1. Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart,
The Lord now speaks a parable. The “them” He was speaking to were the disciples, as we see it in verse 22. He now gives them this parable to teach them that men always ought to pray and not lose heart. Bullinger points out in The Companion Bible that this is the only instance of a parable in Scripture where the explanation is given first before the parable. This is a rather strange parable, as we will see, and so we must be careful in seeking to determine the truth the Lord meant to convey by it.
The Lord wanted them to learn always to pray and not lose heart. There are many different kinds of prayer. This word in Greek is proseuchomai, and means prayer, either in the form of making request, or else of simply talking with the Lord. In this case, this is referring to prayers requesting something of God.
2. Saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man.
We are now introduced to this unjust judge. Such a judge was easy to find at that time, as we certainly know it is in our day. Yet who this judge might represent in the parable it is hard to say, for he certainly provides us with no picture of God, nor of the Lord Jesus Christ. There were plenty of people in Israel, the unrighteous religious leaders among them, whose job was to administer justice in the fear of God, and yet who neither feared God nor regarded the men they were supposed to be helping.
3. “Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’
Widows were especially singled out by God in the law for care, especially from injustice. Widows were among the most helpless people in Israel, for without a man to care for them they had little power or recourse in the case of mistreatment. Thus God promised to look out for these, who otherwise had little ability to look out for themselves. We can read of God’s attitude toward this in Exodus 22:22.
22. “You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. 23. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; 24. and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.
The Lord promises to see to it that widows get justice in Deuteronomy 10:18.
18. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.
Now, this widow was asking for justice from this judge. She should have received it, for that is the job of a judge, and was the command of God in the law. However, as we pointed out above, a widow with no man in her life would have little power to do anything. Thus this dishonest judge can see no reason to help her, and since she cannot afford a bribe, he leaves her case untried.
Whom this widow might represent in the parable is again hard to say. There certainly were many such in Israel, where the economy was so bad and life was so hard, not to mention when older men often married younger women. This widow may stand for all the oppressed and downtrodden masses in Israel. Yet she is not making request to the Lord, but rather to this dishonest judge.
This request this woman makes is entirely out of harmony with any request we might make in the dispensation of grace. God is not taking vengeance today, but rather is showing forth His grace, that is, His love and favor to men regardless of whether or not they deserve it. To ask Him to take vengeance, then, is to ask something contrary to His present purpose and work, and is a request that He will by no means answer today. If there is any vengeance for God’s people living today, it will not come until the yet future day of judgment, once this dispensation has come to an end.
4. “And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man,
So for a time this judge does not do anything for the widow. Yet after this he rethinks the matter. This judge is quite honest with himself. He does not fear God nor regard man, and he admits this outright to himself. This would preclude this parable from speaking of the Pharisees, for they were convinced that they did fear God, even though in their hearts they despised him.
5. “‘Yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’”
The judge admits that, though he will not help the widow out of any sense of justice or obligation, that he will do so now so that she will not become a nuisance to him. He is sick of hearing her pleas, and so he gives her justice just to get her off his back. So finally this widow’s persistence pays off, and she receives the justice she deserved.
6. Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said.
The Lord calls upon His listeners to hear what this unjust judge says. By this, He did not mean just to listen with the ear, for they were all doing that. Rather, He was calling upon them to ponder and consider his words.
7. “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?
Christ comes to what Luke told us was the point of His parable back in verse 1. He points out that, if an unjust judge would help a widow just because of her persistence in asking him for aid, how could God, the judge of heaven and earth, fail to provide justice for His elect who cry to Him for it? He might bear long with their prayers. Indeed, He has always been a God quick to show mercy and slow to mete out vengeance. An elect man might indeed have to cry out a long time before his request for vengeance is answered. Yet God will avenge His elect, the Lord assures us, though it may not come exactly when they would like.
8. “I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”
The Lord assures that God will avenge His elect speedily. This cannot be made to contradict the statement the Lord just made, which was that he might bear long with their prayers for vengeance before answering them. Thus His point seems to be that when He does act to avenge them, He will do so speedily and not slowly, though He may have waited a long time before bringing in His speedy vengeance.
