Note: This blog is the sixth in a year-long series of posts on the parables of Jesus. The series will run through most of 2019. You can find the first blog on the parables HERE.
We are going to stay in Luke for another month in order to talk about Luke’s parables concerning prayer. This blog will focus on the three major “prayer” parables in Luke: the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-13), the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Remember, Luke includes a lengthy “travel narrative” right in the middle of his Gospel (Luke 9-19). This section is a collection of narratives, parables, and teachings of Jesus as he is on his way to Jerusalem. Many of the parables in this section are designed to highlight Luke’s missional purpose. The religious people in Jesus’ day believed they had a pretty good idea about how God answers prayers and to whom he listens. These parables in Luke turn that conventional wisdom on its head.
Question 1: What are the immediate circumstances of these parables?
The immediate context for the parable of “the Friend at Midnight” in Luke 11 is obvious. Luke 11:1-4 is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples have heard that John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray, and they want Jesus to do the same for them. Luke’s version contains a shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer, and Luke tells us that Jesus told his disciples a parable to help them understand at least one part of the Lord’s Prayer.
The immediate circumstance for the two parables in Luke 18, the Unjust Judge and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, is a bit more complicated. Luke 18 is near the end of the travel narrative section in Luke’s Gospel. In just one chapter, Jesus is going to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, and Jesus’ passion is going to begin. Luke has arranged the final passages in Luke 16, 17, and 18 to prepare the reader to understand the kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating by his death and resurrection. Because the Kingdom of God is not based on military, economic, or political power, life in that kingdom is going to be different than we might expect. A kingdom that is inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, for example, demands faithfulness from its citizens (Luke 16:1-13) and forgiveness for those who wrong us (Luke 17:1-4). This kingdom won’t arrive like other kingdoms, and it won’t fully be here until Jesus, the King, returns to sit on the throne (Luke 17:20-37). It is in this context that Luke gives us two of Jesus’ parables to tell us what God expects from his faithful in regard to prayer and to tell us what kind of person gets their prayers heard.
Question 2: What are the structures of these parables?
Both the Parable of the Friend at Midnight and the Parable of the Unjust Judge follow a similar story structure. In Luke 11:5-13 a man is in bed asleep with his family when his friend knocks on his door at night. The friend has had a guest arrive from a long journey, and the friend needs some food to show his guest the proper hospitality. Jesus says that even if the man is not inclined to disturb his whole family to get up to help a friend in need, he will get up and help his friend because he is sure his friend won’t let him have any peace until he does. Luke writes “because of his impudence” (ESV) the man will get up and help his friend. The friend is desperate. He knows the man can help him, and he is going to shamelessly keep asking and knocking and asking and knocking until he gets an answer. “God is like that,” Jesus says. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Likewise, in Luke 18:1-8, a widow has been cheated and has gone to court to demand justice. But the judge is crooked and has no interest in the widow’s cause. But in the end of the parable the judge gives her the justice she deserves, not because he has had a change of heart. He gives her justice to shut her up, because she won’t stop pestering him.
Luke 18:9-14 also tells a story. Two men go into the temple to pray. One of them is a Pharisee. By the religious standards of the day, this Pharisee does everything right. He is the right kind of person. He is in the right place. He has done the right things, and he says the right things. The other man is a tax collector. He understands that he is not the right kind of person. He is in a place he doesn’t really belong. He has done terrible things, and he isn’t following any of the established formulas that were popular in Jesus’ day. Everyone believed the Pharisee to be righteous, especially the Pharisees themselves, and they treated others with contempt. And yet, Jesus says, it is this second man that God hears and is justified.
Question 3: Is there anything in the details of the parable modern readers need to understand?
There is very little in these three parables that needs explaining to modern audiences. The first two, especially, are quite clear. Even if the import of the events of the Parable of the Friend at Midnight are a little lost on us because we don’t understand all the ins and outs of the cultural norms related to Middle Eastern hospitality, we can understand how horrifying it would be to have guests show up at our house starving and not have anything to give them. Likewise, we don’t need to know how Jewish courts worked to understand a crooked judge and a persistent woman trying to get justice.
With regard to the third parable, however, it is worth remembering just how people in Jesus’ day thought about tax collectors. Tax collectors were seen by many as collaborators with Rome. They were seen as traitors to the Jewish religion and the Jewish race. In many places they were excluded from proper Jewish society. Repeatedly in Luke’s Gospel, Luke uses the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” to describe the kinds of people that were considered by most to be the worst kinds of people. They were people you shouldn’t help, people you shouldn’t talk to, people you shouldn’t eat with. And yet, in this parable, this is exactly the kind of person God wants to hear from and speak to in prayer.
Question 4: What are the meanings of the parables?
The Parable of the Friend at Midnight and the Parable of the Unjust Judge are mostly instructive. They teach us one aspect of how to pray. They teach us that sometimes there are prayers that God answers because we pray them fervently and continually. God is not, however, playing some sort of game with us. We shouldn’t imagine God in heaven chuckling to himself because we only prayed for something ten times, but if we would have prayed eleven times, then he would have answered. Luke 11 and 18 are very clear about God’s intentions toward us. He is our father, and he is good. He loves us. We have much to learn from the depiction of God in Luke 11:9-13 and Luke 18:7-8. God is our Heavenly Father, and he is waiting longingly for us to ask him for that which we need so he can give it to us. What about when God doesn’t answer our prayers? God is not a genie; he doesn’t grant wishes. He is a father who takes care of his children. He answers our prayers, not by giving us what we always want, but by giving us what is best for us. Knowing that, however, we still don’t ask. How absurd! Luke 11 is also clear that what we need most and what we should seek most fervently in prayer is God’s presence by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector doesn’t teach us how to pray, but it does clearly usurp our expectations. The religious mind hasn’t changed much in two thousand years. We, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, assume that God only listens to a certain kind of person, a person who has behaved a certain kind of way. And yet Jesus tells a story of a tax collector, a man who betrayed his people, his country, and his religion for money. That man stands before God as a sinner and cries out in prayer to God for mercy and forgiveness. And God hears him. Jesus also tells the story of a Pharisee, someone who says all the right things and has done all the right things, and yet his heart is far from God. He leaves the temple having not heard from God at all.
We have much to learn about God from this parable as well. How often have Christ’s followers fallen away from prayer because of our spiritual failures or a besetting sin? How often have we told ourselves, after having a really bad day, that God doesn’t want to hear from us today? And yet it is in those moments that we need God the most. It is in those moments that we need to pray. It is in those moments that we should seek most fervently in prayer the presence of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. If we do, God will hear us, he will forgive us, and he will answer our prayers.