A Sermon by J A Alexander
Luke 18:1-8. And He spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint: saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: and there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet, because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?
Many a scholar has neglected the parables of Christ as only fit for children. Others have looked upon them as befitting themes for first attempts and young beginners in the work of exposition. The best corrective of this error is experiment. Perhaps few have used this means without being undeceived. The truth embodied in some parables is plain, but it may be questioned whether it is predicted of the Jews or the disciples, or some other class exclusively, or meant to be applied to men in general. In other cases, both true doctrine and the application may be clear but there is something obscure in the mode of illustration, an apparent incongruity between the substance and the shadow. This appearance often springs from a misapprehension about the image or its use but, as soon as the true principle is once applied, the incongruity is gone. This proves the principle itself to be correct, and furnishes, or may furnish, valuable aid in solving other cases.
To this last class belongs the parable from which the text is taken. There is no indistinctness in the images themselves, nor any doubt as to what they were designed to represent. The widow and the judge stand out before the mind’s eye fully and clearly. The widow’s wrong, the judge’s wickedness, his equal scorn of God and man, the prayer, the refusal, the return, the ceaseless importunity, the selfish tyrant’s reasoning with himself – all this is like an object of our senses. We do not merely read – we see, we hear, we feel it as a real, present living spectacle.
The moral too is not left to be guessed at or inferred; it is explicitly propounded. This parable was uttered for a certain end, to teach a certain lesson, to produce a definite effect: that they who heard it should pray always and not give up, or desert, their post – the Greek word having properly a military sense and application. The parable is evidently universal in its nature and the purpose of the teacher. This is the more certain here because the terms used are so comprehensive and have nothing to qualify them. “He spake a parable unto them to this end, that” it is right or binding to pray always. If then there is any obscurity or doubt, it lies in an apparent incongruity between the illustration and the thing it illustrates. This may be rendered obvious by placing type and antitype over against each other. That the elect of God should be represented by the wronged and helpless widow agrees well with the usage of the Scriptures. But the prayers which these are bound to offer without ceasing must be prayers to God, and therefore He would seem to be the object corresponding to the judge of the parable.
But this judge is an unjust judge; he neither fears God or respects man. He has no restraining motives either here or hereafter. In addition to this habitual corruption, he is actually guilty in this very case of gross injustice. He is faithless to his trust in refusing to discharge the solemn duties of his office. He perverts the right by constantly refusing to redress the wrongs of the injured. When at last he consents to do so, it is from the meanest and most selfish motive. It is merely to escape trouble, “lest by her continual coming she weary me”. What connection can there be between, on the one hand, this character, this conduct, and this motive for a change of conduct and, on the other, the reasons for our importunity in prayer?
To some the difficulty may seem hopeless, as their rules of interpretation force them to admit that the unjust judge is here a type or representative of God as the hearer of prayer and, that being so, there must be a minute resemblance of the type and antitype. There have been those who would not scruple to assume and carry out this monstrous notion. They would say perhaps that the resemblance is the limited specific one that God resembles the unjust judge only in his turning a deaf ear to the petitions of His people and in granting their requests because of their unceasing importunity. In order to sustain this view, they are compelled to extenuate the guilt of the unjust judge and to exaggerate the supposed resemblance between him and God, lest the comparison should be revolting.
But this is utterly at variance with the drift and with the terms of the description. Why is it said that the judge was an “unjust” one? Why is it said that he “feared not God, neither regarded man? These terms prohibit all extenuation. They are evidently added for the very purpose of determining his character. Injustice and contempt of God and man are not incidentally mentioned; they are prominent. They do not modify his character; they constitute it. It is as an “unjust judge” that he is held up to our view and, lest we should mistake this quality, we are told that he neither feared God nor respected man. This accumulation of condemnatory phrases makes it certain that the wickedness of the judge is an essential stroke in the description. The idea evidently is that the worse we make him out, the better we shall understand the parable. We cannot therefore substitute a merely careless, sluggish, or forgetful judge – much less a weak, but honest one – without destroying all the point and meaning of the account.
