Titian, Supper at Emmaus, c.1535

178. Jesus Teaching Us How to Pray

9 “Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
[Matthew 6:9-13, NRSV]

Jesus Teaches His Disciples to Pray

Saint Luke, far more than the other Synoptic evangelists, draws attention to the prayer life of Jesus. As the Lukan Jesus is prayerful, so will his followers in all walks of life be.

While all three Synoptic Gospels clearly convey the impression that Jesus often retreated to a quiet place, away from the crowds and even his disciples, to pray to the Father, Luke alone details the fact that as Jesus was praying, after rising from the water of the River Jordan, “the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove” (Luke 3:21). Capturing Jesus at prayer, Luke highlights his spirit of submission and dependence upon God right at the commencement of his public ministry. After the cleansing of the leper, and Jesus’ popularity spreading quite out of control, Luke alone narrates that Jesus detached himself from the crowds and the corrosive popularity they foisted on him, and sought the solitude of the desert place to pray (Luke 5:12-16). Likewise, according to Luke alone, to appoint the Twelve, Jesus did not just go up the mountain, but “he went out to the mountain to pray.” As if that was not enough, Luke continues: “and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12-16). The Lukan portrait of Jesus is constantly consulting with the Father, praying deep and long, seeking to conform to His will, His kingdom-values. While Mark and Matthew recorded that it was at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asked his disciples the crucial identity-question “But who do you say that I am?”, it was again Luke alone who tells us that it was right after Jesus was praying alone, that he so quizzed the disciples (Luke 9:18-21). Then, in the Synoptic narratives on the Transfiguration, Luke alone gives the reason why Jesus “went up to the mountain” that day: he went up “to pray”. Again, it was “as he was praying”, that the transfiguration happened right before the disciples’ eyes (Luke 9:28-36). So Luke, even more so than the other Synoptic Evangelists, depicts most vividly this close, unique and intense filial-relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the heavenly Abba. In prayer, the Son was constantly in union with the Father.

It is Luke who bequeaths to us the story that on seeing Jesus pray, an unnamed disciple asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:2). Praying properly, it seems, is something that we learn to do, especially from the Lord himself. But this disciple seems also to suggest that Jesus had some secretive way to approach God in prayer.

Without doubt, prayer, to Jesus, was always profound. But in the prayer now known as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the Pater Noster (Our Father), Jesus wanted his disciples to communicate with God in a simple and direct manner, rather than in any ostentatious and convoluted way. In that prayer’s longer form (Matthew 6:9-13) as part of the Sermon on the Mount and its shorter form (Luke 11:2-4), Jesus did not launch into a complicated speech.

Taking the longer, seven petitions in Matthew’s Gospel, we see a division into two parts.

The first three petitions that make up part one address God. This is very telling indeed. From Jesus, we learn that prayer stands at the core of our relationship with God, and exposes us to who we think God is and how we stand in God’s presence.

To turn to God is to acknowledge the deep roots of our own longing and the deep secrets of our poor crooked heart, and to turn them back to their ultimate source. We are asking God to reorganize our tired distractions and tangled desires. We may make petitions in prayers but, before anything else, we have to first adore God, acknowledge our utter dependence and our creatureliness. Proper prayers, Jesus teaches, starts with this essential pause, in which we turn over our will and hand over the depths of all our longing, to the very source of our being: “Father, may your name be hallowed.”

This is it. To address God and call Him “Father”, is to hold Him in awe and reverence. In all that we say and do, God’s name is never to be trivialised but to be kept holy. Addressing God as Father, we are all equal before Him. Never shall we use God’s name as a tool to elevate ourselves and put others down.

Addressing God as “Our Father”, Jesus’ prayer functions as a dialogue-opener to lead us into deeper relationship with this God. God is not one more being in the universe to be cajoled or manipulated in prayer. God is Being itself in whom we are somehow sustained in being every moment of our existence. In prayer, we make space for God to reform our agenda, so that we might be better conformed to His will.

Paul, who tells us rather bluntly that we do not know how to pray, knows that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God …. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ  – if, in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17). What we learn from Paul is that prayer is not about gaining competence. Rather, it is more a matter of letting go, of surrendering control to God, like children trusting in their father and praising his name.

What comes next in the Lord’s Prayer is the key to Jesus’ entire ministry. As he prays, so must we all:

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus does not teach us to pray to God to take care of our after-life welfare. Instead, consistent with his singular preoccupation from start to finish, Jesus is about the kingdom of God. He preached it on one mountain, and died living it to the full on another – mount Calvary. From mountain to mountain, Jesus prayed, worked, taught, and lived to the very end the advancement of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. It has been Jesus’ singular focus; it should be ours as well. That was what he did; that was what he wanted to see his disciples do.

