Luke 18 is full of accounts of Jesus teaching as a result of something that’s happening around Him. It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus’ teaching is always practical, that is, it’s grounded in real life, in things that are actually happening. We say this often with the parables, but it’s true of all of Jesus’ teachings: they’re not simply random stories or proverbs or abstract bits of wisdom told wherever and whenever. They are meant to teach something about the kingdom of God that is actually in the midst of people and/or to teach people something about themselves in relation to God and one another, things that actually make a difference in how people live their lives.
A few notes on the text:
18:1-14 Luke introduces these two parables in a bit of a different way; he tells us the purpose or background of the parables while introducing them. This helps us to immediately grasp some of the context and practical nature of these parables.
18:1-8 An intriguing parable because the main character, who is usually God in Jesus’ parables, is actually unrighteous! This sets up a contrast between the main character of the parable and God Himself. Jesus doesn’t often do this, but it is effective to sometimes learn not by good example but by poor example.
18:9-14 This simple parable illustrates the stark difference between someone who is self-righteous (again, the introduction tells us straight up that this directed towards people who are acting in self-righteous ways) and someone who recognizes the truth of his sinfulness. Notice the prayer of the Pharisee isn’t truly a prayer. Yes, he says, “God I thank you....” But then he goes on not to list any gift of God, but only qualities that he admires about himself. He even goes so far as to compare himself to someone else standing right there! The tax collector, in contrast, acknowledges that he is a sinner and simply pleads for mercy. Though it is only a few words, it is truly much more of a prayer than that of the Pharisee, just as much as God is righteous when the judge of the first parable is unrighteous.
18:15-17 What a wonderful picture of Jesus’ compassion towards those in society who are of little worth! His rebuke of His own disciples is strong, as they presumed that only those “worthy” of approaching Jesus should be permitted to do so. The word first used by Luke (18:15 - even “infants”) can refer to babies either newly born or even in the womb! And then the wider word translated as “children” includes both babies and what we would call young children. There’s no fixed age to this, but we might think of preschoolers and younger.
18:17 It’s important to note that Jesus is saying “like a child” not in the sense of when he/she was a little child, but in the same way as a little child. In other words, with a simple, child-like faith that believes the word spoken. Little children, and especially infants, are in fact the model citizens of the kingdom because it’s so clear that their entrance into the kingdom isn’t based on anything that they can contribute but simply on God’s grace received through simple faith.
18:18-19 Interestingly, Jesus only gives the man a list from the “second table” of the Commandments, those dealing only with our relationships with other people. He doesn’t even mention the first table that deals with our relationship with God. Of course, these second table commandments flow from the first table, and above all the First Commandment. As Martin Luther writes in his Large Catechism about the First Commandment:
This is enough about the First Commandment, which we have had to explain at length, since it is of chief importance. For, as said earlier, where the heart is rightly set toward God [Deuteronomy 32:46] and this commandment is observed, all the other commandments follow.
And even if Jesus only used the second table (which He didn’t!) the rich ruler still wouldn’t have passed the test. He, like the others we’ve already encountered in this chapter, is self-righteous.
One other important note on this is to not apply Jesus’ statement to the man in verse 22 too broadly. This was a targeted statement to a man who held wealth as an idol, not a general statement that every Christian must give away every bit of earthly wealth. The disciples’ reaction to this betrays the common notion of the time that earthly wealth was a sign of God’s favour/grace. Not so. Wealth can be a blessing if properly received and used, but that’s a difficult thing. It can far more easily be a trap leading to idolatry. And this leads to Jesus making the statement that actually is applicable to all people: a person cannot save him- or herself. Only God can do this.
18:31-34 Jesus again predicts what is going to happen to Him, and notice again the themes of the centrality of Jerusalem and the necessity of what will happen. Luke is more explicit here that the true meaning of this still eluded the disciples. And even more strongly, the passive voice here “this saying was hidden from them” seems to be a so-called divine passive, which in the Bible refers to God being the one doing the work. So here it is hidden, and only after the resurrection is the full meaning revealed (e.g. Luke 24:31).
18:35-43 Notice the real-life instance now of the simple prayer of the tax collector in the parable earlier in the chapter. “Have mercy on me” is the cry of true faith, knowing that it is only mercy that can bring what the pone praying desires. As a blind man, he is truly an outcast in society, just like a tax collector would be, and there’s no pretence on his part. He simply casts his hope on Jesus, the Son of David. What a powerful confession of faith! Like all earthly healings, this is a glimpse of the kingdom of God among them.