Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/31/1995
Luke 18:1 Now he was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not lose heart, 2 saying, “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. 3 And there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ 4 And for a while he was unwilling. But afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by her continual coming she wear me out.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said! 7 Now shall not God bring about justice for his elect who cry to him day and night, and will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you that he will bring about justice for them speedily. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” 9 And he also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt. 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax gatherer. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax gatherer. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.’ 13 But the tax gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
We come today to two parables which were delivered on different occasions bur are connected by the themes of prayer, fear, and presumption. Both are very familiar, and the basic point of each is well known. But a more detailed look at their background and setting makes them come to life.
The first parable is very interesting in the light of an account by H. B. Tristram of a courtroom in Iraq (before the Gulf wars), in Bailey’s fascinating book Through Peasant Eyes. The proceedings were conducted in an open courtyard with an unruly crowd milling about. At one end, on a raised dais, sat the judge on cushions, surrounded by secretaries and other functionaries. The plaintiffs in the crowd had all pushed their way through to that end of the courtyard and were crying for attention—but the judge and his cronies acted as if they did not even hear them. Meanwhile, the prudent slipped certain envelopes to the secretaries, who then conferred together. They finally went and whispered to the judge, who then called out the first case to be heard—in order of the highest bribe. But there was a poor woman there who screamed so loud she even disturbed the chaos. She was repeatedly told to shut up, but she only screamed the louder, “Not until he hears me!” it was impossible for normal business to be conducted. Finally, out of exasperation, the judge himself interrupted the secretaries. “What in Allah’s name does that woman want?” It turned out that she was a widow whose only son had been drafted, which according to Iraqi law meant she should have been exempt from taxes. But the tax collector kept harassing her anyway. “Let her be exempt!” the judge cried impatiently, and business in the court returned to normal. One of the bystanders explained to Tristram, “It was an open and shut case. If she had had money for a bribe, she would have been heard days ago.”
It is truly remarkable how little the Near East has changed in some ways since biblical times. In verse 2 of the biblical story, we read that the unjust judge neither feared God nor respected man. Literally, it says that he had no shame before men. In other words, he was shameless, moved neither by justice nor pity—only by bribes. So the parallel between Tristram’s account and the biblical parable is exact. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
I have often heard Jesus’ story cited in favor of importunity in prayer, but that interpretation misses its point entirely. The whole story turns on the contrast between God and the judge. Therefore, the point is not that we should yell, scream, and pitch a fit like the woman did in order to get our way with God. The point is that because God is so different from the judge, we do not need to. Because our heavenly Father is a righteous and good judge, we should be encouraged to pray reverently and respectfully. If even the unjust judge who cared only for bribes could be got to hear the woman, how much more will God, who is good and just and loves us, hear his people when they are in need?
In other words, we should pray readily and wait in faith for God to answer. He will indeed bring justice for his people speedily. And if the answer seems to be delayed, we should not be discouraged. It is not because we have not given him a big enough bribe or pitched a loud enough fit. He is not like the judge in the parable. “In the corrupted currents of this world,” says Shakespeare’s Claudius,
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice, And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself Buys out the law. But ‘tis not so above. There is no shuffling; there the action lies In its true nature, and we ourselves compelled, Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults To give in evidence.
What would we give God as a bribe anyway? Church attendance? Fasting? Tithes? Good works? What could we give him that we do not already owe him? If we wanted to play that game, we would swiftly find ourselves not in the plaintiff’s place but in the dock! Bribes will neither help us be heard, nor will they get us off. We can only trust to God’s wisdom and his mercy, as well as his justice. His wisdom and his goodness mean that relief from the injustices of this life is coming as speedily as it can. But we must not forget that we are also soldiers in a great spiritual war. There is hardship to be born for the Kingdom. The setting for this parable is the material on the Last Judgment at the end of chapter 17. It is only there that all tears will be wiped away. In the meantime, because of who our heavenly Father is, we should pray and we should wait patiently. He hears us now; sometimes he grants us temporal relief now; and when all is made right, it will then be seen that he has brought justice speedily indeed. In the meantime, opportunity for repentance is still being given. And that leads us to the next parable.
The setting for the next parable is not private prayer but public worship. These two men were at the Temple for either the morning or evening atoning sacrifice. When the blood of the sacrificial lamb had covered the sins of Israel, the way to God was symbolically opened. At that moment incense would be offered, a signal to the people that it was a propitious time for prayer. Even if you were not at the Temple, that is the time at which you would pray. This dynamic is crucial for fully understanding the teaching of this familiar story.
We then find two men who, for different reasons, stand out from the crowd of worshippers who have come to the service. When verse 11 says that the Pharisee prayed “to himself,” it would probably be better translated “by himself.” Both of these men were standing alone, apart from the congregation. One of them thought he was too good to be part of it; the other thought he was not good enough.
The type of service they were attending highlights both the pride and the humility that the two men manifest. At the very time of sacrifice, the Pharisee shows no awareness that he has any need for an atoning sacrifice. He is really not even praying at all, but boasting. Pious Jews at this time would pray, “God I thank you that you did not make me a Gentile, unlearned, or a woman.” So Jesus was giving an example of a familiar type that his audience knew well.
When the publican asks for God’s mercy, on the other hand, what he actually says is “hilastheti moi”: literally, “Make atonement for me.” So burdened is he by his sins that he has no confidence his prayer could possibly be answered. He shows this by beating his breast, and even more eloquently, by not looking up to heaven. The standard Jewish posture for prayer was not kneeling with bowed head but standing with head looking up and arms lifted as if to receive from heaven the blessing that was being requested. What he is saying, rather desperately, is, “If only I could be included in this atonement when the priest gives the benediction! But I am afraid I am so unworthy that it can never happen.”
What a great summary of the Gospel of salvation by Grace through Faith alone this story is! It is telling that Jesus uses the word “justified” in his comment at the end. Acceptance with God is not something that can be earned; it can only be received as a gift, a gift given to those who are willing to admit their abject need. And the gift is based on an atoning Sacrifice which does no good at all to those who do not think they need one. Who is justified, who is declared righteous? Not the one who outwardly looks righteous, but the one who, with absolutely no claim in himself, casts himself unreservedly on God’s mercy, on his Grace. The publican is simply an extremely clear and unmistakable example of what is true of all of us. If he is to be accepted by God as just, it has to be due to the righteousness of Christ imputed to him, for he has none of his own to bring. And all the “good” works of the Pharisee serve only to hide from him his true condition, as desperately needy for that imputed righteousness as the tax collector beside him.
You may be saved and not know it: the Publican knew he needed atonement, he wanted it, he asked for it, and the Lord says he had it—but he did not dare to think so. You may also be lost and not know it: the Pharisee viewed himself as a good man and did not think he needed forgiveness, certainly not atonement. He therefore did not want it or ask for it—and Jesus says he did not have it. But you can also be saved and know it. How? By coming to God like the Publican, on no other basis. But you have one advantage he did not have: you have heard the parable in which he was only a character. Believe that God is your heavenly Father and is nothing like the unjust judge. Do not insult him with a bribe, with claims of fasting and tithing, but cast yourself on his mercy like the Publican—and then believe also in his response: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.” Let it be so today. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams