1 One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. 2 “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. 3 A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ 4 The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, 5 but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”
6 Then the Lord said, “Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. 7 Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?”
9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
15 One day some parents brought their little children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But when the disciples saw this, they scolded the parents for bothering him.
16 Then Jesus called for the children and said to the disciples, “Let the
children babies come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. 17 I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
The two stories that begin today’s reading are both unique to Luke. They connect with what we read yesterday about the end not being here yet and the work of the kingdom being laid out before us. These stories show us the first and primary work of the kingdom: prayer. It seems like sometimes we regard prayer as side work, as only one part of our relationship with God. In fact, prayer is our relationship to God and the primary indicator of that relationship. We must pray as persistently as this widow. Notice how the NLT has “she will wear me out.” The Greek there has a double meaning of shaming and physically assaulting. “She may give me a black eye,” might be a better way to convey both meanings in English, but “wear me out,” works too, at least in the South, where parents have been known to use that to threaten corporal punishment. The point is that the widow means business. The judge is worried she will come after him if he doesn’t grant her request. And this is how Jesus is telling us to pray. Pray like an old lady swinging her heavy purse at someone who is mistreating her. Pray like you mean it. Pray like you actually need something. Because you do.
We get a juxtaposition in the next story that really needs no explanation beyond the set up Luke gives us. The first story was directed at the disciples, this one is directed at people who think they have it all together, ones confident in their own self-righteousness, looking down on all the lowly sinners. The Pharisee’s prayer is entirely self-congratulatory. What need does he express? None. Who is he even talking to? Himself. He has all he needs from the god he actually worships – himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, is like the widow in the first story. Completely aware of his need. He asks for mercy the way a man wandering in the desert asks for water. Both the widow and the tax collector get what they ask for because they ask for what they need. The Pharisee doesn’t get anything because he doesn’t ask for anything. He is painfully unaware of his need.
I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating here. Whenever we encounter characters in Scripture like this Pharisee, what we must do is put ourselves in that character’s position. What we should ask here is, “how am I like this Pharisee? How often is my ‘prayer’ more like this than like the tax collector’s?” It would be unfortunate and quite ironic for us to use this parable to judge others, since that is part of what the Pharisee does.
The teaching about children belongs here because children are prolific at asking for what they want until they get it, especially babies who only cry for five reasons (hungry, sleepy, wet/stinky, pain, frightened) and expect you to do something about the given situation right away. We can also see that Luke is still weaving his reversal theme. Our role models here are: a poor widow woman, a socially outcast tax collector/sinner, and children. The kingdom is made up of receiving the lowly. God likes answering their prayers because they actually recognize their needs and ask for them to be met.
So, how about it? How is your relationship with God? Which is to say, how is your prayer life? If you’re not beating your chest and ready to whack God on the nose, maybe try getting in touch with your need a little more. God doesn’t want our pious (delusional) self-righteousness. That doesn’t leave any room for relationship with God. God wants the real us, in all our frailty, craziness, and desperation. Pray real. Pray like you mean it. Pray like you need it.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.