A reflection on the Propers for 12C, Luke11:1-13, by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig
Jesus and the disciples are continuing on the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus will face suffering and death, and along the way, Jesus has been teaching about what the kingdom of God might look like, about loving our neighbors even when it requires going out of our comfort zones to do so, the importance of traveling light on their mission trips (don't even carry bread, Jesus says, just trust that it will be provided along the way) , and, in the story of Mary and Martha, the importance of both listening to, and doing, the Word of God.
Today, the disciples find Jesus at prayer. Luke tells us that at the most important moments in Jesus’ ministry—his baptism, choice of the Twelve Apostles, sermon on the plain, transfiguration and especially during his passion—Jesus prayed. In fact, if you want to know what events Luke regarded as most important, look to his many references to Jesus at prayer.
Apparently the disciples noticed that Jesus prayed and that his prayer experience was something important, something special, something that they too wanted a part of….enough so that they asked for a prayer lesson from Jesus. Now I don’t know what exactly what they were expecting when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. I wonder what we would be expecting if we were in a similar situation? Maybe a set of guidelines? A formula…if this, then that? Because that would be kind of comforting. Especially if it could guarantee some kind of results. You know, like if we just ask God in the right way for things, say the right words, we could be sure we would get the answer we want.
There actually is a kind of “theology of prayer” out there in the culture kind of like that. We might have heard of, and at some level might even subscribe to it. It’s the belief that if we ask in the right way, approach God in the right frame of mind, we will surely get what we seek, especially if what we are seeking is a certain kind of material abundance and security. But among other serious shortcomings of this approach, it is far too shallow, one-dimensional and linear to reflect the complexities of our spiritual lives and relationship with God, and it sells both of them way short. It portrays God as a kind of holy vending machine. We put in the right combination of words and intentions and out come the desired results. And yet who of us has not been there in our prayer life? Often in times of desperation or need, we find ourselves feeling almost as Abraham must have in the Genesis reading, bargaining with God for just one more chance, one more try, one more better offer. But at the same time we have this sense that perhaps there is something deeper, something more to this life of prayer. “Teach us,” we too might ask.
As Jews, Jesus’ disciples did know how to say prayers, and likely did so often, but when they saw Jesus pray, saw the connection between his prayer life and everything else he did and said, perhaps they had a sense Jesus prayer was different than anything they were experiencing, and so, “Lord,” they asked, “Teach us to pray.” The prayer phrases we heard in this morning’s Gospel are very familiar to us…we know them in almost these same words as the Lord’s prayer, which really was probably not Jesus’ intention in praying this prayer by the way….to give us something to put in the prayer book and pray every Sunday in the liturgy.
Like anything that has become as familiar as this prayer, it’s possible that we can hear it without really hearing it deeply. So I’m going to try to play around with the language a little bit and see if we might be able to “hear” it a little differently….What if Jesus said something like…”When you pray say:
Loving God….Abba… Blessed One ….We honor your mystery and reverence you for all you are…and all you have ever done, do, and promise to do in your great and incomprehensible love for your people.
May earth come to be like your heavenly kingdom, where love and justice rule….where there is healing and peace…and no one is an outcast.
Let our hungers be filled from your abundance each day.
Help us to understand that forgiveness is given as we give it.
Loving father, help us in the struggle lest it be too much for us.”
Now of course I have no idea if that is quite what Jesus said. But the idea is that in teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus models prayer as an intimate conversation with someone with whom he is in a close relationship, someone from whom he can ask and expect love and support and to whom he gives love in return
Jesus then he tells a story to persuade us that, if we have sense enough to answer the door and help a neighbor, or to give our children good things, not bad ones, well, then, of course, God, who is infinitely greater, more loving, more generous than we are, will also respond to us.
“Ask.” He tells them. “Search. Knock and the door will open. If your child asks for a fish, who would give him a snake, or a scorpion instead of an egg?” Hey, this is all sounding pretty good, almost like that vending machine theology I mentioned earlier. But Jesus has more to offer “How much more,” He says, “will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” What? Who said anything about the Holy Spirit here? We are asking for bread and fish and eggs, forgiveness and being spared from our trials! In our limited minds we ask for what we can imagine to be what we want, and yet God knows that this is what, beyond anything, we truly need, the indwelling Spirit of Christ Jesus in our hearts. It is not God who changes, not circumstances that alter, but we who are transformed. This is truly the Good News of this Gospel. If the answer to our prayer, no matter what the question, what the need, what the request, what the pain, is always the indwelling, present, loving spirit of God, from which nothing can separate us, then it is true that we can indeed BOLDY say, “Our Father…”