Saturday, July 28, 2007

Email Correspondence about the Persistent Widow Passage

Hey Dr. Yoshikawa -
I hope your summer is treating you and your family
I wanted to shoot you over an email because I was
wrestling through the persistant widow passage a
little more and I wanted to ask you some things and
clarify what you had said to us a few weeks ago in
After your lecture, I personally came away from the
story thinking that I should not persistently ask for
things in prayer because God knows... He knows our
hearts and He already knows what is going to happen
anyway. You encouraged us to pray and speak to God so
He could show us His will, and so we could understand
and accept what He had for our lives. And I believe,
if I remember correctly, that you pretty much
encouraged us away from consistently asking for things
in prayer, which of course would have made sense with
everything you were saying, and did make sense to me.
Your lecture actually really touched my life just
thinking about that parable and the prayer that Jesus
has commanded us to pray, "not our will but your will
be done"... this has changed my prayer life
immensely...just reeeally seeking to be comfortable
and okay with what God has for's been really
So anyway, the other day my friend and I were kind of
joking around looking at some of the funny things "the
message" has to say...and I wanted to check out this
parable of the persistent woman. I pasted it (the
message version) here for you:

"Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary
for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said,
"There was once a judge in some city who never gave
God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in
that city kept after him: 'My rights are being
violated. Protect me!'
4-5"He never gave her the time of day. But after this
went on and on he said to himself, 'I care nothing
what God thinks, even less what people think. But
because this widow won't quit badgering me, I'd better
do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise
I'm going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her

6-8Then the Master said, "Do you hear what that
judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you
think God won't step in and work justice for his
chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won't
he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will
not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of
persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth
when he returns?"

Reading this translation really opened my eyes when I
went back to look at my "normal" translation...which
was NASB at the time.
The NASB looks differently in some areas:

1Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all
times they ought to pray and not to lose heart,

7now, will not God bring about justice for His elect
who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long
over them?

8"I tell you that He will bring about justice for
them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will
He find faith on the earth?"

These passages are the ones that look more like the
concept you are giving to us...more to do with faith
than persistency.
So, when I read the message I just thought it was
interesting about how he focused more on persistency
than faith...when I talked about this with friends,
they mostly agreed that it was persistency, we are
supposed to be persistent with prayer.
And I know that "persistent with prayer" is a
difficult thing to interpret, obviously I want to be
talking with God continually, seeking His direction
for my life....but I think you know what I am talking
about... like, persistently asking God to change
situations because the woman was asking the judge's like, i read the message version and I
thought to myself...well, that woman persistently
asked the judge for something and so he gave it to
her....and the message version wrote the conclusion to
sound somewhat "for" the idea to be that we should
persistently ask for things because God is so much
more willing to give things than the unrighteous
judge...should it be interpreted like that, or should
it be looked as a parable more dealing with faith.
Ok, now I am just confusing myself.
Anyway, I would appreciate your time if you respond to
any of this or lead me in some direction...anything to
do with the Greek would be helpful.

Hi Carrie,

First some clarifications up front:

(1) I believe that if God is leading you by the Spirit to pray "persistently" for something, by all means do it. I have no doubt that God does call each of us, at times, to do this.

(2) What I do NOT believe is that this is the norm, nor does quantity of prayer = quality of prayer or quality of faith for that matter. (We evangelicals tend to naturally measure the "prayer warriors" by quantity, though we are loathe to admit that's our standard of measurement.)

(3) I believe God leads us at times to pray at length (even years!) for some things. Other times, He has us pray very briefly. Both require a certain amount of faith (perseverance for the former, trust in the power of God for the latter). The mistake the Pharisees, Jews, and us today make concerning prayer is assuming that more is better.

Now to Luke 18...

(1) Re: "The Message": Remember that Eugene Peterson's "translation" is on the far end of the "dynamic" scale. The farther you go down to the "dynamic" side the more interpretation is involved and greater is the potential to slant the translation so far to one side that you eliminate the possibility of reading it a different way (possibly the right way). Peterson makes it clear that his version is not for scholars or scrutinizing Bible studies. It's for those less educated, those without the time, education, or inclination to do intensive Bible study but who need to see the Bible "speak" to them on their terms. For that, I think it does fine. In this case, he can be (and probably is) misleading. Likely, he's been influenced the misinterpretation of this text and has slanted his translation accordingly. Aaah, to know Greek and use it well...

(2) As a Greek student, you should now be able to begin being a critic of translations. You need not rely upon or be beholden to any particular version. YOU are the version. (Translations are good references and starting points.)

(3) The point I was making about Luke 18 in class is this: how do you read the parable? Usually the options are two: either it's a "positive/ comparative" story in which you're supposed to see the persons as examples of what TO DO. Example: Luke 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now in these instances, the virtue of the protagonist/ main character is plain. To make it obvious, Jesus will sometimes say things like "Go and do likewise."

But now there are "negative/ contrast" stories where it exemplifies what NOT to do or often tagged an "argument of the lesser to the greater". Take Luke 16 and the parable of the Unjust Steward. How is it possible to take this as an example of what to do? Are we supposed to be unjust stewards? Obviously not. It's a contrast: the world does this, but we do that. There's something IN the comparison that's parallel but the main point is contrastive.

(4) Now in Luke 18, if we try a "positive" interpretation, this makes the widow the protagonist and we're supposed to pray in the same way that she approached the unjust judge: with persistence. That's how pulpits all across the land have preached it. Of course, they side step the obvious and uncomfortable question that if we go that route, then the widow is like the one praying and the unjust judge is GOD. Further, the implication of such an interpretation is that God is like an unjust judge who because he is unjust is utterly unwilling to render justice or answer prayers to us UNLESS we persist like the widow and essentially bug God to death so much that He only answers our prayers, like the judge, to get rid of us.

