William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
UNWEARIED IN PRAYER (Luke 18:1-8)
18:1-8 Jesus spoke a parable to them to show that it is necessary always to pray and not to lose heart. "There was a judge," he said, "in a town who neither feared God nor respected man. There was a widow in the same town who kept coming to him and saying, 'Vindicate me against my adversary.' For some time he refused. But afterwards he said to himself, 'Even though I neither fear God nor respect man, because she bothers me, I will vindicate this widow, lest by her constant coming she exhausts me.'" The Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And shall God not vindicate his own chosen ones who cry to him day and night, even though he seem to wait for long? But when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?"
This parable tells of the kind of thing which could, and often did, happen. There are two characters in it.
(i) The judge was clearly not a Jewish judge. All ordinary Jewish disputes were taken before the elders, and not into the public courts at all. If, under Jewish law, a matter was taken to arbitration, one man could not constitute a court. There were always three judges, one chosen by the plaintiff, one by the defendant, and one independently appointed.
This judge was one of the paid magistrates appointed either by Herod or by the Romans. Such judges were notorious. Unless a plaintiff had influence and money to bribe his way to a verdict he had no hope of ever getting his case settled. These judges were said to pervert justice for a dish of meat. People even punned on their title. Officially they were called Dayyaneh Gezeroth, which means judges of prohibitions or punishments. Popularly they were called Dayyaneh Gezeloth, which means robber judges.
(ii) The widow was the symbol of all who were poor and defenceless. It was obvious that she, without resource of any kind, had no hope of ever extracting justice from such a judge. But she had one weapon--persistence. It is possible that what the judge in the end feared was actual physical violence. The word translated, lest she exhausts me, can mean, lest she give me a black eye. It is possible to close a person's eye in two ways--either by sleep or by assault and battery! In either event, in the end her persistence won the day.
This parable is like the parable of the Friend at Midnight. It does not liken God to an unjust judge; it contrasts him to such a person. Jesus was saying, "If, in the end, an unjust and rapacious judge can be wearied into giving a widow woman justice, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, give his children what they need?"
That is true, but it is no reason why we should expect to get whatever we pray for. Often a father has to refuse the request of a child, because he knows that what the child asks would hurt rather than help. God is like that. We do not know what is to happen in the next hour, let alone the next week, or month, or year. Only God sees time whole, and, therefore, only God knows what is good for us in the long run. That is why Jesus said we must never be discouraged in prayer. That is why he wondered if men's faith would stand the long delays before the Son of Man should come. We will never grow weary in prayer and our faith will never falter if, after we have offered to God our prayers and requests, we add the perfect prayer, Thy will be done.
THE SIN OF PRIDE (Luke 18:9-14)
18:9-14 Jesus spoke this parable to some who were self-confidently sure that they were righteous and who despised others. "Two men went up to the Temple to pray. The one was a Pharisee, the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'O God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men, thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all that I get.' The tax-collector stood afar off, and would not lift even his eyes to heaven, and kept beating his breast and said, 'O God, be merciful, to me--the sinner.' I tell you, this man went down to his house accepted with God rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
The devout observed three prayer times daily--9 a.m., 12 midday and 3 p.m. Prayer was held to be specially efficacious if it was offered in the Temple and so at these hours many went up to the Temple courts to pray. Jesus told of two men who went.
(i) There was a Pharisee. He did not really go to pray to God. He prayed with himself. True prayer is always offered to God and to God alone. A certain American cynically described a preacher's prayer as "the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience." The Pharisee was really giving himself a testimonial before God.
The Jewish law prescribed only one absolutely obligatory fast--that on the day of Atonement. But those who wished to gain special merit fasted also on Mondays and Thursdays. It is noteworthy that these were the market days when Jerusalem was full of country people. Those who fasted whitened their faces and appeared in dishevelled clothes, and those days gave their piety the biggest possible audience. The Levites were to receive a tithe of all a man's produce (Numbers 18:21; Deuteronomy 14:22). But this Pharisee tithed everything, even things which there was no obligation to tithe.
His whole attitude was not untypical of the worst in Pharisaism. There is a recorded prayer of a certain Rabbi which runs like this, "I thank, Thee, O Lord my God, that thou hast put my part with those who sit in the Academy, and not with those who sit at the street-corners. For I rise early, and they rise early; I rise early to the words of the law, and they to vain things. I labour, and they labour; I labour and receive a reward, and they labour and receive no reward. I run, and they run; I run to the life of the world to come, and they to the pit of destruction." It is on record that Rabbi Simeon ben Jocai once said, "If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are these two; if there is only one, I am he!"
