Context Is Everything: Notes on Prayer in the Teaching of Jesus

Context Is Everything: Notes on Prayer in the Teaching of Jesus November 7, 2022

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  (Luke 18:1-8 ESV)

I think that most of us have at least a few stories from our years in school that we come back to, time and again.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if that is one of the gifts of an education that last the longest.

While in seminary, my chief advisor and professor of New Testament studies was a man who had studied at Princeton and did a doctoral degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  His name was Robert W. Lyon, but he preferred to be called “Bob” and he insisted on it in class.

In one of the many seminars that he offered, one of my classmates was a retired Marine Corps officer – if there even is such a thing – whose name was Worth Green.  Worth had a real problem calling “Dr. Lyon” by his first name.  So, if he had a question, he would raise his hand, and when called upon, he would always begin with the words, “Dr. Lyon…”

Bob put up with this for a while, but not long.  And on the second or third occasion he finally stared at Worth and said, “Worth, if you call me ‘Dr. Lyon’ one more time, I am never calling on you again.”  Worth took this comment to heart, but deep down inside, it was easier said than done for a Marine from North Carolina.  So, thirty minutes deeper into the seminar, lost in the subject matter that we were discussing, Worth raised his hand and – when Bob called on him – Worth responded “Dr. — Dr. — Dr. Bob…”

Not all of my memories of Bob’s classes go back to moments like that.  One of the memorable phrases that Bob used over and over again also had an acronym to go with it: CIE – or “Context Is Everything”.  What he meant by this was that – in interpreting a passage from Scripture – the only way to be confident of its meaning is to test your interpretation against the context in which the passage appears.  If the material around it seems to support your interpretation, then you are probably on solid ground.  If the context works against your interpretation, then it’s probably time to rethink it.  CIE – Context Is Everything.

In the case of Luke 18:1-8, context really is everything, because reading it out of context can lead to some strange and unhelpful places.  Some features of the passage, no doubt everyone would agree on:

Both the introduction and the conclusion make it obvious that the parable has to do with prayer.  Verse one opens with the words: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  And a bit more broadly, but still with prayer in mind, verse eight ends with the question, “’And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”  It is also clear that the parable is at pains to make two points:

One point is based on a common bit of ancient Jewish rhetoric or reasoning, called qal wahomer.  Essentially the logic of the argument is: What applies in the ‘lighter’ (or more obvious) case applies even more certainly or obviously in the ‘heavy case’.  So, one point that Jesus is making with his parable is that if the women pleaded again and again to an unprincipled and uncaring judge and still managed to get a response to her plea, then it is even more obviously and surely the case that a just and caring judge – in this case, God – will respond to those who pray.  Bottom line: God can be counted on to respond to our prayers.

The second point that Jesus makes is that persistence in prayer is essential.  The woman, as a stand in for the followers of Jesus, is – above all things – someone who is persistent in her prayers.  The words of the judge underline this with an almost comical note: `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

The passage is even funnier in Greek than it is in English.  The English describes the widow as someone who “keeps bothering” the judge.  The Greek actually says “this woman furnishes me with trouble” – so it is closer to the original to say, “this widow is wearing me out”.  And where the English describes the judge as saying, “so that she may not wear me out”, the Greek actually means, “give me a black eye”, and is an idiom borrowed from boxing.  So, the idea is that she threatens to batter the judge and blacken his eye or even his face, unless he responds to her plea.

So, the second emphasis is on the importance of persistence in prayer.  And that point is reinforced by the context by the question Jesus asks in the final verse: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

So far, so good: God is trustworthy, and we should be persistent in prayer.  But here is where the principle, “Context Is Everything”, becomes particularly important.

Read without attention to the context, it would be easy to assume that Jesus has in mind prayers for anything and everything: Healing, peace, safety, and even things that have a less noble ring to them: cars, homes, a raise, a winter home in the Caribbean.

That approach to prayer can end up sounding pretty magical and self-serving. Some of it also sounds like an approach to prayer that is less about God’s faithfulness and more about a view of God-as-vending-machine or cosmic bellhop.  Still other prayers in that list overlook certain realities which remain true of our life for now, but that God has conquered in Christ – like death.

The result is an interpretation of the passage that can go horribly wrong, raise questions about the parable that it was never designed to answer, and promotes a lot of really bad theology.  Using this passage and others like it, I have heard people urge Christians to pray for anything and everything.  I’ve watched health and wealth preachers suggest that if you aren’t healthy and wealthy, it’s probably because you aren’t persistent in your prayers.  And, of course, there are atheists and agnostics who look at that kind of interpretation who suggest that Christians are just greedy people who pester their God with prayers for magic that he never answers.

But, if you look at chapter 17 of Luke’s Gospel and you look carefully at other things Jesus says about prayer, this is neither the picture of God, nor the kind of prayers that Jesus has in mind.  As is the case with so much of Jesus’s teaching the God he has in mind is the God who brings the Kingdom.  And the prayers that he has in mind are prayers for the coming of the Kingdom.  That is why the coming of the Kingdom occupies the central place in the prayer that he teaches to his disciples.

To paraphrase the first few lines so that you can hear them anew:

Our Father, who reigns in heaven,

let your name be set aside as the one and only, true name of God.

Bring your Kingdom to fruition,

and let your will be realized,

on earth as it already is in heaven where your will holds sway.

There are other kinds of prayer, of course, but it is this prayer and prayers that participate in the spirit of the Lord’s prayer that Jesus has in mind in Luke’s Gospel.  And that kind of prayer underlines certain truths about the work of God, the mission of the church, and the nature of the Christian life.

Some of those truths include this:

As followers of Christ, we are not consumers or dependents.  The heart of the Christian life is not about getting the mood music in our lives right.  It is not a self-help philosophy with a liturgy.  And it is not about a religious vehicle for our political views.  It is about the dawning of God’s reign, and it is about making ourselves available to the purposes of God’s reign.

This entails living as Jesus lived and valuing what Jesus valued.  But – more profoundly – it is about our availability to God and an intimacy with the life and purposes of God which can only be had through prayer.  The Kingdom of God is a kingdom made possible in the person and work of his Son.  It cannot be captured and distilled into a program or a code of behavior.  And it cannot be sustained by acquiring a certain measure of information about God or God’s will.

On this point, I cannot be clear enough: Prayer, deep listening for the voice of God, worship, and life in the body of Christ are not optional or “nice” things to do.  The impression that they are is why even many Christians believe that life in Christ is about nothing more than being a good person, about having the right political views, or about mastering a specific moral code.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as the life of Jesus himself illustrates.

His life is a life which cannot mastered or grasped without the kind of life in prayer that opens us up to the voice of God.  And the goal of that openness is not about getting more from God, but about giving more of ourselves to God.

I’ve struggled to think of examples that most of us can connect with.  There is Thomas Merton, who turned his back on a life of hedonistic pursuits, who eventually recognized its emptiness, entered a monastery in Bardstown, Kentucky, and devoted his life to prayer and reflection.  There was Charles Colson, who exercised raw power, was jailed for it, and created a ministry designed to rescue convicts whose lives were shipwrecked.  There is Mother Theresa, who devoted her life to rescuing the poor in India.  There is no saint of the church, old or new that has not recognized the difference between a prayer life preoccupied with meeting their own needs and a life of prayer shaped by the prayer to be available to the purposes of God.

But you don’t need to go to a monastery, live among the poor, or go to prison in order to make this discovery and live it out.  The key lies simply in saying the Lord’s prayer, in recognizing that this prayer is the organizing center of the Christian life, and then to live out that commitment where you live.


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