[October 18, 2009] In today’s portion of the Gospel (Luke 18:1-30) we come to the end of the section that began with 9:43b-45, when Jesus began His final journey to Jerusalem after descending from the mountain where He was transfigured. You may think of it as the way of the cross. It is the largest section of Luke’s gospel and in it our Lord gives most of His teaching (according to Luke’s redistribution of the teaching in Matthew’s gospel), teaching meant to prepare His disciples for “when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man and you will not see it” (when Jesus will depart and send the Holy Spirit to continue His work on earth: the subject of Luke’s The Acts of the Apostles). In other words, Luke has designed this whole section for us who are in the church, to teach us how we should live as the disciples of Jesus. We live on “the way of the cross” until His coming again. As 9:43b-45 marks the beginning of this section, 18:31-34 marks the end. They “frame” it.
In 17:20-37 Jesus spoke of the coming of the Son of Man and the Kingdom of God. First He said that the Kingdom of God had already come—that where He was, the Kingdom of God was. But it was also hidden in Him. He then said that the Kingdom of God could not be manifested until He had suffered many things and been rejected by this generation. Until it is manifested, the world would continue its “business as usual” (eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, buying and selling, planting and building), things which preoccupy the people of the world so that they do not respond to the invitation of the Gospel (14:15-24), which is the invitation to the Jubilee announced in 4:16-21.
But Jesus also warned His disciples (17:30-36) that they must not be similarly distracted, preoccupied and encumbered. They must never settle down in this world but must always be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. It will come when they do not expect it! It is not enough to be saved; you must also be ready: not tied down by the things in your house or your work in the field, by your memories and associations or even by your own soul.
The last thing Jesus said was: “Where the corpse is, there also will the eagles be gathered together.” This seems to refer to the world (the Great Babylon) which is spiritually dead and the coming of Christ with His saints to overcome it and establish God’s Kingdom. Until then, the overcoming saints must suffer as Christ did. If we are faithful to Christ, we will suffer much because others do not understand and resist the reality of God.
Pray with Persistence (Luke 18:1-8)
So in 18:1 Jesus tells us to pray and not lose heart. This is directly connected to our stay in this world as we wait for the coming of the Son of Man. Things can look pretty bad and we may be tempted to lose hope. If we lose hope in God’s Kingdom, we may be tempted to put our stock in the world. This is it—what everyone else seems to value and run after. Why are we investing in what is hidden and unmanifested, in what is supposed to come, but of which there is so little visible evidence? But Jesus says to pray and not lose heart.
In Revelation 6 we are told of the famous “four horses of the Apocalypse” which people imagine are a description of something future but which really are only a description of the age in which we have been living for centuries. The four horses represent the world since Christ left us long ago (not much different from how the world already was before that). Then in 6:9-11 we are told of the souls underneath the altar, “who had been slain because of the word of God and because of the testimony which they had,” who kept crying out to God, “How long, O Master, holy and true, will You not judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” These are the souls of the martyrs from all the centuries of the church crying out for an end to the world’s hate and opposition to God. They are told to rest “yet a little while” longer until the number of their brothers and sisters who were yet to be killed was completed.
We may think of an altar as the Table where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but in the days of the Bible, the altar was where you offered sacrifices, often blood sacrifices. The altar in this passage is the world where we give up our lives to God as sacrifices for the Gospel. It is in this world that rejects Christ that we have to lay down our souls for Christ, simply because we are faithful to Him (not because we enjoy suffering), even if it means we have to die for Him.
The souls under the altar (believers who have died) are praying. The widow in the parable in Luke 18:1-8 represent the believers who are still alive, us now. Our Husband, Christ, has died to the world and left us, so we are like a widow. Our opponent is the one who has killed our husband. Our prayer is just like those in Revelation 6:9-11 who have died: “Avenge me of my opponent!” This is not a prayer for others to suffer. Our opponent is spiritual, not “blood and flesh,” as Paul reminds us (Ephesians 6:12). This is a prayer for justice with the same meaning as when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” The prayer for the manifestation of the Kingdom of God is prayer for the end of the world’s opposition to God, the world as a spiritual system.
This parable is not about how we can pray in order to indulge our own selfish desires and that if we are persistent God will eventually give in to us. No, this is prayer for God’s Kingdom and purpose.
Like in Revelation 6, our prayer seems to go unanswered. In the parable the judge is unrighteous (18:6), but our Judge is God who is righteous. The crisis for our faith is that the righteous God seems to act like the unrighteous judge who tries to ignore the widow. Jesus assures us that God is not unjust but will “by all means carry out the avenging of His chosen ones, who cry to Him day and night, [even] though He is long-suffering over them . . . I tell you that He will carry out their avenging quickly.” Well, quick it may be, but it seems like a long time to us. Yet Jesus gives us this assurance.
In other words, we should cry out to Him day and night and not give up—cry out to Him for the establishment of His testimony on earth (the church) and the fulfillment of His purpose for creation, against all the evil in the world and the suffering that surrounds us. The suffering in the world comes from people’s spiritual alienation from God—both their own and that of those who oppress them. Our prayer addresses the root of suffering.
But we should pray with persistence because we have faith in God’s faithfulness, that is, because we have hope in God’s promise. When Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” He means that such faith will be rare and hard to find. Many will give up. Do not you give up! Let us continue to hope.
