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The parable of the persistent widow
Luke chapter 18, verses 1-8
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Jesus had told his disciples that “the time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it” (chapter 17, verse 22). He speaks of the suffering that is coming for himself and urges them to be ready to give up their lives (chapter 17, verse 33). Difficult times are coming, and the followers of Jesus may suppose that God is not being just, because of the persecutions he permits them to endure. Jesus tells his disciples a short parable to encourage them to continue praying for justice with the assurance that their persistent prayer will be heard by the righteous judge.
In the parable, a wicked judge unfit for office refuses at first to listen to the pleas of a poor widow for justice against an adversary who is giving her trouble. The only weapon she has is her persistence. She bothers the judge until he takes action to see that justice is done in her case. His reason for acting is stated literally in the Greek: “Lest by coming she in the end gives me a black eye.” He uses a term borrowed from boxing. He can’t take the constant pounding of her petitions any longer. This parable is similar to that of the persistent friend (chapter 11, verses 5-8).
Jesus leads from this story to the application: if an unjust judge will finally act as a result of persistent prayer, how much more quickly will God bring about justice for his chosen ones if only they keep on praying to him. “He will see that they get justice, and quickly.” The disciples are urged to keep praying in the midst of the sufferings they endure. God will see to it that justice is done.
The question that Jesus asks in verse 8 suggests that the disciples need to pray especially for a strong faith. The delay of the end and the suffering that must be endured will be a real test of faith. The mention of the coming of the Son of Man takes the reader back to the previous section, which raised the question of when this would happen. The when is not important; what matters is that faith is found. Each individual is called upon to answer Jesus’ question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” The implication seems to be that faith will be hard to find.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector
Luke chapter 18, verses 9-14
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like all other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is another parable about prayer, but it is quite different from the previous one. It also says something about God’s kind of justice. Jesus directs it to some who were confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everyone else. Though it is not said, this characterization fits the Pharisees who sought to “justify” themselves in the eyes of men (chapter 16, verse 15).
The usual time for prayer in the temple was 9 A.M. and 3 P.M. The Pharisee moved far to the front, in the court of Israel near the Holy Place. His is not really a prayer at all but simply bragging about himself, his righteousness and moral superiority over others. He specifically mentions “this tax collector.” The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday; the law required only one day of fasting a year (Leviticus chapter 16, verse 29). We previously heard how they tithed even their garden herbs (chapter 11, verse 42). The Pharisee boasted of how much God needed him.
In striking contrast, the tax collector confessed how much he needed God. He stands as far back in the temple as possible and does not look up but beats his breast as a mark of repentance. His is a genuine prayer based on the words of David in Psalm 51: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” His prayer has come down to us in the liturgy of the church as a perfect cry for God’s help and grace.
Jesus renders his verdict: the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, is justified before God. The words “righteousness,” “evildoers,” and “justified” all have the same Greek root. The Pharisee was confident that he was right and not as sinful as others were, but in God’s judgment the tax collector was right. His was a righteousness based on confession of sinfulness and faith in God’s mercy. This is the righteousness that counts for salvation. As so often is the case, God baffles human thinking and evaluation: God humbles the exalted and exalts the humble. This is God’s kind of justice.
The little children and Jesus
Luke chapter 18, verses 15-17
People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The kingdom of God belongs to the Samaritan leper and the tax collector. It belongs also to babies. Jesus has already used a little child to teach his disciples a lesson about greatness (chapter 9, verses 46-48). Here they learn about the kind of people who enter God’s kingdom.
The touch of Jesus brought healing to a leper (chapter 5, verses 12 and 13). People bringing babies to Jesus expected his touch to convey a blessing. The disciples thought that this was all a waste of Jesus’ time and perhaps was quite senseless, but Jesus invites the little children to come to him. Mark chapter 10, verse 16 tells us that he took them in his arms and blessed them. Anyone who wishes to enter God’s kingdom is told to receive it “like a little child.” Like the sinful tax collector pleading for mercy, the person who desires to enter the kingdom must come in childlike weakness and take what God has to give.
This story has a traditional place in the service of infant baptism. Infant baptism is an excellent example of pure grace. There is nothing that the little babe brings to baptism except the status of sinner. God’s grace works forgiveness and makes us fit for the kingdom of God.
The rich ruler
Luke chapter 18, verses 18-30
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Several rich men have been the subject of parables told by Jesus. One was a farmer who stored up goods for himself but was not rich toward God (chapter 12, verses 16-21). Another lived in luxury unmindful of the plight of poor Lazarus (chapter 16, verses 19-31). In the present story a rich ruler comes to Jesus with a question. Perhaps he was a ruler of a synagogue (see chapter 8, verse 41) or possibly some sort of political leader. He questions Jesus as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. This same question was asked previously by an expert in the law (chapter 10, verse 25). Inheriting eternal life is the same as receiving the kingdom of God. We have just heard that one must receive the kingdom of God like a little child. For the rich ruler that meant selling all his possessions, giving to the poor, and following Jesus.
