A Sermon for July 24 on Luke 11:1-13
“Jesus 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.’” Jesus is often shown praying in the gospels, and in Luke it is something of a recurring theme. Prayer is something Jesus clearly needs to do; the thing that allows him to do and be all that his ministry calls of him, right through to his prayers in Gethsemane and on the cross.
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“Rabbi, we need to learn that,” one of the disciples basically says. “John taught his disciples, so please do the same for us.” As Luke tells it, Jesus answers by first offering this compact version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew’s version is the one we’re more familiar with, the one we pray together each Sunday in worship. Predictably, biblical scholars have offered various theories as to how and why these two versions came to be. They like puzzles, these scholars… and they like coming up with proposed solutions as to which version came first, or why Jesus might have offered two different versions, or if Matthew was actually enhancing Luke’s shorter version in order to make clear his own understanding of Jesus’ prayers and concerns. If you’ve ever taken a university course in biblical studies, you’ll know that while all this puzzling out of things can be fascinating and important, sometimes the puzzle becomes the thing, rather than the meaning. Puzzles are fine to while away a rainy afternoon at the cottage, but they do get boring after a while.
It is important you remember that Luke writes both his gospel account and the book of Acts to a Gentile named Theophilus. He writes to Theophilus, so that he “may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” Sounds like Theophilus has become a Christian, and that Luke is providing him with a sort of narrative catechism of the real deal. And so I wonder, did Luke simply take the Lord’s Prayer that he himself had been taught it—Luke was not an eyewitness of these things, because he only begins to write in the first person about midway through his account of Paul’s journeys in Acts—and offer it to Theophilus in its essence? Because in so many ways, this is essential teaching on what Jesus said about prayer. And as David Lose comments, “Prayer, according to both this passage and Luke’s larger portrait of Jesus, is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God.”
So it begins, “Father, hallowed be your name,” holy is your name. Jesus consistently relates to God in this very human language of parenthood. He wants us to speak to God with the sort of trust and familiarity with which a child speaks to a parent, but then right away the first thing to say is “holy is your name.” Trust and intimacy, yes; but awe and reverence too. Perhaps awe at the very idea that the holy God can and should be approached in the same way that a child runs to her parent.
“Your kingdom come”—your reign, the fullness of what you promise for the heavens and the earth, may it come. Jesus doesn’t add the word “soon” here. He doesn’t suggest the disciples push urgently for the fall of the Roman Empire, the restoration of Israel, the culminating arrival of God’s reign. No. Just “your kingdom come.” Pray this, and that release your sense of urgency, and trust.
“Give us each day our daily bread.” That’s a modest request, isn’t it? As Robert Capon observes, “he tells them to pray for nothing more by way of human achievement than the food they need day by day.” Again, it is all about trust; trust in the relationship we have with God, day by day.
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us; that’s the more familiar version for most of us. But here in Luke it is “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We do that—it is a mandate telling them they must—should—already be doing this. And the language is unapologetically that of debt, the marketplace, money. It is a concrete example, which says that forgiving someone is a decision you make to just cancel the debt, drop the suit, forget the claim you even might rightly feel you have. Forgive it, and let it go. You don’t even have to much feel like it—after all, when you loaned that person $1000, they promised to pay it back as soon as possible… but they haven’t, and how is that right? But Jesus is saying that is precisely what God is prepared to do for us. We make grand promises and commitments, we vow once again never to do this or that, or we make royal mess in missing an opportunity to do and be what God has created us for. We fudge or we hedge or we fall short, and when we finally face that reality in ourselves, we confess it to God who effectively says, “right, that stuff. Well I’ve actually forgiven that in and through Jesus. It doesn’t even show in my copybook anymore. Remember what I long ago inspired Isaiah to say, that ‘I will remember your sin no more’ (Is 43:25). One question for you, though. Why can’t you manage to do the same for those who have done something to you?”
I know that’s not always easy, and sometimes people have done things so dreadful that you’ll just never be able to forget it. That’s our reality, because we can’t always “remember their sins no more.” And maybe this side of the grave we shouldn’t, at least not if it means we’d put ourselves at risk of getting hurt yet again. No, we might to forget. But to drop the suit, to cancel the debt, that’s a different thing, because it actually frees us from carrying it and letting it grow like a kind of cancer.
“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Maybe that has in view the kinds of persecutions and pressures the early church was to face; pressure to recant their faith in Jesus, or die. Maybe it is something more like don’t let us be tempted by things that will overwhelm us and prevent us from being what we were made to be. Either way it strikes me as prayer for the strength to trust; trust the God we’ve been told to approach as a child approaches a parent.
And then things move forward into the little parable about doggedly praying to God, just like this annoying neighbour keeps banging on his friend’s door at midnight, trying to get a few loaves of bread. That in turn rolls into this teaching on asking, searching, knocking, and doing so trusting that these prayers will be answered. Yet we can all tell stories of prayers that seemed to have gone unanswered, right? Someone is dying of cancer, someone is locked in seemingly endless grief, someone’s depression simply won’t lift. Maybe it is someone in your life who you have been praying for, yet whose life seems to just keep spiraling ever downward. Maybe it is your own son or daughter whose life is off the rails, or maybe it is your own life that has begun to spring apart. Where’s the answer?
I’ve often it heard it said that God always answers, and sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, sometimes not yet. Well, that might be just a bit too neat. It still leaves the aching question of why the “no,” right? Lord, a simple straightforward yes would lift so much of this pain. Why no? Or why not now?
If David Lose is right in saying that in the gospels prayer “is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God”—and I think he is right, by the way—maybe that begins to shift how we think about—and pray—these teachings. And so Lose concludes, “While at other places in Scripture we are told that God knows our needs without being asked (Mt. 6:8), here we are invited to make them known, to speak them into existence in the confidence that whatever may happen, this relationship [to God] can bear hearing these things and may actually even depend upon hearing them.” Lord, teach us to pray. And he did. And so we do.