we are dependent
Our church is a peculiar place. It’s wonderful—I love you guys—but it is peculiar. It’s peculiar in that the average age in our church is around twenty-five, whereas in most churches it’s either a good deal more mixed, or just a lot older.
There is a preconceived idea that would be easy to have about a church like ours, looking at it from the outside. I don’t want what I’m about to say to sound condescending, but it will illustrate why today’s text is important. (And I’m thirty-eight years old, as of tomorrow; I left my mid-twenties behind a good while ago, so I think I’ve earned the right to play the big brother card in this case.)
Twenty-five is a great age: you’ve got energy, you’re creative, you’re enthusiastic, you don’t get sore from doing something ordinary like sleeping (trust me, it’s coming). And most of you don’t have kids yet, so you can go out when you want, you can stay up as late as you want, sleep as late as you want… It’s great.
But twenty-five is also a dangerous age. It’s dangerous because you’re old enough to be educated, to be proficient in your various fields… But you’re not quite old enough yet to have the force of experience behind you. There’s often a swagger, a sort of low-level arrogance, that comes with being twenty-five, and it’s there simply because life hasn’t had the time to beat it out of you yet. Time has a way of giving you perspective.
So the idea one could have about a church like ours is that because most of the people in this church are young, pride and arrogance are probably bigger problems for us than for other churches.
Here’s the problem with that idea: perspective is not the same thing as humility. When you get older, you start to understand how the world works, and realize that you’re not going to win every battle.
That’s perspective. But it’s not humility (as we’ll see). Humility is seeing ourselves realistically—warts and all—which of course causes us to see others in a different light. When we are realistic about what’s wrong in us, we tend to more easily recognize what’s right in others.
But often as we get older, the opposite happens: the perspective that comes with age becomes an enemy of humility. You’ve lived through so much, and you know how the world works, so consequently you assume that you can take care of yourself, and you look with disdain on these young folks who think they’re geniuses even though they’ve only been using their critical thinking for about five minutes.
Here’s why today’s text is important for all of us, no matter how old we are: we are all intrinsically arrogant. We are all inherently prideful. In order to be humble, age is not enough, perspective is not enough, and experience is not enough. To be humble, we need a clear vision of who God is, and of who we are in light of who he is.
So for several chapters, Jesus has been telling us exactly those things: who God is, what his kingdom is like, and who we are in light of those truths. Today, he’s going to take those truths and give us a characteristic based on them: the humility that should characterize the citizens of his kingdom. And he’s going to go farther than simply explaining what humility is. He’s going to tell us what it looks like when a citizen of the kingdom lives his life with humility.
Humility in Prayer (v. 1-8)
1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Now, before we go into what he’s actually saying here, let me talk to those of you who have grown up in church, and make a guess as to how you’ve probably heard this parable explained.
We have the widow who won’t stop bothering the judge, and we have the judge who gives in because he’s sick of hearing the widow complain. So what’s the moral of the story? We should pester God with our endless prayers, so that he’ll get sick of hearing us asking for the same thing, and eventually give in. In other words, people assume that feverish persistence in prayer is a virtue: “Pray until God gets tired of saying no.”
I don’t know about you, but growing up, this explanation always left me a little unsettled. Is the God of the Bible really the type of God who will hold back something from us until he gets so annoyed with us that he relents? Does that sound right to you?
No it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t, because that’s not what Jesus is saying. (This parable is very similar to a parable we already saw in Luke 11, and his point is the same, but this time it’s even clearer.)
We know that this isn’t Jesus’s point because he goes out of his way to describe the judge. What does he say about him? V. 2:
He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.
I hope that’s clear for everyone: this is a bad judge. And if God is anything, he is not a bad judge.
I hope you see it—this parable is not an allegory, with the widow representing us and the judge representing God. It is a parable of contrast.
God is not like this judge. He is gracious and good.
And we are not like this widow: one of a nameless throng of people doing anything we can to get the judge’s attention. We are his elect. We are his children.
If even a wicked man will give someone what they need because of their persistence, how much more will a good and gracious God give his children, whom he loves, what they need?
That’s what Jesus is getting at here…so we could assume that he’s saying, “Don’t keep on praying for the same thing. You’ve prayed it; God heard it; let go and let God.”
