THE ATTITUDE OF TRUE PRAYER
Luke 18:1-14, Key Verse: 18:1
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
In this chapter, as Jesus is continuing to prepare his disciples for his death in Jerusalem and the mission they will carry out afterwards, he returns to teaching them about prayer. Back in Chapter 11, Jesus gave his disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, which shows the main topics that we are to pray for. The teaching in today’s passage is parables, and they are more about what the attitude is of a person whose prayer is effective with God. Do you want to understand how your prayer can be effective? Of course, we all do. When I studied this passage, I found that the essence of prayer is simple, and I believe that when the pictures Jesus paints in these parables take root in our hearts we won’t forget it. The message has two parts, one for each parable.
What persistent prayer looks like (1-8)
Look at verse 1. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The disciples were slow to pick up on the importance of prayer, but they couldn’t help but see how much time Jesus devoted to private prayer in his ministry, even though he could seemingly do so much outwardly. In the same way, the disciples’ work would be accomplished through prayer, not just human effort.
What is the work of prayer, anyway? I think it is very simple. When we see a problem in the world that needs God’s power to heal it, we ask God, and he starts working. So we ought to pray with many kinds of specific prayer topics, knowing that each one is a miniature version of the big prayer topic “Your kingdom come.” There is a lot of trouble, injustice, and suffering in the world, more than we can do anything about. It seems overwhelming. But with prayer we can touch even the biggest problems and bring spiritual power to bear on them.
If that’s the case, then why does Jesus have to tell us not to give up praying? In what ways are we tempted to give up praying? Jesus has to tell us not to give up because even though how to pray is simple, persistent prayer is not easy. It’s not easy because prayer is not just reciting words; prayer is our heart being broken for people. We give up in prayer because it seems too difficult for us to keep caring, or we don’t see any hope for a situation.
Sometimes I think that if I don’t know how to solve someone’s problem, I should not even waste my time thinking about it. That might be a failing more characteristic of men. I forget that my first obligation is to pray, even for problems that I seem to be able to do nothing about. God may even answer our prayer by giving us inspiration and showing us steps of action that we can take to bring his healing to a situation. But either way, the important thing is that we start praying and keep praying.
To show the power of persistent prayer, Jesus gives a very colorful parable. Look at verse 2. “He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.’” A despicable character indeed. Because he didn’t fear God, he felt no obligation to care about anybody. His judge’s chair must have been a lifetime appointment, so he didn’t have to worry about losing his job. If you need a judge to help you out of a bad situation, and this is the kind of judge is the person you get, how are you going to feel? You will feel very hopeless indeed.
Verse 3 shows us the other character in this story. “And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’” Here, Jesus chose the character of a widow on purpose. In the society of that time, a widow could be among the most helpless people. If they weren’t already rich, it would be very hard to find a sufficient source of income, and they had no voice in the male-dominated society to represent their interests.
The parable doesn’t say what kind of adversary this widow had, that she needed justice against. Maybe her neighbor had just seized a parcel of her land that was the only inheritance she had for her children. Maybe she had done some work in the field to make some money to live on but the person she worked for wouldn’t pay her. That’s how wicked people in this world take advantage of those who can’t defend themselves. In today’s world she might be a victim of a phone scammer who pretended to be from the IRS and emptied out her bank account. The woman had no husband to take up her cause, so her only resort was to her town’s judge. She came to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”
But we already know what this judge was like. Because he neither feared God nor cared what people thought, he refused to help the widow. Being an utterly selfish person, he did not consider it worth his time or effort to do what was needed to solve the widow’s case. However, the widow persisted. She kept coming back to the judge, day after day, saying “Grant me justice!” “Grant me justice!” The judge was stubborn; he kept refusing for a long time. But the widow didn’t give up either. Eventually, the judge began to dread coming in to work every day, because he knew he would see her, again, sitting on the bench outside his office.
In verses 4b and 5, we see that the judge finally 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 wear me out with her coming!” This parable has a happy ending. The widow finally got the justice she needed so badly.
What is the moral of this parable? Look at verses 6 and 7. “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?” The widow’s persistent coming to the judge is a model of prayer—prayer that petitions God to restore his justice in the world. The unjust judge is meant to be a contrast with God, who is also a judge, the judge of the whole earth—but who, unlike the judge in the parable, is holy, righteous, and loving. Jesus is saying that if a widow with no resources other than persistence can get justice from the most selfish and uncaring judge, then think of what prayer to the righteous God can accomplish. In verse 7 Jesus calls us God’s “chosen ones.” The gospel tells us that we are chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people set apart so that we can pray for the world. Verse 8a says, “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” Is there any excuse, then, for giving up praying?
Of course, sometimes it seems we do not see God’s justice quickly. And so we struggle with doubt and are tempted to give up praying. We might even accuse God, saying “God, if you are good, why do you let these things happen?” But this very struggle is itself the essence of prayer. Many of the prophets in the Old Testament, when they prayed, they asked God hard questions about his justice. When Abraham was pleading with God to spare Sodom for the sake of his nephew Lot, he said to God, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25) In Psalm 10, the Psalmist cried out when he couldn’t see God’s justice “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.” (Ps 10:1-2) I believe God opens himself to these kinds of questions because no matter what, he wants us to intercede for the world. I think a person who prays like this with a broken heart, even getting angry at God, is much better than someone who gives up, and their struggle is used by God in ways they may not even realize.
So don’t worry, God will not be offended even if you come to him as shamelessly and repeatedly as the widow in this parable. In fact, it seems like Jesus wants to shame his disciples for not having as much faith as her. Look at verse 8b. “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Whether or not we persist in prayer is a matter of our faith. Think about it: if we give up praying when this widow didn’t even though she knew the judge was unjust, what does that say about our faith?
