Proper 24 • Luke 18:1–8 • October 16, 2016
By Kent Burreson
The Persistent Church and the Long-suffering Lord
O Spirit, who didst once restore
Thy Church that it might be again
The bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days
There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology
To Father, Son, and unto Thee.
(LSB 834, 4)
So Martin Franzmann wrote in his majestic hymn “O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth,” evoking the sweep of salvation history. Franzmann’s hope that “there may be those whose life is praise” parallels the fundamental question that shapes this parable found only in Luke: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v. 8).
The Lord addresses the question to the church (as the preacher should). The Christian community’s life of faith is really difficult in the world into which the rule and reign of God has come as Jesus makes apparent in in Luke 17:20–37 (not in series C). He tells his disciples that “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (v. 22). The suffering of faith will be so hard that they will want the Son of Man to come, but his day will not appear. Here is the theology of the cross that the church has no choice but to live if it wants to participate in the rule and reign of God that Jesus brings. In the midst of a world hellbent on itself, the church is called to live in waiting hope on a Lord whose vindication appears as though it might never come. In these days when evil appears the victor, will the Lord find the faith of the church on the earth?
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (v. 18:1). The church’s faith will be manifested in a people whose character is like the persistent widow, and whose pleading is dependent upon the long-suffering of the righteous Judge of all. The parable shapes the identity of the people who become the answer to the Lord’s question of what he will find at his coming (Parousia).
The parable expects that the hearer/church will identify with the widow’s persistent wearing out of the unrighteous judge’s ear. As Kenneth Bailey shows, in the Middle Eastern world a woman embodies the powerless and innocent and, unlike a man, she can cry out loudly and belligerently in order to gain a judge’s ear.¹ As Art Just notes, the widow is shameless in her irritating pleading with the judge.² Likewise, the church should not grow weary of pleading for the Lord’s vindication.
So Jesus says to his people, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says: ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming’” (vv. 4–5). The judge is unrighteous because he is shameless before God, since he does not fear God, and before people, since he does not respect or care for people. He relents only out of personal self-interest.
But the parable contrasts this unrighteous judge with the righteous God. If the unrighteous judge relents, even more so will the righteous God hear his people’s crying in these latter days and vindicate them with his justice. God is not like the righteous judge in his long-suffering (μακροθυμεω) grace and mercy. God puts away his anger against his sinful children for a long time. Kenneth Bailey indicates that this is in direct contrast with Ben Sirach 35:15–19 where God’s judgement against the Gentiles is enacted with quick ferocity. Instead, in Jesus’s parable the Lord sets aside his wrath against all his sinful people.
Ultimately God’s setting aside of his wrath is how God acts in his Son, Jesus Christ. As Kenneth Bailey indicates, the passion and death of Jesus raises the question of whether God will vindicate him. The answer, of course, is yes. “God will vindicate his Son who also prays to Him day and night, but that vindication will be seen in resurrection and will come by way of a cross.”³ So it will be for his followers. The Lord will vindicate his church through the cross and resurrection and when he does so he will do it quickly!
Through this pericope the preacher should seek to shape the church to live in these difficult gray and latter days in which we struggle against unbelief that vindication will ever come. The preaching should form the church to prayer relentlessly for God’s justice, living the theology of the cross by praying when no answer seems to come. She knows the Lord’s long-suffering in Christ’s death and resurrection. He will vindicate his church.
¹ Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 133.
² Arthur Just, Luke (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 673.
³ Bailey, 140. (Emphasis original.)