Two Teachings on Prayer from The Lord

In today’s Gospel the Lord Jesus gives two fundamental teachings on prayer. First he gives us a pattern for prayer and then teaches the importance of persistence. Let’s look at both in turn.

As the Gospel opens we hear the request of the apostles: Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples(Lk 11:2). in answer to their request the Lord gives what has come to be called the Lord’s Prayer.

Teaching 1- The Pattern of Prayer Now it is important to understand what the Lord is doing here lest we misunderstand the wider point. He is not just giving a set of words to say. He is not teaching: “When you pray, say these words.” If the exact words were the main point then you can be sure that Luke’s version would be exactly the same, word for word, with Matthew’s version. It is essentially the same but there are many variances as well. Most all of us have memorized the more familiar Matthean version and Luke’s version is different:

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 in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.

Now the point here is not to dwell on the differences but simply to note that the exact wording does not seem to be what Jesus has in mind in teaching this prayer. Rather, what he does here is to teach, by these phrases, a kind of pattern for prayer, a description of the basic components of prayer and the spiritual life.

To be sure the words of the Matthean version are precious to the Church and she has recited them faithfully for two millennia. But more than the words we can and should also learn the five fundamentals of prayer that can be discerned in Jesus teaching on prayer. They are these:

  1. RELATEFather  When we pray we are not praying to the deity, the force,  or higher power. We are praying very personally to the Father who loves us. Hence this first teaching is that we should relate to the Father! When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we will experience God as our Father. The deeper Christian word of Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.” Why the word Abba is not used here is uncertain. Rom 8:15 says  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” Gal 4:6 says And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” The first prescription for prayer is that we pray in a personal way to the Father who loves us. By extension we are also to relate personally to the Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Deep intimate, personal prayer is norm to be sought and is the first pattern of Prayer.
  2. REJOICE hallowed be your name– The praise and love of God is the foundation of our lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due. Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made: We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:11) Regular, frequent praise of God is the second pattern of prayer.
  3. REFLECTyour kingdom come– A kingdom is where the will of the King is manifest. To ask for God’s kingdom to come is to ask that his will be made known to us and that we accomplish it by his grace. In order for this to happen we must reflect on God’s will as manifested in the Scriptures and Teachings of the Church. One aspect of prayer is to thus prayerfully and thoughtfully meditate on God’s will by prayerfully and thoughtfully reading scripture, studying the faith, engaging in spiritual reading and meditating on God’s actions in our life. At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world. When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life.”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) The reflective prayer of listening where we allow God to teach us and seek to apply his truth in our life is the third pattern of prayer.
  4. REQUESTGive us each day our daily bread- At one level allow bread to symbolize all our needs. And thus Jesus instructs that we ought to pray for our needs to be met and the needs of others.  Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. This prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the World with the compassion of Christ and pray. In another and related sense, our daily bread is a reference to the Eucharist as some of the Fathers of the Church see it. Clearly we ought to seek Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of our Lord for our nourishment. Hence to live a sacramental life in Communion with the Lord is an essential fourth pattern for for prayer as is our obligation to pray for others with who we also share communion in Christ.
  5. REPENT forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test. Debts? – historically this is how a Semite spoke of sin. Hence financial obligations are not meant here, rather the debt of sin. Sin is understood at two levels here: sin – our personal sins and transgressions, referred to here as our sins and debts. In another sense the word “test” is also used – it is the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. What is referred to here as the “final test”  is probably the culmination of this whole climate and the structures of sin that will come at the end of time. Meanwhile, it is proper for us that we ought to beg deliverance from being overwhelmed by the temptations of this present evil age. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, (Eph 6:12) Repentance from sin and request for deliverance from its power is the fifth pattern of prayer.

Teaching 2 – Insistence on persistence. – The second fundamental teaching on prayer is that we must be persistent. Jesus tells the parable of the grouchy neighbor:

Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed.  I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence (Lk 11:5-8)

Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18 of an unjust judge and a persistent widow. Finally the judge gives her justice because of her demanding persistence. The upshot of both of these parables is that if even a grouchy neighbor and an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will God the Father who is neither unjust or grouchy respond to those who call out to him day and night.

Now in the end, the teaching that we persist in prayer is something of a mystery. God is not deaf, he is not forgetful, he is not stubborn. But yet, he teaches in many places that we are to persevere, even pester him, in our prayer. Why he teaches this cannot be for his sake, it must be for ours. Perhaps he seeks to help us clarify what we really want, perhaps he wants to strengthen our faith, perhaps he wants to instill appreciation in us for the finally answered prayer. What ever it may be there is something of a mystery here as to the exact reason. But persistent prayer is taught and insisted upon by Jesus, here and elsewhere.

Some may ponder as to why our prayers are not always effective. Some of the usual explanations are:

  1. Our faith is not strong enough – Jesus said: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22) And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (James 1:6-7)  There is also the sad fact of Nazareth where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58)
  2. We ask for improper things or with wrong motives – The Book of James says : “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures
  3. Unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked –  “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
  4. We have not been generous with the requests and needs of others – “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13)  
  5. God cannot trust us with blessings for we are not conformed to his word or trustworthy with lesser things – If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (John 15:7) and Again: So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

Now all these explanations are fine. But even if none of them apply God often delays anyway. A man one day prayed to God and asked: “How long is a million years to you?” And said, “About a minute.”  And the man said, “How much is a million dollars to you?”  And God said, “About a penny.”  The man said, “Can I have a penny?” And God said, “In a minute.”  God’s “delay” and our need to persist and persevere in prayer are mysterious aspects of God’s providence but they are taught, there is no doubt about that.

Pray, Pray Pray – The insistence on persistence is taught to us all, not only to the sinful and weak in faith. The Lord says here quite simply: pray, pray, pray pray, pray. Realize that this is part of what is required of the Christian. Prayer is about more than “calling and hauling” or “naming and claiming.” It is also about persevering, about persisting. Monica prayed 30 years, it would seem, for Augustine to accept the Faith. Some of us have prayed even longer for loved ones. In the end God seems to require persistence for some things and we dare not give up or become discouraged. We just have to keep praying: Pray, pray, pray.

The Audio Version of this Homily is here:

This song says: You can’t hurry my God; No, You just gotta wait. You’ve gotta trust God and give him time; No matter how long it takes.
He’s a God you can’t hurry;  But he’ll be there, don’t you worry, He may not come when you want him, But he’s “right on time!”

This video is a bit homespun but the song is well done.