Since Christmas, I have been working on a book studying the Kingdom Parables that Jesus taught. The last several days have been spent on the three prayer parables found only in St. Luke’s Gospel. The study has reinforced my personal prayers for my own healing. I have friends who visit and pray for me regularly who already practice the three principles found here. I am grateful the Lord sends them as models and intercessors for me.
I hope to have this book ready to release by summer. But I decided to give you a sneak peek of this chapter right away. Perhaps someone needs it. I know I did.
8 Prayer and Relationships
Among the factors implicit in the concept of a Kingdom of Heaven are communication and relationship. From the beginning of Creation, in the Garden of Eden, God came to visit with Adam and Eve. God’s desire for relationship and communication with us remains at the heart of His Kingdom.
A key part of our own response to God will be our habits and practices of prayer to Him. Jesus touched briefly on prayer in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-6) but for such an important subject it is surprising how seldom he was asked about it. One occasion was triggered by an embarrassing failure of Christ’s disciples.
The account of the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain, followed by the ministry to a father and his demon-possessed son, is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew (17:19-21) and Mark (9:28-29) mention a follow up question from the disciples who had been praying over the boy with no success: “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”
Jesus tells them it only happens with prayer and fasting. As faithful Jews, one presumes they knew how to fast already. Clearly, Jesus thought they still needed to learn something about prayer.
Luke doesn’t mention this conversation in his account of the deliverance in Chapter 9 of his Gospel. But he does record the obvious next request from the disciples in Chapter 11. That chapter begins when one of them speaks up after watching Jesus at his own prayers.
“Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples.”
This is how Luke introduces a trio of parables unique to his Gospel. One follows the teaching of what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. Two more parables follow in Chapter 18. They identify important characteristics Jesus wants to see in our relationship with him.
Luke summarized the first point as he returned to the subject in Chapter 18, where we begin.
Luke 18:1 He also spoke a parable to them that they must always pray, and not give up, 2 saying, “There was a judge in a certain city who didn’t fear God, and didn’t respect man. 3 A widow was in that city, and she often came to him, saying, ‘Defend me from my adversary!’ 4 He wouldn’t for a while, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming.’ ”
6 The Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. 7 Won’t God avenge his chosen ones who are crying out to him day and night, and yet he exercises patience with them? 8 I tell you that he will avenge them quickly. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The principle Jesus praises here is persistence.
We need this encouragement because we are so easily discouraged when we don’t quickly see the answers we want to our prayers.
This weakness is widely recognized. It was even the basis of a children’s comic strip I remember seeing when I was young. It showed two cute puppy dogs swimming across a lake to a floating dock so they could sun themselves. The first puppy made it and climbed onto the dock to wait for his companion. The other pup was getting tired from the long swim. The joke in the last panel showed this pup giving up just inches from the dock, deciding to turn around and swim back to shore.
Jesus is telling us not to give up. We don’t see how close the answer to our prayers is. If we give up before receiving the answer, we may as well have never prayed at all. And we shut the door on the opportunity for our Heavenly Father to receive glory and credit for His loving care for us.
One of the most dramatic examples of the importance of the principle of persistence is found in the book of Daniel. Daniel describes how, after he received a vision, he prayed that he could understand it.
Daniel 10:2 In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three whole weeks. 3 I ate no pleasant bread. No meat or wine came into my mouth. I didn’t anoint myself at all, until three whole weeks were fulfilled.
4 In the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was by the side of the great river, which is Hiddekel, 5 I lifted up my eyes, and looked, and behold, there was a man clothed in linen, whose thighs were adorned with pure gold of Uphaz. 6 His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as flaming torches. His arms and his feet were like burnished bronze. The voice of his words was like the voice of a multitude.
12 Then he said to me, “Don’t be afraid, Daniel; for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard. I have come for your words’ sake. 13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but, behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me because I remained there with the kings of Persia. 14 Now I have come to make you understand what will happen to your people in the latter days; for the vision is yet for many days.”
This classic episode reveals one reason there may be a delay in our seeing an answer to our prayers.
Of course, St. James explains that sometimes the lack of answers is because the prayers we make are, themselves, out of order.