The rich ruler addresses Jesus as “good teacher.” Students of Jewish literature claim that teachers (rabbis) were never described with the adjective good, which was reserved for God alone. Some have wondered why Jesus rejects this title since he is the Son of God. No doubt Jesus finds this address out of place in his role as the Son of Man on the way to the cross. It is more flattery than true devotion. The rich ruler would have followed Jesus if he had truly believed in him as the Son of God.
Jesus directs the rich ruler to the commandments and hears from him the boast that he has kept them all since he was a boy. He wanted something more to do which would insure him of inheriting the kingdom. However, when Jesus gives him the double task of selling all for the sake of the poor (chapter 12, verse 33) and then following Jesus, the rich ruler turns away in sadness. His riches obstruct his entrance into the kingdom. He did not recognize covetousness as a form of idolatry (Colossians chapter 3, verse 5). He served money rather than God (chapter 16, verse 13). The cost of following Jesus was too great (chapter 9, verses 57-62).
After the rich ruler had gone his own way, Jesus makes a comment about the difficulty rich people have in entering the kingdom of God. He says that a camel has an easier time of going through the eye of a needle than a rich person has of passing through the narrow door into the banquet hall of salvation. Some have tried to eliminate this startling hyperbole by claiming that Jesus is really talking about a small opening in a city wall when he speaks of the “eye of a needle.” But that misses his point, which he clearly states in answer to Peter’s question as to who can be saved: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” With childlike faith one must pray like the tax collector in the temple: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Salvation is all gift.
What the rich ruler would not do, Peter and other of the followers of Jesus had done (chapter 5, verse 11). Jesus gives the assurance that such sacrifices for the sake of the kingdom will be rewarded many times over in this life and in the life to come. Rich people who are moved by the Spirit of God to use their wealth for the sake of those in need will find this statement of Jesus fulfilled in their lives.
Jesus again predicts his death
Luke chapter 18, verses 31-34
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.
Three times previously Jesus had told his disciples of his impending suffering and death (chapter 9, verse 22; chapter 9, verse 44; and Chapter 17, verse 25). But in none of these predictions did he tell them that this was going to take place in the holy city of Jerusalem. There is a hint of the place of his death in chapter 13, verse 33, but now for the first time the disciples are plainly told why Jesus had “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (chapter 9, verse 51). The next story will find the band of travelers in the city of Jericho, quite near the goal of their journey.
What is also new to this prediction is the fact that the death of Jesus will fulfill what is written in the prophets.
Jesus has in mind especially Isaiah chapter 53. The disciples also hear for the first time that Jesus will be handed over to the Gentiles; his own people will ask the foreign governor Pontius Pilate to pronounce the sentence of death.
The disciples are totally unprepared to accept this chain of events. They hear the words Jesus speaks but do not understand. The meaning is hidden. Only after his resurrection did Jesus open “their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (chapter 24, verse 45). At this point in his ministry, he is content to allow the disciples to remain in their ignorance.
A blind beggar receives his sight
Luke chapter 18, verses 35-43
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
The old city of Jericho had been rebuilt by Herod the Great on a new site. Located 820 feet below sea level, its tropical climate turned this place into a luxurious pleasure town especially during the winter months. Jericho was a military city and customs center for taxes. It was located on the main road leading westward to Jerusalem and commanded a ford across the Jordan River.
Luke tells us that as Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. Matthew writes about two blind men whom Jesus met on leaving the city (Matthew chapter 20, verses 29-34). Mark’s gospel speaks of one blind man named Bartimaeus waiting for Jesus as he left the city (Mark chapter 10, verses 46-52). Unless Jesus healed several blind people near Jericho, the differences in these accounts are best explained by supposing that Jesus healed two blind men while he was between the old city of Jericho and the new one built by Herod. Luke mentions only one of the two who was sitting near the entrance to the new city.
In response to the blind man’s question, the crowd tells him that “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” The mention of Nazareth alerts us to the fact that this Galilean is now in Judean country, quite far from home. The blind man has another name for Jesus, calling him “Son of David.” The angel Gabriel had told Mary that her son would be given “the throne of his father David” (chapter 1, verse 32). But no person to this point in Luke’s gospel had addressed Jesus with the title “Son of David.” It is found in Jewish literature as a term for the Messiah.
Despite the rebuke of the crowd, the blind man continued to cry out for mercy. He takes his place alongside the ten lepers (chapter 17, verse 13) in turning to Jesus for help. And he is not disappointed. The healing of the blind man is the fourth miracle recorded by Luke on the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. This blind man had faith in Jesus whereas many who could see physically remained spiritually blind. This man became a follower, something that the rich ruler was not able to do.
Zacchaeus the tax collector
Luke chapter 19, verses 1-10
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Rich people have not fared well in Luke’s gospel to this point. Jesus tells several parables in which he portrays rich men who abused their wealth (chapter 12, verses 16-21 and chapter 16, verses 19-31). When a rich man turned away from discipleship, Jesus spoke of the great difficulty that those with riches had in entering the kingdom of God (chapter 18, verses 24 and 25). Yet he added, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (chapter 18, verse 27). As Jesus passes through the city of Jericho, that possibility becomes an actuality. Luke presents a rich man who is a true son of Abraham, who was a rich man himself.