The Pharisee did not really go to pray; he went to inform God how good he was.
(ii) There was a tax-collector. He stood afar off, and would not even lift his eyes to God. The King James and Revised Standard Versions do not even do justice to his humility for he actually prayed, "O God, be merciful to me--the sinner," as if he was not merely a sinner, but the sinner par excellence. "And," said Jesus, "it was that heart-broken, self-despising prayer which won him acceptance before God."
This parable unmistakably tells us certain things about prayer.
(i) No man who is proud can pray. The gate of heaven is so low that none can enter it save upon his knees. All that a man can say is,
"None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other Hope in heaven or earth or sea,
None other Hiding-place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee."
(ii) No man who despises his fellow-men can pray. In prayer we do not lift ourselves above our fellow-men. We remember that we are one of a great army of sinning, suffering, sorrowing humanity, all kneeling before the throne of God's mercy.
(iii) True prayer comes from setting our lives beside the life of God. No doubt all that the Pharisee said was true. He did fast; he did meticulously give tithes; he was not as other men are; still less was he like that tax-collector. But the question is not, "Am I as good as my fellow-men?" The question is, "Am I as good as God?" Once I made a journey by train to England. As we passed through the Yorkshire moors I saw a little whitewashed cottage and it seemed to me to shine with an almost radiant whiteness. Some days later I made the journey back to Scotland. The snow had fallen and was lying deep all around. We came again to the little white cottage, but this time its whiteness seemed drab and soiled and almost grey in comparison with the virgin whiteness of the driven snow.
It all depends what we compare ourselves with. And when we set our lives beside the life of Jesus and beside the holiness of God, all that is left to say is, "God be merciful to me--the sinner."
THE MASTER AND THE CHILDREN (Luke 18:15-17)
18:15-17 People were bringing even their babies to Jesus that he might touch them. When the disciples saw it they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him saying, "Let the little children come to me, and don't stop them, for of such is the kingdom of God. This is the truth I tell you--whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it."
It was the custom for mothers to bring their children to some distinguished Rabbi on their first birthday that he might bless them. That is what the mothers wanted for their children from Jesus. We are not to think that the disciples were hard and cruel. It was kindness that made them act as they did. Remember where Jesus was going. He was on the way to Jerusalem to die upon a cross. The disciples could see upon his face the inner tension of his heart; and they did not want Jesus to be bothered. Often at home we may say to a little child, "Don't bother your Daddy; he's tired and worried tonight." That is exactly how the disciples felt about Jesus.
It is one of the loveliest things in all the gospel story that Jesus had time for the children even when he was on the way to Jerusalem to die.
When Jesus said that it was of the child-like that the kingdom of God was composed, what did he mean "What are the qualities of which he was thinking"?
(i) The child has not lost the sense of wonder. Tennyson tells of going early one morning into the bedroom of his little grandson and of seeing the child "worshipping the sunbeam playing on the bedpost." As we grow older we begin to live in a world which has grown grey and tired. The child lives in a world with a sheen on it and in which God is always near.
(ii) The child's whole life is founded on trust. When we are young, we never doubt where the next meal is to come from or where our clothes will be found. We go to school certain that home will be there when we return, and all things ready for our comfort. When we go on a journey we never doubt that the fare will be paid or that our parents know the way and will take us safely there. The child's trust in his parents is absolute, as ours should be in our Father--God.
(iii) The child is naturally obedient. True, he often disobeys and grumbles at his parents' bidding. But his instinct is to obey. He knows very well that he should obey and is not happy when he has been disobedient. In his heart of hearts his parents' word is law. So should it be with us and God.
(iv) The child has an amazing faculty of forgiveness. Almost all parents are unjust to their children. We demand from them a standard of obedience, of good manners, of refined language, of diligence which we seldom satisfy ourselves. Time and again we scold them for doing the very things we do ourselves. If others treated us in the way we treat our children in the matter of plain justice, we probably would never forgive. But the child forgives and forgets, and does not even realize it when he is very young. It would be so much lovelier a world if we would forgive as a child forgives.
To keep alive the sense of wonder, to live in unquestioning trust, instinctively to obey, to forgive and to forget--that is the childlike spirit, and that is the passport to the kingdom of God.
