Ben Witherington on Luke 18:1-14 – The Nature of Prayer

Luke 18.1-14 and the Nature of Prayer

from The Bible and Culture by Ben Witherington

For reasons not clear to me, Protestant Christians, whom I spend the most time with, seem to have some very funky notions about prayer, that are not well grounded in the Bible, or for that matter the early Jewish practice of prayer.  And some of them are based in a very bad exegesis of what Luke 18 says and implies about prayer.   Luke Johnson in his fine commentary on Luke (p. 274) has this to say about the matter:

“The parable itself makes clear that ‘always’ does not support any technique of ‘perpetual prayer’ or method of mysticism but rather consistency and perseverance in praying. Luke-Acts emphasizes not only the prayer of Jesus but also that of the disciples (6.28;11.12; 22.40,46;Acts 1.4;2.42;3.1; 6.4,6;10.4,9,30-31;12.5,12;16.13,16,25; 20.36; 21.5; 22.17;28.8).”

He helpfully goes on to add,

“The love of God can so easily turn into an idolatrous self-love; the gift can so quickly be seized as a possession; what comes from another can so blithely be turned into self-accomplishment. Prayer can be transformed into boasting. Piety is not an unambiguous posture.… The pious one [i.e. the Pharisee in Luke 18.1ff.] is all convoluted comparison and contrast; he can receive no gift because he cannot stop counting his possessions. His prayer is one of peripheral vision. Worse, he assumes God’s role of judge: not only does he enumerate his own claims to being just, but he reminds God of the deficiency of the tax-agent, in case God had not noticed. In contrast, the tax-agent is utter simplicity and truth. Indeed, he is a sinner.  Indeed, he requires God’s gift of righteousness because he has none of his own. And because he both needs and recognizes his need for the gift he receives it….For Luke, prayer is faith in action. Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship…if prayer is self-assertion before God, then it cannot be answered by God’s gift of righteousness; possession and gift cancel each other out. “

No wonder God so often answers our prayers with an emphatic NO!  Prayer as a means of self-exaltation, self-indulgence, self-agrandizement, self-congratulation, self-promotion, or prayer used as a sort of ouija board to get what we want out of a reluctant God are all very bad, and very unBiblical models of praying.  Thankfully, Jesus came to teach us a new model— the Lord’s Prayer, which should really be called the Disciple’s prayer, though interestingly Jesus seems to pray a form of this prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  What is noteworthy about the Lord’s prayer is that it is a collective prayer, a prayer for the people to use together— ‘give us this day’   it says,  ‘forgive us’  it says.   We should not be praying for things for ourselves that we would not want to share with the body of Christ.  And notice that this Lord’s prayer encourages us only to pray about the basics—- praising God (hallowed be thy name), asking that God’s saving reign and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven (not his in heaven, and our wills on earth), asking for daily bread (not, notice, lavish banquets), asking for forgiveness of sins and debts (an increasingly necessary prayer in our debtor nation), recognizing that in some mysterious way, our receiving of foregiveness is affected by our willingness to forgive and actually forgiving those who have wronged us, and we pray not to be put to the test, but to be delivered from the Evil One.    This is Praying  101 for Jesus’ disciples, and it does not sound like the old Janis Joplin song— “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends…..”

If we turn to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector there is yet more to ponder from this same chapter.

The example of the pious Pharisee in this parable, who is no hypocrite, reminds us that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, while all excellent religious practices commended by God and the Bible, in themselves don’t make a person more ‘spiritual’ or ‘holy’. Indeed, these practices may simply make you more focused on your own needs, more hungry, and poorer!  Much depends on the heart that uses these spiritual disciplines, and in the case of the Pharisee we are right to see a note of pride and self-centeredness in his prayer.  The word ‘I’ keeps coming up in that prayer, and he improves his sense of self-worth by putting others down.  It is then not the spiritual discipline itself that makes a person more holy.  It is the humbling one’s self in the sight of the Lord, being completely honest about one’s sins, and pouring out one’s heart with open hands to receive what God will give, that makes the difference in this story.  Notice that the tax collector has no previous ‘good deeds’ or spiritual practices to appeal to, to make his case with God.  It is God alone who justifies and sanctifies the man, not the spiritual practices, though God may use such practices to that end.

We are always looking for a short-cut, a how too self-help manual to improve our lives, but this parable warns about how one’s piety and spiritual practices can actually get in the way of your receiving what God would give, because one is in danger of thinking that the regular exercise of such practices entitles one to something, entitles one to make a claim on God, and so they become a means to a self-seeking end, rather than a means of growing in one’s relationship and dependency on God and his grace.

Think on these things.

Tim Keller on Preaching to Himself (via Steve K McCoy)

Steve McCoy excerpts a valuable portion about prayer from Timothy Kellers Q & A discussion:

Tim Keller on Preaching to Himself

Tim-kellerTim Keller, at about 7 minutes in to the 2nd Q&A session with Bryan Chapell (from these discussions), is basically asked, How do you [„preach the gospel to yourself every day”]? I worked hard to do justice to how Keller stated these things. Hope it’s helpful.