How then can the conduct of this selfish tyrant to a helpless sufferer be any illustration of the dealings of a just and merciful God with “His own elect”? One thing, at least, is certain, that in this – and by parity of reasoning in all like cases – it does not follow that, because two things are compared in one point, they must be alike in every other; or even that they must be alike in all the points which are specifically mentioned. For neither the character in general, nor the conduct in this one case, nor the motive for reforming it, can possibly have any counterpart in the divine nature or dispensations. The only points of contact are the mutual relation of the parties as petitioner and sovereign, the withholding of the thing requested and its subsequent bestowal. In all the rest there is perfect contrariety.
Why then was this judge chosen even for the sake of illustration? Why was he not a conscientious, faithful magistrate who, though compelled to put off granting the prayer of widow, still intended to do so, and allowed her to come often and return unsatisfied in order that her wishes might be kept upon the stretch until it became possible to satisfy them? Because this would not have answered our Lord’s purpose, but would only have taught feebly by comparison what is now taught mightily by contrast. The certainty of our prayers being answered could not possibly be strengthened or established by any similar proceeding upon man’s part. The ground of confidence here furnished is not the similitude of God to man, but their infinite disparity. The argument implied is not that, if imperfect goodness goes so far, perfect goodness must go further; but that, if a certain good effect may be expected to arise fortuitously out of what is evil, it may surely be expected to arise necessarily out of what is good. If even such a character, governed by such motives, may be rationally expected to take a certain course, however alien from his native disposition and his habits, there can be no risk in counting on a like result where all these adverse circumstances favour it.
Instead of trying to exculpate the unrighteous judge, or even to extenuate his guilt, we are at liberty, or rather under the necessity, of taking the description in its strongest sense. The worse he is, the better for the beauty and effect of our Saviour’s illustration. We are also freed from the necessity of seeking points of fanciful resemblance between this ideal person and the Father of mercies, to whom all flesh come as the Hearer of prayer. When the object is no longer to compare, but to distinguish and to confront as opposites, we may give the language of the text its full force without any fear of blasphemy or even of irreverence.
The three main points of the antithesis are these: the character, the practice, and the motive of the judge – his moral character, his official practice, and his motive for acting upon this occasion in a manner contrary to both. His official practice is intimated by the word unjust applied to him near the conclusion of the parable. He was not only destitute of any wish to do justice, but unjust in practice. The internal source of this external conduct is then described in other terms. He feared not God. He neither reverenced Him as a sovereign, nor dreaded Him as an avenger. Without this fear, justice is impossible. He only can command who knows how to obey. A judge who “fears not God” is of necessity an “unjust judge”.
There would seem to be three grounds for expecting justice and fidelity in human society, and especially in positions of public trust. The highest is the fear of God, including all religious motives; then the fear of man or a regard to public sentiment; and last the force of habit, the authority of precedent, a disposition to do what has been done before because it has been done before. These three impulsive forces do not utterly exclude each other. They may all be necessary, in due subordination, to a complete official character. The first in that case must control the others, but the others, under that control, may answer an important purpose. The man who fears God does not, on that account, despise the judgement of his fellows, though it cannot be to him the intimate, supreme rule of his conduct.
The same is true of a regard to settled usage, or even to personal habit, when correctly formed. Indeed, these latter motives never have so powerful an influence for good as when they act in due subordination to the fear of God. It is only when this is lacking, and they undertake to fill its place, that they become unlawful or objectionable. And even then, although they cannot make good the deficiency in God’s sight, they may make it good in man’s. But the most conscientious man, who disregards the public sentiment or tramples on established usage, may do far less than he might have done. The lack of any one of these impulsive forces may detract from the completeness of the ultimate effect. How much more the absence of them all?
If the judge who is governed by the fear of God, and pays due respect to the opinion of mankind, may fall short of the standard through a lack of fixed habit, or contempt of settled usage; if he who, in addition to this, sets at nought the judgement of his fellows, sinks still lower in the scale, how low must he sink who has not even honesty, much less religion, to compensate for his minor errors? In other words, how utterly unjust must that judge be who neither fears God nor regards man. It seems then that the few words which our Saviour uses are so happily chosen and so well applied as to exhaust the subject, by affording a description of an absolutely worthless judge, on whom none of the ordinary motives to fidelity have any influence, and from whom nothing can therefore be expected. What could be more hopeless than the case of the poor widow at the feet of such a tyrant? If he knows neither fear nor shame, if there is nothing to restrain him either in the present or the future, how clear it seems that his refusal to avenge her is a final one, and that continued importunity can only waste time and provoke him to new insult.
