After the Transfiguration (Mark 9), Jesus, James, John, and Peter return to find the other disciples engaged in an argument with teachers of the law. It turns out that a man had brought his possessed son to the disciples and they were unable to cast out the unclean spirit.
When the child was brought to Jesus, the unclean spirit threw the boy into convulsions. The Lord asked the father how long his son has been like this, and the man said that he'd been like that since childhood. Jesus rebukes the spirit and liberates the child.
After Jesus casts out the demon and the crowd has gone away, the disciples ask Him, "Why couldn’t we drive it out?" Jesus responds, "This kind can come out only by prayer [some manuscripts include the words 'and fasting']" (Mark 9:29, New International Version).
What's interesting about this story is that the disciples probably prayed, and we never see Jesus pray before casting out the spirit. Mark simply tells us that He rebukes it (vs. 9:25). When Jesus indicates that this kind of spirit needs to be driven out by prayer, He means by someone with a spiritual vitality that comes from a lifestyle of prayer. That kind of power comes from maintaining a consistent connection to God.
This interpretation is solidified by the inclusion of "and fasting" in some manuscripts. Obviously, Jesus couldn't have stopped to fast before casting out the spirit. It would have to be part of a consistent, disciplined dependence upon God.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus maintaining that connection. The Gospel writers tell us of more than 25 times that Jesus prayed—many of them in private times of focused intercession.
If we want to learn how to maintain the same kind of prayer life, there's no better teacher than Jesus. Let's look at three of His parables on prayer.
1. The Parable of the Friend at Midnight
"Then Jesus said to them, 'Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him." And suppose the one inside answers, "Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything." I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
"'So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened'" (Luke 11:5–10, NIV).
Being bold in prayer
Hospitality was very important in Jesus' day. It would be embarrassing to have someone show up and find you have nothing to offer them. This drives the hero of this story to another friend's house to request bread. Why does he receive it? It isn't because of the close friendship between the two—it's because of the audacity of expecting his friend to wake up his entire household to give him bread.
Jesus is encouraging us to make bold and daring risks. He wants us to presume upon God’s friendship to make audacious requests. Jesus is saying that if your friend is going to respond favorably to your gutsy request—how much more can we expect from God, who loves us?
2. The Parable of the Persistent Widow
"Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: 'In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, "Grant me justice against my adversary."
"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually come and attack me!'
"And the Lord said, 'Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?'" (Luke 18:1–8, NIV).
Sometimes Jewish disputes were elevated beyond Jewish elders, and judges from Herod or Rome had to intervene. These judges were almost always on the take, so if you were poor, you didn't have a chance of having the court rule in your favor.
Jesus chooses a widow as the hero of this story because she has no one of influence to fight on her behalf. The only possible way that she could ever get the judge to rule in her favor would be to annoy him day and night until he gives up and gives her what she wants.
Don't read this parable and think that God is like the judge in this story. Jesus isn't saying that. He's contrasting God and the judge. He's saying that if the widow's persistence swayed the judge, how much more is God persuaded by the passionate and tenacious prayers of His children?
We cannot grow weary of praying the same prayers.
3. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
"'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get"
"'But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
"'I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted'" (Luke 18:9–14).
Praying with humility
Prayer is more than asking for the right things; it's about assuming the proper posture before God. We have a hard time grasping the significance of this parable because we're so used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the gospel.
It's important to remember that in Jesus' day, the Pharisees were the heroes. It was tax collectors who were considered evil. They were Jewish citizens who collected taxes for Rome and often extorted more than necessary to line their pockets.
Jesus doesn't excuse the tax collector’s behavior. Instead, He responds to the way the tax collector approaches Him. Unlike the Pharisee who shows up full of himself, comparing himself to others, and reminding God how good he is, the tax collector approached God with a sense of self-reflection.
We find the correct posture in prayer when we stop comparing ourselves to other people and begin comparing ourselves to God.
Learn more from the parables
Jesus' parables communicate powerful truths in interesting and entertaining ways. If you’re interested in discovering more, check out The Parables of Jesus.