Who has had enough? Who here is struggling with a situation and is fairly sure they're reaching the end of their tether with it – if indeed you are not there already? Who is questioning why the Lord has not answered that prayer you've been praying for the last few days, weeks or even years: why is that person not getting better or that friend not coming to faith; why does my situation at work seem so insolvable or that relationship so irreconcilable; why have I not got that relationship that I want so much; why do I keep succumbing to the same old sin even though I've prayed a thousand times not to? Will things ever change? Who here has had enough?
I suspect that, even if some of us are not in that place this morning, every single one of us has been, or will be, – at some point in our lives. When all we want to do is cry out – 'That's it! I give up. I've had enough! I can't do this anymore.' Well, one of the incredibly reassuring things about the parable we are going to look at this morning is that Jesus knew that we would face such difficult, hard and uncertain times. He knew that on any given day between his first and second coming it may feel like God isn't listening; it may feel like God has forgotten about his promise to come again; it may feel like evil and injustice are winning…and so what Jesus does, is he tells this parable to help us. He wants us to lock on to key eternal truths and be encouraged to keep persevering in prayer.
Let me just remind you of where we're at in Luke's gospel. Because, to understand some of the importance of this passage, we need to track back to chapter 17, verse 5. At the beginning of that chapter 17, Jesus warns against temptations to sin that will surely come. And the apostle's response? Luke 17.5:
"The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!""
In other words, 'We want to be more faithful, we don't want to give in to temptation!' And what comes next is Jesus telling his followers what increased faith looks like. Of course, what's ultimately important is the presence of faith – not the size of it – hence the whole mustard tree thing at the start of chapter 17. But trees grow…and so Jesus goes on to say that increased (growing) faith involves a recognition that we are not worthy (v.7-10); a growing faith involves gratitude and praise to God for true healing (v.11-19) and a growing faith is all about grasping the eternal perspective and proclaiming the fact that the Lord will come again (rest of chapter 17). Then comes chapter 18 where he says that a growing faith is all about perseverance in prayer and not losing heart. So that's our first main heading…
1. Don't Lose Heart! (v.1)
So, verse 1 of chapter 18. "And he told them a parable..." And you need to know that by Luke 18 the time for parables is coming to an end. Jesus is nearly at Jerusalem where he will die. Luke records 24 parables in total. This is number 21. There are only three more to come… so we would do well to savour them while we can.
"And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart."
I think that the way Luke sets this up is wonderfully reassuring because there are a couple of comforting assumptions in that first verse. The first assumption is that we will be tempted to stop praying and to lose heart. We should expect that. Why is that comforting? Because too often when feel like that, we think we're the only ones. We tell ourselves that we're not like the JPC super-Christians who are sat around us right now. What nonsense! Jesus is telling this parable because all of us will feel like this from time to time (it's no use denying it – we will!). He wouldn't have to say it if he knew it wasn't going to be a reality! That's the first comforting assumption.
The second is that there is an acknowledgment that the second coming of Jesus may be some time. If it was going to be immediate or very soon then there wouldn't be time to get disheartened! So, I'm encouraged from the off. Jesus knows, and dare I say it, expects me to be disheartened and tempted to stop praying. God knew that there was going to be at least a 2,000-year delay to his son's return. He knew that there will be apparent silences… and problems… and persecutions… and temptations… and injustices. The question is – as a follower of Jesus (who, like the disciples, longs to be more faithful) - how am I going to deal with that? How are you going to deal with that? You see, while it's relatively easy to hear Jesus say 'Don't lose heart!', it's a whole lot harder to allow that sentiment to make a difference in our lives when we are struggling. That's why we can praise God for giving us this parable, because in this parable he lays out three practical things that will encourage us not to lose heart. The first is this:
a. Remember to Keep Praying (v.1-5)
"And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [Here's the parable:] He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man."