But we know he’s not saying that because Jesus told this parable, Luke says, to show his disciples that they ought always to pray and not lose heart (v. 1).
So if beating God into submission isn’t the goal of prayer, why should we do it?
He gives us three reasons.
Firstly, we pray continually because unlike the wicked judge, God is a good and just God. We pray continually because we know that God is good, and we know that he is just.
Secondly, we pray continually because unlike the widow, who didn’t know the judge and so needed to get his attention, we are God’s children. We are his elect.
How many of you parents just coldly ignore your kids when they ask you a question? God is a good and just God, and we are his children, so we know that he loves us and cares for us and listens to us when we pray.
Thirdly (and this is important, because it’s often overlooked), we keep on praying to train our hearts to trust him.
Look really closely at v. 7-8:
7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.
Do you see the difference between what he says and what we’ve often heard about this parable?
We may want something, and we may annoy God as much as we want; that doesn’t mean he’ll give it to us. Why? Because he’s not really interested in giving us what we want; he’s going to give us what we need. He’s going to give JUSTICE to his elect. He will give us what is just and right and good.
See the difference? We often pray, and God doesn’t answer the way we want him to. But Jesus says that even in those cases, God gives justice to us speedily. He has not delayed.
We don’t pray to bend God’s arm, or annoy him into submission. We pray continually that we might learn humility: to teach our hearts to trust that our God is a good God, and we are his children, and he will never delay in giving us what we need.
Humility in Self-Examination (v. 9-14)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The two people Jesus describes in his parable could not be more opposite in the minds of his Jewish listeners, and as a result his parable would have been profoundly shocking.
The Pharisees were very religious. They scrupulously followed the Law of Moses, down to the letter. They were considered the most righteous of the righteous.
Tax collectors, by contrast, were among the most hated people in the Jewish world. Israel was under Roman occupation at the time, and the Romans employed some Jews to collect taxes for them. That’s understandable as far as it goes (someone’s got to do it), but the tax collectors could exact the price they wanted from the citizens, give the Romans what they were owed, and pocket the difference—and this is what they regularly did. So the Jews saw them as thieves.
And yet, in Jesus’s parable, it is the tax collector who went down to his house justified, instead of the Pharisee.
The reason why the tax collector is justified, instead of the Pharisee, is surprising. It is not because the tax collector reformed; it is not because the Pharisee was engaged in some hidden act of outrageous sin. The tax collector is justified, and the Pharisee is condemned, because of the way they saw themselves.
They are both in the temple, and they are both praying. But the Pharisee is not really there to pray. He thanks God, yes, but he thanks God that he, the Pharisee, is so great. It’s like that friend (we all have one) who will thank you when you help him, then tell you about the wonderful thing he did for someone else—which also happens to be a lot better than the help you’ve just given.
Now of course Jesus’s parable is a bit of an exaggeration: not many people are so arrogant—at least not so openly arrogant. But even if we’re more subtle about it, we do this, and we can see it in the way we see other people.
We look at people we don’t like, and then look at ourselves, and we naturally see all the good in ourselves, and all the bad in them: Why would he do that? I can’t believe she would say that! I would NEVER talk to MY kids that way.
As Jesus says, we trust in [ourselves] that [we] are righteous, and treat others with contempt.
By contrast, the tax collector—who was surely more outwardly rotten than the Pharisee—sees himself quite differently. He doesn’t try to make himself seem better than he is. He makes no effort to seem religious or pious or good.
He looks at himself; he sees himself realistically; and in the presence of God he doesn’t even dare to look up. V. 13:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
The only thing he absolutely knows about himself is that he is not worthy to be in the presence of such a holy God; and the only thing he can ask for in the presence of such a holy God is mercy.
And he doesn’t even see this as a virtue! He’s feigning nothing. He’s not saying this so that he might be compared to the arrogant Pharisee—he’s standing far off, not wanting to be seen by anyone else. He simply knows that God has the right to demand everything from him, and he has nothing to offer God in return.
And Jesus says, it is this man who went home justified.
Now, these two parables are connected; they are practical outworkings of the humility Christ calls us to live out—in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people. He could stop there.
