Today’s gospel presents a challenge unlike any other in the lectionary. It invites us to fix our attention seriously on something so familiar that we seldom give it a second thought. It’s no secret that however essential Jesus’ prayer is to our worship, its frequency and repetition – the sheer redundacy of it – encourages disengagement and detachment. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt. And given that trajectory it’s worth reminding that perfuncto-rily mouthing prayers is disrespectful and offensive to God and not real prayer at all. So in a time when acti-vity is too often without contemplation – when at every service here some of us pray the Lord’s Prayer and some of us merely say it – it will be good just to sit still for a few minutes and think about Jesus’ prayer.
So I have asked my dear wife, Donna – who is a catechist – to sing the Lord’s Prayer as she teaches it to children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This is a call and response version of the prayer and I ask you to echo the phrases as she sings them.
Thank you. Perhaps you noticed that Donna omitted the doxology (“for thine is the king-dom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever”). It’s a grand and glorious doxology, but I asked her to omit it because it is not part of the gospel’s account of Jesus’ prayer but a later addi-tion by the Church. So our focus will be Jesus’ prayer – the response he made to the only request his disciples ever made of him. They asked him to teach them how to pray and he gave them a model – a pattern, a prototype – and with it he made clear from the outset that our conversations with God are always dialogic – never monologic. He could have said ‘just do as I do – talk to God, same as you do with me’. Instead he gave them a pattern and Luke’s version is today’s gospel. Before attending to the prayer itself, however, we need to look at the little story that follows it. Interpreters, including preachers, too often ignore this anecdote as they hurry to say what they think our Lord’s prayer means. But this bit of narrative sets his prayer in context.
The gospel reading two Sundays ago was about a Good Samaritan and how we are to be neighbors to each other. Last Sunday the OT, epistle, and gospel readings were about Abraham and Sarah – and Mary and Martha – and how they demonstrated hospitality. Now following his model prayer, Jesus tells another story about hospitality – this one about a neighbor who doesn’t drop by in the late morning but at a most inconvenient time – at midnight – to ask for three loaves of bread because an unexpected guest had arrived late in the day when all the bread baked that morning was gone. In those days people made just enough bread for one day – and when Jesus said “our daily bread” his disciples knew he meant daily. So what is this fellow to do? There were no telephones, no all-night ‘Subways’ or ‘Dunkin Donuts’ and most people were sound asleep shortly after sundown. But that culture had a tradition of hospitality and practiced soli-darity for the common good – ‘one for all and all for one’, that sort of thing. So you could expect that your neighbor would feel as much obligated as you do to provide your guest with something to eat. Still, it’s not hard to imagine his irritation when he’s disturbed at midnight – and he makes that emphatically clear. “Don’t bother me,” he says, “the door is shut – I can’t get up and give you bread.” But the story doesn’t end there. Persistence eventually persuades him to get out of bed and give his neighbor what he needs.
Jesus began this little story by asking his disciples, ‘suppose you have a friend who comes to you at midnight with a neighborly request’. That turns out to be a rhetorical question because that’s what friends are for. More specifically, he tells them, that’s exactly who God is – a friend to whom we can go in the needy midnights of our lives and ask for help. The English word pray-er is derived from the Latin word ‘precari’ which means to beg, to entreat, to ask earnestly, to en-treat. Jesus says our begging and asking also have to be persistent – we have to ‘keep on keeping on’. In today’s vernacular, the message is ‘don’t be a wimp’. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” And don’t forget that “if you – as egocentric and irritable as you are – know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give his Holy Spirit to those who ask him”.
That’s the setting in which Jesus gives his model prayer. It’s not just OK – it’s entirely right to petition God – to beg God tirelessly and patiently for the things that matter to us. So Jesus tells this story to give us hope. Just think about it, he says. If a friend will get out of bed in the dead of the night – if a plain, ordinary, garden-variety friend, dog-tired after a hard days’ work, will come to your assistance at midnight – don’t you think that children of the Lord God Almighty – the Holy One, blessed be his name whose mercy endures forever – don’t you think they will find him at least that approachable! Don’t you think that if you come to his house in the deepest darkness and knock on his door, his door will be opened to you and you will have thrust into your hands something more than a few crusts of day-old bread! When it comes to your own kids, you don’t act like a selfish jerk – so why would you suppose God would act that way toward his kids! Even so, don’t forget this – when your hospitality is at its best, God’s gracious and gen-erous welcome is immeasurably richer and better.
