On Prayer

a sermon on the compact version of “the Lord’s Prayer,”  Luke 11:1-13

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esus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

The disciples are looking for what? Some sort of spiritual formation or religious training of the sort that John the Baptist seems to have offered to his own disciples? Or maybe they just want something of what they see in Jesus; again and again, they’ve watched him quietly slip off into a space on his own and enter into prayer – into comm-union – with God. We want that, they think to themselves.

“And Jesus said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’”

First of all, an observation. I hardly have to point out that in the Gospel according to Luke, the response to the request “teach us to pray” is much shorter than the response we have recorded to a similar request in the Gospel according to Matthew. There are a number of ways to think about that, including a critical literary analysis as to how this prayer might have been evolved and developed in the construction of these two gospels. And yes, in an oral tradition texts do evolve, and in the hands of writers, texts from an oral tradition can take different shape.

This only becomes a problem if we imagine that Jesus had meant to offer a hard and fast formula for prayer, as in, “say these words in this way, and that is prayer.” But that isn’t what he was doing. In the words he offers and in the two odd little stories he then tells, he’s trying to tell them something about the heart of praying. And I suspect that they had this sort of conversation on more than one occasion; after all, the disciples do seem a bit thick-headed when it comes to actually integrating the teachings of their mentor. And clearly they saw him pray and they heard his words of prayer more than just once.

So the interesting thing is not only what Jesus tells them in his bare-bones answer, but also that his answer is so spare. Even if we were treating the version from Matthew – the one we use in our own liturgy – it is still only 57 words in the Greek, compared to 38 words in Luke. Hardly a sophisticated system of discipline for spiritual formation.

But that isn’t accidental. There is room for discipline in the life of prayer, but the trap with systems and techniques is that they can fool us into thinking that it all comes back to how well we might master them. Here Jesus strips things right back, and removes any illusion that this hinges on my proficiency as a pray-er.

Take the opening word of address to God, which is simply “Father.” Jesus calls his disciples to use this word for God not because they have achieved a high level of spiritual intimacy by virtue of some piety or skilled devotional life, but rather because they are related to God as children. As are we.

Then “holy is your name,” which reminds us that this business of being children of this divine parent is in fact a holy thing, followed by “your kingdom come.” Bring about your reign in our midst now and ever.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” In terms of human achievement, human wants and needs, all is reduced to the most basic. Food for the day; day by day. There is an echo here of the story from the book of Exodus, in which the newly liberated Hebrew slaves are given daily bread – daily manna – in the desert. It is given day by day, and it cannot be hoarded, accumulated or turned into a commodity for becoming wealthy. Think of your own needs in the same way, says Jesus.

Now it gets fun: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

Yes, we do need forgiveness and restoration, and when Jesus offers up a kind of model by which we can understand that need, he speaks about debt. This is not a spiritual term, and not a metaphor. Jesus is talking about the forgiveness God gives to us as being akin to our forgiving or canceling real, hard cash debts. And in truth, to forgive a debt is to forsake what is my rightful, legal due; it is an acceptance that I have lost, or at least I have lost in the categories of the way the “real world” works.

As we think about that, we need to keep in view the truth that the forgiveness that we have been offered has been clinched by an utter loss; by a death in fact.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” In light of what has preceded this last petition, maybe we should understand this business of not being brought to the time of trial as meaning, at least in part, “save us from the illusion that says we’re best to not clear off our debts, to not think in terms of daily bread, to not trust that we are named as children of God by raw grace. In short, to look for safe human-driven and human-designed techniques and systems for saving our own sorry skins, rather than doing what Jesus did, namely to live his whole life way out on the edge of all of that, totally immersed in grace.

As a sort of commentary on all of this, Jesus then offers us two parables, each of which are characterized by humour and a level of absurdity. If we read them out of their setting as commentary on the model of prayer Jesus has just offered, it can be tempting to hear these texts as saying little more than “persist and pester God in prayer, and whatever you ask for will be given.” A BMW and a winning lottery ticket maybe?

Yet if we keep in view what he has just said about things like daily bread and finding the courage to release debts, it can’t be about that. Persistence, certainly. Do this daily, and when if feels like it isn’t getting you anywhere, recall the silly picture of the parable of the friend at midnight. Then with a smile, return to you prayers.

And trust. Trust that this God, who we have been invited to name as father precisely because we are named as children, is trustworthy.

Amen.

Jamie Howison

2 Responses to On Prayer

  1. Pingback: Around the Internet: Links 7/29/10 « Orual Undone

  2. Orual says:

    To me, it’s not about the prayer itself but about keeping our prayers simple and focused on what is important. Don’t get fancy. Worship God. Ask for your real, honest needs. Pray for spiritual protection. Ask for forgiveness and be sure to give it to others. What else is needful?

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