THE MAN WHO WOULD NOT PAY THE PRICE (Luke 18:18-30)
18:18-30 A ruler asked Jesus, "Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? There is none good except one God. You know the commandments--do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honour your father and your mother." He said, "From my youth I have kept all these." When Jesus heard that, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! Follow me!" When he heard these things he was very sad, because he was exceedingly rich. When Jesus saw him he said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Those who heard him said, "And who can be saved?" He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." Peter said, "Look you--we have left our private possessions and have followed you." He said to them, "This is the truth I tell you--there is no one who has left house, or wife, or brother, or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not get it all back many times over in this time, and, in the age that is coming, eternal life."
This ruler addressed Jesus in a way which, for a Jew, was without parallel. In all the religious Jewish literature there is no record of any Rabbi being addressed as, "Good teacher." The Rabbis always said "there is nothing that is good but the law." To address Jesus in such a way savoured of almost fulsome flattery. So Jesus began by driving him and his thoughts back to God. Jesus was always sure that his own power and his own message, came to him from God. When the nine lepers failed to return, his grief was, not that they had forgotten to come back to say thanks to him, but that they had not come back to glorify God (Luke 17:18).
It was indisputable that this ruler was a good man, but he felt within his heart and soul that in his life there was something lacking. Jesus' command to him was that if he wanted to find all that he was searching for in life he must sell all his possessions and distribute them to the poor and follow him. Why did Jesus make this demand specially from this man? When the man whom Jesus had cured in the country of the Gerasenes wished to follow him, he told him to stay at home (Luke 8:38-39). Why this very different advice to this ruler?
There is an apocryphal gospel called the Gospel according to the Hebrews most of which is lost; in one of the fragments which remain there is an account of this incident which gives us a clue. "The other rich man said to Jesus, 'Master, what good thing must I do really to live?' Jesus said to him, 'Man, obey the law and the prophets.' He said, 'I have done so.' Jesus said to him, 'Go, sell all that you possess, distribute it among the poor, and come, follow me!' The rich man began to scratch his head because he did not like this command. The Lord said to him, 'Why do you say that you have obeyed the law and the prophets? For it is written in the law, "You must love your neighbour as yourself," and look you--there are many brothers of yours, sons of Abraham, who are dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and not one single thing goes out of it to them.' And he turned and said to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting beside him, 'Simon, son of Jonas, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'"
There we have the secret and the tragedy of this rich ruler. He was living utterly selfishly. He was rich, and yet he gave nothing away. His real God was comfort, and what he really worshipped were his own possessions and his wealth. That is why Jesus told him to give it all away. Many a man uses such wealth as he has to bring comfort and joy and good to his fellow-men; but this man used it for nobody but himself. If a man's god is that to which he gives all his time, his thought, his energy, his devotion, then wealth was his god. If he was ever to find happiness he must be done with all that and live for others with the same intensity as that with which he had so long lived for himself.
Jesus went on to say that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Quite often the rabbis talked of an elephant trying to get through the eye of a needle as a picture of something fantastically impossible. But Jesus' picture may have one of two origins.
(i) It is said that beside the great gate into Jerusalem through which traffic went, there was a little gate just wide and high enough for a man to get through. It is said that that little gate was called the needle's eye, and that the picture is of a camel trying to struggle through it.
(ii) The Greek word for a camel is kamelos (Greek #2574). In this age of Greek there was a tendency for the vowel sounds to become very like each other, and there was another word which would sound almost exactly the same--the word kamilos, which means a ship's hawser. It may well be that what Jesus said was that it would be easier to thread a needle with a ship's hawser than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Why should it be so? The whole tendency of possessions is to shackle a man's thoughts to this world. He has so big a stake in it that he never wants to leave it, and never thinks of anything else. It is not a sin to have much wealth--but it is a danger to the soul and a great responsibility.
Peter pointed out that he and his fellow disciples had left all to follow Jesus; and Jesus promised that no man would ever give up anything for the kingdom of God but he would be repaid many times over. It is the experience of all Christian folk that that is true. Once someone said to David Livingstone, thinking of the trials he had endured and the sorrows he had borne, of how he had lost his wife and ruined his health in Africa, "What sacrifices you have made!" Livingstone answered, "Sacrifices? I never made a sacrifice in all my life."
For the man who walks the Christian way there may be things the world calls hard, but, beyond them all and through them all, there is a peace which the world cannot give and cannot take away, and a joy that no man takes from him.
THE WAITING CROSS (Luke 18:31-34)
18:31-34 Jesus took the Twelve and said to them, "Look you--we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that was written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the gentiles; and he will be mocked and cruelly treated; and spat upon; and they will scourge him and kin him; and on the third day he will rise again." But they did not understand these things; this word was hidden from them; and they did not grasp what was being said.
