Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
A parable - See the notes at Mat 13:3.
To this end - To show this.
Always - At all times. That is, we must not neglect regular stated seasons of prayer; we must seize on occasions of remarkable providences as afflictions or signal blessings to seek God in prayer; we must "always" maintain a spirit of prayer, or be in a proper frame to lift up our hearts to God for his blessing, and we must not grow weary though our prayer seems not to be answered.
Not to faint - Not to grow weary or give over. The parable is designed to teach us that, though our prayers should long appear to be unanswered, we should persevere, and not grow weary in supplication to God.
A judge which feared not God - One appointed by law to determine causes brought before him. This judge had no reverence for God, and consequently no regard for the rights of man. These two things go together. He that has no regard for God can be expected to have none for man; and our Lord has here indirectly taught us what ought to be the character of a judge that he "should" fear God and regard the rights of man. Compare Deu 1:16-17.
Regarded man - cared not for man. Had no respect for the opinions or the rights of man.
A widow - This is a circumstance that gives increasing interest to the parable. Judges were bound to show special attention to widows, Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3. The reason of this was that they were defenseless, were commonly poor, and were liable to be oppressed by those in power.
Avenge me - This would have been better translated, "Do me justice against my adversary, or vindicate me from him." It does not denote vengeance or revenge, but simply that she wished to have "justice" done her - a thing which this judge was "bound" to do, but which it seems he had no disposition to do.
Adversary - One opposed in law. In this case it seems that the judge was unwilling to do justice, and probably took advantage of her condition to oppress her.
For a while - Probably this means for a "considerable" time. It was his duty to attend to the claims of justice, but this was long delayed.
Within himself - He thought, or came to a conclusion.
Though I fear not ... - This contains the reason why he attended to the case at all. It was not from any regard to justice, or to the duties of his office. It was simply to avoid "trouble." And yet his conduct in this case might have appeared very upright, and possibly might have been strictly according to law and to justice. How many actions are performed that "appear well," when the doers of those actions know that they are mere hypocrisy! and how many actions are performed from the basest and lowest motives of "selfishness," that have the appearance of external propriety and even of goodness!
She weary me - The word used here, in the original, is that which was employed to denote the wounds and bruises caused by "boxers," who beat each other, and blacken their eyes, and disable them. See the notes at Co1 9:27. Hence, it means any vexatious and troublesome importunity that takes the time, and disables from other employment.
Hear ... - Give attention to this, and derive from it practical instruction.
Shall not God avenge ... - We are not to suppose that the character of God is at all represented by this judge, or that "his" principles of conduct are at all like those of the judge. This parable shows us conclusively that many "circumstances" of a parable are not to be interpreted closely: they are mere appendages to the narrative. The great truth which our Saviour "designed" to teach is what we ought to endeavor to find. In this case there can be no doubt what that truth is. He has himself told us that it is, that "men ought always to pray and not to faint." This he teaches by the example in the parable; and the argument which it implies is this:
1. A poor widow, by her perseverance only, obtained from an unjust man what otherwise she would "not" have obtained.
2. God is not unjust. He is good, and disposed to do justice and to bestow mercy.
If, therefore, this "wicked man" by persevering prayer was induced to do justice, how much more shall "God," who is good, and who is not actuated by any such selfish and base principles, do justice to them who apply to him!
Avenge - Do justice to or vindicate them. This may have a twofold reference.
1. To the disciples in the time of Jesus, who were about to be oppressed and persecuted, and over whom calamities were about to come, "as if" God did not regard their cries and had forsaken them. To them Jesus gives the assurance that God "would" hear their petitions and come forth to vindicate them; and that, notwithstanding all these calamities, he would yet appear for their deliverance.
2. It may have a more "general" meaning. The people of God are often oppressed, calumniated, persecuted. They are few in number and feeble. They seem to be almost forsaken and cast down, and their enemies triumph. Yet in due time God will hear their prayers, and will come forth for their vindication. And even if it should not be "in this life," yet he will do it in the day of judgment, when he will pronounce them blessed, and receive them forever to himself.
His own elect - People of God, saints, Christians; so called because God has "chosen" them to be his. The term is usually given in the Scriptures to the true followers of God, and is a term of affection, denoting his great and special love in choosing them out of a world of sinners, and conferring on them grace, and mercy, and eternal life. See Th1 1:4; Col 3:12; Pe1 1:2; Eph 1:4. It signifies here that they are especially dear to him; that he feels a deep interest in their welfare, and that he will, therefore, be ready to come forth to their aid. The judge felt no special interest in that widow, yet he heard her; God feels a particular regard, a tender love for his elect, and, therefore, he will hear and save.
Which cry day and night - This expresses one striking characteristic of the elect of God; they pray, and pray constantly. No one can have evidence that he is chosen of God who is not a man of prayer. One of the best marks by which the electing love of God is known is that it disposes us to pray. This passage supposes that when the elect of God are in trouble and pressed down with calamities, they "will" cry unto him; and it affirms that if they do, he will hear their cries and answer their requests.
