Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Luke 18:1-8 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?”
There is little by way of surprise in the parable of this morning’s Gospel. In the manner of Aesop’s fables, the “moral” of the story is clearly and concisely stated by the one who records it, lest anyone miss the point. Unlike Aesop, though, Luke’s explanation comes not at the end, but is presented right up front: the Christian “ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Again, this can hardly be surprising, since it’s not the only time Scripture exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). But the particular context of this parable, and the enduring temptation it addresses, serve to emphasize our need of continually hearing both the Law and the Gospel here reiterated. Again today, we’ll be assured that
Rather Than Lose Heart,
We Can Pray with Confidence for God’s Justice.
Anxiety concerning the end times, the return of Christ, can cause us to lose heart (vv 1–3). This parable addresses a specific question and a specific concern about the end which came up in chapter 17 of Luke. The question, posed by some Pharisees in chapter 17 was: “When will the kingdom of God come?” (17:20). He answers them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed…the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” All throughout the Old Testament God spoke of the coming of the kingdom. Well now, here it is, in the midst of you. It is not a kingdom you will see, with kings, rulers, armies, cities and states. But it is Jesus himself. When Jesus came on the scene, He announced, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom has come here.” (Mark 1:15). The coming of Jesus is the coming of the kingdom. The talk in the Old Testament about the coming of the kingdom is all about Christ and his coming.
Then Jesus pulls his disciples aside and shares this concern. His concern is that “you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (17:22). In your persecutions, in your afflictions you will face in your life here, you will cry out to see the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. What appears to be an unfulfilled desire for the end time coming of the kingdom of God is a cause of temptation to “lose heart.” Many will lose heart. “Signs” of the coming end continue: “wars and rumors of wars,” nation rising against nation, “famines and earthquakes” (Mt 24:6–7). We know about plenty of each of those! Today wars are taking place right on our streets; gang wars, hatred and violence between police and citizens, wars over who can and cannot use which restroom in school, and so forth.
In such traumas we continue to pray as taught, “Thy kingdom come”—yet, apparently, to no avail. We don’t see it with our eyes. We don’t see Jesus reigning in the world today, for he reigns in the hearts of the believers. What we see is injustice, even in our government and court rooms.
And that injustice as we wait for Christ to come and set all things right will further tempt us to cease praying and to lose heart. “Give me justice!” (v 3b). In the face of religious persecution, terrorists beheading Christians, government trying to limit the free speech of the church, and a society who tries to purge the name Jesus from the public square, it is easy to lose heart. Unbelievers scoff at what appear to be our ineffectual prayers, just as Elijah mocked unheard prayers to Baal: “Either [Baal] is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep” (1 Ki 18:27). Mockery may even give way to persecution. Jesus is clear about the world’s hatred of his children (Mt 10:22). He alludes to the possibility of suffering even in the verses immediately preceding the Gospel: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (17:33).
Nevertheless, we can pray with confidence because of God’s promise to answer with justice. The widow in Jesus’ parable understood this well. She knows injustice—even from the very person whose vocation is to dispense justice. The judge neither fears God nor respects man. He refused to give her justice. Yet she kept coming to the judge (vv 4–5). She “keeps bothering” him until he feels beaten down by her “continual coming.”
For us, too, despair is not an option. Jesus asks rhetorically, “Will not God give justice to his elect? . . . Will he delay long?” (v 7). And he gives his own clear answer: “I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (v 8). A precise answer to when the Lord will bring justice is not given—but the sure promise that he will leaves no doubt or despair. Repent.
The woman kept coming even without a promise—to an unrighteous judge. How much more, then, can we be confident in bringing our petitions to the righteous Judge who has promised to answer! And what a marvel it is, that though we are unrighteous, on account of the death of Jesus on the cross, he promises to give us righteousness.
Indeed, we are taught to pray and ask for precisely that which our Lord has already promised to deliver. We pray the Word of God back to him. We pray for the very things he has already promised to give. For example: We pray, Thy Kingdom Come. The very words he taught us to pray. So, “Praying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure” (“Introduction” to Lutheran Worship). Luther described prayer as rubbing God’s promises into his ears. We can pray with confidence in God’s promised justice.
That is, when we understand that God’s promise of justice is the promise to justify us sinners. God’s sure promise is “he will give justice” (v 8). Thus, the widow’s petition is indeed our petition: “Give me justice” (v 3).
But if we are to pray confidently, we must understand God’s justice not in the way of the Law but in the way of the Gospel. (Rom 3:21–26). Contrary to popular philosophical and legal understandings, God’s justice is not “fairness” or “giving one what one deserves.” Thanks be to God! For what you deserve is nothing other than God’s wrath, his most severe punishment, and eternal death in hell. God is your number one enemy and threat. You don’t want what is fair. You better pray that you don’t get what is fair, for that would be the end of you. It would be your destruction.
Luther suffered great angst so long as he understood the justice of God in this manner. He writes that he hated God for being just and for threatening to punish us. That is, sinners deserve condemnation, so a just or fair God will give them what they deserve. But then, one-day in 1519, he was in the tower of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, Germany, what later became the home of Martin and Katy Luther, and is today call the Luther Haus, and he was meditating on Romans 1:17 which says, the “righteous by faith shall live,” Luther rejoiced to discover that the “justice of God” is that by which he justifies us sinners—deems us just, righteous, on account of the person and work of Christ. That because of the death of Jesus on the cross, God now declares us righteous, and counts us righteous those who have faith in Jesus Christ.
To pray the widow’s prayer, then, is to pray “Give me righteousness. Give me not what I deserve, nor what I’ve earned, but that which Christ, obedient unto death, has earned in my stead and for my sake. Give me what you, O Lord, have promised in and on account of Christ.”
The temptation to lose heart in these last days is the temptation to believe the legal maxim that “justice delayed is justice denied.” But in God’s case, in view of God’s justice, this is a pernicious lie. Though the appearance of God’s kingdom and his justice may seem delayed, “he will give justice.” Indeed, he already has. His justice, his righteousness, has already been imputed to you in Holy Baptism. And there, too, has his kingdom come: “When our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit” (SC, Second Petition). Here, this morning, his kingdom comes to you as you participate in the Lord’s Supper, the feast of his kingdom, a foretaste of the feast to come. Do not lose heart, dear saints. Your prayer has been answered. The Righteous Judge has fulfilled, and will continue to fulfill, his promise. Amen.