Friday, August 10, 2012

God Loves a Whiner

We are following Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem, but we had jumped over to an episode in John which had happened in Jerusalem, where Jesus said that people should believe that He is God based on the miracles that He performed. Right after that, John records that Jesus went to the region where John the Baptist had been baptizing (John 10:40-42). This is roughly in the region where we again pick up trail in Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem. In Judea, Jesus said that divorce was not OK, despite the fact that God had permitted divorce in the Law. Luke had skipped that dissertation on divorce. Instead, Luke's unique precursor to the study below was an anecdote where Jesus stopped the Pharisees' scoffing by telling them that Kingdom of God was within them. We continue now with more material unique to Luke.

God Loves a Whiner
We all get asked to do things. See this patient. Add that up. Write this report. Weld that L-bracket. Make this presentation. Etc. Etc. Depending on our tasks, our types of jobs, and our schedules, we may not fulfill a request immediately. We have got our own mental lists and plans, and when we have such a plan in place, the last thing we want is to be repeatedly reminded by the original requester until we get that task completed. To us, such nagging represents a lack of faith in our commitment to get the job done. Apparently, God is of another persuasion.

In Luke 18:1-8, we have a parable from Jesus with a rather odd beginning. It begins with an explanation of its purpose, a protocol not found in any other Gospel. The purpose can be seen in Luke 18:1:

Then Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. NIV

So that is the purpose, but let us come back to that in a moment. The parable goes like this:

There was a ruler who did not care about providing justice to anyone. However, a widow kept nagging him over and over again to bring justice against her adversary, so the ruler provided her justice just to stop her nagging. Jesus explained that God is much better than such an unjust ruler, and that He will provide justice swiftly for those who cry out to Him. However, will Jesus find anyone with faith when He returns? (My paraphrase)

That last part deserves a closer look. So here is Luke 18:8:

"I tell you, [God] will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" NIV

It may be tempting to bundle this mention of swift justice to the final Judgement fated for all of mankind, and to call this yet another reference to the then-soon-coming Apocalypse, based on the mention of the return of Jesus, but that does not appear to be the case when Luke's writing is considered more fully.

Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, emphasized prayer. Matthew used "pray words" (pray, prayer, praying, etc.) 17 times, Mark used them 12 times, Luke used them 27 times, and John used them least of all; only 7 times in his Gospel. It is widely thought that the author of Luke also wrote Acts, and within Acts "pray words" are used 33 more times. Furthermore, Acts emphasized the power of prayer and the direct and timely answering of it in episodes such as Acts 4:23-31.

So, unlike people, who only want to be told once what to do, and then be granted faith that they will get it done, Luke's Jesus is advocating patient and persistent prayer. To not do so is to not have faith in God.

Perhaps there is a little more we can learn here.

I suspect that Luke wrote or included this parable with a purpose, and that it did not originate with Jesus. As we discussed in the study about how Jesus instructed people to pray, this would partially contradict what Jesus said in Matthew 6:7-8:

"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." NIV

I say "partially contradict" because this verse has more to do with prayer length than frequency, but the principle is the same: God already knows what you need, so stop thinking you can persuade Him by how you pray. Just make your request and be done with it.

Furthermore, we need to consider that Luke was likely written sometime after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event which many early Christians would have taken to be a sign of the End Times. Yet the Second Coming did not occur, even decades later. Some people, being people, were probably becoming discouraged. Unanswered prayer would have been just one more source of discouragement, ultimately leading some to walk away from the new faith. This apostasy is echoed in the words Luke puts in Jesus' mouth at the end: "when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" It appears that Luke was trying to thwart a problem of weakening faith within the early church.

This was not the only problem that Luke had to confront. At that time, though the church was still young, it was likely mature in ways and issues that we still see in the modern church today. While some were struggling to keep the faith at all, others were parading around self-righteously in their knowledge of the "true" faith. That kind of smug behavior was both isolationist and unattractive to the outside world, which made it difficult to grow the church constituency.

Facing that problem, and already having inserted a targeted parable to deal with the apostasy issue, I suspect that it was easy for Luke to insert another targeted parable. So we see the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14, where Luke follows the same protocol of explaining his target explicitly in the beginning so that there would be no misunderstanding. In Luke 18:9, we see:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: NIV

So, from these elements, we can see the likely craft work of a man, not God; a man dealing with the real issues of expanding a new faith, while attempting to preserve the faithfulness of the present flock of believers.

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