People in pain often ask me, “Why?” My answer is “God does not reign, yet.” Jesus is very clear, His disciples are to pray for the kingdom to come. It makes no sense to pray for something to come if it is already here. We live in the last days of the Prince of this world; a “time before” the Kingdom fully comes. Sin and death may be defeated and powerless, but it does not always feel like it. This is why we pray!
Luke 18:9-14 is a well known parable. The popular interpretation is close to accurate: religious guy is a hypocrite and the sinner gets it right. However, the tendency (as I have encountered it) ends up sounding like this: Thank you God that I am not a hypocrite like that religious person. I don't go to church and I don't do all those religious things and I believe in you and I am fine. In other words, the same kind of prayer that Jesus condemned.
Luke has gathered his collection together to make a point. In order to understand the parable of the Pharisee it is helpful to see the context. First of all, Luke 18:9 says Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. What is key is the previous verse asks the question, "when the son of man (Jesus) comes will He find faith on earth? Faith IS trust. The man trusts in himself (not God). In fact, the Greek means he prayed TO himself! This is a parable about not having faith/trust in God. It is about being a person looking in the wrong direction. Luke 16:15 Jesus said, “You (Pharisees) are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows the heart.” Jesus is teaching us about that. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus reminds us that piety is not the only challenge, so is wealth. Self-centeredness with wealth is also a soul killer!
In chapter 17 Jesus tells stories about the need to forgive. Then Jesus cures ten lepers only one comes back. Being Forgiven and Healed (two sacraments!) are signs of God’s reign is beginning in our midst. The healing and forgiveness are the Kingdom of God starting to grow among us (like wheat in weeds!).
17:20ff Jesus reminds us that suffering and rejection are part of the birthing of the Kingdom; that justice we long for will come after a time of trial and tribulation. Why so much pain? Because we are in the Last Days of this age! And Jesus is the one who carries the most pain on the cross. God, in and through Jesus, is a participant in the suffering of the final days.
This is the context of the two parables.
One is about a widow seeking justice. Jesus says it is about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” This is a stunning admission that the life of a disciple will be a struggle against despair. Jesus assures us that God will answer our cries for justice. In the Bible the Jews regularly “cry out day and night” for this justice/salvation. The parable illustrates the church's commitment to prayer to pray "Thy Kingdom come" with assurance that God may be “long suffering” but He will deliver His people “quickly” or better “suddenly.” When deliverance finally comes and Jesus returns, it will be like a flash of lightning.
Note, the parable ends with the question, “But when the Son of Man comes will He find faith on earth?” Earlier the disciples ask “increase our faith.” Jesus wonders if there is any faith in us to increase…
In today’s parable, the Pharisee does not trust God. In the actual Greek “he was praying to himself”; Himself, not God! And what was he praying? Thank goodness I am so awesome. I am “wealthy” in pious practice. “Gosh, it is good to be the elect!” Now jump ahead 18:18; a rich young man comes to Jesus. He keeps all the commandments. Jesus says he lacks one thing: give to the poor. He is very rich. He relies on his wealth. He can’t. Our wealth—in whatever form it takes, materially or spiritually, cash or piety, cannot be trusted.
The Least, Last, Lost and Losers know this. The tax collector prays for forgiveness from far away. He has to be far away because of His sins. He has no status. He is an outsider by his own choice. He just comes to God begging mercy. Now see 18:15. They are bringing babies to Jesus. The disciples try to shoo them away. Jesus says, “let them come!” Then the statement—you have to accept the Kingdom like a child—the kingdom is made up of children and sinners. Accepting the nobodies is accepting the kingdom.
Back to our starting point. The kingdom is about MERCY: forgiveness, healing, helping. Until the kingdom does come and God reigns totally we are to cry out day and night and never lose hope.
Until the kingdom does come we act like we believe it is coming;
we forgive others debts as we have been forgiven,
we heal wounds, physical, emotional, spiritual like Jesus
we love the outcast
we care for the needy.
This is the Kingdom work of Jesus.
It is our work.
It is a glorious and joyful task