Though he bear long with them - This passage has been variously interpreted, and there is some variety of reading in the manuscripts. Some read, "Will not God avenge his elect? Will he linger in their cause?" But the most natural meaning is, "Although he defers long to avenge them, and greatly tries their patience, yet he will avenge them." He tries their faith; he suffers their persecutions and trials to continue a long time; and it almost "appears" as if he would not interpose. Yet he will do it, and will save them.
Speedily - Suddenly, unexpectedly. He will surely vindicate them, and that at a time, perhaps, when they were nearly ready to give over and to sink into despair. This may refer to the deliverance of the disciples from their approaching trials and persecutions among the Jews; or, in general, to the fact that God will interpose and aid his people.
Nevertheless - But. Notwithstanding this. Though this is true that God will avenge his elect, yet will he find his elect "faithful?" The danger is not that "God" will be unfaithful - he will surely be true to his promises; but the danger is that his elect - his afflicted people - will be discouraged; will not persevere in prayer; will not continue to have confidence in him; and will, under heavy trials, sink into despondency. The sole meaning of this phrase, therefore, is, that "there is more danger that his people would grow weary, than that God would be found unfaithful and fail to avenge his elect." For this cause Christ spoke the parable, and by the "design" of the parable this passage is to be interpreted.
Son of man cometh - This probably refers to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem - the coming of the Messiah, by his mighty power, to abolish the ancient dispensation and to set up the new.
Faith - The word "faith" is sometimes taken to denote the "whole" of religion, and it has been understood in this sense here; but there is a close connection in what Christ says, and it should be understood as referring to what he said before. The truth that he had been teaching was, that God would deliver his people from their calamities and save them, though he suffered them to be long tried. He asks them here whether, when he came, he should find "this faith," or a belief of "this truth," among his followers? Would they be found persevering in prayer, and "believing" that God would yet avenge them; or would they cease to pray "always, and faint?" This is not to be understood, therefore, as affirming that when Christ comes to judgment there will be few Christians on the earth, and that the world will be overrun with wickedness. That "may be" true, but it is not the truth taught here.
The earth - The land referring particularly to the land of Judea. The discussion had particular reference to their trials and persecutions in that land. This question implies that "in" those trials many professed disciples might faint and turn back, and many of his "real" followers almost lose sight of this great truth, and begin to inquire whether God would interpose to save them. The same question may be asked respecting any other remarkable visitation of the Son of God in affliction. When tried and persecuted, do "we" believe that God will avenge us? Do "we" pray always and not faint? Have "we" faith to believe that, though clouds and darkness are round about him, yet righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne? And when storms of persecution assail us, can "we" go to God and confidently commit our cause to him, and believe that he will bring forth our righteousness as the light, and our judgment as the noon-day?
Unto certain - Unto some.
Which trusted in themselves - Who confided in themselves, or who supposed that they were righteous. They did not trust to God or the Messiah for righteousness, but to their own works. They vainly supposed they had themselves complied with the demands of the law of God.
Despised others - Others who were not as externally righteous as themselves. This was the character of the Pharisees. They trusted in their outward conformity to the ceremonies of the law. They considered all who did not do that as sinners. This, moreover, is the true character of self-righteousness. Men of that stamp always despise all others. They think they are far above them in holiness, and are disposed to say to them, Stand by thyself, for I am holier than thou, Isa 65:5. True religion, on the contrary, is humble. Those who trust in Christ for righteousness feel that "they" are, in themselves, poor, and miserable, and guilty, and they are willing to admit that others may be much better than themselves. Certain it is, they "despise" no one. They love all people; they regard them, however vile, as the creatures of God and as going to eternity, and are disposed to treat them well, and to aid them in their journey toward another world.
The temple - Into one of the courts of the temple - the court where prayer was commonly offered. See the notes at Mat 21:12.
A Pharisee - See the notes at Mat 3:7.
Publican - See the notes at Mat 5:46.
Stood and prayed thus with himself - Some have proposed to render this, "stood by himself" and prayed. In this way it would be characteristic of the sect of the Pharisees, who dreaded the contact of others as polluting, and who were disposed to say to all, Stand by yourselves. The Syraic so renders it, but it is doubtful whether the Greek will allow this construction. If not, it means, he said over to himself what he had done, and what was the ground on which he expected the favour of God.
God, I thank thee - There was still in the prayer of the Pharisee an "appearance" of real religion. He did not profess to claim that he had made himself better than others. He was willing to acknowledge that God had done it for him, and that he had a right to his gratitude for it. Hypocrites are often the most orthodox in opinion of any class of people. They know the truth, and admit it. They use it frequently in their prayers and conversation. They will even persecute those who happen to differ from them in opinion, and who may be really wrong. We are not to judge of the "piety" of people by the fact that they admit the truth, or even that they use it often in their prayers. It is, however, not wrong to thank God that he has kept us from the gross sins which other people commit; but it should not be done in an ostentatious manner, nor should it be done forgetting still that we are great sinners and need pardon. These were the faults of the Pharisees.
