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The Parable of the Squeaky Wheel

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?”

Focus

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.

Devotion

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.

Reflect

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?

Act

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.

Pray

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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2 thoughts on “The Parable of the Squeaky Wheel

  1. Jonathan Russell says:

    I’ve always been troubled by this parable.

    From one sense, Jesus’ parables always take the familiar, in order to draw a comparison or contrast, to help the listener gain understanding about some heavenly principle. So in this sense, everyone must have been nodding their head in agreement about the unrighteous judge coming down to “get rid of” the persistent widow. Maybe the “familiar” was the cultural understanding that, “if you pester people enough—even the unrighteous—you get what you want”.

    If that is the case, what is the “heavenly principle” to be learned? That of comparison—that God is just like everybody else and can be worn down by requests? As you state, I don’t think so. I would like to believe that the principle is that of contrast—-that a righteous God knows the heart of his children and that his children need only come to him once, for him to hear them. But I’m not sure, because Jesus even prayed three times for the cup to be removed. And Paul prayed three times for the “thorn in his side”. Maybe three is it. . . But I also really like the Centurion’s request of Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13– don’t come, just speak the word, because I am man under authority. By extension, I understand that asking once is enough).

    From another sense, I have found that our relationship with God in many ways mirrors the earthly family relationship. If I look at how I respond to my children, I would like to think that I am not worn down or worn out by requests—but I now do have a dog . . .. I would like to think that if one of my children asked for something once—and I could see their heart and knew that what was being asked for was good for them—then I would respond to that request, even without being pestered. In fact sometimes I don’t give in to pestering because I don’t want to encourage it. Think of Matthew 6:7-8 (my father knows what I need, BEFORE I ask).

    So… I’m not quite sure what to think of how this is to be interpreted. This much I know is true. God wants me to pray. And he hears my prayers.

  2. Mark Roberts says:

    Thanks, Jonathan, for this comment. Very thoughtful and important. Jesus is not teaching us that God is like the unjust judge. But we are to be like the woman who pestered the judge in our persistence in prayer. It’s both okay and right to ask and keep on asking in prayer. We do this with confidence that God is in fact quite just and gracious, though sometimes God seems not to be responding to our prayers, which is hard. But Jesus wants us to keep on praying.

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