I dwell on these particulars to show that they are intended to convey the idea of a hopeless case. The petitioner was helpless – she was poor – she was at the mercy of her enemies. The judge was habitually unjust, and uninfluenced either by the fear of God or by respect for man. What is this but to say in the most graphic and expressive manner that the case is hopeless, that her importunity is vain? Yet she perseveres; so have thousands in like cases. Why? Because there is nothing more to lose, even though there may be no reason to hope. But there always is some room for hope. For hope does not depend on certainties nor even probabilities, but on possibilities. When there can be no change for the worse, and a change for the better is even barely possible, men will hope, from the constitution of their nature. When the widow’s case is said to be hopeless, it is not said with respect to her own feeling, but with respect to any rational ground of hope. She hopes against hope. She persists in her entreaties. So have thousands.
The ideal case was meant to bring before us a familiar practice. It is equivalent to saying, Men in such situations still confide in the effect of importunity. When everything seems to forbid it, they persist, because success is possible, and on that possibility the natural repugnance to despair exerts itself. Yes, even in the most discouraging circumstances, men will plead with their fellow men, so long as there is a possibility of having what they ask. And in this they are often justified by the event. Of this fact too, the widow’s case is but a type. With every reason to cease praying, she prayed on, and she was heard at last. When every higher motive failed, a lower one was still available. He who neither feared God nor regarded man, was tenderly mindful of his own ease. He did not say, “Lest God be angry”, or, “Lest man despise me”, but he said, “Lest by her continual coming she weary me”. This might have seemed a frail foundation for the hope of the petitioner, or rather it would never have occurred to her as likely to decide her case, and yet, on this it turned at last. Lest she should weary him, he did her justice. Her continued importunity was therefore justified by its success. She did well in continuing to urge her claim, however little reason she might have to look for success. The widow in the parable, and those of whom she is the representative, do right, they act reasonably in thus persevering, even where every rational consideration is in favour of abandoning the suit.
The conclusion which we have already reached is, that the widow in the parable did right, acted a reasonable part, in hoping against hope, and still persisting in her suit when everything combined to prove it hopeless. If so, the converse of the proposition must be true: by abandoning her suit or suspending her entreaties, she would have been chargeable with folly and with sin proportioned to the interests at stake. If it had been her own subsistence merely, that would be enough to condemn giving up her case; how much more if that of others were dependent on the same decision. She would have had no right to sacrifice the comfort and tranquillity, much less the life or the salvation of her children to her own despondency or weariness of effort. All this is certain, and will be at once admitted in the case which the parable supposes, to wit, that of an unjust, unmerciful, and selfish judge, “who feared not God, neither regarded man”.
But let us suppose that he had been an upright, conscientious, faithful judge, whose execution of his office was delayed by some mistake or lack of information. How much less excusable would she have then been in relinquishing her rights or those of others in despair? Suppose, again, that there had not been even ignorance or error on the judge’s part to make the issue doubtful, but that his decision was delayed by temporary circumstances which were likely soon to have an end. The case would then be stronger still, and the folly of abandoning the suit still greater.
But advance another step. Imagine that the granting of the widow’s prayer had been deferred for the sake of the petitioner herself, in order that the favour when obtained might be enhanced in value. Suppose that, instead of knowing that the judge was in principle and habit unjust, she had known him by experience to be just and merciful as well as eminently wise. Suppose that she had been protected by him and her wrongs redressed in many other cases. Suppose that she had, even in the present case, his promise, nay, his oath that justice should be done to her. How easy must it then have been to trust? How doubly mad and wicked to despair!
There seems to be room for only one more supposition. Those which have been stated, from the lowest to the highest, all imply the possibility of error or neglect of duty, however strong the reasons for expecting the actual exercise of wisdom and integrity. But now remove this possibility. Exclude all chance of intellectual or moral wrong. Enlarge the attributes before supposed, until they reach infinity or absolute perfection. What then would be left as the foundation or the pretext of a doubt? The bare fact of delay? Under this pretence, suppose the suitor to despair and to renounce his suit. Is not this, indeed, a case of madness too extreme to be supposed, because it could not occur often, even if it occurred once? Alas, my hearers, this extreme case is our own! It is to this view of ourselves that the consummate wisdom of the Master brings us by a way that we knew not. Just so far as we practically doubt the promises of God, or fail to use the means of His appointment, we reverse the conduct of the widow in the parable, under the most aggravating circumstances. If she was wise in hoping against hope, what must we be in despairing against evidence?