There are two kinds of courage. There is the courage of the man who, suddenly and without warning, is confronted with some emergency or some crisis, and who unhesitatingly and even recklessly flings himself into it. There is the courage of the man who sees a terrible situation looming ahead and knows that nothing short of flight can avoid it, and who yet goes steadfastly and inflexibly on. There is no question which is the higher courage. Many a man is capable of the heroic action on the spur of the moment; it takes a man of supreme courage to go on to face something which haunts him for days ahead and which, by turning back, he could escape.
In a novel a writer paints a picture of two children walking along the road playing their children's games. One said to the other, "When you're walking along the road, do you ever pretend that there is something terrible just around the next corner waiting for you; and you've got to go and face it? It makes it so exciting." With Jesus it was no game of let's pretend. It was the grim truth that there was something terrible waiting for him. He knew what crucifixion was like; he had seen it; and yet he went on. If Jesus was nothing else, he would still be one of the most heroic figures of all time.
In face of Jesus' frequent warning of what was to happen to him in Jerusalem, we sometimes wonder why, when the cross came, it was such a shock and such a shattering blow to his disciples. The truth is that they simply could not take in what he was saying to them. They were obsessed with the idea of a conquering king; they still clung to that hope that he would let loose his power in Jerusalem and blast his enemies off the face of the earth.
Here is a great warning to every listener. The human mind has a way of listening only to what it wants to hear. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see. There is a kind of wishful thinking which believes that the unpleasant truth cannot really be true, and that the thing it does not want to happen cannot happen. A man must ever struggle against the tendency to hear only what he wants to hear.
One thing more we must note. Jesus never foretold the cross without foretelling the resurrection. He knew that shame lay before him, but he was equally certain that glory lay before him, too. He knew what the malice of men could do, but he knew also what the power of God could do. It was in the certainty of ultimate victory that he faced the apparent defeat of the cross. He knew that without a cross there can never be any crown.
THE MAN WHO WOULD NOT BE SILENCED (Luke 18:35-43)
18:35-43 When Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the wayside begging. When he heard the crowd passing through he asked what it meant. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." He shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" Those who were going on in front rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he cried all the more, "Son of David, have pity on me." Jesus stood, and ordered him to be brought to him. When he had come near he asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, that I may receive my sight." Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." And immediately he received his sight and followed him glorifying God, and, when the people saw it, they all gave praise to God.
The one thing which stands out in this story is the sheer, desperate persistence of the blind man. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to the Passover. At such a time pilgrims travelled in bands together. One of the commonest ways for a Rabbi to teach was to discourse as he walked. That was what Jesus was doing, and the rest of the pilgrim band were crowding close around him, not to miss anything that he might say. As such a pilgrim band passed through a village or a town those who themselves could not go to the feast lined the wayside to see the pilgrims pass and to bid them godspeed on the way.
It was amongst the wayside crowd that the blind man was sitting. When he heard the murmur of the approaching throng he asked what was happening and was told that Jesus was passing by. Immediately he cried out to Jesus for help and healing. Thereupon everyone tried to silence him. The people round Jesus were missing what he was saying because of the clamour of this blind man.
But the man would not be silenced. He shouted again. The word used for shout in Luke 18:39 is quite different from that used in Luke 18:38. In Luke 18:38 it is an ordinary loud shout to attract attention. In Luke 18:39 it is the instinctive shout of ungovernable emotion, a scream, an almost animal cry. The word well shows the utter desperation of the man.
So Jesus stopped, and the blind man found the healing he so passionately desired.
This story tells us two things.
(i) It tells us something about the blind man. He was determined to come face to face with Jesus. Nothing would stop him. He refused to be silent and he refused to be restrained. His sense of need drove him relentlessly into the presence of Jesus. If a man wants a miracle that is the spirit he must show. A gentle, sentimental longing never really taps the power of God; but the passionate, intense desire of the very depths of the human heart will never be disappointed.
(ii) It tells us something about Jesus. At that moment he was discoursing to the crowd like any rabbi. But at the blind man's cry of need he stopped, the discourse forgotten. For Jesus it was always more important to act than to talk. Words always took second place to deeds. Here was a human soul in need. Speech must end and action begin. Someone has said that many teachers are like men throwing chatty remarks to a man drowning in a tempestuous sea. Jesus was never like that; he leaped to the rescue of the man. There is many a man who could not put two sentences together but others love him because he is kind. Men may respect an orator but they love a man with helping hands. Men admire a man with a great mind but they love a man with a big heart.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
Sunday, February 19th, 2017
the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
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