When ‘keep your chin up’ is pointless advice

Jesus told twinned parables illustrating how to pray effectively (Luke 18:1-8 and 9-14).

  1. Vindicated through wise praying

In the first parable, a widow pleaded for justice against my adversary’ (Luke 18:3) in court before an unrighteous judge’ (Luke 18:6) who admits that he ‘neither feared God nor respected man’ (Luke 18:2, 4). Yet, because of her persistence in ‘bothering me’ (Luke 18:5), he decided, ‘I will give her justice, just as God ‘will give justiceto his chosen ones ‘who cry to him day and night’ (Luke 18:7), and will do so ‘speedily’ (Luke 18:8).

The second parable contrasts two praying men. Pharisees considered ‘themselves … righteous and ‘treated [all] others [literally, dismissively, ‘the rest’] with contempt’ (Luke 18:9). In his prayer this Pharisee actually thanks God ‘that I am not like other men [literally, again, ‘the rest’ who are] … unjust … like this tax-collector’ (Luke 18:11).

By contrast, the tax-collector simply begged, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13) and returned home justified(Luke 18:14), while the self-righteous braggart evidently left the temple still guilty in God’s eyes. From the seven related words emphasised, the issue in the prayers of all three – the widow, the Pharisee and the taxman – was righteousness /justice/ justification/ being right – with God, in the eyes of the law, and in dispute with some cheating or bullying opponent. All seven terms have the same linguistic root that Paul used some fifty times in the first ten chapters of his letter to the church in Rome.

  1.    When your cause is just, never give up

In the first parable, Jesus used five phrases for persistence, some directly from his own lips: ‘they ought always to pray’ (Luke 18:1); ‘a widow … kept coming to [the judge]’ (Luke 18:3); ‘his elect, who cry to him day and night(Luke 18:7); and some from the godless mouth of the unrighteous judge: ‘this widow keeps bothering me’ (Luke 18:5a); and might ‘beat me down by her continual coming (Luke 18:5c).

  1. Posture in praying can be misleading

In observing the two praying protagonists in the second parable, bear in mind that ‘man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7).

[] Although each stood alone to pray:  The Pharisee stood aloof‘standing by himself’ (1 Samuel 16:11) – perhaps to avoid getting contamination from the taxman, and/or to be noticed (Matthew 6:5); the tax-collector – ‘standing far off’ (Matthew 6:13) – kept his distance, like a self-conscious leper, to avoid giving contamination to others around.

[] One looked up but prayed downwards – the traditional Hebrew posture (Psalm 123:1-2; 141:8; 25:15; 2 Chronicles 20:12, ‘To you I lift my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!’ He went home unheard on high. But the other mumbled into his chest and ‘beat his breast’ (2 Chronicles 20:13), yet was heard in heaven!

[] One boasted about himself; the other called himself, ‘me the sinner’ (2 Chronicles 20:13).

  • Pharisees ‘trusted in themselves’ (2 Chronicles 20:9);
  • this Pharisee prayed ‘standing by himself’ (2 Chronicles 20:11);
    • Chronicles 20:and ‘prayed to [that is, towards = eis) himself’ (2 Chronicles 20:11 margin);

(2 Chronicles 20:4) and talked about himself: I thank’, ‘I am not’, ‘I fast’, ‘I give all I possess’ (2 Chronicles 20:11). 

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