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Pondering today’s Scripture reading, New Testament Professor, Matt Skinner, makes a fascinating comment about the nature of prayer. He says that learning how to pray is not like learning how to drive a car or how to play a musical instrument or how to give a speech. Rather, he says, learning how to pray is more like learning how to kiss.
Raise your hand if you ever thought that learning how to pray is like learning how to kiss. Me, too. Never crossed my mind.
However, I’m intrigued by his insight and the four parallels he observes in mastering prayer and mastering kissing. 1. You learn a bit by watching others do it. 2. You should be discerning about whom you will allow to teach you. 3. You make mistakes. And 4. You worry that you might not be doing it right.1
Today’s passage prompts us to contemplate the nature of prayer by including the familiar Lord’s Prayer and two parables. Thank goodness the prayer and parables are connected to each other because if we had only the two parables, we would be driven to both a dreadful conception of prayer and a distressing notion of God.
The first parable goes like this: “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
How’s that for an edifying image of God? God is like a grumpy old man who – when you come asking for help – says “Go away; don’t bother me; I’m trying to sleep!”
Then, the parable concludes by saying that even though God will not give you what you ask because of friendship, God will finally relent if you just keep pestering!
If this parable was the only passage in Scripture to create our notion of prayer and our image of God, we would surely have a tortured prayer life and a deplorable conception of the Creator. I take some consolation in the fact that Luke is the only gospel writer who includes this parable.
There’s one other possibility. The point of the parable turns on a single word – the Greek word anaideia. This is the only occurrence of the word in the entire New Testament. Some translators render the word as “persistence” but some Greek scholars argue that “persistence” is not the meaning of the word. The idea of persistence seems to come from verse 9: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
Several Greek scholars insist that a better translation of this Greek word is “shameless,” and that is how the New International Version translates the word. That is, the man who disturbs his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night acts in a shameless way by waking up the household and probably the neighbors. In this interpretation, despite the man acting shamelessly, God provides what the man needs. That is, God does not insist that we act honorably before God acts honorably. The point of the parable then becomes: God will do the right thing despite what we might do.
Backing up to the beginning of today’s passage, we discover that Jesus had been praying. When he finished, one of the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Keep in mind the disciples were not spiritual dropouts who never prayed. So to ask Jesus for instruction indicates that they thought their prayer life was not exactly robust and they could use some help. Anyone here relate to the disciples’ plea for assistance with their prayer life?
The disciples could see that prayer was vital to Jesus. It shaped who he was. It guided his path. They saw that prayer infused Jesus with courage and wisdom and power and serenity. They yearned for the same, so they asked for help.
I find it reassuring to know that disciples – people raised with faith and who were close to Jesus – struggled with prayer as most of us do.
Perhaps initially they had a child-like prayer life that imagined God to be like a cosmic gumball machine. We put in our request, and out tumbles what we ask for. But over time, they had discovered that prayer is not like that. I suspect that like us, they prayed for someone who was ill and the person never recovered. They likely prayed for poor people to have food, but they continued to be malnourished. They may have prayed for guidance in making the right decision and never discerned a response. I suspect that the disciples learned what all of us learn sooner or later: prayer is not easy.
So, one of the disciples asked Jesus for help and Jesus responded with what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The prayer begins, “Father, may your name be revered as holy.” Two brief comments: When Jesus called God “Father” rather than one of the familiar names of God such as Yahweh or El Adonai or El Shaddai, his point was not that God was male rather than female. Rather he used the word “Abba” which was the affectionate word a child would use for his/her father. It was equivalent to saying, “Daddy.”
His jarring word was intended to convey that God was not a distant deity to be feared and obeyed or else, but rather God was like a loving parent who wants the best for us. Yet neither is God’s name to be tossed around casually, so Jesus added, “May your name be revered as holy.”