So here's our first character, and the fact that he neither fears God nor respects man is a bit of a problem, because he's a judge. And the way Jesus tells it here, judges have two principle motivations to be good at their job and show justice. The first is a right and healthy fear of God. You know: the knowledge that one day we will all have to stand trial before our creator. That should serve as a sobering incentive for earthly judges to take their calling seriously. The second motivation to be a good judge should be a deep respect and compassion for mankind. And yet the judge in Jesus' parable had neither of these essential qualities which tells us straight away that this chap is not a good judge. That's our first character. Verse 3:
"And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary."
Here's our second character: a persistent widow in need of justice. And straight away Jesus' original hearers would have pictured someone helpless – not necessarily old (there were plenty of younger widows in Jesus' day), most certainly someone in financial difficulty with no husband to support her, someone powerless, possibly abused, with no protector in the form of a father or husband – hence the need to appeal to the judge. This is the picture Jesus is painting. All she has is her persistence! So how does it play out? Well the widow keeps coming to the unjust judge… nagging him, hassling him, wearing him down with her repeated request: "Give me justice against my adversary." We don't know the details – we don't need to (its not the point of the parable). Sadly though, for a while the judge refuses her requests (v4). And if we were in any doubt before, we now know for certain, that this judge is a right piece of work. And in the end the only reason he gives in to her request is because, selfishly, he wants an easy life. Verses 4-5:
"For a while he refused, but afterwards he said to himself, '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.'"
It is a striking illustration of the power of persistence. But what exactly does Jesus mean by telling this parable? We need to be careful… because it would be easy to identify with the widow and say that she represents us and therefore the judge must represent God… but that's only half right! Because this is not a parable where we are supposed to work out who represents who. It's a compare-and-contrast parable. We compare to the widow – weak, helpless, in complete need of a saviour to bring about justice. But with the judge we are supposed to see a massive contrast. God is nothing like this judge and the point of the parable is that if even this wicked, selfish judge will eventually give justice to the persistent widow, how much more will God our heavenly Father give out justice to those who belong to him? We see that in verse 7. That's great in theory, but the obvious problem we identified at the start remains: sometimes when we cry out to him in prayer, all we get is apparent silence.
And so actually, in that deserted and lonely place, the fact that we are supposed to understand our Heavenly Father as 'better' than the judge – actually becomes wildly confusing and disorientating… 'It's no use! I've had enough. He's supposed to better than this evil judge but I'm not even sure he's listening. I'm not even sure that he cares. I just can't do this anymore!' And yet… your Saviour is very clear: Don't stop praying! Which means don't stop talking to him, pleading with him, shouting to him even… but it also means don't stop listening to him. At its most basic, don't forget, prayer is two-way communication and the Lord wants to talk clearly to you every single day through his word. You know sometimes, we just have to keep on keeping on – that's where the discipline of our faith comes in. And there are no short cuts or alternative paths here – for any of us: young or old. No matter our background or job or situation… if we are going to grow in faithfulness and reach the world for Jesus we will have to persevere in prayer. It's part of our calling. Perseverance is the normal experience of faithful praying. Yes, there are exciting highs and sometimes deep and lonely lows, but in between there is just a lot of 'keeping on going' persistence. And if we stop to think about it, what's the alternative? To not persist in prayer calls into question the very nature of God. To stop praying would be a practical demonstration that we don't believe that God is good and God is sovereign. So, this is the second practical thing that will encourage us not to lose heart.
b. Remember God's Nature (v.6-8)
"And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? … ""
This is the contrast of the parable. Jesus wants us to remember God's nature - which is the polar opposite of this unjust, wicked, unprincipled and compassionless judge. And what is God's nature? Well he tells us. Time and again he both tells and demonstrates his loving nature in the pages of Scripture. I don't know about you, but one of the most comforting places I turn to when I'm feeling confused and alone is that other reading we heard this morning. When you're struggling to understand something, it's good to land on the foundation of what you know to be true. Here's what I know to be true about the Lord: straight out of Exodus 34.6-7, the Lord God, revealing himself to Moses, says he is:
"…merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…"
Remember God's nature. Loving-patient-forgiving-and…just! So, in light of that: what injustice troubles you? Maybe you're in the middle of something that you feel is really so unfair; maybe something has happened in the past and the person or people who ill-treated you seem to have gotten away scot-free; maybe for you it's a political, or ecological or financial injustice; more often than not these things are personal and relational and come at great cost. Are we persevering in bringing these things to the Lord in prayer? I hope so – because look at how the God of justice responds in verse 7:
"will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?"
