she is so lowly, beneath contempt, that the judge will not throw her into jail, as he otherwise would. It’s sort of humourous, with the widow popping up in every moment of the judge’s day, heckling him.

So then, will the disciples keep praying or give up? ‘Give up’ in this case is not ‘give up praying’ but ‘give up discipleship’ — the sense is ‘Pray, or give up following.’ The point: we must pray persistently, and pray persistently for justice, as a fundamental expression of what it means to follow Jesus.

5 key lessons about prayer

1. Persistent prayer is the fundamental expression of dependent faith. ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ It means, ‘Will you keep going in your walk with me?’ Being a Christian is all about living by faith — how? — by praying persistently. Faith = trusting God = praying.

2. An un-lesson — what Jesus doesn’t say. Persistent prayer is not about technique. Jesus says nothing about disciplines — how long to pray, where, etc. So the question is simply, What will get us praying?

3. Persistent prayer flows from a right view of God. God is unlike the judge in every respect: he cares for us, cares what people think of him, and loves to answer. Satan’s lie is that God is like the judge — mean, silent, absent, untrustworthy, unreliable, capricious — and that prayer is the desperate attempt to convince this cold God to listen to us. But God is not like that! To hold this right view of God is itself a battle of faith!

4. Persistent prayer flows from a right view of ourselves. While the judge doesn’t mirror God, the widow does mirror our own situation: we are dependent. We need help! But prayer is hard in the West because we are so in control! In Nairobi, the ‘everyday prayer answer’ is normal because people have so little. (Or for CMS workers in the first 3 months on assignment!) We bring nothing to God, we have nothing, yet we only need to ask! The way that Australian blokes refuse to ask for assistance in day-to-day situations is a serious spiritual problem! It’s not being ‘fiercely independent,’ it’s pride. We need to recognise our dependence. So what are we asking for at the moment? James says, you don’t receive because you don’t ask! What are you asking for this year?

5. Persistent prayer seeks God’s justice achieved at the cross. Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Praying for justice is ‘Your will be done’ — that God would put things right. The widow prays because she wants things put right! That must be our prayer. Yet we live our lives in a little box: the stuff that I think I can control. Of course, what gets us praying is losing control of our box! But here are two lies. The truth: you are never in control of your box, yet you can make a huge difference to the world if you pray, because God will do things! Prayer is powerful and changes things — because it anticipates the return of Jesus. CMS people must pray! CMS people of a generation ago were known as people of prayer. They were praying for Nepal to open up, and it did — so why are we not praying the same for Saudi Arabia? God has done it before!

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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