January 9, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘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.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Sometimes we pray and God answers right away. But often when we pray God seems distressingly unresponsive. We might be tempted to stop praying altogether. Jesus, however, encourages us to keep on praying even when we don’t understand why God isn’t responding as we wish. Persistence in prayer matters, according to Jesus.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.
Traditionally, Luke 18:1-8 is called “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” That’s an appropriate name, to be sure. Recent commentators prefer other titles: “A Parable on Bold and Persistent Prayer,” “Speedy Vindication for Any Who Have Faith,” or “Parable of the Nagging Widow.” Those are fine too, but I’d like to suggest another one: The Parable of the Squeaky Wheel.
I expect you’re familiar with the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It’s used in a variety of ways. It could mean, “The most obvious problem gets immediate attention,” or perhaps “The loudest or most persistent complainer gets prompt assistance.” Something along those lines, anyway.
In Jesus’s parable, a widow in need of justice asked a judge to prevail on her behalf. But the judge, whom Jesus identified as “unjust” (18:6), refused to help her. Widows in the time of Jesus were without cultural power, so it would be easy for a judge without integrity to ignore her case, even if she was clearly a victim of injustice. But the widow was not to be stopped. She kept pestering the judge until he chose to act, not because of concern for her or the law, but because she was wearing him out by her persistence.
Let’s be clear about something. Jesus did not tell this parable because God is exactly like the unjust judge. Like the judge, God responds to requests for help. Unlike the judge, God is not unjust. We can expect God to respond when we pray because God is, of course, supremely just.
But Jesus’s main point in this parable was not the nature of God. Rather, as Luke says, Jesus told this story to his disciples “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18:1). Jesus encouraged his followers to pray and keep on praying, just like the “squeaky wheel” widow.
Upon reflection, I find a couple of things particularly interesting in this parable. First, Jesus assumes that there will be times when we ask God for something in prayer but don’t get it. We will find ourselves in a situation rather like the widow in the parable, where we’re asking for God’s help but God is not obviously responding. If you’ve done much praying in your life, you’ve surely experienced the frustration of what feels like unanswered prayer. I say “feels like” because, often, God has answered our prayers, but not in a way we prefer. Or, at other times God is answering but not according to our preferred pace. Jesus acknowledges this reality by the way he frames the story.
Second, I’m struck by the fact that, implicitly, Jesus is responding to one particular explanation for the problem we call unanswered prayer. This explanation claims that God is simply not good. We cry out for justice. God doesn’t act. So God must be unjust. Or so the argument goes. While this seems logical, and while sometimes it can feel to us as if God is not actually good (for example, see Psalm 77:7-9), Jesus rejects this way of explaining why our prayers are not answered. It’s not that God is unjust. There are other reasons (which, unfortunately, Jesus does not offer in this parable, as much as we might wish he did).
When I consider the Parable of the Squeaky Wheel, I’m reminded of the fact that there are divine mysteries we will never solve, at least not this side of Heaven. We won’t know for certain why God doesn’t answer favorably many of our prayers. It’s not because God is unjust. And it’s not because we are unfaithful. Something else is going on, something is known to God but not to us.
Nevertheless, we should keep on praying. That is, after all, Jesus’s main point. When we ask for something that God does not grant, it’s okay for us to ask again and again and again. Jesus actually commends a squeaky wheel approach to prayer. If you’re like me, you’re inclined not to want to bother God with repetitive prayers. But Jesus says, “Go ahead and bother!” So, even though we won’t ever get all our questions about prayer answered, we would do well to follow Jesus’s counsel by praying, praying, and praying some more.
How do you respond to this parable of Jesus? What do you think? What do you feel?
Can you remember times in your life when you were rather like the widow, when you had a “squeaky wheel” approach to praying?
When you ask God for something but God seems not to answer, what do you do?
What helps you to be persistent in prayer?
If you’ve been praying for something specific but God has not answered in the way you’d like, and if you don’t have any clear guidance from God about stopping, then keep on praying. Take Jesus at his word and don’t stop.
Lord Jesus, thank you for this parable. Thank you for holding up for us the example of the widow who wouldn’t let up. Thank you for teaching us that a “squeaky wheel” approach to prayer is okay. Thank you for giving us permission to ask and keep on asking.
Lord, sometimes I really don’t understand why my prayers are unanswered, or why my prayers get a “No” rather than a “Yes.” Thank you for the reminder that it isn’t because God is unjust or unkind. I may not know why my prayers aren’t working as I’d like them to, but I can know that God is good, loving, and always just. Thanks for this reminder. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Persistence: The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.