This can't be the interpretation.

Now if we try the negative/ contrastive interpretation, we come up with this: Jesus is saying this is how the world works: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The world is evil and fallen and the only way to get justice is to do what this widow did: irritate the judge to death. Yes, this is how the world works. Question: Is this how GOD works? Contrast: no. Now from here there are two interpretative routes to go: [1] Jesus is saying: If the world gets what it wants from persistence, how much more will Christians get from God when we persist! or [2] Jesus is saying: This is how you treat an unjust authority to get justice. BUT this is not how you treat God because He is not unjust. Don't petition God in the way that this widow petitioned the unjust judge. In fact, if you do, you're treating God like an unjust judge.

If [1] were the right interpretation, you'd expect the follow up to the parable with something about how much greater or more generous God is, far greater than anything the world has to offer.

If [2] were the right interpretation, you'd expect the follow up to the parable with something about how God is not unjust and how those who have prayed with great zeal and quantity aren't necessarily treating God rightly or showing faith.

Looking at Luke 18:6-8, we see [2] very plainly.

Check out vv. 7-8a: "And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly." (NIV)

See how Jesus affirms that God WILL bring about justice. God is not unjust. That fits with the interpretation that widow's persistence was based on believing the judge being unjust hence praying with persisitence is based on believing God is unjust.

See also how Jesus affirms that "his chosen ones" (Israel at this time) was indeed praying to God with great zeal (cry out) and persistence (day and night). Why would the point be that Israel should pray more (persistently) when that's what Israel was already doing?

The final key is v. 8b: "However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" Notice how in the end faith is key. In regard to prayer did Israel have zeal? Yes. Quantity and persistence? Absolutely. Doesn't this naturally demonstrate

great faith (like we Christians believe)? No. That's the point. Israel thought so and were mistaken. We think so and are just as mistaken.

Jesus is saying that Israel's great zeal and quantity/ persistence of prayer far from showing faith showed a lack of it. After all, if you trust in God, why do you have to keep bringing it to his attention? Do you think He doesn't know? doesn't care? is unjust? on vacation?

So when Jesus asks "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" this is not hypothetical. At that time, the Son of Man (Jesus) DID come and did he find faith on the earth? Not much. And certainly NOT in Israel--the "prayer warriors".

A modern day exmaple is the following:

Imagine a professor (like me) with two students each needing a last-minute letter of recommendation. On Monday morning, they both come to me and say, "Professor, I need this letter done so I can mail it off post-marked by Friday." To both of them I say, "I will have it done by Wednesday morning." Both go off.

Later that Monday morning, Student "A" drops in my office to remind me about the letter. He drops in later that afternoon and just before I leave to remind me. He emails me a reminder that evening. The next day, he gives me three more in-person reminders, a text-message, a voice mail, and six emails.

Now Student "B" drops me only ONE communique between Monday and Wednseday, an email thanking me in advance for doing the letter of rec so last minute.

Come Wednesday morning, I hand the letters of rec to both students.

Question: Which student "had faith" in me?: the one that "persisted" with me or the one that didn't? Didn't the very act of persistence itself demonstrate a lack of faith?

* A possible objection:

Someone might say, "Wait, look at v. 1: Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. Doesn't "always pray" pretty much settle the issue of what this parable is saying (and what prayer should be)? Again, if this is so, this statement in v. 1 would seem to contradict what the rest of the passage is saying, esp. v. 7 (Israel already praying always).

Answer: It's a mistake to look at the phrase "always pray" and assume this = quantity or persistence. Remember that Jewish writing style often makes couplet-statements, where the second statement clarifies or qualifies the first (like many Proverbs). Here we see another example. The first statement is "always pray", the second statement is "and not give up". Jesus knows that "always pray" can be miscontrued so He qualifies it with "and not give up" (kai mei egkakein). Does "always pray" mean pray 24/7/365? No, Jesus means "don't give up on prayer" = "don't give up on God" = "don't lose faith". None of these necessarily speaks to specifics about quantity, just continuation. "Keep on praying!" (BTW, "pray without ceasing" is the same thing. It literally means: "don't stop praying" which far from meaning "pray 24/7/365" in fact means "don't give up on prayer". Someone who gives up / stops praying has lost faith.)

There are two extremes in regard to prayer, both show a lack of faith: (1) No prayer, (2) Too much prayer. The first is obvious. But most believers don't think (2) can even exist. Jesus' parable disproves that.

In 1st century persecution culture, one either had faith in God or did not. Either one prayed to God believing in God or did not. Today we have the "choice" to pray and have to "discipline" ourselves to pray. If we were in the 1st century where war, famine, disease, oppression, injustice, which basically all leads to an early grave were a daily part of our lives, prayer wouldn't be something we'd have to get ourselves to do. Either we'd be a people of prayer or not.

Jesus' point is that: okay, does that mean that among believers and those who pray, is there no such thing as "too much prayer"? Or another way of asking it is: does more prayer = more faith?

You know Jesus' answer, esp. plainly stated in Matthew 6:7-8: "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

Jesus cares not for "many words." That means nothing. God already knows our prayers. God wants faith. It's always been about the quality of our faith not the quantity of anything else. And Jesus thus makes it clear in Luke 18 (and Luke 11) that quality of faith is NOT linked with quantity of prayer, in fact, quantity of prayer MAY (but not always) show a lack of faith.

There! I'm confident that somewhere in that morass of "explaining" I've somehow answered your questions. If not, email me back!

Scott Yoshikawa, Ph.D.

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