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Christian Basics - Prayer

Luke 18:1-14

Let's start with the story of the widow that Jesus tells.This is a lovely little story, and typical of the picture language that Jesus used in order to get his message across both to his disciples and to those who flocked to hear him speak. That it's about prayer is also typical of Luke who places great emphasis on prayer - particularly of those recorded moments when Jesus was at prayer.

If you read this too quick, however, you actually miss the key verse which is in Luke's introduction to the story.

"Jesus told his disciples a story about how they should keep on praying and never give up"

Keep on Praying!

He told a story about how they should keep on praying. Not that they should be praying, but that they should keep on praying AS THEY WERE ALREADY IN THE HABIT OF DOING - at least, that's the inference from Luke's words. So before we start thinking about how Jesus' story might be made relevant for us today, we have to presuppose that we are all in the habit of regular prayer.

The other issue that we need to address is that of the point that Jesus is making here. Is he saying, as a first reading might suggest, that we should nag God to such an extent that we get our own way simply because he's fed up of our constant prayer?

"I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me." says the Judge "If I don't help her, she will wear me out." In fact, the word that is translated "wear me out" in this translation, "exhausts me" in others can actually mean "gives me a black eye!"

Persistence Pays

Is Jesus suggesting that our relationship to God is something like that? Where God gives in under a battering of prayer?

That doesn't seem quite right, does it? But let's go back to the story and look at these two characters.

Firstly the judge, who from the description would have probably been Roman, as the Jews had a different judicial system involving elders and a form of arbitration - certainly not a single judge. These judges were known by the general public as 'robber judges', and their nickname suited the way they operated. You wanted justice? You used bribery to get it, there was no other way round the system!

The widow could have been anybody, and to that extent she symbolises anyone who would struggle to get a fair hearing in a corrupt system such as that populated by judges like Jesus described.

I have to say that from personal experience of dealing with customer complaints it is always the person who shouts loudest who gets what they're after - the quieter ones get what they're given! In fact, I think I recognise that widow!

Of course, Jesus is not comparing God to the crooked judge - that would be a ridiculous thought. He's saying "If that's what you have to do to get justice in the world - batter the opposition down with your persistent complaining until they do what you want - then how much more will God, our heavenly Father give to his children who are in need."

In fact even that doesn't really fit the whole picture, because we know from even an earthly standpoint that it doesn't do always to give a child everything that they ask for. Sometimes we have to say to them "No" or "Not yet" because it is for their own good in the long term. And that can often mean difficult choices.

In the same way surely we can't expect God to do things any different. Just because we bombard him with requests for the latest shiny toy doesn't mean that it is good for us - or it might be that it's not good for us right now. We can't see the future, God can. We don't necessarily know how our life is going to pan out over the next few days, weeks and months. God does.

Don't get Discouraged

Jesus' story is there to tell us not to get discouraged when prayers don't seem to get answered immediately. God sees the bigger picture and knows what is best for us in the long term. We need to remember that picture of God as our heavenly Father.

The important point is that we should not lose faith, and not get out of the habit of talking to God (which is what prayer is all about, and it must be emphasised that it is a two way conversation). We need to bring our hopes and prayers to him. If we start getting discouraged and get out of the routine of prayer then there is always the risk that we will start to backslide on our faith, and potentially run into the problem that Jesus was all too concerned about.

"But when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?"

If our hearts and minds are not focussed on God in our daily lives then we run the risk of not being ready when Jesus returns in glory, rather like the foolish virgins in the story of the wedding feast whose lamps had gone out before the bridegroom arrived.

Perhaps when we pray and bring our requests to God we need to remember the words we find in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and which we repeat week after week.

"Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven''

In Luke 18:9ff Jesus told a story to some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else:

Two men went into the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood over by himself and prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, and unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there. I go without eating for two days a week, and I give you one tenth of all I earn."

The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, "God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner."

Then Jesus said, "When the two men went home, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honoured."

We've seen what Jesus had to say about the need for regular and persistent prayer, but how should we pray? What should our attitude to prayer be? Well, let's have a look at the two characters that Jesus paints in this story, which is again a fairly familiar one.

The Pharisee of course gets the bad press, but look at his religious life compared with ours. There were three appointed times of prayer in a day at 9 am, 12 noon and 3 pm (the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the day) and it was thought that prayer was better received if given at the temple. Jewish law asked for one obligatory day of fasting on the day of Atonement, but if you were very keen you could also fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Giving by way of tithing was encouraged, and this would normally be a 1/10th of the produce of a family's labours.

This Pharisee prayed three times a day, fasted twice a week, gave more than was required as an offering by giving a tithe from all his possessions.. He was not a greedy man, he tells us, and certainly not dishonest or unfaithful to his wife. In fact he sound on the surface to be the sort of person you'd be happy to have as a neighbour. So what had Jesus to complain about here?

All Down to Attitude

But of course it is all down to attitude. The fasting days were on market days in Jerusalem when there would be lots of people milling around, and those who fasted would whiten their faces and wear old and crumpled clothing, just in case anyone didn't realise what they were doing.

And admirable though his behaviour towards others might be on a day to day basis, there is a serious smugness in the way he compares his life with the rest of the world.

In fact it would appear that this Pharisee's opinion of himself was not far away from that of others of his type. One recorded comment from a Rabbi has him saying "If there are only two righteous men in this world, I and my son are these two; if there is only one, I am he!"

It's all to do with attitude. This Pharisee seems to have been presenting his prayer to whatever audience he could gather around him rather than it being a communication between man and God. Here was a man who was more concerned with telling the world and God just how good he was then coming before God as a man might face his creator.

Compare his attitude with that of the tax collector

The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, "God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner."

There's a little lost in the translation here, as the strict translation is not ''a sinner" but "the sinner". He considers himself the worst example possible of a sinner. And, says Jesus this is the difference between the two men. One commentator says this "The gate of heaven is so low that no-one can enter except upon his knees"

Prayer has nothing to do with pride, and everything to do with humility. If we are in the business of comparing our lives with others and considering ourselves so much better than them then prayer becomes difficult. That tax collector knew full well that the correct attitude when coming to prayer is not comparing yourself to your neighbour but comparing yourself to God.

If you compare your life to the life of Jesus and the holiness of God then how can you approach prayer other than with the words "God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner."

Two stories, a collection of quite believable characters - one of whom we might feel is fairly familiar!

And a simple message from Jesus to all who might hear it. Prayer is important. And our attitude to prayer and our prayer life is also important. To repeat a quote I used earlier "The gate of heaven is so low that none can enter it except upon their knees."


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