Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:1-8

In addition to the main section on prayer in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-13, discussed last week), there are two parables which deal with the subject. These appear in sequence at 18:1-8 and 18:9-14, likely joined together due to the common theme of prayer. Both of these parables occur toward the end of the Journey portion of the narrative—i.e. the extensive collection of teaching set during the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:34; cp. Mark 10:1-34). This framing of Jesus’ teaching is as much a literary device as historical; it is likely that many of the sayings, parables, etc, were originally uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Here, in particular, the two parables may have been spoken by Jesus at different times, and not necessarily right after each other.

Luke 18:1-8

In the Lukan narrative, this parable follows a block of eschatological teaching (17:20-37), some of which is found in a different location (the Eschatological Discourse) in the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative context is important for a proper understanding of what follows in 18:1-8. Even if the parable (as spoken by Jesus) originally did not have eschatological significance, it clearly does in its current Lukan setting. The eschatological context, however, is not immediately obvious in the introduction to the parable (v. 1):

“And he related to them an (illustration) cast alongside [parabolh/, i.e. parable], toward [i.e. regarding] it being necessary (for) them to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] (at) all times, and not to be in weariness [i.e. grow tired] (about it)…”

Contrary to the parable in 11:5-8 (discussed last week), here the point (according to the notice in v. 1) is to be persistent in prayer, described two ways:

    • to pray to God “at all times” (pa/ntote)
    • not to become tired of it (vb. e)gkake/w), lit. be ill/weary/tired in the effort (of praying), and thus stop

The illustration or parable itself is in vv. 2-5. The first character is a judge (krith/$), described as “not fearing God and not turning in (to consider) man” (v. 2). The second verb (e)ntre/pw) is a bit difficult to translate; I have rendered it quite literally as “turn in”, that is turn in toward something (or someone). The middle/passive use (as here) indicates a person turning in to give consideration to something, occasionally in the sense of paying attention or giving respect. In other words, this judge neither fears God nor gives any consideration for other people; the description is similar to that of king Jehoiakim by Josephus (Antiquities 10.283, Fitzmyer, p. 1178). In verse 6, this man is further characterized as being “without justice” (a)diki/a), i.e. unjust, certainly the worst sort of quality for a judge to have.

The second character in the parable is a widow (xh/ra), who is involved in certain legal difficulties (v. 3), presumably as a plaintiff in a court case. This may have entailed action against property inherited from her husband, the sort of thing alluded to by Jesus in 20:47 par. It is this situation which prompts her to approach the judge, her specific request being: “(Please) you must work out justice [e)kdi/khson] for me from my (opponent the one) seeking justice [i.e. a decision] against [a)nti/diko$] (me)”. English translations tend to obscure the relation between the verb e)kdike/w and the noun a)nti/diko$—at their heart, and etymologically, both relate to dikh/ (“justice”, “what is just/right”). At first the judge refuses to consider the widow’s request, but then thinks to himself that, even though he does not fear God or give regard to people’s needs (v. 4, repeating the description in v. 2), yet

“…through [i.e. because of] this widow holding along a beating [ko/po$] for me, I will work out justice for her, (so) that she should not strike me under the eye unto [i.e. at] the completion (of her) coming (to me).”

I have rendered the idiomatic language quite literally, though this can easily mislead the average reader. First, “holding along a beating”, refers to troubling a person with repeated “blows” (noun ko/po$, an act of cutting, striking), here in the figurative sense of continually bothering someone to the point of wearing them down. Second, the verb u(popia/zw literally means “(hit) under the eye”, either in the sense of irritation or an act of violent striking (as in a fistfight). Here the sense is one of annoyance and irritation—with her constant coming to him, in the end, this widow will be so annoying as to ‘batter him under the eye’.

Jesus’ exposition of this parable comes in verse 6: “And the Lord [i.e. Jesus] said, ‘You must hear what this judge without justice relates (to you)'”. The point is made in verse 7, relating the judge’s decision with that of God:

“And shall God (then) not make the working out of justice for his gathered out [i.e. chosen] (one)s, the (one)s crying (out) to him day and night, and (so) bring (his) impulse long upon them?”

