Unit: Luke (Part 2)
Theme: Jesus the Storyteller
Lesson Text: Luke 18:1-14
Supplemental Text: Luke 11:1-14
Aim: Come humbly and yet boldly to the Father in prayer to receive the good things he wants to give you.
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By Mark Scott
All of the parables of Jesus had a context, of course. But not all of them had strong opening and closing lines. Jesus sometimes left his parables open-ended (Luke 15:11-32). But both stories in this lesson text had clear opening and closing lines. That makes their interpretation easier. But that does not mean the applications will be less hard-hitting.
As the travel narrative (Luke 9-19) in the Gospel drew to a close, Jesus was nearing Jerusalem. People wondered if the kingdom of God would appear soon (Luke 17:20-21). Jesus answered that the ultimate kingdom will not come when people are expecting it. It will be similar to the days of Noah when the flood caught people off guard. The chapter division could be confusing. The subject matter of the parables was prayer, but the context concerned the faith and humility necessary for always being ready for the return of the king.
Prayers of Persistence
The opening line of the parable of the persistent widow and unjust judge is clear enough (v. 1). Not persisting in prayer indicates that one is not ready for the king to return at any moment. The judge in the parable had three strikes against him. He did not fear God, he did not care about people, and he thought of people as an interruption. In short, he was not a good guy. The widow (“silent one” in the Old Testament) would not take no for an answer. She persisted in her pleas to the point of making a pest of herself.
Her persistence paid off. The judge was less than noble, but he finally took care of her need. The widow was bothering him to no end, and it seemed he was even afraid of her (she might come and attack me). So, he granted her justice. An Old Testament story might provide the backdrop here. Elisha encountered a widow who needed similar justice against an adversary (2 Kings 4:1-7). Elisha performed a miracle so that the widow could pay her debt. Jesus might have had something similar in mind.
The widow represented God’s people (chosen ones). The judge represented God—not in character but in decisiveness. Jesus’ statement, “Listen to what the unjust judge says,” drew attention to the difference between God and the judge in the story. Unlike the judge in the story, God will not put his people off. He will act quickly to get them justice. However, he wants his chosen ones to pray with persistence. The parable ended with an interrogative closing line, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” What kind of faith? The kind that persists in prayer.
Prayers of Humility
The second parable also contained opening and closing lines. Jesus discerned that people in his audience were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. In the words of Mark Twain, “They were so proud they could strut while they were sitting down.” The closing line concerned humility, and this was all in the context of praying properly before Jesus’ return.
Jesus’ parables were almost entirely secular. That is why they could sneak up on people. They normally dealt with fishing, farming, cooking, etc., so they did not sound as if they would threaten anyone’s sovereignty. Then, Bam! The person would suddenly realize the spiritual point. But this parable is different. It is the only parable of Jesus that had a “church context.” Its setting is the temple and therefore it is sacred—not secular.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. They could not be more different (about as different as a widow and a judge). One hated Rome (Pharisee), and one sold out to Rome (tax collector). The Pharisee distinguished himself as a “separatist” and distanced himself from robbers, evildoers, adulterers, and certainly the tax collector. He reminded God and boasted about his spiritual discipline of fasting and his tithing.
In contrast, the tax collector stood at a distance (cf. Luke 15:20; 16:23) and not in the prominent places where people could see him (Matthew 6:5). His contrition caused him to not even look up to heaven. He also beat his breast as a sign of repentance. He cried out for God’s mercy.
The closing line had to shock the people of Jesus’ day. A justified tax collector—could there be such a thing? Heaven puts a high value on humility and reverses earth’s view of who gets exalted. The return of Jesus makes our prayers burn white hot with persistence, but they also must be voiced in a humble posture.