Teach Us To Pray Like John’s Disciples…

Teach us to pray like John’s disciples  Luke 11: 1-13

Our text for today, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, is not as well known to us.  We’ve heard messages based on it all our lives.  It presents several quite different approaches to prayerToday I’m going to ask you to suspend some of what you’ve come to think that it is all about and listen with new ears to this gospel passage. The first of three sections begins:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

In responding to the request of the disciple to teach them to pray like the disciples of John the Baptist Jesus quotes the opening of the Qaddish, one of the oldest and most used prayers in Jewish piety. This would be nothing really new to Jesus’ hearers – it is like taking a page from the Jewish prayer book. Its popularity in pre-Christian Palestine is attested by numerous echoes in late biblical, apocryphal and early rabbinic sources. It is regularly used with slight variations several times during morning and evening Jewish worship services.  The interesting thing is the unique addition Jesus makes.  This is how the Qaddish begins:

Heightened and hallowed be his great name in the world he created according to his will. And may he establish his kingdom in your life and in your days and in the life of all the house of Israel, very soon and in the coming season.
–And you say: Amen!
Blessed, praised and glorified, raised, lifted up and revered, exalted and lauded be the name of him who is Holy, blessed be He! Although he is high above all blessings, hymns, praised and solace uttered in (this) world.

To offer some light on what is going on here Scott McKnight points us to Mark 12:28-32. In that passage Jesus expands the traditional Shema to include Leviticus 19:18′s command of loving your neighbor. It reads: One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The Shema, from Deut. 6:4-5, is the fundamental text of Jewish monotheism, and devout Jews continue to recite it twice a day. Jesus broadens the fundamental command of Judaism to include not only allegiance to and love of God, but also love of neighbor – the basic duty of life extending both vertically AND horizontally. The inclusion of both love of God and neighbor is mirrored in the two sections of the Lord’s Prayer, and McKnight argues that Jesus is essentially doing the same thing with the Qaddish that he did with the Shema – expanding it to include dimensions of God’s glory and of his kingdom and also of life together based on love of neighbor in a community dedicated to living God’s kingdom as reality.

Are you aware of just how subversive and even revolutionary are each of the petitions of the Lord’s prayer: God is not distant but he is our Father; it is his name that should be exalted on the earth and not the name of any other ruler or power; his reign when manifest in this world, displaces the reign of other would-be lords. These fairly jump out at us from the page, but the petitions in the “love your neighbor” section are equally evocative.

To pray for our daily bread echoes the experience of Israel in the wilderness as God provided manna – just enough for each day, with no hoarding possible, no way for anyone to gain greater influence or power through God’s gracious gift. This undermines the nature of an affluent culture by declaring trust in God, not accumulation, as basic to our way of having needs met. To pray to be released from our debts as we release those in debt to us is an outworking of the principle of Jubilee that subverts a society based on debt and unequal economic power relations. To pray to be not lead into temptation but delivered from evil stands as a bulwark both against the tendencies of an oppressive society to call those who could to join the oppressors as well as the tendency of the oppressed to undertake violent revolution.

This is fascinating insight into what John the Baptist and Jesus brought new to the spirituality of contemporary Judaism. It echoes the voices of the Prophets in having both verticle and horizontal implications. It reforms what has been a narrowly focused faith and makes it inclusive. But Jesus wants more of his disciples than that.

In the blog The Hardest Question Russel Rathbon pushes the envelope of our comfort zone much farther. He points out that we are pretty comfortable with the first part of this text which has gotten a great deal of attention but, he says, it is the rest of this passage that causes us to scratch our heads.

5And (Jesus) he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

We’ve been taught to understand the parable of the reluctant neighbor as an admonition to be persistent in prayer. “… even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” The neighbor doesn’t want to give his friend any bread, but grudgingly he finally does — not out of love but irritation. Is this how Jesus wants us to think of God and of prayer? So if you ask a lot and search unceasingly, and knock relentlessly, finally and grudgingly you will receive, find, and have the door opened up to you? I know some who carry a heavy burden that their prayers were not answered because they believe they failed the persistence test. But this interpretation turns God into a miserly, hard-hearted “friend” who won’t give what is asked for until we have sufficiently begged and pleaded. Who needs a friend like that? Who needs a God like that? Jesus evidently wished his followers would have a different understanding of God.

There is another place in Matthew 6 where Jesus instructs his followers how to pray. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

God’s response to our needs and desires cannot be based on our tenacity, our ability to harass God, or even our ability to ask for the right things in the right way. In his Small Catechism Luther dismissed that notion out-of-hand saying instead, “Of course, God’s name is holy in and of itself; Truly God’s Kingdom comes by itself, without our prayer; Truly, God’s good and gracious will is accomplished without our prayer.”

Jesus shifts metaphors and says: 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? And we want to say something like: Come on Jesus, what are you trying to do?—everyone knows we all give bad things to our children all the time. They want love and approval, but sometimes we give them insecurity and shame. They want our time, our presence, and our attention, but sometimes we give them distance and fear. What is the point of rubbing our noses in our parental failures with the sarcasm?

And then Jesus amazes us with this :13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It stops us cold. Were we talking about the Holy Spirit? I didn’t know we were talking about the Holy Spirit. Maybe it is just assumed that when this disciple asked him about prayer he was really asking him about the Holy Spirit. But that’s not what Jesus was asked. Listen carefully. “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” I would think that Jesus would have been relieved that finally his disciples are becoming teachable instead of assuming they know, or not even listening. But Jesus doesn’t seem relieved, he seems irritated.

What is it that irritates Jesus so much? Or, if it’s not that why all the negativity? Could it be what lies behind the request from the disciple? The disciple didn’t ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he ask Jesus to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. It’s like the disciples want something John’s disciples have that Jesus is not providing them. Is it that they want a formula for their spiritual discipline while Jesus wants them to seek the unpredictable, unquantifiable movement of the Holy Spirit?

Up till now, it’s all been about bread and forgiveness and not being tested and asking and seeking and knocking. Up till this point who has said anything about asking for the Holy Spirit? But now all of a sudden it’s about the Holy Spirit. What are we to make of this? Luke offers no further clarification.

I’m thinking back to Luke 4:1-13 where Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” It is the Spirit that helped Jesus endure the 40 days of fasting and the 3 testings by Satan – including the one about satisfying his hunger by turning stones into bread.

So I’m thinking that what Jesus is saying is that whatever the concrete specifics of our prayers may be, the crucial thing is to pray that our hearts be aligned with God’s heart, and that what we seek as the “answer” to our needs be inwardly formed by the Holy Spirit.


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