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.

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