What does it mean to revere God as holy? It does not mean that we should think of God as severe and possessing no sense of humor. God hears so many cries and bears so many tears that laughter is surely music to God’s ears. To honor God as holy does not mean that God is austere and stuffy. Rather, “holy” points to God’s nature as virtuous, honorable, pure, lacking evil intent, loving, and just.
Then, following this opening phrase, what is the first petition? Is it the same as the first petition of many peoples’ prayers: “Dear God, please give me?”
I wonder if it would help to think of the first petition in ALL CAPS and BOLD print. “Thy kingdom come.” Not my, but thy. Of course, Matthew adds (as do some ancient manuscripts of Luke) “Thy will be done.” Thy rather than my makes a world of difference in our approach to life, doesn’t it? It is asking not for what we think we want or need, but rather asking for God’s realm to permeate our planet.
Then, it is only after establishing the perspective of thy rather than my, that the personal petitions come. “Give us each day our daily bread.” Give us – not a Rolls Royce or a mansion or the perfect job or a life free of hardships – but rather our daily bread. It is a confident assertion that the Creator of our amazing earth provides us with the nourishment we need.
Then: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” This is an acknowledgement that no matter how hard we try, none of us is perfect. Anger, envy, lust, greed, and the like are hovering nearby and sometimes we fall prey to our worst selves rather than our best selves.
Further, this petition not only asks God for forgiveness, but despite feelings to get even, we promise to forgive others.
The last petition in Luke’s version is “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” This is a plea for help. It is an admission that temptations can be powerful and we can be weak, so we pray for God’s help in avoiding those occasions that might turn us in a bad direction.
Some struggle with prayer because they think their language is not lofty enough. God does not judge us on our vocabulary or how we weave our sentences together. God just wants an honest conversation devoid of pious-sounding rhetoric.
There have been times when I have prayed and I believe God boosted my strength to survive a painful situation. There have been times when I prayed and God guided me to where I needed to be and to the people I needed to meet. There have been times when I prayed and God helped me to be forgiving when I was plotting revenge.
But there are also times when I have prayed and I have been met with stony silence. Was God not listening or busy with greater issues? Did God answer but I failed to catch the response? Did God answer but it was not the answer I wanted so I turned a deaf ear? Did God answer but I was not patient enough for an answer that would be revealed over time?
Many people think of prayer as a method we can employ to change God. But prayer is not intended to change God; it is intended to change us. Prayer can help us to revamp our vision in order to see the world through the eyes of the Divine. Seeing the world this way creates a new spirit within us.
Prayer can change our inner selves, and what happens inside of us, shapes our actions. The eyes through which we see not only color what we see, but determine what we do. If we approach the world as a cynic, not only will we be highly skeptical of other people’s intentions but we will contribute to and encourage more skepticism and selfishness.
The opposite is also true. If we believe that God is constantly urging the world to a kinder, fairer, and more peaceful place, and we pray to be more in harmony with God, we will spread goodness, generosity, and hope.
The Lord’s Prayer is vital to us personally and indispensable for the future of our planet. Prayer deepens our connection with God and thereby deepens our joy, our inner peace and our hope. Prayer shapes our character and thereby determines the gifts we bring to the world.
Following the prayer, there are two parables. The second one, which is included in Matthew’s gospel, reads: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asked for an egg, would give a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”
We want God to fix the problems of our world, but that would strip us of our freedom and a meaningful life. If God cleaned up our messes, there would be no consequences to our actions and we could live however we pleased. How we live matters, and that gives our lives vitality.
No matter how thin our prayers, Jesus says to keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking. Our divine parent will not necessarily give us what we ask, but will give us God’s loving, transforming, and empowering Spirit. In the end, I suppose that is what we truly need so that we can do our part in healing the world and thereby enjoy the rich and beautiful lives our Creator intends for us.
Jesus wants his followers to continually pray: “Thy kingdom come,” to express a passionate desire for the world as God dreams it can be and then to do what we can in our small sphere to make it so.
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