I try to do petition in the morning. I try to do repentance in the evening. So I try to pray in the morning and in the evening. In the evening I look back on what I did wrong and repent.

But in the middle of the day I try to catch myself and I look for four kinds of emotions.

I always pray in the morning, „Lord make me happy enough in the grace of Jesus to avoid being proud, cold, scared, and hooked.”

  • Now, by proud I mean what you think, too self-congratulatory. And maybe disdainful of people who I don’t think have it together.
  • Cold means I’m just too absorbed in my concerns to really be compassionate and gracious and warm and joyful to the people around me.
  • Scared means I’m just obviously too anxious and worried.
  • Hooked means…when you’re overworked, it means for me…eating. Eating things I shouldn’t eat just because it’s a way of keeping my energy up, and also because it’s a way of rewarding myself. Or looking at women more than once.

So: proud, cold, scared, hooked.

Now, in the middle of the day I get it out and say, „Have I been proud, scared, cold, or hooked in the last 3-4 hours. And the answer usually is „Yeah.” And then I say, „How do I bring the Gospel to bear on that? How does the grace of God deal with it?” And you try to catch yourself in those feelings. So basically finding problem feelings and inordinate desires, catch them when they’re happening, try to deal with them with the Gospel right there.

I call that „Quick Strike” on my idols around noon, if I can remember it. And repentance at night and petition in the morning. So I try to get into God’s presence three times a day.


I know the times in which I’ve been most prone to temptation is when I’ve basically drop-kicked the whole practice, the discipline of it, for weeks on end because I’ve just been so busy and running ragged and that’s when I can really sense myself being vulnerable.

Distinguishing Marks of a Quarrelsome Person (via) Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung from a post on the Gospel Coalition website on Feb 24,2011

Our evening service was canceled last week because of the snow. The portion below is an edited portion of the larger sermon, a message on conflict from Proverbs. I thought it was worth posting (although now I haven’t preached it yet) as a follow-up to Tuesday’s post.


Quarrels don’t just happen. People make them happen.

Of course, there are honest disagreements and agree-to-disagree propositions, but that’s not what the Bible means by quarreling. While studying Proverbs recently I was struck by the fact that most of the advice about conflict is not on how to resolve it, but how to avoid it.

Quarrels, at least in Proverbs, are unnecessary arguments, the kind that honorable men stay away from (17:14; 20:3). These fights aren’t the product of a loving rebuke or a principled conviction. These quarrels arise because people are quarrelsome. Some Christians have a lifeline to Speedway and love to pour gasoline on every tiny spark of conflict.

You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the nice Nazis to believe that quarreling is wrong. You only have to believe the Bible (James 4:1). Hot-headed, divisive Christians are not pleasing to God (Proverbs 6:19). We are told to drive them out (22:10) and avoid such people (Rom. 16:17). This doesn’t mean we only huddle with the people we like. We are not talking about awkward folks or those who disagree with us. We are talking about quarrelsome Christians–habitually disagreeable, divisive, hot-headed church people.

So what does a quarrelsome person look like? What are his (or her) distinguishing marks?

1. You defend every conviction with the same degree of intensity. You don’t talk about secondary issues, because there are no secondary issues.

2. You are quick to speak and slow to listen. You rarely ask questions and when you do it is to accuse or to continue prosecuting your case. You are not looking to learn, you are looking to defend, dominate, and destroy.

3. Your only model for ministry and faithfulness is the showdown on Mount Carmel. There is a place for sarcasm, but when Elijah with the prophets of Baal is your spiritual hero you may end up mocking people instead of making arguments.

4. You are incapable of seeing nuances and you do not believe in qualifying statements.

5. You never give the benefit of the doubt. You do not try to read arguments in context. You put the worst possible construct on other’s motives and the meaning of their words.

6. You have no unarticulated opinions.

7. You are unable to sympathize with your opponents.

8. Your first instinct is to criticize. Your last is to encourage.

9. You have a small grid and everything fits in it. Everything is a social justice issue; everything relates to the regulative principle, everything is Obama’s fault; everything is wrong because of patriarchy; everything comes down to one thing–my thing.

10. You derive a sense of satisfaction and spiritual safety in being rejected and marginalized. You are constitutionally unable to be demonstrably fruitful in ministry and you will never affirm those who appear to be. You only know how to relate to God as a remnant.

11.You are always in the trenches with hand grenades strapped to your chest, never in the mess hall with ice cream and ping pong. Remember G.K. Chesterton: “We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return to at evening.”

12. You have never changed your mind on an important matter.

Just some food for thought. I know I choke on my own words at times.

Kevin DeYoung on preaching advice from Martyn Lloyd Jones

De ce predicile si scrierile lui Kevin DeYoung aduc roade- Pentru ca el isi face ‘examinari de sine’ la toate cele ce predica. Mai jos urmeaza una dintre aceste examinari de sine.

Great Advice on Preaching from a Great Preacher

The preacher’s danger:

To love to preach is one thing, to love those to whom we preach is quite another.

The golden rule:

At this point there is one golden rule, one absolute demand–honesty. You have got to be honest with your text.