Pray with Humility (18:9-14)
The next parable is also about prayer. We should pray like this widow—that is, persistently—but how should we pray? Not like the Pharisee but like the tax collector! What is the difference between the two? The Pharisee thinks he is praying but he puts all his trust in himself, in his own righteousness. He thinks God will hear him because he has earned an audience with God. He exults himself, but however highly he thinks of himself, God sees the truth and knows that we are all unrighteous. Even our “righteousness” is unrighteous.
The tax collector comes before God knowing that he is unrighteous in-and-of-himself. He has no delusions that he has something of his own to bring before God to earn God’s attention. All there is is the sacrifice on the altar by which he is propitiated. The King James Bible says, “Be merciful to me,” but that is a poor translation. The word is the same as in Hebrews 9:5 (which refers to the cover on the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25:16-22 and Leviticus 16:12-16 where the blood from the sacrifice was sprinkled). This word is used in Romans 3:25 to speak of what Christ has become for us through the shedding of His blood. In other words, the sinner relies not on him or herself but on Christ alone who bore our sins and our judgment on the cross.
To put it another way, when we pray, we must be unencumbered by a sense of our own righteousness. We are neither encumbered by our accomplishments, nor by our guilt. For we come before God as sinners who have been propitiated by Another, with nothing of our own to claim but with everything of Christ, to plead before God in His name and for His sake, for that which He desires for us.
This parable is used to illustrate salvation by grace alone through faith alone. In this context it also means that whenever we come before God we never leave that basis, we still come humbly with nothing in our hands—no righteousness of our own—but only Christ, His sacrifice, His righteousness.
Receive the Kingdom Like a Child (18:15-17)
Next we are told that little children are already ready for the Kingdom of God (“of such is the Kingdom of God”). This is used as a justification for baptizing them but also for not baptizing them. Here, though, the point is that we need to receive the Kingdom of God the way they do or else we shall not enter it. Even though we are saved and destined for eternal life (and already possess it in our spirits) we may not be ready to inherit it—that is, enjoy it—when Christ returns. We may be put on probation until we are disciplined some more, since the discipline in this life has not taken good effect!
What does it mean to “receive the Kingdom of God like a little child”? In Matthew 18:3 it has to do with humility, and that may be the point here, since that idea ties in to the parable Jesus just told. But in Matthew the context was life in the church and being humble with one another. It has to do with humility here too but perhaps in a different sense. Adults are weighed down by many concerns. They are distracted, preoccupied and tied down to with many responsibilities. To be like a child is to be unencumbered! We should not be encumbered by our past—like the Pharisee was and the tax collector could have been—and also not be encumbered in the present by our family, property and business. Then, like the way children can be so focused on whatever they are doing, we too could be focused on the Kingdom of God and give it our full attention.
Remember how when Jesus first announced the Jubilee in Galilee (4:31-7:15) He freed people from all the things that bound them. Children are those who are still free from the world. We need to become like them.
Be Unencumbered by Possessions and Busyness (18:18-30)
We could spend a long time on 18:18-30 but we will not. The ruler who was “exceedingly rich” wants to inherit eternal life—that is, to enjoy the Kingdom of God when it comes. But Jesus says that he must become truly free to do that. To obey the commandments apparently came too easily for this man, for though he obeyed them outwardly he still had not given himself completely to God. What would it take for him to be inwardly unencumbered so that he can receive the Kingdom of God like a little child? So he can be freed from this world and live in the sight of God, not like the Pharisees who were preoccupied with wealth and gaining status with the public and winning approval from each other (chapter 16)? So he can let go of everything and respond freely to the invitation of the Gospel (14:17)?“All that you have, sell and distribute [the money] to the poor,” for where your treasure is, there will your heart be. Give up your earthly treasure and your heart will become free to have a new object. Then “you will have treasure in the heavens,” for the one who gives to the poor, lends to the Lord (see 14:14). Then you will be free to “come, follow Me.” We somehow think following Jesus is easy, yet Jesus tells this person that he has to give up all that he has. Jesus wants us to be truly free for Him. For HIM. For it is only when we become free from everything else that we can really discover who He IS, and know (the way we ought to) that we are in Him and He is in us, that He is our life. This kind of freedom has a high price.
Grace is free, yes, but grace is given so that it can free us from whatever ties us down and preoccupies us. It is impossible to give up our attachments and encumbrances without God’s grace, but “the things that are impossible with men are possible with God.” Do not stop with receiving Christ as your Savior. You received the grace of forgiveness so that you can take the next step. Let that grace free you from what keeps you distracted and tied down. Only then will you be ready for when you appear before Christ on the day He is manifested. You do not want to be ashamed on that day and have to admit that you wanted forgiveness and you are glad He purchased you with His blood, but you did not love Him enough to really want to belong to Him. You loved the world more than you loved Him.
Take heed! Those who follow preachers who tell them that “God” wants them to prosper and have more things will not inherit the Kingdom.
The present world has us all preoccupied with things. We are so preoccupied with taking care of all these things that the spiritual life seems so unimportant and even unreal in comparison. But learn to recognize the demands of the world for what they are. In prayer, in reliance on God’s grace, we need to reverse the trend. Be generous beyond what is safe. Find ways to simplify our lives, to live with less, to reorder our priorities so that we can give more attention to Christ. Like the widow, do not give up because the time—our journey—seems long. Let the Gospel free us.