It's supposed to be rhetorical - of course he will! But just in case there's any doubt he backs it up with a promise in verse 8:
"I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily."
Jesus is promising that his loving and all-powerful Father will bring about justice in the face of trouble. He will judge those who persecute and abuse and destroy and ridicule the righteous! It's a promise: God will defend his chosen people! If you have put your trust in the Lord Jesus, asked for his forgiveness and with his help are trying to live a changed life – then take heart: God will defend you and justice will be done. But I know what you're thinking: 'when?!' When will this justice be done? Verse 8 says that this justice will come speedily - and you've been praying for what seems like forever! Well the simple reality is that sometimes the Lord brings justice is this life… sometimes he doesn't. And in those times we need to wait patiently, we need to trust him and…
c. Remember Ultimate Justice is coming when Jesus Returns (v.8)
This is the third practical thing to remember that will help us not to lose heart. Keep an eternal perspective. Jesus is coming back and on that day God will avenge his chosen ones. Ultimate justice will occur. Jesus is staking his very truthfulness on this fact.
"…he will give justice to them speedily."
And so how do we understand 'speedily' here? Looking through human eyes – 2,000 years and counting doesn't seem very speedy! But look at it through God's eyes (the one for whom a thousand years are like a day and a day like a thousand years) – in comparison to eternity… 2,000 years are but a blink. But you know what? In one sense, even humanly, justice was given speedily. Because don't forget Jesus is just days away from the cross on which died. And it is God the son, dying on that cross in our place, where justice is done, because all the injustice we are guilty of, all sin, all rebellion against God is in that one act punished and God's anger at our sin satisfied. I say 'our' sin. But if you are here this morning and you're not a Christian there's something you need to know: God's justice isn't automatically applied to you. It isn't automatically applied to the whole world. It needs a response. Elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus is recorded as saying (John 3.16):
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him [that's the condition, that's the response – whoever believes what he says and therefore follows him in repentance and faith] should not perish but have eternal life."
You see, here's the thing: ultimate and final justice is coming when Jesus returns. Then all those who have loved him, followed him and trusted him will live forever in a glorious and wonderful eternity with him. But for all those who hated and ignored him and only served themselves, they will suffer the horror of an eternal and painful death apart from him. Whether we believe it or not, ultimate justice is coming when Jesus returns. If you are a Christian that truth should bring you great comfort. If you are not, that truth should terrify you. It should absolutely terrify you. And so here is our last point:
2. Will Jesus Find Faith? (v.8)
"when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
For the non-Christian, there is still time – he hasn't come yet, so will you respond? Will he find faith in you? For the believer, will he find continuing faith in us - expressed through persistent prayer? These aren't questions that we're supposed to deliberate over, or park for a while and come back to later. Jesus is asking today, as he asked his original disciples. 'When I return will you be ready for me? When I return will you have given up…. or will you be constantly watchful in prayer?'
You know at the end of the day, what we do reflects what we really believe. If we give up in prayer, what we are really saying is 'Lord I don't believe you. I don't believe you are good. I don't believe you listen. I don't believe you can act. I don't believe you are just.' But, if we "cry to him day and night" as verse 7 says, we do so not because we believe he's not listening and we're trying rouse him from indifferent sleep. Rather we do so because we believe he is listening. 'Lord I do believe you. I do believe you are listening. I do believe you can act. I do believe you are just.'
So, what's it going to be? Will Jesus find faith in action when he comes again? Oh he wants to. And in this parable he's telling us how. Keep praying – come what may; remember God's nature and remember that ultimate justice is coming when the Lord returns.