The definition of preaching:

It is theology on fire.

The purpose of preaching:

What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women as sense of God and His presence.

The romance and the realism of preaching:

Any many who has had some glimpse of what is it to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached. But he will go on trying, hoping that by the grace of God one day he may truly preach.

Taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers.


8 Tips for Talking to Kids about the Sermon (via) Joe Holland

Daca aveti copii (mai mici) Joe Holland (tata la 4 baieti sub virsta de 8 ani) explica practic cum sa analizam predica in particular cu copii nostri. Imi place ce spune la punctul #7-Sa ii urmezi pe drumuri de fuga dupa iepuri (adica sa ii lasi sa ia o tangenta diferita ca sa ii intelegi cum gindesc ei- deci sa nu ii taiem din discutie si sa ii aducem abrupt inapoi la subiect. Astfel invatam modul lor de a rationaliza ceia ce au inteles  din predica, si putem sa ne formam raspunsurile noastre conform  intelesului lor).

They sit there next to you and their feet don’t even hit the floor.  You’re thinking, “What, if anything of this guy’s sermon is sinking into my kid’s head?”  And with that little thought you’ve already decided not to engage your child about the sermon.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let me introduce you to the most important rule when talking to your kids about the sermon: They retain more than you think they do. The second most important rule is like it: They understand more than you think they do.

In the interest of these two truths I’m writing this brief guide on how to talk to your kids about a sermon.  I’m writing it both as a preacher and as a parent of four boys under the age of 8.  I’ve failed, succeeded, and failed some more at talking to my kids about Jesus.  Hopefully the tips you find below will help you as they’ve helped me.

At the heart of the gospel is Jesus introducing us to his loving Father.  In worship we get to make a similar introduction—we get to introduce our kids to Jesus.  Don’t miss that opportunity.

8 Tips for Talking to your Kids about the Sermon

  1. Remember the outline. It doesn’t matter if you keep written notes or not.  Remember the gist of what is being taught.  If your pastor preaches for 40 minutes, then try to make a mental note of what you’ve covered at the 20 minute point.  Don’t be discouraged if you can’t get every point.  Get as many of the big ones as you can.
  2. Know the one, main point. Every passage and every sermon—no matter what your pastor says—has a main point.  Grab it when you see it go by and don’t let go.  And as a word of caution, every preacher has a bad day.  Sometimes the structure of the sermon looks like a piece of abstract art.  If so, do the best you can.  But don’t let the guy close in prayer without having a main point in your head.
  3. How is Jesus the hero? Now that you have an outline and main point, make sure you have Jesus too.  How was Jesus the hero of the sermon?  Kids are incorrigibly self-centered—and so are a few adults.  Make sure you have a ton to say about Jesus, no matter what the passage or where the preacher went with it.  Without an emphasis on Jesus your little saints will grow up thinking that the Bible is all about them.
  4. Engage your kids with open ended questions. You know the outline and you can keep to the main point.  You know you’re going to talk a ton about Jesus.  Now engage your kids with any kind of question you can think of… except ones that can be answered, “yes” or “no”.  Here are some examples:
    • In the story questions: “What would have thought if you were an Israelite soldier and saw big ol’ Goliath walking up to little David?”
    • Emotions questions: “If you were blind, how would you feel if Jesus put his hands on your eyes and fixed them so they could see?”
    • Leading questions: “The rich young ruler was wrong because he thought he could earn God’s favor.  Why is it silly to think we can earn God’s favor by doing enough good things?”
    • Action questions: “What would you have done if Jesus had made a hurricane turn into a cool breeze right in front of you?”
    • Application questions: “If Jesus has forgiven you, do you think you can forgive Tommy when he wings a Tonka truck at your head?”
    • Use your imagination questions: You know your kids best.  Make up some questions.
  5. Make sure the gospel is clear. Jesus died for sinners. It’s very simple and can get very complex.  But no matter the passage, don’t you dare teach your kids moralism.  Tell them that Jesus has done everything necessary for them to know that God is overjoyed with them.  When you tell them to do something, feel something, or think something, show them how those things are motivated by God’s love and not by fear, guilt, or pride.
  6. Be the first to pray and confess. Talking to your kids about the sermon is as much letting them watch you learn from the sermon as it is teaching them about the sermon.  If the preacher is helping your congregation diagnose sin, show your kids how it affected you.  You could say, “You know, sometimes, daddy struggles with being angry.  And it’s then that I realize I really need Jesus.”  And when it comes time to pray, let them pray after you.  Model for them what it looks like for a Christian to talk to God.
  7. Chase rabbit trails. Your kids will lead you down them.  Go with them.  You’ll find out a ton about how they think.  And you may just enjoy the unexpected stroll off the beaten path.
  8. Remember the first two rules. After all this, it may be you feel like it was a complete waste of time.  It’s at that point you must remember the first two rules:
    • They retain more than you think they do.
    • They understand more than you think they do.

And I promise you this, they will remember these times with you.  They will forget a ton.  But they won’t forget Sunday afternoons with daddy and mommy talking about Jesus.

(via) Kingdom People/Trevin Wax

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