Otis Q. Sellers suggests in his audio messages on Luke (TL244) that this is probably referring to the cries for vengeance of those who are martyred in the time of the tribulation immediately prior to the parousia of the Lord Jesus Christ. We read of these in Revelation 6:9-11, just before the punishments of the sixth seal.
9. When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11. Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
Again, this is an appropriate prayer for a day of judgment and government, when God is testing men upon the earth, and punishing those who rebel against Him. Yet this is not an appropriate prayer for our day, when God is only showing love and favor to undeserving men. Yet we too know that the vindication of the righteous will come, though the Lord waits long to bring it in. When God’s kingdom comes, then the prayer of Psalm 9:19-20 will be answered.
19. Arise, O LORD,
Do not let man prevail;
Let the nations be judged in Your sight.
20. Put them in fear, O LORD,
That the nations may know themselves to be but men. Selah
Yes, then the prayer of Psalm 74:22-23 will be fulfilled.
22. Arise, O God, plead Your own cause;
Remember how the foolish man reproaches You daily.
23. Do not forget the voice of Your enemies;
The tumult of those who rise up against You increases continually.
The fulfillment of these things has been long delayed. Yet God will bring it about in His time!
Now Christ asks this mysterious question about finding faith on the earth when He comes. He seems to be saying here that when He comes He may not find anyone who has actually maintained faith through the tribulation and the rebellions that take place then. Yet it seems unbelievable and nearly impossible that no one on the earth would have retained his faith at that point. One thing we can point out is that the Greek word for “earth” and “land” are the same word, and so He may just be speaking about the land of Israel, and not the entire earth. Could He mean that the faithful have all been martyred by this point, and so there are none left faithful in the land? Yet if so, He must be excluding that faithful remnant who fled to the mountains at His command when the abomination that causes desolation was set up, as He commanded them in Matthew 24. This could account for this remarkable statement. Yet these are in the wilderness, but are they really outside the land? This does not seem quite right.
We have to admit that at this time the exact meaning of this verse remains somewhat unclear. We know that without faith it is impossible to please God, and yet at the time of Christ’s coming, there will be some who please Him. So what exactly the Lord meant by asking this question we do not really know or understand at this point. Perhaps in the future we will receive further light upon this from some other portion of the Word of God.
9. Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
The Lord now speaks another parable, yet this one is not directed towards His disciples, at least not exclusively. This parable is to all those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. Too often we find men like this today! Those who are righteous in their own eyes are the hardest to convince of their need for a Savior. Yet do not all of us fall into thinking like this from time to time, and imagining that we are better than other men? We had best consider this parable seriously, and not just write it off as being written to someone else.
10. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisees would have been considered the elite men of all Israel, yet certainly we know that they stand as a good example of those who are righteous in their own eyes. The tax collectors were men who were excommunicated from the community and considered as outcasts and sinners. The taxes they collected were for Rome, the empire occupying Israel at the time. We understand that often they were outcast for no good reason, and often in such a case had little choice but to take up working for Rome as their only means of earning a living. Yet that was not how the people of the day would have looked at it. They saw them as traitors of the worst sort, helping the enemy to oppress their own people. Thus their view of the tax collector would have been a poor one indeed.
11. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.
The Lord allows us to look into the mind and heart of this Pharisee as he prays. He thanks God that he is not like other men. He is glad he is not an extortioner, unjust, or an adulterer. Good sentiments all, for these are indeed not good things to be. He also is glad he is not like this tax collector. Clearly he finds this man rather despicable.
We looking back in our day in our comfortable distance from the current events of the day can easily identify with the poor, outcast tax collector and despise the arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee. Yet if we think this way, we are missing much of the sting of the parable in a way that those in the day the Lord spoke it would not have.
To try to get our minds to grasp the shock that the Lord’s words would have caused to those who heard them in the day he spoke them, let us consider someone who is thought a traitor to our own country, like the army Sergeant Hasan Akbar, who while stationed in Kuwait during the early days of the Iraq War threw a grenade into one of the army tents, killing an army captain and air force major. This man was revealed to be a traitor, and many people were outraged by what he did.
