Praying to the Almighty; Entering the Kingdom Like a Child

Luke 18: 9-17

And this is the parable he gave to them, [especially for] the ones who were confident in themselves that they had right-standing in contrast to others [who were thereby of no account].
“Two men went up to the temple to pray: one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood praying [up the front, bold as brass] saying his prayer with these words:
“’God, I thank you that I am not at all like all other kinds of men who are grasping [extortioners], crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week, and I give away a tithe on everything I receive.’
“But the tax-collector [is standing there] far back and doesn’t even raise his eyes to heaven but beats his breast saying,
“’God be merciful to me, a sinner [please do something to put me to rights].’
“I tell you this man went down those steps again to his house having [his prayer heard] and put to rights rather than the other.
“Because I tell you, everyone who lifts himself up will be in for a big fall, and he that is humbled will be lifted up.”
And they were also bringing children to him that he might [get to know them] and hold them in his arms. But when his disciples saw this they told them [their mothers] that this was inappropriate. [It was not convenient] But Jesus called them [his disciples] to him and said:
“Make it possible for the children [your children] to come and do not stand in their way. For this is all about the Kingdom of God. And I tell you whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a child does simply cannot enter it.”

Luke follows this famous parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector with the report of the rebuke Jesus gave to his disciples when they were trying to “bounce” children and their mothers away from meeting the Teacher.

The parable, he writes, was given to assist those who were too smug about their ability to have their prayers heard. And that also follows on directly from Jesus seeking to encourage his disciples not to lose heart. It was his disciples, those who had previously been with John, who had asked Jesus to teach them to pray just as John had been doing (11:1-4). Here, Luke tells us, Jesus needed to instruct his disciples so that they would not blind themselves with presumption. They might have felt so special to have been chosen as his own special disciples. But this was no ground for presumption.

It can be expected that a Pharisee would know how to pray. Here one such all-too-confident fellow, presumably with impeccable religious credentials, contrasts himself with an utterly broken man who gets his daily bread by being a servant of the system, gathering taxes that the religious authorities have brokered with the Roman occupation army. The tax-collector is thoroughly embedded in a system that is, in all likelihood, hated by his fellow Jews, or by most of them. John had not gone along with that view and forcefully reminded all and sundry, as well as tax collectors, that collecting taxes was an activity that could never exist outside of God’s laws (3:12). It was a task with its own integrity. And there is the blind dismissiveness in the Pharisee’s attitude to the tax-collector.

But Jesus says, it was the humble and repentant tax-collector who returned home from his temple prayers having been granted the unpriceable gift of God’s mercy. He knew he needed this mercy and had pleaded for it. He assumed that God knew all about him and his sins before he mounted the temple’s steps.

The Pharisee, meanwhile, seems to have been praying in a way that suggests that God needed to hear just how righteous he had been, and for this attitude to be bolstered he apparently needed to resort to an exercise in comparative spirituality.

So here again is a parable by which Jesus was indeed reaching out – to tax collectors as much as to Pharisees. Jesus was seeking those who had come to place confidence in their own prayers rather than in the One to whom their pleas for a merciful hearing were addressed.

And in fact, any tax-collector who might be tempted to pray:

I thank you, Lord, that I am not like others with their self-righteous attitude, nor even like this pompous Pharisee …

is put on notice by this parable.

My hunch is that since Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:13-16) is so very close to what Luke wrote here that we may be reading the result of some collaboration. What Jesus said here about children in God’s Kingdom was of great encouragement to young disciples and it would seem from what Luke tells us about Mark in Acts that this young fellow, Peter’s nephew, was a child during Jesus’ ministry in Judaea and Galilee. And so the message that God’s Kingdom is for children had an enormous impact. Clearly, Luke is telling us that Jesus’ disciples did not live it until he taught it to them. His disciples were put straight when they tried to keep children away from their Rabbi.

It was not just the religious leaders who had the wrong idea about God’s Kingdom and approaching the Almighty. The disciples apparently thought that they were rendering a service to Jesus by keeping children and their mothers from the Teacher. But Jesus didn’t want them to leave. He was there for them. Jesus wasn’t too busy for the people he wanted to be with. Luke has already told us how Jesus taught them to welcome children in his name. Now he said it again. They hadn’t understood. Now, if they were to understand they would have to listen to him teaching while he was in the crèche with a child on His knee. Being in God’s Kingdom means being a child of God, being willing to learn! What better place to learn about our Heavenly Father than in a crèche? This was new. It was also important. Very important.

The Kingdom which God has planned for His Son is for children, God’s kids. Jesus taught with a child on His knee and accepted women and mothers as well as men and fathers.

Jesus’ message is that God’s Kingdom is specially for children. As God’s child you grow as a member of his family, his household, his regime, his Kingdom. In this Kingdom a person learns to fully respect the other children God brings across your path. No ifs, buts or maybes. Entering God’s Kingdom means accepting ourselves as children, children of our Heavenly Father. That also makes us sisters and brothers of Jesus.

Luke boldly puts the parable that exposed spiritual presumption in prayer right next to the account of how Jesus insisted to his disciples that kids are fully part of the coming of the Kingdom.

20 January 2017

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