A reflection on Luke 18:1-17 for Tuesday, August 3, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
Luke 18:1-17 (NRSVA)
Prayer can be a difficult concept. It raises questions for us about the nature of God and the nature of our role in God’s action in the world:
Why does an all knowing God need us to ask?
What difference does my prayer make to the heart of God?
Our reading assures us that we are not the first to ask such questions or to wonder about prayer. Earlier in Luke, after witnessing Jesus’ own prayer life, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. As a result, Jesus taught them them what we now call The Lord’s Prayer (See Luke 11:1ff).
Yes, prayer can be taught and learned. A reassuring thought.
On that occasion, Jesus followed this now well known prayer with a parable that has strong echoes of the first story we just heard. There a reluctant neighbour and friend is persuaded out of bed by the persistent asking of one in need. Jesus concludes this story with the assurance that our asking, searching, and knocking will result in God’s response.
A second parable is told on that occasion as well. A child asking for a fish or an egg is not given a snake or scorpion – even by an imperfect father. God always gives the best of gifts – the ‘Holy Spirit’ (Luke 11:13)
The reading above continues this education in prayer. Two more prayer-parables to chew over.
The first is directed at our potential to ‘lose heart’. Again, it is an exercise in contrast The one tasked with making change is clearly not good. He is described as arrogant, disrespectful, and in denial of the importance of his role in a just society. He has given up the pursuit of equality and is more concerned for self-preservation.
But there is one we have come to know as ‘the persistent widow’. This unnamed woman pursues a just judgment, badgering the judge until he responds. He eventually reasons that it would be better to grant justice than be worn down by her ‘continually coming’.
His is no high or noble reasoning, but even this reluctant judge has taken the first step towards intervention.
Importantly, Jesus contrasts this judge and God with two simple questions. Both point to the listener’s knowledge of God and assume that God is not to be closely associated with the reluctant and slow response of the judge: ‘…will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?’
For those struggling for an answer Jesus makes it even plainer: ‘I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.’
Jesus final question is a sobering wondering on Jesus part if, even with a responding and generous God, faith will survive on the earth.
The second story calls for humility in prayer and is openly directed toward those who think much of themselves. Although Jesus continually challenges the notion, the Pharisee was widely viewed as an exemplary religious practitioner and teacher. Similarly, the tax-collector was widely considered a betrayer of his nation and therefore one who forfeited his Jewish inheritance.
Another common perception that Jesus confronted.
These stereotypes have found their way into the prayer life of these two men. One comes before God with an inflated sense of self-righteousness. The other with a deflated sense worth.
Who says society’s categorisations have no effect?
But God, it would seem, has a habit of playing the equaliser. The one expecting God’s pleasure is disappointed; the one expecting God’s wrath is pleasantly surprised. As Jesus concludes: ‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
It seems so appropriate that the account of Jesus’ welcome of the children follows. Even after all they have witnessed, the disciples are still surprised by the humble nature of the Kingdom they are learning to embrace.
To pray to the God who is perfectly represented by Jesus is to trust in one who is eager to both bring about justice and to hear the cry of the humble.
There is a clear theme of reluctance in these prayer parables. Do you think you are prone to equate God with the reluctance of those around you to do good?
How do you connect prayer and humility? In what sense is prayer a humbling act?