Yet suppose that at some point in the struggle with Islamic extremists, these groups actually won and conquered the United States, taking the country over and putting us all in subjection to them. They rule us now with an iron fist, and oppression and persecution are rampant. Many United States citizens are unjustly and most cruelly slain. Our country is now filled with poverty and oppression. Now, this once-disgraced army sergeant and traitor Hasan Akbar is promoted by the occupying force. He works for them now, and actually goes around collecting excessive and unfair taxes from those who once were his own people. Imagine how such a man would be despised and looked down upon by those who were maintaining their loyalty to their poor, beleaguered nation!
Now imagine that you are in this situation, and find yourself praying before the Lord. Suddenly, along comes this Hasan Akbar, and you see him falling down in prayer before God. Might not your thoughts follow much the same pattern as this Pharisee’s? Might you not thank God that you at least are a righteous person, and not a deplorable man like this thug and traitor? What good, loyal American would not think thoughts like this? And yet that is the person whom the Lord is here condemning as trusting in his own righteousness!
12. “‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
This Pharisee boasts to God about His superior condition. He, as so many of the Pharisees did, had gone beyond the law of God, fasting twice a week instead of once a year as God commanded, and tithing all his possessions rather than just those things God required. This sort of thing was what made the Pharisees think that they were so special and so above other men, who merely kept the law the way God had given it.
13. “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
This traitor the tax collector, having come into the temple, yet stands afar off from the holy place where the Lord dwells. The tax collector knew his own lowly condition, and thus had a humble attitude before God. When he prays, he will not so much as raise his eyes to heaven. He is unworthy to approach God, and he knows it. Yet he beats his breast, a sign of sorrow and regret, and calls upon God to be merciful to him, a sinner.
The word for “be merciful” here is hilaskomai in Greek, and occurs only twice in the New Testament. It has to do with making propitiation. It could well be that, from his position afar off, this man could see the smoke of the sacrifice ascending from the altar before the Lord. He knows that the propitiatory sacrifice has been made, and he calls upon God to be propitiated towards him.
14. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Christ reveals to us that this attitude is what procured his justification. The Pharisee, however, who saw no sin in himself, had no forgiveness for that sin from God. Yet remember that it was not just the tax collector’s attitude of humility, but also that he looked to the sacrifice and asked God to look upon the sacrifice on his behalf. We would do well to remember this. Some make this man’s words out to be the sinner’s prayer. That is good, if they understand what his prayer was. It is not just enough to ask God to be merciful to you. He might ask you why He should be merciful? He is not merciful just because we ask Him to be. Rather, it was because this man asked God to look to the sacrifice that he was justified. For us, too, it is not just asking God that brings us mercy, but rather because we identify ourselves with the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf that we go home righteous.
Again, we have a tendency to sympathize with the poor, outcast tax collector. We see ourselves in his place, and condemn the self-righteous Pharisee who looks down on us. We need to realize that most of us in that situation would have identified with the clean-living and patriotic Pharisee, not with the lowlife, traitorous scum that was the tax collector. Most of us are far more like the Pharisee than we would like to admit. None of us would have very kind thoughts towards a turncoat and traitor to our own nation. Altogether, the Pharisee in the parable did not even think so badly of the tax collector as he might have. Which of us are not glad that we have never betrayed our own nation? Thus we all need to take the Lord’s lesson to heart. No matter how good we might think we are, it does not really impress God. No matter how bad we might think someone else is, if that person looks to the sacrifice God provided on his behalf, he can go home forgiven.
Thus Christ proclaims His lesson. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. This we all have a great tendency to do, even if we imagine that we do not. Yet everyone who humbles himself will be exalted. This is the hardest thing in the world for many people to do, and yet it is what we must do before God. Let us each consider this parable Christ told carefully, for each of us has a tendency to think like the Pharisee. Let us remember that what God wants is a humble heart that admits its own unworthiness and looks to the sacrifice that He has provided!