Scripture: Luke 11: 1-13; Genesis 18: 20-32
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus agave the disciples a model for prayer. But God will not always answer our prayers the way we want. Prayer may change me, not God. It may help me to I think harder about the issues on my mind, or inspire me to action to help those I care about.
In recent months I have commented on some parts of the Lord’s Prayer on other occasions. On Father’s Day, I spoke about what kind of father Jesus imagined us praying to. When I spoke about Eucharist, I said that, “Give us today our daily bread” doesn’t just mean give us enough food for today. Another meaning is that we ask to receive the heavenly bread today. That explains the Roman Catholic tradition of daily Mass. As a detail, Luke’s Lord’s Prayer differs from Matthew’s. It leaves out the ending, “For thine is the kingdom …”
Today, I want to think about other parts of this famous prayer.
The disciples asked Jesus, “What do you do when you pray?”
The reading starts by saying that Jesus had been praying. So Jesus replied to their question, “Here’s a model prayer.” So I ask you, “What should we say to God when we pray?” I think of prayer as opening a channel to God. It is a conversation about what things are uppermost on our minds at the moment. Gratitude, sadness, loss … Our prayers will not be the same every day! I imagine Jesus wanted to give the disciples some ideas, not a rigid formula.
It always bothers me that Jesus did not mention gratitude in the Lord’s Prayer. I ask myself whether we have grateful hearts when we turn to God, or are we just ‘on the make’. Do we want God to accede to a laundry list of requests? I like to begin my own prayers with thanks, and also those when I am the prayer leader at St. George’s.
The thanksgiving prayer from the Book of Common Prayer has these words [page 14], “We thank thee for our creation, preservation, and for all the blessings of this life …” I thank God for food and shelter in a world where many are hungry or homeless. The same thing for friends and family, because many people are alone and have no friends. I feel wonder at an amazing sunset or the green of new leaves in spring. Likewise, when I hear the rustle of the wind or waves crashing on the sea shore.
Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name
We offer praise precisely because God is more than we can possibly imagine. But as I have said before, the first two words are very important – ‘our’ and ‘Father.’ God doesn’t belong to me exclusively. God belongs to all humanity. The image of parenthood reminds us of God’s compassion and care for all of Creation, including ourselves. We believe that God will rejoice with us in good times and comfort us in bad.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done on Earth, as in Heaven
We ask that God’s kingdom be made manifest here on earth. I assume that God has already things fixed up in the heavenly realm! Jesus often said, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” It’s a “classic Jesus” comment. But a quick look at the world shows that God’s kingdom is not here yet. Our responsibility is to bring the Kingdom a little bit closer in our particular corner of this world. The kingdom is not ‘pi in the sky when you die.’ Our role is to bring God’s approach to love justice, kindness, and humility (as the prophet Micah said) here on earth.
My will or thy will?
But the phrase, “Thy will be done” is even more striking. It is all too easy for us to ask God for this or that in our prayers and expect our prayers to be answered just the way we want. But that is “My will be done” not “Thy will be done.” It treats God like a celestial vending machine. Our prayers are the coins. God will answer our prayers by giving us the candy bar.
It is easy for me to say ‘God answered my prayer’ when things turned out the way I wanted. That is ‘My will be done.’ It is me trying to bend God’s will to my desires. But what does it mean if things didn’t go well? Didn’t God care about my prayers? When we pray for those in need each Sunday, we usually ask that healing will come when it is possible, but if not, that God will support the person in their difficulty. That’s closer to the meaning of “Thy will be done.” I remember that Jesus used the same words when he faced arrest and execution. “Father, let this cup be taken from me, but if not, thy will be done.”
A detour into Genesis Chapter 18
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer makes an odd pairing with the beginning of the story of how God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. God told Abraham he would destroy the city of Sodom because its inhabitants were so sinful. Abraham wheedled with God. Would God spare the city if it was possible to find fifty, forty-five, forty … down to just ten righteous people there? It reminded me of William, our grandson, “negotiating” with his parents as to exactly how many more spoonfuls of his dinner he must eat before they will excuse him from the table. It says a lot about how the authors of Genesis understood God.
This isn’t a very edifying picture! It’s also terrible theology. It suggests that the purpose of prayer is to try and change God’s mind. For example, “I’ll come to church every week, if you’ll just cure my brother’s cancer.”
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us
Jesus told his disciples not to hold grudges. The Lord’s Prayer does not just ask God to forgive our own sins. Much more difficult, we must also ask for the grace to forgive those who have hurt us. “If you want God to forgive you,” you had better do the same for those who have hurt you. It’s another way of saying the words of the Great Commandments. We must love our neighbours as ourselves.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil
Life is full of problems and difficulties. People fall sick, they have accidents, they lose their jobs, they do badly at school. When Jesus talked to the disciples about some tragedies in the news [Luke 13: 1-5], he was clear that these tragedies were just bad luck. They were not the result of divine punishment or caprice. This piece of the prayer says, “God, look after me in your role as parent. I hope that nothing bad will happen to me, but if it does, please be with me and look after me spiritually.”
So what is prayer really about?
In the Sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “Your heavenly father knows that you have need of all these things” [Matthew 6: 32]. But if God knows our needs before we ask, what’s the point of praying?
At the end of today’s reading, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you … everyone who asks receives …” Jesus makes clear that this is different from the celestial vending machine. We will not necessarily be given what we ask for materially, but we hope that God will give us the Holy Spirit – i.e., an answer rather than the answer to our prayers. It will not necessarily be what we wanted or expected. Frequently, the purpose of prayer is to change me, not God. Prayer may encourage me to think harder or to do something about what I was praying about. Maybe I should call or visit someone rather than just telling God how sad I think their situation is.
The hymn, Pray when the dawn is breaking, reminds us that prayer is not confined to words that we offer at a set time or place. The author suggests that we might pray for those close to us, then for those with who disagree with us, and only lastly for ourselves. It would be nice to see that attitude on the hustings in the coming general election campaign! But I won’t hold my breath.
St. Paul exhorted his readers to pray without ceasing [1 Thess: 5: 17]
I doubt that Paul meant that literally. More likely, he intended us to keep our eyes open to see God in the events of daily life. This was the position of Brother Lawrence, an illiterate 17th century French monk, whose attitude I have long admired. Brother Lawrence saw God in each moment of his ordinary day, even in lowly tasks like peeling carrots or scrubbing floors. Even though he was uneducated, Brother Lawrence had the gift and the grace to combine the Lord’s Prayer with the Great Commandment. I’ll finish with one of his sayings. We can do little things for God. I turn the cake in the frying pan for the love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me the grace to work. Afterwards I arise happier than a king.