• Wayne Shelton

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

Luke 18:9-14

Prayer has often been called ‘the breath of the soul.’ When God works spiritual life in our hearts, this new life evidences itself in true prayer. For instance, Scripture records that Paul began to pray after Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Prior to this, he had undoubtedly said many prayers. However, the Lord notes Paul’s new posture, one of true prayer, with the words, ‘Behold, he prays’ (Acts 9:11).


For the Christian, however, prayer isn’t just some thoughts cast heavenward. The Scriptures teach that by faith, the Christian, through prayer, has access to the throne of grace (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:12; Heb. 4:15-16; 10:19). Yet it would be wrong to suggest that prayer is always easy for believers. In fact, the opposite is often the case. There are many hindrances to overcome when Christians go to prayer and persevere in it.


Jesus Christ devoted at least three parables to the subject of prayer. ‘In each one,’ notes Gerald Bilkes in his book, Glory Veiled and Unveiled, Jesus Christ ‘shows the glory of gospel access.’ Furthermore, each time, ‘his teaching addresses common hindrances to prayer. Clearly, when heeded, his teaching fosters gospel access’ (Bilkes).


The first one is often called ‘the friend at midnight’ in Luke 11:5-13. Christ had just given the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples, who had asked him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1). Christ then tells the parable of a man who received an unexpected guest in the middle of the night. The man went to a nearby friend to ask for some bread to serve his guest. Even though his friend was in bed, the man overcame any hesitancy he might have felt, went to the friend’s house, and woke him up. The pressing need of the moment, combined with his confidence in his friendship with his neighbor, caused the man to set usual decorum aside, even though the hour was so late.


In this story, Christ is addressing a common hindrance in prayer, the feeling that the Lord is indifferent to us and our prayers. We doubt that the Lord is truly concerned about us. This can be such a crippling thing for believers. In fact, this feeling can overwhelm believers to the point that they do not pray – or do not pray in faith.


So if you would quite easily disturb your friend in an emergency and expect that he would help you, is there then not even more reason to go to the Lord, who neither sleeps nor slumbers (Ps. 121:4)? He cares more for believers than any friend could. Should we then be reluctant to pray? It’s no wonder that the Lord follows this parable with these words: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you’ (Luke 11:9). In this story, Jesus is reassuring believers of the fatherly care of the Lord.


A second hindrance to prayer, Bilkes writes, is ‘the feeling that our prayers, up to this point, have gone unanswered.’ Jesus answers this hindrance in the story of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). This hindrance is, in a sense, connected to the first hindrance; we ultimately end up thinking that the Lord is indifferent to us because he is not answering our prayers. In essence, both hindrances are forms of unbelief, notes Bilkes. The perception that God will not hear us or is not hearing us stifles prayer.


The point of this second parable is clear. Though the judge in this story was unjust, the widow received her request because of her persistence. And would the believer, who comes not only to a perfectly just judge but also a graciously heavenly Father, find persistent prayers to be fruitless? The answer is clear: of course not. ‘Gospel access is sure by virtue of God’s character.’ Bilkes writes:


“It’s true – the Lord can delay for his own wise reasons. But isn’t it often our own delays and doubts that keep us from praying? By revealing the Lord as so infinitely better than an unjust judge, Christ gives this parable to foster gospel access for the discouraged believer.”

The third hindrance to prayer is answered by Jesus in his parable of ‘The Pharisee and the Publican’ found in Luke 18:9-14. Christ addresses this devastating hindrance to prayer by showing the heart of true prayer.


These parables expose our hearts! Bilkes states, ‘The problem with our prayerlessness is our wrong or small thoughts of God. Our hearts often think he is less than a friendly neighbor. He is worse than an unjust judge. He is less than a God who delights in mercy.’ Bilkes concludes this section by writing,


“How simple prayer really should be to us! After all, what simple pictures Christ used in these parables – a needy man at midnight, a needy widow, and a needy sinner in the temple. Notice the common thread: they were needy. If only we sensed our desperate need more, we would pray more readily, more persistently, more humbly. And don’t you think we would receive more readily all that God wishes to give?”


Join us this Lord’s Day as we see the heart of true prayer in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican from Luke 18:9-14. Remember, Sunday School begins this Sunday morning at 9:00.


In His Name,

Pastor Wayne



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