In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, we encounter the one and only time in the entire New Testament that anyone asks Jesus for instruction in prayer. “Lord, teach us to pray.”
I am glad that our reading contains all the verses that it does, because this entire section from the gospel of Luke is in fact Jesus’s direct teaching on prayer, not just the familiar words of what we have throughout church history called “The Lord’s Prayer.” All of it is an answer to this request: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Who asks Jesus to teach about prayer? Verse 1: “One of his disciples.” But this disciple does not say, “Lord, teach me to pray.” He says, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And this I think draws our attention right away to this important point: Prayer is never entirely private. Even when we close to the door behind us and pray in solitude we are never really alone. The very desire to learn to pray, the very impulse that drives the request, is one that comes on behalf of not just the one disciple but on behalf of a community.
And it is to that community—our community—that Jesus provides a simple model of prayer and a reassuring mood appropriate to prayer.
First the model.
For starters, dispenses with long-windedness and florid language. The model he provides is short and simple, even shorter and simpler than the version of the Lord’s Prayer we get in Matthew’s gospel, the one we say here at every mass. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is familiar and intimate.
When you address God, call God “Father.” Once again we are used to “Our Father,” which is what we get from Matthew. There is no conflict here really between the two, but I do like Matthew’s “Our Father” because it highlights the communal nature of prayer. God has many children; the one addressing God speaks as just one of them, and even in addressing God as “Our Father” each individual reminds him or herself that he or she is not alone; each one of us always prays as one of many brothers and sisters, and we pray with those brothers and sisters even when we are alone.
Jesus’s model of prayer continues with five short requests. The first two are about God, and the last three are about us.
First request about God: “Hallowed be thy name.” This sounds a bit fancier to our ears, and even in our modern translation we stick with the Old King James just because everyone is so used to it. What does it really mean, though? In simpler terms, it means “May your name be acknowledged as holy.” If we keep in mind that someone’s name in the Bible is the key to their whole identity, that your name says fundamentally who you are, then what Jesus is telling us to pray for is that God in God’s very essence be acknowledged by the whole world as holy. And to be holy in the Bible is to be set aside from profane things, to be separate. To acknowledge God as holy then is to acknowledge that God is entirely distinct from mundane reality, that God completely transcends the ordinary world. When we pray we are to pray that God’s holiness be more and more widely and deeply acknowledged by all people.
Second request about God: “Thy kingdom come.” Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus has been preaching that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, that the reign of God over all the earth is beginning in a new fashion in his own life. That the kingdom of heaven is at hand means that the forces of darkness, of death and injustice, are exposed and repudiated by the Son of God. When we pray we are to pray that this divine work of the kingdom of God will expand, that the dominion of Christ over all things opposed to his saving love will continue.
First request about us: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Notice again that no one of us is to pray for my daily bread. We are all to pray for our daily bread. When we pray we are to pray not for luxuries or for lavish excess but for what we need, what we all need to live.
Second request about us: “Forgive us our sins.” The necessity of forgiveness I hope is clear to all of us, and again our concern over sin is one that has to be shared in the community as a whole. That is why in the model of prayer before us we remind ourselves that “we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” The point is that we as Christians depend on God’s forgiveness and because we are conscious of being forgiven we forgive others in turn. We ought not to presumptuously imagine we can take the gift of forgiveness of sin from God and at the same time withhold that gift from our brothers and sisters. When we pray we are to pray not with false confidence but with an appeal for forgiveness and an awareness that we are obligated to forgive others.
Final request about us: “Lead us not into temptation.” Now we know that God does not tempt anybody, so what does this mean? Another way of saying it might be “don’t bring us to trial, don’t put us to the test.” God does put people to the test in the Scriptures, and this part of the prayer I think is a way of humbly confessing our weakness. We live in a world full of trials and tests and evils besetting us on all sides, and our attitude toward them should not be one of spiritual bravado: Bring it on! Quite to the contrary, when we pray we are to pray: Don’t bring it on, keep us safe from the world’s testing.
So that’s the model of prayer as Jesus teaches it. What about what I called the mood appropriate to prayer? I think we get some of that at the end of this passage, which as I said continues to be about prayer.
Look at the example of the fellow who goes to his friend at midnight to seek out three loaves for an unexpected guest. This little vignette teaches us about the right mood for prayer, but because the example Jesus gives is a little remote from our experience we might not get it at first. Jesus is saying if you had a friend and went to him at midnight to help feed a guest you would expect him obviously to get up and give you what you needed, right? And if that’s so, then obviously if you ask God for something you need, God even more readily than a friend will give you what you need.
The trouble is that the analogy doesn’t quite translate to our context. I imagine if you knocked on your friend’s door at midnight asking for a handout you might expect a very different reaction.
We have to remind ourselves that in the culture of the time and place hospitality was of the highest moral importance. One simply cannot receive a guest and not feed that guest without incurring the greatest disgrace. A friend would not allow another friend to face the terrible shame of being empty-handed. It also bears remembering that hospitality—like prayer—is also a communal affair. We live in a highly atomistic society, where we try not to impose too much on one another unless invited to do so. But in the ancient Near Eastern village the whole community had a sense of responsibility toward guests. If one friend can’t meet the demands of hospitality then it would indeed be more than obvious that a neighboring friend would have to do so, or else shame would fall on the entire village.
So the message here is that the right mood for prayer is one of confident expectation that God will hear us and honor our requests: Give us bread for our tables, forgive our sins, save us from difficulty. We can ask for these things knowing that God will not come up with lame excuses for not helping us but instead will listen and act accordingly.
The language of fatherhood returns here at the very end of our passage, when again Jesus says we can approach God like a loving father, in a mood of confident trust. “What father among you,” what earthly father, would give his own child a dangerous animal rather than food? No father would do such a thing, but earthly fathers, as Jesus rather frankly points out in verse 13, are evil. Being evil and yet still knowing how to meet their children’s needs, how much more so will God our holy Father meet our need when we ask?
This is the simple, trusting mood in which we should pray. “Ask,” Jesus says, go ahead and ask, “and it will be given you.”
I fear that the language of the Lord’s prayer has become so well-known to us that we often zone out when we say it together in the mass, as we will here momentarily.
When we do so, let’s try to hear the model of prayer that Jesus himself taught, and let’s try to hear it in the right mood.
The first thing I want us to try to do is to hear the prayer as the communal act that it is. We say this prayer together, in unison, because it is not a private matter. Don’t listen to your own voice speaking, listen to the voices of your brothers and sisters around you. Listen to the symphony that prayer is: the blending of each one us praying with and for one another.
The second thing I want us to try to do is to hear the prayer in the right mood of trusting confidence. We use a lot of fancy language here at the Church of the Advent, and I love that fancy language. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is a bit fancier than Luke’s, and like I said, that is what we use here. But don’t let the fanciness of the language distract from the simplicity of the request. Praying to the Father the way Jesus taught us is not like begging from a cosmic tyrant. It’s not like badgering a bored and indifferent bureaucrat in his heavenly office.
We are asking for the things we need from a loving father: May the whole world acknowledge that our father is a father higher and holier than even the best earthly father. May the father’s rule over all things be more and more complete. Father, feed us. Father, forgive us. Father, keep us safe.
This is all we need, and it’s all we ask.