James 4:3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
But let us assume we are mature in our faith and are praying in line with God’s will. Even then, Jesus wants to see persistence that refuses to be discouraged by delay. One of the most extraordinary demonstrations of this came in the way Jesus delayed responding to Martha’s message asking for Jesus to come and heal her dying brother, Lazarus (John 11:1-6). His deliberate delay in responding when Martha wanted him to come was because God was going to provide a more dramatic resolution, one that would affect a much wider circle than just Martha’s immediate household.
There may be reasons God delays in His answers to our prayers. He still wants us to persist in praying and laying our requests before him. Do we have the courage to persist even through a long delay in receiving an answer?
Even if we do, Jesus knows such persistence must be carried out with the right heart attitude.
Luke 18:9 He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others.
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’
13 But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The prayer attributed to the tax collector has become part of the Jesus Prayer widely taught in Eastern Orthodox Church communities. The parable itself is about the attitude with which we address our Heavenly Father. The fact that we are invited to speak up to God at all says nothing about the appropriate manner of doing so. And so, Jesus offers the parable to teach that very thing.
There is a sly clue in the way Jesus signals the error committed by the Pharisee. Jesus says this religious leader, though he was standing in the temple, “prayed to himself.” (v. 11) So not only was his prideful attitude wrong, his prayer went in the wrong direction. He had no sense of caution as he presented himself before the Lord. He gave no hint of being in need of anything. Everything was fine and in proper order as far as he was concerned. The only thing he did right was take that first step of deciding to go to the temple to pray at all. That was smart. But once he got there, his attitude before Holy God Almighty was abysmal.
Jesus said it was the tax collector, despised by all good Jews, who went home justified. He had approached Holy God Almighty with eyes cast down, conscious of his sinful state and need for mercy. He was the only one who gave the Heavenly Father any chance to demonstrate His merciful nature that day. The Pharisee didn’t think he had any need of mercy or forgiveness. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. The tax collector knew he couldn’t get enough of them, and had no way to find them if God turned him away. So he asked, while never forgetting that he was asking for a gift, not demanding something as if he had earned it.
It is an important lesson. We can be persistent out of the wrong attitude, like the elder brother of the Prodigal who thought his place in his father’s house was his because he had worked for it. He thought justice was on his side.
And God is a Just God. He will see to it that we receive justice in recompense for our choices in life. Those who are given that result may well gnash their teeth the day they receive it.
What we are wiser to ask for is mercy, and to do so with fear and trembling lest a Just God give us what we deserve and what we have earned.
Let us keep asking for the right thing, with the right attitude.
It may seem strange to call us to humility on the one hand, and at the same time, urge us to adopt the third principle of prayer that Jesus taught.
Luke 11:5 He said to them, “Which of you, if you go to a friend at midnight, and tell him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him,’ 7 and he from within will answer and say, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give it to you’? 8 I tell you, although he will not rise and give it to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence, he will get up and give him as many as he needs.
9 “I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he won’t give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, he won’t give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
Luke placed this parable right after his record of the Lord’s Prayer. Although the word persistence is used in verse 8 to describe the action of the man asking for bread, I want to point out the word that appears in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer when the Lord’s Prayer is introduced in the liturgy. The priest cues the worshipers with the line, “As our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say….”
Boldness, not to say audacity, is a good way to describe the action of the importuning neighbor in the parable. Coming as it does right after a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the parable draws attention to just how bold and audacious some of the lines of that prayer are.
“Give us this day…” we are told to say, and, “Forgive us our sins…” There is also the injunction, “Lead us not into temptation…” These words sound rather abrupt and demanding. They are not words of negotiation or discussion. Yet Jesus is giving us permission to say firmly what we need.
And, of course, with a humility that never forgets our roles as servants and children of the King who rules this kingdom.
It is also worth noting that, of the three parables we have on prayer, this is the one that describes an intercession on behalf of others, and not simply a personal need. The lesson on audacity comes in the context of making efforts to meet the needs we discover others are facing. In doing so, we give the fullest expression of being the ambassadors who represent the Father’s loving heart to the world.