Well, that’s the important context so what about the prayer that precedes it. Luke’s ver-sion is similar but not identical to Matthew’s – his text is shorter and consists of five (5) petitions as compared with seven (7) in Matthew. Matthew adds “but deliver us from evil” – and as I said, the Church added the doxology. Otherwise, both prayers consist of two parts. Immediately after “Our Father” there comes a litany of requests – a closely linked series of petitionary prayers. In fact, both Luke and Matthew make petitionary prayer the sine qua non of conversation with God. Let your kingdom come, give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, and the only negative peti-tion, lead us not into temptation.
Of course, our prayers include praise and thanksgivings – but in Jesus’ prayer all of these phrases are petitions, supplications, pleas, appeals – and all of them are intensely personal – one to one – dialogic. When I prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, I remembered that this shrine stands on the site where tradition says King Solomon built the 1st temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th c. BC. In 70 AD the 2nd Jewish temple was built on this site, but it was then reduced to rubble by the Romans and now the Western Wall (sometimes called the ‘wailing wall’) is all that remains. I learned recently that, as a sign of our times, Judaism’s holiest prayer site has entered the Twitter age. Thanks to social media, people don’t have to be personally present at the Wall to pray. The Wes-tern Wall now has its own address on a social networking service and people can tweet their prayers. Without leaving their Lazyboys and barcaloungers anyone around the world can tweet prayers and have them printed and taken to the wall – where they will join thousands of handwritten notes placed between its 2000 year-old stones. There is no charge for placing a prayer through the ‘Tweet Your Prayers’ site but visitors to the web site are invited to make an electronic donation. So far as I know, there is no similar electronic service (yet) for the Vatican or Canterbury.
I’ve noticed that much conventional prayer nowadays is sentimental, a kind of mystical experience that is not only private but also rhapsodic. But prayer as a mystical experience transports us out of this world and is basically escapist and Jesus’ prayer is a striking different. The primary mode of prayer in the Bible is earthy – working with God to carry out his purposes in history. Our work in the world is a holy activity that is an offering to God. So our Lord’s Prayer makes petitionary prayer – asking, seeking, knocking – prayer par excellence. On these terms this prayer is the consecration of both ourselves and the world to God’s purposes. It’s our liturgy – our work – it’s what we do on God’s behalf in the world as a place of God’s blessing. Jesus’ prayer displays the proto-type of a Christian life.
So Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request was to give them a common liturgy that is literally their vocation – their work. He did not give them instructions about praying. Instead he gave them a form, a paradigm – a model that teaches them, and us, how to pray. All Christians know this prayer and say it. It is the single indispensable ingredient in all Christian worship. It is present in the most ceremonial and stylized as well as the least tectonic and most extempore traditions of Christian liturgy. It serves as the model for what is essential in every Christian liturgy – and its form is reflected in the architecture of the eucharist we celebrate at this service.
Notice that Jesus does not begin with “My Father” but with “Our Father”. When he ad-dresses his Father as “Abba” in Luke’s gospel, he uses the Aramaic equivalent of ‘daddy’ or ‘papa’ – the same familiar and intimate word we use when we address our human fathers. So look again at the lectionary insert in your service leaflet, and particularly at the last few lines of the gospel reading where Jesus instructs his disciples to knock, to seek, to ask – with the promise that we will receive what we ask for – that the door will be opened – and that we will find what we seek – that God’s generosity and hospitality far exceeds that of those from whom we expect the most liberal-ity, our earthly parents. That should encourage our persistence. In our Lord’s model prayer, the biblical view of petitionary prayer is the kind of prayer we ought to pray for ourselves and others. All of us have heard the familiar chiché “be careful what you pray for because you may get it”. And all of us know we don’t always get what we ask for – so what are we to make of that? To be transparently honest, I don’t know – but I have a thought. Only ‘good gifts’ are promised from God in this prayer. Maybe God waits for us to ask for good things before giving them. Maybe we get changed by God’s response to what we pray for. Maybe we are given a transformed under-standing of what we really need and want. Given who we are and who we believe God to be, that seems to me altogether likely. In the end our greatest confidence is that our prayers will be answered, as the prayer of St. John Chrysostom puts it, “as may be best for us”. So in a word, I think our Lord’s prayer teaches us that prayer is not how we use God but how we get put into a posture and place where God can use us.
Pray then that God will use us for those things we desire most – his rule among us – the end of violence and hateful behavior – security of the freedoms we enjoy and thanksgiving for those who secure them. Pray for the tranquility of peace and the satisfactions of mutual respect among all sorts and conditions of people – and pray for justice and the well-being of all God’s children. But first pray this prayer: our Father in heaven, teach us to pray without ceasing – and so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours – utterly dedicated to you – and then use us as you will, always to your honor and glory and to the welfare of your people – through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.