And what does that “kingdom” refer to? From its Hebrew source, malkuth fundamentally refers to God’s authority or rule as the heavenly King. In its Greek equivalent, basileia means both kingdom and kingship. This petition thus looks to the perfect establishment of God’s rule in the world, on earth as it is in heaven. Just as Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God and promoted it in all his singular consciousness to the very end, so must we locate our calling as Christian disciples in faithfully collaborating with the Spirit of Christ in works of kingdom-advancement. We must see and believe that Jesus’ commands to feed the hungry and clothe the needy are the kingdom to which he was referring. To pray “Thy will be done” is in fact to appreciate God’s invitation to join Him in making things on earth the way they are in heaven where all tears are wiped dry.

Then, in the next four petitions which make up part two, Jesus turned to human needs and concerns. Again the petitions are clear, simple and direct, submitting to God for the provision of every good thing sufficient for subsistence. The Greek word epiousion in verse 11 appears only once in the whole Bible. Scholars are perplexed. While it captures the urgent sense of “today”(“Give us this day our daily bread”), it also richly suggests a continuous dependency “everyday”, into the future. Implicitly, however much a “success” or “failure” in life we may be, we are to humbly trust without reservation in God this day and every day for what is necessary for life, for our continued existence on earth.

Asking for forgiveness from God was a staple of Jewish prayers. The fifth petition takes that up, with Jesus teaching that the forgiveness of our sin by God is contingent on how we forgive others. This is later elaborated in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) where forgiveness from the king (God) for a debt too huge to repay is conditional upon the servant’s forgiveness of a small debt owed to him by a fellow servant. The prayer concludes with petitions for relief from temptations and delivery from evil.

All told, like a homing device, this prayer taught by Jesus takes his disciples to the core of human relationship with God, acknowledging Him as Abba, thanking Him as Creator, trusting Him as Provider, and obeying His will as the way of salvation for the world.

With these prayer starters, the Lucan Jesus went on to teach the disciples a couple of theological reflections (Luke 11:5-13). First, the story of the importunate friend at midnight (Luke 11:5-8) reflects on the petitions for the coming of the kingdom and daily bread. Persistence in prayer for the hungry affirms the motivation for social actions for the poor and hungry, standing in the middle of things and middle of night if necessary, and meddle until the hungry are fed and the well-off share their excess. How would God provide daily bread for the poor if not through such as these? Who will drag the wealthy into the kingdom of God except those who keep banging on their door?

Then, we will not see Jesus’ second reflection as offering some rather unrealistic blank-check promises: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you shall find.” A caveat sounds the reality-check: we can ask God for absolutely anything, but parents are to think like God. Would any of them give a snake or a scorpion to their children who ask for fish or egg? So God will listen, but there are no promises about our wish list. God is certainly not a vending machine; He neither dispenses fame or prosperity, nor has he an ear for magic formulae prayers. “Seek ye fist the kingdom of God,” Jesus extols, and all things good, nice, and proper shall be yours as well (Matthew 6:33; Luke 12:31).

Taking this reflection to a couple more episodes in Luke’s Gospel, we realize that while on the face of it Jesus’ Parable of the Widow and the Judge (Luke 18:1-8) is about persistence in prayers, deep down it is about the connection between praying always to God and not losing heart when it comes to wearing down injustice. In depth, then, the parable points us to the spiritual grounding of the quest for justice, combining both elements of perseverance in prayer to God and perseverance in social action. In other words, in the quest for justice, persistence is never a fallback strategy. It is the only strategy. As John Shea puts it: “The relentless widow unmasks injustice until justice is given, even if it is given only reluctantly.” Without resorting to direct intervention, God suffuses the hearts of those who pray with justice, and empowers them to bring justice into the human affairs. In matters of peace and justice, God will not do the work and effectuate the results which human beings themselves refuse or fail to do. Personal spirituality and social justice are best paired, so that persistence in prayer will be set free from facile, self-centred petitions. From this parable, Christians learn to be like energised and God-grounded “widows” –“praying always” because they are powerless figures. They endure injustice, patiently waiting for God to birth social justice however long and hard it takes because they know that God is the boundless source of the passion for justice. Thus comprehending this parable, we can then appreciate that Jesus himself acts out this “widow” analogy as he prays and “sweats blood” at the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his passion (Luke 22:33-53). As Jesus the prayerful man insists on peace and non-violence, his disciples who do not pray resort to violence, becoming as violent as the men who have come to arrest Jesus. “Praying always” and “not losing heart” must take on the added meanings of committing to a life of love, staying faithful to the ways of peace, refusing to be worn down by injustice, conforming to the heart of God, that His will (“but not my will”) be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, June 2017. All rights reserved.

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