In our last essay we studied 17:20-37; and in this one we are studying 18:1-30, a passage that contains two parables and some other teachings. The section begins with the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge in verses 1-8. This parable easily could be included in the previous section on the coming of the Son of Man, because of the reference to his coming in verse eight. But I have included it as the first of two parables on prayer that open this next section.
According to the context (17:22), the “them” in verse one is the disciples. So the parable was told to the disciples. This parable is very similar to the Parable of the Friend at Midnight that we studied back in chapter 11, verses 5-8. In that parable, the neighbor was reluctant to get up and provide bread for his friend, because it was an inconvenience. But he finally did, because the friend was persistent. And Jesus said we should similarly be persistent in prayer.
In this parable, Jesus begins with his application. He says that the disciples need to pray always and not lose heart. In other words, they were to pray until they got an answer. The same is true for us as present day disciples. Of course the answers we get are not always what we want. But that is a different lesson that we need to learn. The lesson in this parable is the lesson of persistence in prayer. We must pray always without losing heart.
The characters in the parable are a judge and a widow. The description of the judge indicates that he is corrupt. He doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. That suggests that justice means nothing to him, and that he would be open to bribes.
The other character was a widow. The widow represents those who are needy and powerless. She had nothing with which to bribe the judge, so she did the only thing she could. She pestered him. For a long time, the judge refused to help her. But eventually he tired of her persistent clamoring for justice, and he granted it to her.
As was the case in the parable of the Friend at Midnight, this parable is not about God. The unjust judge does not represent God. The parable is about us. It is about our reactions to situations where God seems not to answer our prayers immediately. The proper reaction is to keep praying persistently until we get an answer, whether or not the answer we get is what we want.
Then Jesus adds what we see in verses 6-8: “”Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Two questions arise here. The first is the obvious question of timing. If Jesus says that God answers our prayers “quickly,” or it could be translated, “soon,” why do we so often not see quick answers to our prayers?
I believe the answer to the question depends on an understanding of the total biblical revelation about prayer. When we pray and nothing seems to happen, it does not mean that God has done nothing in response. It simply means that God is working out the situation form his all-knowing perspective. We may have prayed inappropriately. We may have prayed for something that would benefit us but harm others. Or the powers of evil could be involved, as they were when Daniel prayed and it took an angel 21 days to bring a response to him (Dan. 10:10-14).
The second question that arises has to do with the final sentence. That sentence brings the reader back to the coming of the Son of Man. And Jesus asks if he will find faith on earth when he comes? And the answer, it would seem, is he probably will find very little faith. When God brought judgment in the days of Noah and Lot, only eight and four people respectively were saved. That’s how little faith was found in those days. And Jesus said that when the Son of Man comes, the situation would be like that of the days of Noah and Lot.
Next, in verses 9-14, Jesus tells another parable about prayer. For obvious reasons it is called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. This parable is not addressed to the disciples. Rather it is addressed to an unidentified group who trusted in their own righteousness and who regarded others with contempt. The content of the parable suggests that they were Pharisees. They probably were the same Pharisees that have been present, alongside the disciples, for several chapters.
In the parable both men go to the temple to pray. The self-righteous Pharisee thanked God that he was better then others, who are thieves, or unjust, or adulterers, or even like the tax collector, whom he had seen standing nearby. The Pharisee also mentioned that he fasted twice a week and tithed.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was totally broken. He couldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven. Instead he kept his head down and beat his breast in an act of grief or contrition. And he begged for mercy as he confessed his sin.
In verse 14 Jesus announced his judgment on the matter. It would be the tax collector who would go home justified, not the Pharisee. And he offered a principle to undergird the judgment: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In verses 15-17 we find the incident of Jesus blessing the children. In that culture it was a fairly common practice for people to bring their children to rabbis or elders to be blessed, especially on the evening of the Day of Atonement. Luke does not say that this was the Day of Atonement; but whatever the reason, some parents were bringing their infants to Jesus for a blessing. And his disciples tried to stop them. It isn’t completely clear why they took that position. Perhaps they thought it was an unnecessary imposition on Jesus’ time and strength.
But Jesus welcomed the children and turned the incident into a teaching moment. He declared that the kingdom of God belongs to people who are like children. Indeed, one has to receive the kingdom as a little child in order to enter it. Mark’s parallel tells us that Jesus didn’t simply disagree with the disciples. He became indignant at their attitude. So Jesus obviously felt rather strongly about the matter. Comments?
Next, in verses 18-25, we find the story of the rich ruler. This man usually is referred to as the rich young ruler, but it is only Matthew who mentions that he was young (Mt. 19:20). The man came to Jesus and addressed him as “good teacher.” Jesus immediately rejected that address, saying that only God is good. Jesus apparently sensed that the man was using the word “good” in an empty fashion, as demonstrated by the man’s later refusal to do what Jesus, “the good teacher” suggested. And Jesus did not want the concept of “goodness” cheapened.
After the brief discussion of the word “good,” Jesus answered the man’s question by mentioning the second half of the Ten Commandments. And the young man replied that he had kept the commandments all his life. Jesus responded to that statement by saying the man only lacked one thing, actually two things. The one thing that Jesus referred to was to sell all his property and give the money to the poor. The second thing was to follow Jesus. If he would do those two things, he would have treasure in heaven, eternal life. At that point, the young man became sad, because he was very rich and could not bring himself to give up his earthly treasure for heavenly treasure. So he sadly walked away.
As Jesus watched the man walk away, he said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The reaction from those who heard Jesus, seen in verses 26-30, was amazement. As you can see, those listening, who generally believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, reacted with dropping jaws. If it is near impossible for the prosperous, those blessed by God, to get into heaven, how can anyone get in? And Jesus answered by saying that what is impossible for humans, is possible for God.
The passage ends with Peter’s response. Peter reminds Jesus that he and the other disciples had left all to follow Jesus. That statement contained an implied question, “Did our sacrifice qualify us for the kingdom? And Jesus answered in the affirmative. Indeed those who make sacrifices for the sake of the kingdom will be compensated with much more, namely, eternal life.