We might deny the possibility of arguing from one case to the other. For this purpose we exaggerate and multiply the points of difference. She asked for justice; we for mercy or free favour. Her judge was unjust, impious, and reckless; ours is the infinitely Holy God. She gained her end by exhausting his patience, but “the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary”. How then can we be either bound or condemned by her example? Because she at last wearied an unjust judge into doing right in order to escape a worse annoyance, what ground have we to hope that we can weary the Most High into compliance with our wishes? It need scarcely be said now that this is not the true state of the case. The true state of the case is this: if she would have been chargeable with sin and folly in despairing of justice from an unjust, impious and reckless judge who feared not God neither regarded man, what may we be charged with if we despair of mercy, freely offered, dearly purchased, clearly promised, on the part of God Himself? If she was right in trusting to the selfish love of ease in such a man, how wrong must we be in distrusting the benevolence, the faithfulness, the truth of such a God!
Every point of contrast between the cases does but serve to make our own still worse and less excusable, by bringing into shocking contrast men’s dependence on the worst of their own species, with their want of confidence in God. For what the widow in the parable did, all men do substantially. They will not be deprived of any temporal hope, however great the human wickedness which seems to crush it. On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases they will not be persuaded to trust God, and to prove their trust by importunity in prayer, however ample the encouragement, however explicit the promise.
The wide application of the lesson here taught is apparent from the nature of the principles involved. To restrict the parable to the specific grant of vengeance on the enemies of His elect rests on a twofold misconception. In the first place, the avenging here meant is judicial vindication: the redress of wrongs endured and the assertion of disputed rights. The adversaries meant are the adverse party in a case of litigation. There is no allusion, therefore, to the gratification of malicious or revengeful passions. In the next place, even if there were, it would belong to the type and not to the antitype, and be no better reason for restricting the meaning of the passage than the fact that the petitioner is represented as a widow. Because the unjust judge says, “I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me,” our Lord, adapting His expressions to the case supposed, says, Shall not God do likewise; shall not He avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them? This evidently means, Shall He not at last hear their prayers, though He long defer an answer? So instead of saying, Yes, He will surely hear them, He retains the clothing of the parable in answering His own question, “I tell you that He will avenge them speedily”; that is, He more certainly will do what they ask, but for reasons altogether different, and from motives infinitely higher, than those for which the unjust judge consented to avenge his helpless but importunate petitioner.
But how shall it be speedily when, by the very supposition, it is long deferred? Because the longest term of expectation will be short enough when surveyed by an eye of faith and not of doubt. And because continued expectation of the right sort, while it fortifies faith, is constantly diminishing the period of its exercise. If we really believe that God will grant us our petitions, we shall gladly acquiesce in His appointed time, and acknowledge that, when He “avenges” us, whether it be sooner or later, He did it “speedily”.
The only question is, Have we that faith to which – as the Lord Himself sees it – “one day is . . . as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”? The only difficulty in the case is in ourselves. Hence the Saviour winds up His instructions with a “nevertheless”. Notwithstanding the immense weight of reasons for implicit confidence in God, expressed by importunity in prayer; notwithstanding the gross folly and aggravated guilt of that despondency which casts off fear and restrains prayer before God – though the faith required is so simple, so reasonable, so delightful – is this faith common? Is it ever to be universal? The reasons for believing are the most complete and satisfactory conceivable. “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” This solemn question comes home just as really to us as if we were to meet the Lord on earth tomorrow. If we would answer it aright, let us remember that the faith in question is a faith that must be proved by prayer; so that if men would either have it or demonstrate that they have it, they “ought always to pray, and not to faint”.
1. Reprinted, with abridgement, from The Gospel of Jesus Christ, a volume of discourses by a son of the better-known Archibald Alexander. J A Alexander (1809-1860) also was a professor in Princeton Seminary in the US.