Pastor’s Note: Prayers of Desperation

The two parables on prayer in Luke 18:1-14 carry a common theme: desperation.  The widow is desperate and cries for retributive justice in the face of her adversary/accuser (Luke 18:3; see Revelation 6:10 and Romans 12:19).  But she has a second opponent in the parable: the unresponsive, godless, contemptuous judge. However, the “unrighteous judge” ends up granting her justice because he is so inconvenienced by her constant pestering (he couldn’t care less about the merits of her case).

So the question comes to us, is this our perception of God when we cry out to him for retributive justice against evil (Lord stop this evil plague)? Do we really believe He hears our prayer, or do we share Winston Churchill’s view that God is ‘busy elsewhere?’  In reality, God is responsive, just and compassionate and He will act “speedily” and decisively.  The promise is God will do His part as we cry to him, but, the real question of this parable is: will we do ours and persevere in believing He will answer us? (Luke 18:8).

The second prayer of desperation is packaged in a very familiar way in Luke: A tax collector pitted against a Pharisee (Luke 5:32; see also the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10).  Both practice social distancing in their posture of prayer in the temple.  The pharisee distances himself from others.  He prays a prayer of thanksgiving, only it’s about himself, not about God: “I thank you that I’m not like… (we can fill in the blanks here, Luke 18:11). He is smug, standoffish and, oh, so confident of his own right standing before God (the very meaning of justification).  The tax collector, on the other hand, practices social distancing from God Himself.  He too stands afar but he is beating his chest and cries out in desperation: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).  The mercy he is crying to receive is an appeal for protection from the consequences of his sins. He’s begging the judge to remove the deserved sentencing from him.  So his prayer of desperation is the opposite of the widow’s. The widow appeals for justice; he appeals for mercy.  At the end of the second story, we have no doubt as to whose prayer is accepted before God. The ‘righteous’ Pharisee’s prayer is rejected, but the cry of desperation of the tax collector/sinner is accepted. He has right standing before God. The punishment he fully deserves has been removed and he goes home “justified” (see Hebrews 2:17).   To complete the picture, Jesus ends with the promise that the humble will be exalted, but the proud (“he who exalts himself”) will be humbled (Luke 18:14).

So here too, we ask ourselves, in our prayer life, how desperate are we? Have we been gripped by the sense of our own brokenness and how displeasing our own sin is in the eyes of a holy God?  It’s a lot easier to cry out for retribution against others.  But how do we really feel about ourselves?  The tax collector was accepted by God because he humbled himself before the Lord, broken by his deep awareness of His own sin before a Holy God.  In this way, he is like David in Psalms 51:1, “Have mercy on me.”  In Psalm 51:17, David and the tax collector and we have our answer: “A broken and contrite [=humble] heart, O God you will not despise.”  In the end, both the judge and the Pharisee despise others and both find themselves unrighteous before God.

By placing our faith in Jesus, we know we will be vindicated from all evil in the end.  We also believe that as we humble ourselves, with a deep sense of our own shortcomings before Him, he will embrace us and restore us.  This is our prayer for ourselves, our community, this land, indeed, the entire world.