By Robert Mayes
Prayer is good. Or is it? The Small Catechism teaches us “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father” (Lord’s Prayer, Introduction). That seems definite, then. Prayer is good. Except, however, when it isn’t.
THE PARABLE OF THE PERSISTENT WIDOW
In Luke 18, Jesus teaches 2 parables on prayer back to back. The first is the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), where a widow wouldn’t give up crying out to the judge until he heard her case simply because she annoyed him. The second is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), where two people say their prayers, but only one is justified.
From these two parables, we see that Jesus does want you to pray. He taught the first parable so that people would not “lose heart” (Luke 18:1) when saying their prayers. Often there are times where Christians stop saying their prayers. Perhaps it seems like God always says no Or that you pray for a sickness to heal, for divorced parents to get back together, to stop being tempted to sin sexually. And nothing happens. God seems to be ignoring your prayers. So reason and experience seemingly suggest that such prayers are falling on deaf ears and it’s a big waste.
Jesus would have us learn from the persistent widow. She didn’t give up, even though her judge “did not fear God nor regard man” (Luke 18:2). This meant that the guy was a total slimeball. But still she kept coming back. “Get justice for me from my adversary!” she called out over and over, so much that the judge got really annoyed. He finally caved and granted her request. How much more persistent should we be in our prayers before God! For God is much more giving and loving, and He wants to bless us in answer to our faithful prayers!
But that’s the issue. Faith is needed to make a good prayer. Prayer matters not by how eloquent your words are, but on the faith that trusts that God wants to hear you. How can you be sure? It’s because of the blood and death of Jesus, who paid for your sins and gives you access to God. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But what if your experience contradicts it? What if you are hurting and God is silent? Or if God says no? Simply trust that Jesus wants you to keep praying–trusting in His Word and promise for you. That’s why prayer requires faith. Prayer without faith is wasted words. That’s why it’s not about how many people pray for you that matters–it’s about the faith of the people who do pray and in Whom their faith rests.
THE PARABLE OF THE PHARISEE AND THE TAX COLLECTOR
To show us this, Jesus teaches the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. Though two people prayed in the temple, their prayers were night and day different. The tax collector was devastated in his heart by his sins. He could not undo what he had done. So he cries out, “God, be merciful on me, a sinner!” What a beautiful prayer! The tax collector prays in faith, trusting the Word that his sins were truly sinful and that only God could help. And how does God regard this prayer? Very well! The tax collector leaves the temple justified–right with God, his sins are not charged against him. That’s how God hears prayers made from faithful hearts, even if it seems like He is taking a while to answer.
Contrast this with the Pharisee. He was proud, smug and self-righteous. “God, I thank You that I am not like other men!” This prayer was absolute garbage. Luke’s Gospel does something very interesting after the Pharisee prays, and that is, says nothing. Luke moves on to the tax collector. It is as if Luke’s very way of writing shows that God was ignoring the Pharisee’s prayer, that God has nothing to say back, and that we don’t even know if this prayer reached God. After all, faith is not self-righteous or boastful. And prayers made from a self-righteous, boastful heart will never be heard.
PRAYER IS GOOD IN CHRIST
Prayer is good, but not all prayer. Prayers to false gods, prayers from unrepentant hearts, prayers from the self-righteous, and prayers from those who want to keep sinning will never be heard (see 1 Kings 18:24-29; Psalm 66:18-19; Lamentations 3:44). Only the prayer to God that comes from faith is good. That is the communication of a heart in line with God’s mercy. That is the prayer of one who knows God is His true Father and that he is God’s dear child.
Rev. Robert Mayes is the pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church and Zion St. John Lutheran Church, in Beemer and Wisner, NE.