Parables on Prayer
Scripture: Luke 11:5–13
PARABLES ABOUT PRAYER
Luke 11:5-13, 18:1-8
Before I went away, we concluded our study in the Book of Ephesians. The teaching portion of that letter ended with an exhortation to us to be faithful in prayer. This is what we read from Ephesians 6:18:
praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
In my message today I have chosen to come back to this subject of prayer, and particularly to focus on some of Jesus’ own teaching on the subject.
To start with, Jesus set a wonderful model for prayer when he was on earth. He prayed often. He sometimes spent all night in prayer. He prayed when he faced big decisions. He prayed when he faced hard times.
Jesus’ disciples were very impressed by the way he prayed. They asked him to teach them to pray. As I was thinking about their request, it occurred to me that it can be taken in two ways. The way I usually think about it (and I think it is the way they intended) is a request to “teach us how to pray.” The result of that request was what is commonly referred to as “the Lord’s Prayer”, a kind of model prayer which has much to teach us about the content of our prayers. But it can also be taken as a request to “teach us to pray,” or teach us the necessity and importance of prayer in our walk with God. And that is where I want to focus in the message today by looking at three stories Jesus told. These stories teach us some important lessons about prayer. The first story is about A Reluctant Friend. The second story is about A Sinful Father. The third story is about An Unrighteous Judge. What do these three odd and even unlikable people have in common, and what do their stories teach us about prayer?
The first story is found in Luke 11:5-10. In this story, a guest shows up late at night after a long journey. In a panic, his host realizes he has no food to place before his guest. In a culture in which hospitality is an essential virtue, he goes to his friend and neighbor to ask for three loaves of bread to feed his guest. It turns out that his friend is not such a good friend. His answer is, “Don’t bother me! Go away! I have already locked the door, and my children and I are all in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything!”
The house in which the friend lives is probably a simple, one room stone structure. All the family would have slept together on simple mats on a raised section at one end of the room. For the man to get up would involve waking and disturbing the whole family. That is why he is reluctant to respond to his friend’s request.
But in the villages of Jesus’ time, this small house is probably clustered close by other similar homes in a village setting. Very little is private. By custom, the man at the door did not knock at the door, but rather called out his friend’s name. The neighbors may also be awake and listening to the exchange and the bold request. Even if friendship is not a strong enough motive to help, Jesus tells us that the boldness of the request eventually called the man forth from the warmth of his bed to give his friend the bread.
In the following story in Luke 11:11-13, a son asks his father for a fish. Now Jesus asks a question. Would a father play a trick on his son and give him a snake instead? If a son asks for an egg, would the father slip him a scorpion? It is clear that Jesus expects his hearers to answer; “No!” Such a thing is unthinkable!
Finally, in a parable in Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of a judge and a widow. In the story, Jesus makes it clear that the judge is not a good judge. He is a bad judge. We are told that he is a judge who does not care about God and he does not care about people or what they think of him. He makes his judgments without any consideration for right and wrong, justice or injustice. The widow in the story comes to him seeking justice and protection from those who wanted to cheat her of her property and her inheritance. At first the judge does nothing. This woman means nothing to him. She obviously has no resources to offer him a fat bribe. She has no man to speak for her or she would not be in the court at all. He brushes her requests aside. But she keeps on coming, day after day after day. Finally he concludes, “If I want any peace, I will have to give her what she is asking or she will wear me out.” So he grants her request.
At first reading these all seem like rather strange stories. One of the reasons they sound strange is that Jesus is using a different teaching strategy. While most of Jesus’ parables were based on comparison (the kingdom of heaven is like…) these particular parables or examples are actually based on contrast. Based on the contrast Jesus uses a teaching strategy that we might call the “how much more” strategy. Jesus uses this technique on other occasions. For example, Jesus tells about how God cares for the sparrows that can be purchased for pennies, and then drives home his point by saying “If God cares about the sparrow, how much more will he care for us who are far more valuable to him than sparrows.”
So, let’s take these strange stories apart and find out what they teach us about prayer.
Let us look at some common ingredients in all three parables. First of all, there is an asker: a friend, a son, a widow.
Secondly there is a request: The friend asks for bread, the son asks for a fish or an egg, the widow asks for justice.
Thirdly (and this is most important to the teaching) all three askers receive what they are asking for. The friend gets his bread, the son gets his fish or his egg, the widow gets justice. They all go away satisfied.