This argument is of the qal wahomer (“light and heavy”) type—i.e. from the lighter example to the heavier, a Hebrew expression similar to the Latin a minori ad maius. If a corrupt human being will respond this way to a poor person’s need, how much more will God the Father answer the prayer of his chosen ones (oi( e)klektoi/, “the ones gathered out”). The use of the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ gives this teaching, in its Lukan context at least, a distinctly Christian orientation, referring to believers in Christ as the “ones gathered out” (Romans 8:33; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9, etc). Interestingly, while the adjective is otherwise rare in the Gospels, it is used prominently in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:20, 22, 27 par), and, as such, could imply an eschatological significance here as well (cf. below). The term makro/qumo$ (here in the verb makroqume/w) literally means having a long(-lasting) impulse; in English we might paraphrase by saying that the movement of a person’s heart and mind is turned long and hard toward something (or someone). The word-group is often translated in terms of “patience” or “longsuffering”, but that applies better to human beings than it does to God; rather, the idea here is that His attention is intently fixed on the plight of the Elect (believers). Their severe suffering and distress is indicated by the phrase “crying (out) day and night”; this likely refers to the (end-time) persecution of believers (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. Rev 6:10), which, according to the early Christian eschatological worldview, begins with the suffering of the first disciples.

The eschatological orientation of the parable comes more clearly into view in the concluding verse 8, which contains two sayings, the first of which properly concludes the parable:

“I relate to you that He will make the working out of justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei].”

The precise meaning and force of this declaration is uncertain; there are two possibilities:

    • God may seem to delay in acting to bring justice to his people, but, when he (finally) does, he will act quickly.
    • God will act on behalf of his people very soon.

The first option better fits the historical setting of Jesus’ actual teaching; the second is more appropriate to the outlook of the Gospel writer, who is writing after the on-set of suffering/persecution of believers (i.e. in the period c. 35-70 A.D.). However, it is worth noting that, frequently in the New Testament, the expression e)n ta/xei has clear eschatological significance (for examples, cf. Part 1 of the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”). The second saying in verse 8 relates to the (end-time) appearance of the “Son of Man”:

“(But) more (than this)—the Son of Man, (at his) coming, shall he find trust upon the earth?”

This is one of the eschatological Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospel tradition, which early Christians certainly understood in terms of the return of Jesus to earth, the so-called parousi/a (parousia)—his coming to be alongside us. Critical commentators debate the extent to which Jesus intended such a self-identification in the original sayings; I discuss the subject extensively in several different series (cf. articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, the current “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”, and an earlier set of notes specifically on the Son of Man Sayings).

Two questions must be asked: first, what is the exact meaning of this saying? Jesus seems to raise the question of whether there will be any real trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) among people when the Son of Man comes. This is certainly being addressed to Jesus’ followers (i.e. believers), and not to humankind at large. The end-time will be one of great testing, involving suffering and persecution of believers; within the context of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, this is part of a period of distress (qli/yi$) that will come upon humankind prior to the end (Mk 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). Under such circumstances, it is possible even for believers (the Elect) to be deceived and to fall away (Mk 13:13, 23 par), and so requires that Jesus’ followers remain vigilant in prayer (cf. Mk 13:33-37 par; Lk 22:40-46 par). Whether his followers—all of them—will remain faithful, trusting in God, is an open question.

Second, we must ask: what is the relation of the saying in v. 8b with what came before in vv. 1-8a. At first glance, the saying seems unrelated, and, indeed, may originally have been uttered by Jesus on a separate occasion. In the Lukan context, it is joined to v. 8a by the coordinating particle plh/n, a specific indication, it would seem, of Lukan style and authorship—it occurs 15 times in Luke, and another 4 in Acts (more than half of all NT occurrences [31]), compared with just 6 in the other Gospels (and only once in Mark). Literally this conjunction means something like “more (than this)”, but the exact force of it can vary considerably. Quite often the meaning is adversative, drawing a contrast with a prior statement; here, this could mean that, yes (on the one hand) God will provide justice for the Elect, but (on the other) will there actually be any real faith present among the Elect by the time the Son of Man comes (i.e. after the period of suffering)? On the other hand, the force of the conjunction could be seen as cumulative, reaching a conclusion, i.e., yes it is true that God will bring justice, but beyond all this is the question of whether the followers of Jesus will remain faithful in the time of distress. I tend to lean toward the latter nuance. In this regard, the saying in v. 8b provides the perfect complement to the stated purpose of the parable—that disciples of Jesus (believers) must remain constantly in prayer through all things, and so demonstrate their/our trust in God (and in Christ), even in the period of great distress and persecution that marks the end-time. This will be considered further when we examine the theme of prayer in the Gethsemane scene of the Lukan Passion narrative (22:40-46).

The parable which follows, in verses 9-14, though also dealing with the subject of prayer, has a very different message and point of emphasis; this will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1983).