The parable of Jesus recorded in Luke 18:1-8 is most often called the Parable of the Persistent Woman. The application that follows from this title is generally that we ought to strive harder in prayer. Persistence pays off. We can “wear God down” with our commitment to prayer. Those conclusions have their own set of problems, which are not the topic of this article.
I think we’ve missed the point. The parable centers on the character of the Good Judge contrasted with the character of the unjust judge. It is an argument from the lesser to the greater. If an unjust judge would do the right thing under duress, how much more a perfectly righteous judge who happens to be the Father of those who cry out to Him. With this overlay, hear the parable again.
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Lk. 18:1-8, ESV]
The reason Luke comments that the parable teaches us to pray and not to lose heart centers in the character of the Good Judge. If we know Who we are praying to, His heart, we will be more likely to go to Him with our cries, our laments. Notice the content of the prayer under discussion. It is a cry for justice. In the same way that the woman cried out to the unjust judge for justice against her enemy, so the elect (i.e. believers) cry out to God day and night, asking Him for justice. And, shockingly to many of our modern sentiments, He hears them, answers their prayer and gives them the justice they seek.
Put this parable and its teaching into the context of contemporary American Evangelicalism. The dominant position in our culture advocates for what I have called universal and unconditional forgiveness. In fact, the common position is that anyone who for any reason does not grant forgiveness to those who have wronged them is in danger of damnation. If that were the teaching of Jesus, this parable makes absolutely no sense. The elect are wrong for crying out for justice, just as the woman is wrong seeking justice from the unjust judge. In fact, seeking justice is often seen as synonymous with the dreaded problem of “bitterness.” If every offense ever committed against us is to be immediately and unconditionally forgiven, there is nothing to cry out about. All is forgiven and whether true or not we are to carry on as if “all is well.” One thing we are not to do as modern American Evangelicals is to seek justice, either through human means or by praying for divine intervention. I’ve argued elsewhere (The End of Conflict) that vengeance is not ours, but the sole right of God Himself. To attempt to bring justice to bear in terms of executing vengeance on adversaries is playing God [Romans 12:12-21].
Praying for our enemies, however, is explicitly the teaching and personal example of Jesus to be followed by his disciples. Praying for our enemies changes our hearts and affections toward them while it guards us from an unhealthy desire for personal vengeance. This does not preclude asking God for justice in regard to our case (the just thing for them and for us) nor does it include the requirement to unilaterally forgive impenitent offenders. In this pattern, we follow the example of Jesus Himself, God incarnate who also perfectly mimics His Father and the Holy Spirit. He prays for His crucifiers, asking His Father to have mercy on them. Their actual forgiveness from God for their culpability in the greatest injustice of human history was not granted apart from their confession and repentance in time [Acts 2:38].
Listen to John Calvin’s thoughts on this passage:
But it is asked, How does Christ instruct his disciples to seek vengeance, while he exhorts them on another occasion, pray for those who injure and persecute you, [Matthew 5:44.] I:reply: what Christ says here about vengeance does not at all interfere with his former doctrine. God declares that he will avenge believers, not for the purpose of giving a loose rein to their carnal affections, but in order to convince them that their salvation is dear and precious in his sight, and in this manner to induce them to rely on his protection. If, laying aside hatred, pure and free from every wicked desire of revenge, and influenced by proper and well-regulated dispositions, they implore divine assistance, it will be a lawful and holy wish, and God himself will listen to it. But as nothing is more difficult than to divest ourselves of sinful affections, if we would offer pure and sincere prayers, we must ask the Lord to guide and direct our hearts by his Spirit. Then shall we lawfully call on God to be our avenger, and he will answer our prayers.
God is a just Judge and a loving and protective Father. If a corrupt judge would hesitantly respond to a widow’s request for justice in her case, how much more will our Father respond to the cries of His elect?
Once again, we are confronted with the contradiction between the biblical doctrine of forgiveness and the contemporary evangelical adoption of therapeutic forgiveness.