In his commentary unfolding the message of the parable, Jesus goes on to give three steps that reinforce it. It is as if he wants to reassure us that, “Yes – I really mean it.” The three steps are easy to remember in English since the first step is also an acronym for all three:
The steps urge us to keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking. The World English Bible translation highlights the continuing voice of the actions. This is calling for more than a one-time transaction of prayer. Jesus is inviting persistence and determination born of a confidence that our Heavenly Father wants to say, “Yes,” to our prayers. During his last supper with the disciples, Jesus made it clear that this blank check is given to those who make the same commitment to the Father’s requests of them (John 14).
In his commentary following the parable, Jesus makes one of his few referrals to human standards of behavior as a guide to life in the Kingdom. If you, as a human parent, know how to give your children what they want and need, why wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe the same is true of our Father in Heaven?
Jesus Christ told his disciples to heal the sick and raise the dead (Matthew 10:8). He is not putting boundaries on what we can pray for.
That takes us back to the mystery that comes up if we are being told to ask and trust God for anything: why does He take so long to answer?
We already looked at some reasons. I think another answer can be inferred from the parable. The late night visitor was unexpected, since the man in the parable was unprepared to receive him. The host had to scramble and take the unusual step of disturbing his neighbor to get food for this visiting friend. Although he was springing into action, it was still going to take some time before he could put any kind of meal on the table for his hungry visitor. We can hope that the visiting friend waited patiently! But there was a delay factor while the human being given the responsibility to help dealt with the situation.
I recall an experience like this many years ago when I got a phone call from a friend. It came moments before my wife and I were leaving the house for a weekly Bible study we attended. My friend and his wife had taken some out-of-state visitors to a shopping mall in Clearwater. There my friend’s car broke down, stranding everyone. Could I rescue them?
This was nearly 40 years ago when we were both young and could only afford to drive old, second-hand cars. I didn’t trust mine to make the long drive to Clearwater. I explained the situation to the Bible study leader when we got to his house. He handed me the keys to his much larger car and sent me off on the rescue mission with his blessing.
Driving carefully, going as fast as I could, praying all the way, it still took more than an hour on the interstate before I was able to pull into the parking lot at the mall. The first person I recognized was my friend’s wife, waiting at the doorway of one of the stores. Her face broke out with a huge smile of relief when she saw me. Soon we had collected the rest of the group and finally started back home. A tow truck had already hauled their car away.
And I learned that, just that morning, my friend and his wife had begun another season of waiting. Their doctor had confirmed my friend’s wife was pregnant. One way and another, we learn to wait in this life.
It was while considering an early account of prayer in the Old Testament that the Lord pointed out another dot to connect that could explain why we sometimes have to wait for answers to our petitions.
Genesis chapter 18 records the story of God stopping to talk with Abraham about God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom. Abraham demonstrates the three principles we have looked at in this chapter. Abraham is persistent, asking again and again for God to show mercy if a smaller and smaller number of righteous people can be found in the city. Abraham whittles the number down to ten before losing his nerve to go on asking. It seems clear God was willing to go further. Eventually only four people escape and the destruction of the city is withheld until they leave.
Abraham exhibits great humility, constantly asking God’s forbearance to his repeated requests. But he has the boldness to go on asking and interceding for any innocent people who might be in the city.
As I thought about Abraham’s prayer request, I realized something that caused God to delay His plans. He was respecting the free will choices of Lot and his family. Lot tries to warn the two young men planning to marry his daughters (Genesis 19:8) but they don’t believe him and refuse to leave the city. The angels sent to destroy the city delay their work until Lot can get out with his wife and daughters. God’s answer to Abraham’s intercession is bounded and checked by the choices these individuals make. I think that’s another factor that affects how quickly we see some answers to our prayers.
Since Jesus knows that there is waiting involved while people make up their minds to respond, he is teaching us to be patient and not give up from asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of Heaven with our prayers.
What the parables teach me about the Kingdom of Heaven: I should not be afraid to ask for mountains to move and I should not grow impatient if God takes time to respect the decisions of those I pray for in the Kingdom.