Sermon preached on Luke 18:1-17 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 09/11/2022 in Novato, CA
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Prayer is to be such a fundamental part of the Christian’s life. But according to the Bible, prayer is also a skill to be learned and grown in as part of discipleship. So then, we have three unique sections in today’s passage that all help teach us something about how we should pray and approach God. Let us then feast on this teaching today on prayer, and let us also look to put this teaching into practice in our prayer lives.
Let us begin in our first point today as we consider verses 1-8 on this Parable of the Persistent Widow. While this teaches an application about persistency in prayer, let’s begin by noting the context for such prayer. Jesus envisions people praying for justice and help against adversaries. In the parable, the widow is envisioned as going to the judge and asking for justice. She is seeking justice because someone has wronged her and she is looking for the judge to force her adversary to make things right. Likewise, when Jesus applies the parable to us in verse 7, he says “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him.” So, the parable and its application says that the context of prayer that this parable is addressing is the context of praying for justice. Another example of this was back in Exodus 2. That’s when God’s people were in Egypt and the Pharoah enslaved them and they cried to God for help, and God heard their prayers and rose up Moses to deliver them. God’s people at times have found themselves afflicted by the godless and we are taught to cry out to God for justice and help. This is a general truth for our everyday living with our everyday struggles. When we find affliction in this life, we should pray to God for justice and help from our opponents.
But in context of our passage, we should especially see the big picture that Jesus presents. Last chapter spoke about how he, the Son of Man, would one day return to save his people from the wicked. This section then references this again at the end in verse 8. After promising that God will ultimately hear our prayers and give us justice, he asks, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” In other words, when Jesus does come back at the end of history to deliver his people from the wicked world who stands opposed to them, will he in fact find a people waiting in faith for his return? So, as we think about this Parable of the Persistent Widow we should realize that the chief application here of Jesus is about him coming back at the end to save us from this fallen world, when he brings them in judgment on all his and our enemies. While we can make applications to our prayer for our daily troubles, we shouldn’t miss that Jesus especially draws our attention here to the big picture. That means our prayer life should especially include praying for Jesus to return to make all things right.
So then, verse 1 tells us the point of this parable. Jesus wants us to always pray and not lose heart. In the context of the troubles we face as God’s people, we need to keep calling out to God for help. We can infer a couple important things from such a statement. One, our prayers aren’t always going to get the answer we hope right away. Sometimes we find an answer to prayer after just the first time we pray for it. Other times we pray and pray and pray for something before we finally see the answer. I remember the prophet Elijah who prayed for rain seven times before God finally sent the rain, and that’s the example that the book of James uses to say that the prayer of a righteous man avails much. Jesus’ words here in verse 1 infer that prayers don’t always get answered right away. We need to keep praying and seeking an answer and not give up in our prayer life.
A second thing we can infer here in verse 1, is that we might be tempted to lose heart in our prayer life. We know how much it cheers our heart when we pray for something and almost immediately see the answer to our prayer. That really encourages us. But when we don’t see the answer, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray, we can be tempted to be discouraged. The reality is that sometimes we won’t see in this life certain prayer requests answered. Yet, we remember that Romans 8:28 is still in effect. We remember that God’s good plan for our life includes this. In this life, we may not know all the reasons for why God has us go through certain trials. But he would have us not be discouraged when we don’t find our prayers answered right away. Instead, he would have us to keep praying, keep going to him, keep looking in faith for his help. Even if that faith knows that the answer might not come until Christ returns. But when he comes back, will he find you in faith? This teaches us that there’s a way that losing heart can actually be a shortcoming of our faith – something we should also bring to God in prayer!
So then, in some final analysis of this parable, please notice that the application does not have a one-to-one correspondence between the parable and the application. What do I mean? I mean that the way the unrighteous judge responds has an application to how God responds to our prayers, but it’s not a one-to-one correspondence; God is certainly not like this unrighteous judge in several key ways. This judge doesn’t care about justice, he is unrighteous. But God does care about justice as the all-righteous God. This judge doesn’t fear God nor respect man, but God so values those two things that his two greatest commandments address such. This judge finally only gives justice to the widow because he is bothered and wearied by the widow, not because he actually has any care or concern for the widow. But God truly loves his elect and is concerned for our wellbeing. So, this is one of those “how much more” arguments. If the unjust judge who doesn’t care about this widow will finally give her the justice she seeks as she keeps asking and asking, how much more will the righteous God who loves his elect, give us justice as we keep praying and praying.