But in what we see next, an opportunity presents itself for Jesus to give his disciples an object lesson, a picture of what he’s talking about.
the inherent Humility of little children (v. 15-17)
15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Like we did before, let’s talk a minute about what Jesus doesn’t mean when he says this. This is another one of those texts (like the parable of the persistent widow) that people love to misuse. I recently heard a pastor say this (it wasn’t online, I was actually in the room):
“The beauty of the gospel is its simplicity. Even a child could understand it. Jesus even said that whoever does not receive the kingdom of heaven like a child shall not enter it. Those pastors who are always talking about doctrine and theology have gotten it all wrong—they’re making the gospel harder to understand! We need to remain like children, because the kingdom is for those who are like children.”
I understand this pastor’s concern—I truly do. The gospel, at its core, is simple. And sometimes pastors do make the mistake of confusing philosophy and metaphysical speculation with doctrine.
But even if the core message of the gospel is simple, all of the truths about God and his work that underpin that gospel are vastly, infinitely complex. The Bible is filled with truths that are—let’s be honest—sometimes confusing. The apostle Peter himself said (in 2 Peter 3.15-16) that there are some things in Paul’s letters that are “hard to understand”. And yet, Peter refers to these “hard-to-understand” things as Scripture, as wisdom.
So in case it’s not clear, when Jesus tells us to receive the kingdom of God like a child, he’s not saying, “Don’t think long and hard about what the Bible says; don’t apply the analytical reasoning God gave you and apply it to the Bible.” That’s not what he’s getting at.
In fact, he’s not talking about the way children process information at all.
Look at the context: why does Jesus say what he says?
Because parents are bringing him their babies so that he can touch them (probably expecting him to confer some kind of blessing on them), and the disciples think it’s a huge waste of Jesus’s time. This is the Messiah—he’s got more important things to do than hold your baby.
And Jesus rebukes the disciples—he tells them to let the kids come to him. Jesus loves kids. He’s the guy who, if he was preaching, and a toddler waddled up to the front of the room in mid-sermon, would pick the kid up, stop a second to make a goofy face and give him a cuddle, and then keep preaching with the baby still in his arms.
But it’s not just that he loves kids—there’s a bigger truth behind his rebuke. He says (v. 16):
Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.
Do you see what he’s doing? All these parents are coming to Jesus to let him touch their babies, and Jesus makes the most of the opportunity to give us a picture of the citizens of God’s kingdom.
So what characterizes these children? We can see it, first of all, in the larger context of the chapter: what characterizes these children is the humility he spoke of in the two parables that came just before.
Now, taken on its own, that’s not quite enough: but we can also see it in the immediate context of the passage: what kind of children are these parents bringing to Jesus? They’re bringing him their babies, their infants—that’s the literal translation of v. 15. When Jesus talks about “receiving the kingdom of God like a child,” he doesn’t need to be any more specific about what age range he’s talking about, because he’s literally surrounded by babies when he says it.
And he says (v. 17) that if we want the kingdom of God to be our kingdom, if we want to receive his kingdom, we have to be like these kids; we have to be like these infants.
So what does that look like?
Babies are human beings just like us; they (generally) have the same number of body parts as we do; in every way, they are just like us.
With one very big exception: babies can do nothing on their own. The single greatest ontological distinctive of a baby is complete dependence on an adult to live.
And that dependence brings with it a certain number of things.
Firstly, it brings instinctive trust.
We’ve had seven babies born over the last twelve months, with another one on the way. Until very recently (the last six months or so), all but three of the babies born in this church were born to first-time parents.
I know this is a cliché, but it’s one of those things you can hear a million times and never really understand until you have your first child: one of the hardest things about being a parent is looking down at that little person, and knowing that their life or death is totally under your control. It’s a lot easier to kill a baby than to keep it alive: just do nothing. Don’t feed them, don’t change them, don’t wash them. Neglect that child, and she will die.
That’s a massive responsibility, and we are stupid people, continually confronted with opportunities to screw it all up.
And the incredible thing is that in spite of this massive responsibility given to imperfect parents like us, our babies trust us to take care of them, to the point where they don’t even need to think about it.
Our daughter Zadie is a fairly sociable baby; she’ll have fun with other people, let herself be held by other people.
But she knows who her parents are.
When she’s afraid, she looks around the room to find me or Loanne. When she’s hungry, she looks to us (if I’m honest: Loanne more than me, for now). When she’s tired, she reaches out for us. Her trust in us is so deep-rooted that it doesn’t need to be taught: she just knows that every time she is afraid, or hungry, or tired, we are the ones to look for.