The name Zacchaeus comes from a word meaning “clean” or “innocent.” He was the chief tax collector in Jericho, an important commerical city. He had to work closely with the Roman governor in his position. Over the years he had accumulated a great store of wealth. This wealth might easily have kept him from entering into the kingdom of God.
Zacchaeus had evidently heard about Jesus. Perhaps he was even acquainted with one of the followers of Jesus who had himself been a tax collector: Levi, also called Matthew (chapter 5, verse 27). Zacchaeus was a short man and could not see over the crowds surrounding Jesus. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree. This tree belongs to the same family as the mulberry (see chapter 17, verse 6) and has no relation to the American sycamore. It produces figs (the Greek word for “figs” is sykon).
When Jesus reaches the spot where Zacchaeus is perched in the tree, he orders Zacchaeus down immediately. A divine necessity is laid upon Jesus that he stay in the house of Zacchaeus and dine with him. There is an old English poem which describes the haste of this little man in coming down that sycamore:
Methinks I see, with what a busy haste
Zacchaeus climbed the tree. But, oh, how fast,
How full of speed, canst thou imagine, when
Our Savior called, he powdered down again?
Bird that was shot ne’er dropped so quick as he.
The crowd reaction to the entry of Jesus into the house of this “sinner” is highly predictable based on past performance (chapter 15, verse 2). The people thought it despicable for a Jewish rabbi to set foot in the house of a tax collector. Yet for Zacchaeus the entry of Jesus was truly his day of salvation. He expresses his overwhelming joy at being accepted by Jesus by promising half of his possessions to the poor and a fourfold restitution for anyone whom he had cheated.
The final comment of Jesus emphasizes that he has come to seek and save the lost. The Pharisees and experts in the law regarded people like Zacchaeus as lost and beyond hope of salvation because of their occupations and cooperation with the hated Romans. Yet this man proved himself far more righteous than the Pharisees who loved money (chapter 16, verse 14) and who failed to clean up their lives by giving to the poor (chapter 11, verse 41). Zacchaeus is the model for the rich believer.
The parable of the ten minas
Luke chapter 19, verses 11-27
While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’
“But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’
“He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.
“The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’
“‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’
“The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’
“His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’
“Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.
“His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’
“Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who lived near the time of Jesus, the distance between Jericho and Jerusalem was 150 stadia through “desert and rocky” country. A Roman stadium was slightly more than 600 feet. This makes the final leg of Jesus’ journey about 18 miles, uphill all the way. There is no way of knowing how large a crowd was following. It was the spring season of the year, and the Jewish festival of the Passover would soon be celebrated.
The Passover festival stirred nationalistic sentiments since it celebrated Jewish independence from captivity in Egypt. The mood of the people walking along with Jesus was one of expectation: “The kingdom of God is going to appear very soon; we’re marching with the king.”
To cool their misplaced enthusiasm, Jesus tells a parable about a man of noble birth who went to a distant country to have himself appointed king. Before leaving, he gave one mina each to ten of his servants, instructing them to put the money to work. “Mina” comes from the Greek word mna, a coin valued at 1/60 of a talent and equivalent to about three months wages. In Matthew chapter 25, verses 14-30 a parable is recorded in which a man distributes talents to his servants, a much larger sum of money.
After this nobleman left home, some of his subjects sent a delegation to inform the distant authorities that they didn’t want this man as their king. Such a thing actually happened when a delegation of Jews went to Rome to appear before Caesar Augustus opposing the appointment of a son of Herod the Great as their king. Perhaps Jesus had this incident in mind. In the present parable their protest had no effect. In fact, they end up being killed by the new king for opposing him. Jesus is no doubt thinking of those contemporaries of his who opposed his kingship. They will be condemned in the final judgment for rejecting him.
When the new king returns home, he summons his servants to find out what they have done with the minas he had given them. We have reports from three of the ten servants. The first earned ten more minas; the second, five more. Both are commended and put in charge of some of the king’s cities.
However, one of the ten servants reports to the king that he had kept his mina “laid away in a piece of cloth.” He knew the hard-driving personality of the new king and was afraid of losing his mina if he invested it with the bankers. The king condemns him, calling him a wicked servant. He orders that the returned mina be given to the servant who has ten. When questioned about this seeming unfairness, the king quotes a proverb which says that the person with much will get more and the person with nothing will lose even that. The same proverb was quoted by Jesus in chapter 8, verse 18, where he applied it to listening to the Word of God.
This parable is another of those dealing with the subject of proper stewardship. Two of the servants were good stewards; one did not put to use what he had received from his master. The disciples of Jesus needed to realize that the kingdom of God was not about to appear in the near future. As they wait for Jesus’ return, they are to be busy using the resources that have been given to them. Like the servants that Jesus spoke of in chapter 12, verses 35-48, he wants them to carry out their responsibilities faithfully. The mina, which every disciple of Jesus has been given, must be none other than the gospel. Jesus wants them to invest that gospel treasure they have received so that it may produce much fruit.