Jeremiah 31.27-34; Psalm 119.97-104; 2 Timothy 3.10-4.5; Luke 18.1-14
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk.18.8)
PRAYER AND PRACTICE
- Prayer in context: Earlier in his focussed progress to Jerusalem (see 9.51), Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer as a template for his disciples (11.1-13), and teased it out with parables about an inconvenient night visitor and about how parents respond to their children’s requests. The point was that if frail humans respond to requests, be sure that God, good and almighty, will! We gave attention to this some weeks ago. Here in today’s Gospel reading our Lord takes up the question of the importance of prayer once more.
Again Jesus uses a parable. The purpose is to encourage prayer, persistent prayer. The woman in the parable is of the Winston Churchill ‘never, never, never give up’ type, or, from the point of view of the judge in question, of the ‘dripping tap’ variety. The problem portrayed centres on a judge who is corrupt. While we expect a judge to be impartial, and no respector of persons, this one is a perversion of these qualities, having no regard for God (from whom all authority derives), nor the personal realities of those who appeared before him. He shows no mercy, and very likely is being bribed by the opponent who is making her life a misery – or more than it is already for a widow in that society. The only way to break down the judge’s willful hard-heartedness is to be a pest. So she becomes a pest. And it works! The point? If being a pest can break down a crook magistrate’s intransigence, surely (a fortiori) God will hear us favourably.
Why does Jesus revert to the theme of prayer at this point? Verse 1 indicates a general motivation to the disciples, and therefore to us, to ‘pray without ceasing’:
‘Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’. But the first word, ‘then’, is a strong connective to the preceding passage, where Jesus speaks of the end of things as we know them: the ‘days of the Son of Man’. The Son of Man is the figure in the vision of the prophet Daniel who is given all authority to judge evil and vindicate God’s people (Daniel 7.9-18).
[Perhaps a footnote about Daniel’s vision is needed here: The vision related in the Book of Daniel chapter 7 relates to events in Judaea and Jerusalem in the 2nd Century BC. After the death of Alexander the Great, his infant son was murdered and the Empire carved up between three generals. One was based in Macedonia, one in Babylon, one in Egypt. Judaea was part of the boundary, with its tensions, between the latter two. In time, the Antiochian kings came to dominate Palestine, and in particular the fourth of their line Antiochus IV (‘Epiphanes’: indicating he claimed to be the manifestation of God). He captured Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and proceeded to turn it into a gymnasium. Resistance was led by Mattithaias and his sons, notably Judas ‘Maccabeus’ (=’the Hammer’). Their guerilla movement was successful, leading to the restoration of Jewish sovereignty and the rededication of the Temple (Hannukah). The vision of Daniel symbolically relates this history, but includes a scene where God (the Ancient of Days) is seated in heaven’s throne room, and a human figure (‘one like a son of man’) is led into his presence, and receives full power (in terms similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s blasphemous claim to power in Daniel 4): ‘To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall never be destroyed’ (Daniel 7.14)]
By his manner of taking up this language, Jesus appears to be indicating that he is this majestic figure that God has appointed as the instrument of judgement (Luke 17.25). The conclusion to the parable makes this link: ‘And the Lord said, ‘listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry 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?’ (18.6-8)
[Note the ambiguity here: the Son of Man has come, and has been largely rejected; but his second coming will be irresistible.]
- Prayer and Practice: It seems Luke has now taken the opportunity to include some more general teaching about prayer, or ‘saying our prayers’. The setting moves to the temple, (to which we have not yet actually arrived in our journey with Jesus). We may be reminded of the old criticism of church-going hypocrites as a reason not to go to church. Perhaps this had some weight when churchgoing was the social norm, but it was always a misplaced complaint, as most services call attenders to a sincere repentance, and the declaration of forgiveness only on the basis of such sincere repentance, recognising the cost of such forgiveness in Christ’s sacrifice alone. So perhaps the test of our prayers in church will not be so much what we were like last week, as what we will prove to be like next week. This link of prayer and practice comes before us in this next parable. It is a neat segue: the need to pray in the light of a traumatic future, patient and faithful while looking for the Son of Man to return for us (Luke 18.1-8), but balanced with prayer addressing the here and now (Luke 18.9-14).
But we do well again to take note of the context. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector introduces a series of episodes which illustrate how important is the heart’s attitude when presuming to be in the presence of God: ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’ Luke 18.14). The episodes are:
i) The disciples’ rejection of the little children being brought to Jesus; Jesus repudiates their overlooking the humility of children (and often their parents). Without childlike humility no-one enters heaven;
ii) The rich ruler who discovers he is more attached to his wealth than to the way of Jesus; he cannot envisage a future in which he is not respectable and wealthy;
iii) A blind beggar whose humility sees him regain his eyesight;
iv) A tax-collector who is prepared to change and put his wealth under God’s rule. His change of heart leads to the Messiah inviting himself to lunch at his place! This episode with Zacchaeus is the last event related ‘on the road to Jerusalem’. All four incidents are about decisive and saving change occurring when our hearts are humble, and not occurring when they are not.
Prayer is about change. That is what each of these incidents illustrates.
Let me try a long shot on you: The philosophies of the ancient world generally rejected the concept of change. History was cyclical, perhaps, but it was a closed universe: nothing really changed. The ancients were great at the sciences of closed systems: mathematics, algebra, architecture, engineering. The experimental sciences which produced the scientific revolution emerged in the Christian West. It has been argued persuasively that the Judaeo-Christian world-view is of an open universe, that the creation is good, and humankind has a stewardship of it and a freedom to explore and enjoy it. As was said by Albert Einstein (not an orthodox believer, but certainly a Jew), Science is ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. There is in Christian theology a frank acceptance of human sin and its effect upon the creation, but with grateful acceptance of God’s continuing sovereign hand being at work in Creation and with a firm belief that the ultimate good envisaged in Creation will be brought about. [I am indebted to Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge of Macquarie University for these observations, in his paper ‘How Religion Created Science: the 2016 William Orange Memorial Lecture’.]
This view of reality also makes Christian prayer different. We pray in the light of the Biblical world-view. There is justice and peace in God’s future, and we need not (if we are disadvantaged), and we must not (if we are doing well), become accommodated to the present. We must not use God as a means of legitimating our prosperity and security. Thanksgiving is vital, but it must be an expression of our accountability for the things God has blessed us with. Change comes through the humble heart. That is the message of the parable. The closed heart of the Pharisee sees no need for change, and no responsibility for engaging with others. The abject tax-collector realizes he is stuck, but that there is a way out, a way forward. Prayer changes things, for us, and for all who pray. The parable before us must lead us to humility in God’s presence, and to a profound awareness of both the need for change, and the possibility of change.