So, then the widow’s persistent appeal to the judge has an application to how we ought to pray continually and not give up. But I wonder if instead of a “how much more” application, it might be a “how much less” admonishment to us. This widow was persistent, determined, tireless, and tenacious. I fear that our own persistent prayer life might be a “how much less” faithful are we to persistently pray. May we be spurred on to such prayer today. Another application I would make between us and the widow is that the widow didn’t have anything that inherently attracted the unrighteous judge to give her any attention. She was no rich person coming with a bribe for the judge, for example. So too, Jesus relates the widow to us the elect. I appreciate that Jesus specifically describes us there as the elect. He could have referred to us as the righteous ones, which would have been accurate in Christ, but also we might have misunderstood to think we were something when we are not. God hears the persistent prayer of his elect – those he graciously chose from eternity to be saved, not because of some worthiness in them, but because of the mercy of God. We are like this widow in that regard. When we approach God in prayer, we don’t bring some personal worthiness that would incline God’s special attention to our case.
That transitions us well to now turn in our second point to consider verses 9-14 with this Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. This parable complements the previous one. The previous parable talked about praying for justice. This one talks about praying for mercy. In fact, it commends us the importance of praying for mercy. In the first parable, it considered how people might wrong us and we may be in the right and should pray for justice. But this parable reminds us of all the ways we have wronged God and others and should not be quick to look down on others but seeking mercy from God for ourselves. I really appreciate the way these two parables on prayer really contrast and complement each other. Both aspects have a place in our prayer life.
So then, look with me at the details of this parable. We see the Pharisee’s prayer is one of self-justification. He comes in boldness before God to declare his righteousness to God. He mentions the bad things that he is not, 11. He mentions the good things that he is, verse 12. In doing so, he also compares himself with this tax collector, saying that he is not like him, with the implication that he considers the tax collector a bad person and himself a good person.
To be fair, I think we should notice that the categories the Pharisee uses to evaluate himself are helpful in one sense. By thinking of what he is not and what he is, he’s essentially demonstrating that truth that sin can involve either commission or omission. We sin when we commit the bad things the Bible says not to do. We also sin when we omit doing the good things the Bible says we should be doing. As the Bible teaches elsewhere, we must look to put off all our transgressions of the law and put on in their place those positive duties that the law would have us to be about. But the problem with the Pharisees assessment is that he is trying to justify himself by evaluating these works. If he were looking at trying to evaluate where he was at in terms of sanctification, these categories would be more appropriate. But when we are talking about justification, this is the wrong approach. The Pharisee is trying to be justified by works. But the reality is that the Bible teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we would be evaluated by our works, a true evaluation would result in us being declared not righteous but a sinner. The Pharisees’ categorial approach might have been helpful if he truly did measure up. But the Pharisee has failed to recognize all the many sins of commission and omission he has actually done. So, the Pharisee in this parable teaches how not to approach God in prayer. We do not want to approach God with a proud spirit of self-justification. We don’t want to come to God boasting of our own works. When we look down on others like this Pharisee was doing, it only further reveals how highly you think of yourself. But God wants us to come with a contrite heart before him.
The reason for that is seen in the other half of this parable. There, we see this tax collector praying. Remember, tax collectors were stereotypical sinners who were generally understood to use their position to steal from people by requiring more taxes than were owed and then pocketing the extra. This tax collector shows by his prayer and even his posture that he recognizes his sin and laments it. He won’t even look up to heaven. He beats his breast in sorrow for his sin. His prayer is not one of self-justification but he comes as his own accuser and pleads for divine mercy. That is a commendable example of humility that we should show God. And Jesus says that is the one whose prayer is truly heard. That is the one who comes away justified in God’s sight.
To clarify, Jesus isn’t saying that the tax collector earned his justification because of his humility. No, the reason such a tax collector would come away with justification is because of God’s mercy. Whether someone is proud or humble, they both need the mercy of God. Whether someone generally lives godly or generally lives wickedly, both need the mercy of God. This is such a central point of Christianity. Way too often I hear people who think themselves Christian make such comparative statements of themselves versus others as if our works were somehow the basis for being right with God. But this parable shows us that our works are never going to be able to be the basis. If we come humbly before God and ask for mercy and he gives us mercy, it’s not because we earned it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be mercy. God doesn’t owe us mercy, even if we ask humbly. Mercy is undeserved. That’s what makes it mercy. Likewise, mercy is unearned, that’s why we need it.
