We actually have three sections of thoughts and verses to cover today in Luke 18:1-17 – two parables about prayer, followed by a brief comment on child-like faith.
The Parable of the Persistent Widow (1-8)
The purpose of this parable is to teach persistence in prayer. It may at times seem like God is not hearing or honoring our prayers, even for very good and genuine needs. I will say that I felt this way today in prayer for a dear friend in the hospital who appears to never be able to quite turn the corner on regaining health and vitality.
But we must keep on praying and trusting. God has ways that are beyond our understanding. Our role is to persistently continue in humble intercession.
The parable is variously called that of the unjust judge, or of the persistent widow. The idea is that if an unjust judge would give justice for a persistent widow who continuously (from his perspective) bothered him, will not the just God hear and honor the persistent prayers of his people? So keep praying.
Right now … is there something you’ve been praying about for a long time? Right now, bring that before the Lord again.
Luke 18:1 – 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 what people thought. 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 what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
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?”
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (9-14)
Full disclosure here: I am the son of a tax collector! No, really … literally, I am. My father was the tax collector in the rural township where we lived in New Jersey, as was his father before him. Together, they did it for 60 consecutive years in Harmony Township, NJ. It was a regular feature of my childhood that practically every day, several people would come to our home, walk through the kitchen to my father’s office and pay their property taxes, often in cash.
People don’t like tax collectors. Just think for a moment about what you feel when you see a letter from the IRS in your mailbox. Even though my father tried to make it clear that he had nothing to do with tax rates and assessments … that he was merely the bookkeeping agent for collection … people would vent to him. I even remember people calling him at 5:00 in the morning to complain that their snowy street was not yet plowed, as if he could do anything about it whatsoever.
But in the Roman world, tax collectors were more than mere accountants. They could set the rates to some extent and were well-known to extort, overcharge, and keep a portion for themselves. All of this carried Roman authority. The Romans didn’t care what a collector skimmed off for himself, so long as they got their portion.
So tax collectors could be rich fellows, but also hated fellows for taking advantage of their fellow citizens and countrymen. If you wanted to pick out the most odious character in the land at the time, the local tax collector was about as low as you could go … probably worse than a slimy congressman or a pimp.
So when Jesus tells a story (to the religious leaders) that contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector, he is juxtaposing the best person they could think of (someone in their category) to the worst and most vile character in the culture. And then for Jesus to turn the tax man into the winner, well, it was even worse than seeing a Samaritan as the hero of another story on another day.
In theological realms, we use a lot of words to describe salvation and systems of belief as to what it is that constitutes being a person who is in an eternally correct relationship with God. We may talk about efficacious grace, soteriological universalism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Amyraldianism, Arminianism, or Calvinism. A couple of these words are good, a couple bad, and a couple somewhere in the middle.
But at the end of it all, it comes down to this: We bring nothing to salvation, and God brings it all. There is no merit that we can bring. We can boast of nothing — not even being smart enough to have the faith to believe, as even that is a gift of God.
So it is better to be a humble tax collector than a proud Pharisee filled with good works.
Luke 18:9 – To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone 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 by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—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 all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Children Coming to Jesus (15-17)
As many of you know, I do occasional tour groups at the Antietam Battlefieldt. I talk with guests about how the Confederates under A.P. Hill marched 17 miles from Harpers Ferry in seven hours to arrive on the field just in time to save Robert E. Lee from total disaster.
For them to have done this, it also included wading across the Potomac River at a ford just downstream several hundred yards from where the bridge now is that crosses into Shepherdstown.
And when there are kids in the group, I will say to them, “Hey, it is a shallow place and we could probably go down there now and do the same thing; do you want to do that?”
And invariably the kids will answer, “Yes, that would be so cool; let’s go do it!”
And invariably the parents will say, “No, we’re not going to be doing that!”
Kids are great because they are completely trusting when they sense they are in the care of someone who genuinely loves them and cares for them. They fully believe that those adults will only do those things that will help them, not hurt them.
Another example — a toddler is only about one-quarter the size of a typical grown up. So, imagine if a 24-foot tall giant was to come along, pick you up under the armpits and throw you up and down 40 feet into the air, would you welcome that activity and giggle all the way through it like a little child does?
Didn’t think so!
But that is the sort of faith and confidant trust that scores with God.
Luke 18:15 – People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”