The second thing dependence brings with it is teachableness. The notion of intellectual pride is totally foreign to small children. They’re not offended when we try to teach them something. They’re not insulted when we show them how a toy works. They don’t get defensive when we come at them with a spoonful of mashed potatoes. That will come in time, sadly; but at the beginning, it’s just not there.
Babies know they don’t know as much as their parents (or rather, they don’t know much of anything, so it never occurs to them to think in those terms). And that’s fine, because they love to learn; they love being exposed to new sights and sounds and textures; and they’re not filled with moral outrage at these condescending parents trying to show them how the world works.
Thirdly, dependence brings receptivity.
I love my daughter more than I love myself; but I don’t need her, in any real sense. She doesn’t cook; she doesn’t clean; she doesn’t bring in any money; she contributes nothing of practical use to our household. And the good news (for her, at least) is, that’s not why I love her. I don’t love her because she does things for me, I love her because she’s mine.
And it wouldn’t occur to a little child to think otherwise. Little kids don’t need to be convinced to receive a gift, and they don’t assume that we want them to work for it. They just accept it. Because little children are entirely dependent on their parents, they know how to receive what we give them, with no illusions about what is expected of them. Their dependence brings receptivity.
Now what’s the point of all this? The point is that fairly quickly, we forget what it’s like to be that small. We forget what it’s like to be dependent (because now we can take care of ourselves); we forget how to trust (because we’ve been burned one too many times); we forget how to learn (because we’re educated and intelligent and self-sufficient); we forget how to receive a gift (because we’ve learned that if someone gives us something, then of course they want something from us).
In telling us to be like these little children, Jesus isn’t telling us to regress to some kind of base immaturity that will somehow make us better people. He’s reminding us of how dependent we still are—he is reminding us that the distance between us and these babies is not as large as we assume. He’s telling us that although we may seem independent and self-sufficient, we’re not. For everything we hope to contribute to the kingdom, for all of our holiness, for all of our salvation, for literally every breath, we are wholly dependent on God.
The difference between us and these little children is that they know they can’t do it alone: they know they need help.
Do you see how this is the perfect picture of the two parables he told before?
The person who refuses to entertain delusions about himself as “a basically good person,” but who rather recognizes that compared to God’s holiness, ours is woefully lacking, and who depends one hundred percent on God and his grace and his Son for his holiness and justification… It is that person—like the tax collector—who, Jesus says, goes home justified.
The person who realizes that she is entirely dependent on God for everything, and at the same time knows that God is a good and gracious God who will not delay long over his children, but give justice to them speedily… It is that person who will cry out to God for her every need, knowing that he cares for her and listens to her.
If we understand who God is, and who we are, then we will trust him. I’ll look at my life, and see that God has kept my heart beating, kept my lungs breathing, for thirty-eight years; he has always given us what we need, so we can trust him to keep giving us what we need.
We will listen to him; we’ll know that for all we’ve learned, in reality we know very, very little. We’ll understand that there is no one better suited to tell us how we should operate than the One who created us.
We will ask him to give us what we need, without worrying about what we have to do to convince him to give it to us.
Brothers and sisters, through this text, the Spirit calls us to humility.
Like little children, admit that you are entirely dependent on God, and accept the grace he offers you, without trying to work for it. Imagining that by doing good things for God, you can somehow earn his love and care and protection, is an insult to him. God doesn’t love us because we’re useful to him; he loves us because we’re his. So don’t try to earn God’s grace; accept the grace he offers, and respond to that grace by listening to him, and learning from him, and obeying him.
Like the tax collector, admit your distance from God, and throw yourselves upon his mercy—because he is merciful, and he is gracious. And if you ever needed more than the simple fact that you are alive to prove that God is merciful and gracious, you have it: he sent his Son to live your life and die your death and be raised for your justification, so that you might be his adopted sons and daughters.
And finally, because you are not like the faceless widow, and because God is a good judge, pray continually, and don’t lose heart. As the apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 5.6-7:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you.
Call out to God for your every need, trusting that he knows what you need far better than you do. And in so doing, train your heart to be humble.
Because that is what it means to trust like a little child, and to such belongs the kingdom of God.