So then, the tax collector demonstrates this important attitude we need to have when we pray. We need to come humbly before God, always seeking his mercy and grace. We do so not to earn God’s favor. We do so because we need God’s favor but can’t earn it. Let us be people who seek God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. That is why Jesus died on the cross, so he could pay for the debt of our sin, so God could give us mercy as we seek it in faith. So then, whatever we are praying for, may it come from a prayer that knows all that we receive from God is merciful and gracious of him.
This leads us nicely to our third and final point as we consider verses 15-17 and Jesus’ teaching that we should receive the kingdom like a child. To be fair, I’m bringing you a sermon today on prayer, and while the first two sections of today’s passage address prayer explicitly, this third scene does not. And yet how Jesus commends us to receive the kingdom like a child has application to our prayer life. Since we are talking about prayer today from the first two sections, I thought it would be profitable to take this lesson about being childlike in our approach to God and make an application to prayer.
But then, yes, we realize that this section’s first point isn’t about prayer at all, but about not hindering children from coming to Jesus. We learn here how children, even infants, have a place in Christ’s kingdom, when he says, “For to such belongs the kingdom of God.” While it is too common today in many churches to try to push off to the side such children, that is what the disciples were doing and Jesus rebuked them for it. The disciples had been rebuking those who were trying to bring their children to Jesus to be blessed, and Jesus in turn returned their rebuke upon themselves. Jesus’ kingdom is not just for adults. From the start of the old covenant, God had said that the promise of his covenant was for us and our children, Genesis 17:7. That promise is reiterated in the new covenant as well, Acts 2:39. It is why children of baptized members in Christ’s church are also baptized. It’s why children as much as adults are welcomed in our corporate worship assemblies, and frankly have an equal part in it with all God’s people. That’s the point Jesus is making here. While that’s not the main theme in our sermon today, and not what I’m particularly having us focus on in this last point, it is the basis for what I’m drawing our attention to in this last point.
You see, Jesus says our approach to him should be to receive the kingdom like such children receive it. Take this in context today. That Pharisee in that last parable didn’t have that approach to God. He didn’t come to God looking to receive the kingdom the way a child looks to receive the kingdom. He came to God more like a supposed hero who had acted valiantly and victoriously and God should not reward him with the kingdom. But that’s the wrong attitude and certainly not the way a child receives the kingdom.
Let me clarify what I’m doing here. Our first two sections today each had a parable in them that taught us something about prayer. This last section doesn’t have a parable that is told, but effectively there is a parable here that we can apply to prayer. What I mean is that in verse 17 Jesus takes the actual circumstances of people bringing these little children to him to bless them and he turns it into an illustration about the kingdom. Normally parables are taught. But sometimes we see prophets act out certain things in real life which are then to be taken as a sort of visual parable. That’s what Jesus does here in verse 17. He says these children being brought to him and being a part of the kingdom is a metaphor for how you should approach God and how you should think about receiving the kingdom.
So then, we can observe a few things of how these children teach us about how we should receive the kingdom. The children are brought to Jesus, deemphasizing their own role is choosing to come to Jesus. The children are brought to be touched by Jesus, in other words, he to lay his hands of blessing upon them. That shows the children in a position of receiving, not giving, to Jesus. All of this shows the ways that children have what they have. They receive it as a gift. They don’t earn it. They are passive recipients who trustingly receive what their benefactors give to them. That is so much of a young child’s life. They are so needy and incapable of caring for themselves. What their parents do for them, does comes at the cost, energy, and work of the parents, but the children themselves are beneficiaries of such. This then becomes a picture of how we are to approach God. Jesus says that applies to how we receive the kingdom. And surely by implication, it is how we are to approach God in prayer as we come to him with our requests. We look to him to provide for us, not coming in our unworthy works, but as a needy and trusting child looking to their heavenly father to care for them. We depend on God like children depend on parents. Let us approach God in prayer as such.
In conclusion, let’s recap what Jesus has taught us about prayer. Jesus’ first parable spoke to those who are tempted to lose heart waiting for God’s help. Is this something you’ve been struggling with? May you not lose heart but in faith continue to pray and trust. In Jesus’ second parable, he spoke to those who exalt themselves and look down on others. Is this something you’ve been struggling with? May you recognize your unworthiness and your need for grace and mercy, and may your prayer life begin to reflect this. Jesus’ third parable spoke to the need to receive the kingdom of God as a child who receives, not as a grownup who does it for themselves. Is this something you’ve been struggling with? May you begin to truly depend on him ultimately and not on yourself, and may your prayer life reflect that. All three of these speak different lessons regarding our prayer and approach to Jesus. Which lesson or lessons did you need to especially hear today? May you prayerfully reflect on these things today on this Lord’s Day.
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