Most Bible publishers assign names to sections of Scripture. This practice has clear practical benefits. It helps readers find passages and recognize movement in the text. But sometimes the names are unfortunate. Sometimes they influence the reading of a text in an unhelpful way.[1] The parable in Luke 18:1-8 is a case in point. Publishers identify this parable with several different names, usually focusing on one of the main characters in the story: “The Parable of the Persistent Widow” (ESV). “The Parable of the Unjust Judge” (LEB). The New Jerusalem Bible can’t decide between them: “The Unscrupulous Judge and the Importunate Widow.”

These titles are understandable. But I put them in the unhelpful category. The problem is where they direct attention. Or, better, where they don’t direct attention. Sermons that focus on the widow are in danger of becoming simplistic exhortations to pray more. While more faithful prayer is probably good for most hearers, that’s not the way to make it happen. Sermons that focus on the unjust judge are in danger of casting God as too much like us—annoyed with the badgering and worn out by those who outlast him.

Neither of these are good options, especially if you think your hearers are lacking prayer and courage. Which is why I suggest preaching a sermon that directs attention away from the main characters. Instead, highlight for your hearers (and proclaim loudly and clearly) the promise of Jesus in this text.

What is that promise? I’ll summarize it by paraphrasing verse 7-8a: “God will provide justice for his chosen people, who cry to him day and night.”

There are multiple ways to unpack this promise. Here are some options:

  1. God will provide justice for his chosen people, who cry to him day and night.

The parable is not about a widow who keeps on praying. It’s not about an unjust judge who finally gives up. It is about the Almighty. The Maker of heaven and earth who reigns over all things. This God is not like the judge in the parable—impersonal, self-serving, and capricious. This God finds delight in creating people like you and me and your hearers. He graciously lends us his ear and invites us to speak to him in a relationship of trust. Jesus’ use of the unjust judge in this parable is not merely a comparison from the lesser to greater. It sets in starkest contrast a finite (and fallen) magistrate with one who is entirely otherworldly.

  1. God will provide justice for his chosen people, who cry to him day and night.

This text has a “decidedly eschatological edge.”[2] It follows immediately after Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Son of Man, and it concludes in verse 8 with an invitation to imagine what he will find when he returns. While it’s true that all theology (and all preaching) has an eschatological orientation, this particular text makes it explicit. Jesus is coming back soon (or “speedily,” verse 7b), and that’s good news for those who belong to him. The good news is not that God will answer every prayer. But that he will bring justice for his people. Which leads to the next point.

  1. God will provide justice for his chosen people, who cry to him day and night.

Here is the heart of the promise in this text. God has chosen a people for himself (τῶν ἐκλεκτῶν αὐτοῦ τῶν). Who are they? They are your hearers. They are the baptized, the ones grafted into the promise of Abraham, the recipients of the new covenant. You are among them. God has chosen you and your hearers for himself. What sets you apart is that you get the incredible honor of proclaiming their status as the chosen ones of God. The relationship we have with God couldn’t be more unlike the relationship between the widow and the unjust judge in the parable, for God has lovingly called us his own.

  1. God will provide justice for his chosen people, who cry to him day and night.

Finally, we get to the prayer. At this point we should recall Luke’s introduction to this parable in verse 1: “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus told this story for two reasons: (1) that his people would not lose heart, and (2) that they would pray always. Notice how Jesus gets us there, however. Faithful prayer comes not from guilting people into spending more time on their knees, or in suggesting that God will finally say “uncle.” Faithful prayers come from trusting the heart of God as we see it in Christ. When we understand the grace and generosity of our Father, we can’t help but speak with him day and night. Such prayers don’t come from a hope that we’ll get what we want, but from confidence that, in Jesus, God will finally make all things right.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 18:1-8.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 17:11-19.