So far so good. In the context of prayer, we are the askers. We are told to be like the characters in these stories. We are to ask. And the implication is that when we ask, we will receive.
But then we come to the fourth common element in each of the stories: there is a person to whom the petition is submitted. In each case, this person has resources or power to grant the request and to meet the need. In the first parable, it is a reluctant friend. In the second, it is a sinful father. In the third it is an unrighteous judge.
Now here is where we must think very carefully. As we think of the reluctant friend and the sinful father and the unrighteous judge we must understand: God is not like them! He is very, very different.
And here is the lesson of the parables. If the askers in these stories received what they asked from these strange, unpleasant characters, how much more will we receive answers to our requests and our petitions?
After all, our God is not a reluctant friend who responds only under duress. He is a willing and compassionate friend!
God is not a sinful father, but rather a truly righteous and good father who delights to meet his children’s needs.
God is not an unrighteous judge who grants justice only at his own whim and at his own convenience. He is a righteous, caring judge who is ready to act speedily to meet the needs of his people for protection and justice.
It is in understanding the contrast that the impact of these parables really strikes home and reaches our hearts. We are motivated to pray boldly and expectantly and persistently like the petitioners in the stories did, because our God is not like the characters in the stories. If they received their requests, how much more will we when we present them to our loving Friend, perfect Father and our righteous Judge?
We can learn a great deal from these petitioners. From the friend at midnight we learn to be bold in our praying. He is really asking a great deal. It is midnight. It is inconvenient. He is disturbing an entire family and possibly an entire neighborhood. He had to know this. Now what he asks is not greedy; only three loaves of bread. Even that is not for himself but for his visitor. But he is asking boldly, without hesitation, not afraid to press his request. That is how we must ask.
Look at the direct application Jesus makes of this story in verse 9: And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
“Ask, seek and knock…” It is never too late at night, or too much trouble, or too inconvenient. God is waiting for us to call, to seek, to knock. What are we waiting for? Let us be bold in our praying!
From the son we learn to be confident we will receive good gifts from our heavenly Father. As Jesus says, even sinful fathers give good gifts to their children. In this example, Jesus is not contrasting a good father with a bad father. Rather he is contrasting human fathers (who are sinful, as all human beings are sinful) with God as our perfect heavenly Father. Even earthly fathers, in spite of their flawed and sinful nature, are inclined to give good gifts to their own children. Because that is true of most earthly fathers, children have confidence to ask their fathers for the things they need. How much more should that carry over into our relationship with our heavenly Father!
Prayer is really about trust, isn’t it? Can we trust God to give good gifts when we ask him? Yes, we can! Now, that does not mean that we will always get exactly what we ask for. Think for a moment. If a child asked his father for a snake to play with, would the father give it to him? Of course not. Sometimes, we may ask for something that is not good for us, or which is not part of God’s good plan for us. And so God may say, “No!” to our request. But we can be confident that what God does give us will be good.
There is another lesson from this passage. At the end of verse 13 we read: how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! The parallel passage in Matthew 7:7 reads a little differently: “…how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” These are not in contradiction but in harmony. God only gives good gifts. And the greatest gift he has to give is the gift of himself, the gift of his own Spirit who lives in us, the sense of his presence with us, whatever our circumstances. So whatever your need, whatever your dilemma, ask, trusting in your heavenly Father, the giver of good gifts. And trust his answer.
From the widow we learn to be persistent in our praying. When she didn’t get the judge’s attention the first day, she came back the next day. And she just kept on coming! Now remember, God is not like that unjust judge. But we are to be like this woman. Keep on praying! This is the reason Jesus told this parable. Luke actually explained the meaning before he related the story. Look at Luke 18:1: And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. We like instant solutions and quick results. But life and God don’t work on our time table. Some things take time and persistence.
Don’t give up! Keep on asking. Some prayers may be answered in an instant. Others may be answered in a day. Others may be answered in a month or a year. Others may be answered in a lifetime. The answer to some of our prayers may not be revealed until we meet Jesus face to face.
These stories do not answer all of our questions about prayer. But they teach us lessons about the importance of prayer and encourage us to pray and be persistent in our praying. God is not like the reluctant friend, or the sinful father or the unrighteous judge. But we are to be like the friend at midnight and ask boldly. We are to be like the son, who asked with confidence that he will receive good gifts. And we are to like the widow who kept asking until her prayers were answered.
Always pray and do not give up. Lord, teach us “to pray”!