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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Prayer - A Lesson for Children

Luke 18:1-17

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the Crucifixion. As he goes, he is teaching some final lessons to his disciples on important subjects. Today we will hear his teaching on prayer. It begins with a widow, and ends with children as object lessons in the life of prayer for the disciple.

The Widow

(Luke 18:1-8 NIV) Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. {2} He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. {3} And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.' {4} "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, {5} yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'" {6} And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. {7} 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? {8} I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

Like most of the parables of Jesus, the characters would leap out to the people of that time. They are not that distant from us, either.

The Widow

In the Old Testament it was a common thing to evaluate the conduct of the nation by the way widows, orphans and the poor were treated. The widow represents, firguratively, those who are powerless – the little guy, the Everyman facing the big bureaucratic system of today. In this time the widow theoretically had the rights of her dead husband. As a practical matter of fact she had almost no defense against evil, for in court her word did not count against that of a man. So it was that a widow’s property could often be taken from her by some legal slight of hand.

The resource of this widow is persistence, and persistence is a powerful thing.

The Judge

From the title itself we know that this judge was not in the Jewish legal system. Such disputes were resolved by the elders. So this judge was in the Roman system, the Romans having conquered the Jews. Most likely he was a hireling from among the Jews; he would therefore be seen as a Benedict Arnold, a quisling. Such a man could not be devout, so the statement that he feared neither God nor man would have been completely in character. He’s bragging, if you will.

Brag as he might, the widow eventually wears him down. The expression “wear me out” in the original Greek carries the meaning of giving him black circles under his eyes. The woman has been nagging him night and day for justice, and he wants to get some sleep!

Jesus then contrasts this situation with God. The point is not that we should nag the Lord God Almighty. That’s the contrast. If nagging works with the unjust judge, how much more will persistence in love work with the God who loves you?

The purpose of the parable

Luke is gracious to us in this parable: he tells us the point up front. We are to learn to “always pray” and “not give up.”

·         “Always pray” can have the sense of “no matter how hopeless.” Some of us are great at praying when we can see the way in which God could perform his works. But if our imaginations fail us, we cease. This is not good.

·         “Always pray” can also have the sense that we should pray “without ceasing.”[1] Some of us refer the matter to God and forget about it, as if he were some machine. He is not. He is a person, and he measures our desire for something by the persistence with which we seek it – including how we seek it in prayer.

·         “Always pray” can also mean “in all things.” Sometimes we do not pray about something because it seems so trivial to us -- God surely would not be interested in that! God is surely interested in us; if it’s important to you, share it with him.

We are told not to give up. There is a fascinating example of this in the Old Testament. It comes from David’s wicked affair with Bathsheba, and it concerns the baby born from that illicit union:

(2 Sam 12:15-23 NIV) After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife had borne to David, and he became ill. {16} David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. {17} The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them. {18} On the seventh day the child died. David's servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, "While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate." {19} David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. "Is the child dead?" he asked. "Yes," they replied, "he is dead." {20} Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate. {21} His servants asked him, "Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!" {22} He answered, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' {23} But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."

There is an aspect here of Job’s attitude towards God when he said, “though he slay me, yet will I hope in Him.”[2] We often think that when God is good to us we should pray constantly, thanking Him – and this is true. We forget that God also disciplines us or tests us. In those times things seem so hopeless, so bad, and we feel like we don’t deserve the privilege of prayer. It is in those times – no matter the result – that we need to pray, too. Pray without ceasing.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Jesus now goes on to tell one of the classic stories of the Bible.

(Luke 18:9-14 NIV) To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: {10} "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. {11} The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. {12} I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' {13} "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' {14} "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Again, the characters are quite familiar:

The Pharisee

The word has passed into the English language as a synonym for a self-righteous hypocrite, and this story is the root of the meaning. See in what few words Christ paints the picture!

·         The Pharisee begins with righteousness by comparison. The root of his statement to God (and everyone who is listening) is that by comparison to the man standing next to him, he’s very righteous. This is true. It’s also irrelevant. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

·         He’s not at all crude about it, however. The form of things must be observed even though the content is void. He phrases his comparison in terms of thanksgiving! Surely it is not sinful to give thanks to God? Just because the form of prayer is righteous does not mean the prayer is.

·         We do much the same today. Instead of thanksgiving, however, we call it “praying for the sinner.” “Oh Lord, please melt the wicked heart of old Snidely Whiplash (and ignore the rotten heart of me).”

·         He then goes on to tell of his righteousness by works. The root of this is the idea that “I have exceeded the legal requirements.” You see the point? It’s not just that I’ve kept the law; I did better than that.

·         Part of this is the normal human reaction to meeting God. Remember Billl Cosby’s classic comedy routine, Noah? When they first meet, Noah asks, “Who is it?” “It’s the Lord!” “What do you want? I’ve been good!”

·         Much more of this comes from the common idea of God as cosmic bookkeeper. Sins are debits, good deeds are credits, and if you wind up with a positive balance you go to heaven. Great concept. False, but pretty.

·         We forget that we are dealing with prayer here. This is so public that we forget that such prayer was commonplace in their time.

·         I can see something of the “sense” in lying to others in public prayer. It’s good for business to have the congregation think you are an honest man.

·         I can see no sense at all in lying to God. Just what do you think you’re doing? Surely you know that he is omniscient? This is not very bright.

·         But there is a worse case. You can lie to yourself. You can get so convinced of your own righteousness that you try to convince God of it as well. This is indeed a mortal peril, for if you will not see yourself as sinner, how can you receive salvation?

The Tax Collector

This guy comes across as a likable scumbag. Scoundrels are often like that. I think the reason I like him is that he pretends to nothing else. His salvation, however, is that he makes no such pretense to God, but begs for mercy. The greatest thing he does, however, is what he doesn’t: he has no mention of self-justification.

·         There is no mention of the Dingus McGee principle. Remember Dingus McGee? “I’m a better man than….” (actually, he couldn’t think of anyone he was a better man than, but we’ll leave it with that name.)

·         There is no mention of spare change at the bar. Many charities place a container for donations at the cash register of the bar – for a reason. It soothes the conscience.

·         There is, however, the truth. In the Greek the words could also be “be merciful to me, the sinner.” God sees through pretension, and the tax collector has sense enough to know it – and beg. Blessed are the poor in spirit!

Exalting and Humbling

You have a choice. You can lift yourself up, exalt yourself, praise yourself – or you can let God do it. One or the other, not both. Scripture is clear:

·         If you exalt yourself, if you lift yourself up before the world as someone wonderful, God will humble you. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow – but someday. Hubris is still with us.

·         But if you humble yourself, God will lift you up. If you want to look at it this way, consider: who would you rather have lifting you up?

·         There is a reason for this: by exalting yourself you hinder your personal relationship with God. That is the only relationship with eternal consequences, and He wants you to enjoy Him forever. Since your pride stands in the way, it is merciful of Him to humble you – isn’t it?

How do I do this?

Humility is hard in our prayer life, as it is in other forms of life. How, then, do I hang on to this relationship?

(John 15:4-5 NIV) Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. {5} "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

There it is. The essence of the matter is to remain in Him. By obedience, by prayer, by reading the Scripture – all things must come to this, for He is Lord of all.


[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

[2] Job 13:15

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