Extortioners - Rapacious; avaricious; who take away the goods of others by force and violence. It means, also, those who take advantage of the necessities of others, the poor and the oppressed, and extort their property.
Unjust - They who are not fair and honest in their dealings; who get the property of others by "fraud." They are distinguished from "extortioners" because they who are unjust may have the "appearance" of honesty; in the other case there is not.
I fast twice ... - This was probably the Jewish custom. The Pharisees are said to have fasted regularly on the second and fifth days of every week in private. This was "in addition" to the public days of fasting required in the law of Moses, and they, therefore, made more a matter of "merit" of it because it was voluntary.
I give tithes - A tithe means the tenth part of a thing. A tenth part of the possessions of the Jews was required for the support of the Levites, Num 18:21. In addition to the tithes required strictly by law, the Pharisees had tithed everything which they possessed even the smallest matters - as mint, anise, cummin, etc., Luk 11:42. It was "this," probably, on which he so particularly prided himself. As this could not be proved to be strictly "required" in the law, it had more the "appearance" of great piety, and, therefore, he particularly dwelt on it.
I possess - This may mean either all which I "have," or all which I "gain" or acquire. It is not material which meaning be considered the true one.
The religion of the Pharisee, therefore, consisted in:
1. abstaining from injustice to others; in pretending to live a harmless, innocent, and upright life; and,
2. a regular observance of all the external duties of religion.
His "fault" consisted in relying on this kind of righteousness; in not feeling and acknowledging that he was a sinner; in not seeking a religion that should dwell in the "heart" and regulate the feelings; and in making public and ostentatious professions of his own goodness. Most of all was this abominable in the sight of God, who "looks into the heart," and who sees wickedness there when the external actions may be blameless. We may learn from the case of the Pharisee:
1. That it is not the man who has the most orthodox belief that has, of course, the most piety;
2. That people may be externally moral, and not be righteous in the sight of God;
3. That they may be very exact in the external duties of religion, and even go beyond the strict letter of the law; that they may assume a great appearance of sanctity, and still be strangers to true piety; and,
4. That ostentation in religion, or a "boasting" before God of what we are and of what we have done, is abominable in his sight. This spoils everything, even if the life "should be" tolerably blameless, and if there should be real piety.
Standing afar off - Afar off from the "temple." The place where prayer was offered in the temple was the court of women. The Pharisee advanced to the side of the court nearest to the temple, or near as he could; the publican stood on the other side of the same court if he was a Jew, or in the court of the Gentiles if he was a pagan, as far as possible from the temple, being conscious of his unworthiness to approach the sacred place where God had his holy habitation.
So much as his eyes ... - Conscious of his guilt. He felt that he was a sinner, and shame and sorrow prevented his looking up. Men who are conscious of guilt always fix their eyes on the ground.
Smote upon his breast - An expression of grief and anguish in view of his sins. It is a sign of grief among almost all nations.
God be merciful ... - The prayer of the publican was totally different from that of the Pharisee. He made no boast of his own righteousness toward God or man. He felt that he was a sinner, and, feeling it, was willing to acknowledge it. This is the kind of prayer that will be acceptable to God. When we are willing to confess and forsake our sins, we shall find mercy, Pro 28:13. The publican was willing to do this in any place; in the presence of any persons; amid the multitudes of the temple, or alone. He felt most that "God" was a witness of his actions, and he was willing, therefore, to confess his sins before him. While we should not "seek" to do this "publicly," yet we should be willing at all times to confess our manifold transgressions, to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same by God's infinite goodness and mercy." It is not dishonorable to make acknowledgment when we have done wrong. No man is so much dishonored as he who is a sinner and is not willing to confess it; as he who has done wrong and yet attempts to "conceal" the fault, thus adding hypocrisy to his other crimes.
I tell you - The Pharisees would have said that the first man here was approved. Jesus assures them that they judged erroneously. God judges of this differently from people.
Justified - Accepted or approved of God. The word "justify" means to declare or treat as righteous. In this case it means that in their prayers the one was approved and the other not; the one went down with the favor of God in answer to his petitions, the other not.
For every one ... - See the notes at Luk 14:11.
See the notes at Mat. 19:13-30.
See the notes at Mat 20:17-19.
By the prophets - Those who foretold the coming of the Messiah, and whose predictions are recorded in the Old Testament.
Son of man - The Messiah. They predicted that certain things would take place respecting the Messiah that was to come. See the Dan 9:25-27 notes; Isa. 53 notes. "These things," Jesus said, would be accomplished "in him," he being the Son of man, or the Messiah.
Understood none of these things - Though they were "plainly" revealed, yet such were their prejudices and their unwillingness to believe them that they did not understand them. They expected that he would be a temporal prince and a conqueror, and they were not "willing" to believe that he would be delivered into the hands of his enemies. They did not see how that could be consistent with the prophecies. To us now these things appear plain, and we may, hence, learn that those things which to us appear most mysterious may yet appear perfectly plain; and we should learn to trust in God, and "believe" just what he has spoken. See Mat 16:21; Mat 17:23.
See this passage explained in the notes at Mat 20:29-34.