Many of us have powerful stories about how God taught us to pray without giving up. I often talk about how I persisted in praying to finish my PhD for God’s glory through many years of failures and setbacks. Of course, It was not too hard to persist in that because it was for myself. Sometimes I feel guilty about praying for myself too much. But I think God can teach us to pray persistently even starting from ourselves. God trains us to pray through our own life problems or the sufferings of someone we care about. I believe all of us have had times of praying most fervently for someone we loved who was very sick or in great danger. Those might be the times we learned the most about prayer. Then, we can go further. Based on how we prayed for ourselves or our loved ones, we can broaden our hearts, learning to understand the sufferings of people beyond our immediate circle. We can learn to pray for one Bible student to leave a sinful life, even after many years. We can begin to pray for people we wouldn’t have thought to pray for before. Finally, we can become a holy prayer servant for the whole world, persistently interceding and pouring out our hearts for all the needs we know about.
The basic attitude of prayer (9-14)
In this next section, Jesus’ teaching is not primarily pointed at the disciples, but as verse 9 says, “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” To such people, Jesus has to teach a more basic lesson about the attitude of a person who comes before God to pray. So he gives another parable, again with a big contrast in it. Look at verse 10. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” We have a lot of bad connotations about Pharisees now, but in Jesus’ time they were model citizens, who were well known to live both disciplined and devoted lives, teaching the Law to God’s people and observing it diligently. On the other hand, tax collectors, as we have studied, were almost universally despised by Jews; they were considered to be crooks who sold their own people out to the Roman Empire to make a buck. You might expect the prayers of these two people would be very different, and indeed they were; but not in the way that Jesus’ listeners might expect. Once again, Jesus is making a contrast that is a reversal of what we normally think about righteousness and unrighteousness.
How did the Pharisee pray? The first four words of the Pharisee’s prayer are: “God, I thank you…” That at least seems like a good start. Thankfulness is good, right? Yes, we should come to God in prayer with a thankful attitude. However, this Pharisee immediately goes wrong with what he is thankful for. “God, I thank you…” “…that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” After he lists all the bad types of people he’s not like, he goes on in verse 12 to talk about the good things he does do. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” He is both diligent in devotional practice and gives generously. Indeed, those are good things. But I think we see what the problem is.
The Pharisee’s prayer springs from an attitude of deep self-righteousness. He has no real prayer topic, no conviction of how someone needs God’s help. He’s not really thankful; his prayer is basically just a self-congratulation for being better than others. He is not seeing himself before God at all, but only based on his comparison of himself with other people. He even kicks some dirt at the tax collector who was there and could hear him. Why is he even praying? I guess it’s so that he might also be able to boast about the fact that he prays. If there is anything in this prayer actually addressed to God, it seems only to be that God owes him big-time rewards for all the good things he did and bad things he didn’t do. I think we can say that this Pharisee had no idea what prayer was really about. Maybe in reality, no one ever prayed with such blatantly boastful words as this, but Jesus is illustrating the heart attitude. If we have arrogant pride hiding in our hearts, even if we pray with nicer sounding words, to God our prayer might sound just as bad as this one.
So then, how did the tax collector, the notorious public sinner, pray? Look at verse 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.’” The tax collector’s attitude is the polar opposite of the Pharisee’s. First of all, he is humble, not even considering himself worthy to look up to God. And his prayer topic is for God’s mercy toward himself, because he is aware that he is a sinner.
This tax collector knew he had done some Bad Stuff that there was no excuse for. I wonder what finally moved him to repentance. What if this tax collector was the adversary who had taken advantage of the widow in the other parable?! And he thought he could get away with it because he had the uncaring judge in his pocket—grease the judge’s palm a little, judge leaves him alone. But now the judge had come after him. What could have changed that judge’s mind? Now the tax collector was in big trouble. The gig was up! Now, in his desperation, for the first time in his life, he runs to the temple and prays very earnestly. What do you think, could it have happened that way? I think many people have finally repented when they got in a sticky situation like that. But the important thing is that he is not just praying to get out of trouble, but because for the first time he is seeing himself as a sinner before the holy God.
Look at verse 14. Jesus said, “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.” In spite of all the bad things the tax collector had done, and all the good things the Pharisee had seemingly done, it was the tax collector who actually was blessed as a result of prayer. Prayer that God accepts is humble. That means we come to God, not thinking that he owes us anything, or that we have anything to offer him, but just knowing that the only thing that can save us is mercy that we don’t deserve. A person who comes to God like this tax collector did, and in the name of Jesus, receives forgiveness of sins and full justification, being counted righteous in God’s sight. That is the gospel.
In the book of Romans, Paul also wrote about why people with the attitude like this self-exalting Pharisee fail to get right with God. Romans 3:20 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” We learn true humility when we become conscious of our sin. Then we can look to the power of Jesus’ blood and simply trust God who justifies the ungodly through faith (Ro 4:5). The right attitude of prayer begins from seeing our own need for mercy.
By the way, how does the tax collector’s prayer compare to the widow’s prayer from the first parable? We might think that the widow is not humble because she kept on bothering the judge. But that would be a misunderstanding of true humility. Actually, the widow is also very humble. Her actions show that she was not relying on her own power. If she had been prideful, she would not have persisted in coming to the insensitive judge.
Today we learned that prayer that has power with God is humble and persistent. So, let’s come to God in intercessory prayer, not based on our own righteousness but with faith that he wants to work justice and mercy on the earth through us. Maybe we can find one person or situation that we stopped praying for and start praying for them again. Let’s let ourselves be moved to prayer by the needs we see around us, knowing that we don’t need to rely on our own strength.