1 Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name. Bring in your kingdom.
3 Give us the bread we need for today. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation.'”
5 He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night. Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ 8 I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness. 9 And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.
11 “Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? 12 If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion? 13 If you 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?” (CEB)
Prayer is something that we learn. We all have a prayer history. My earliest memories of prayer are of my mother helping me recite the nighttime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take. God bless Mommy, Daddy, Eric, Stephanie, my grandparents, all my aunts and all my uncles, all my cousins and all my friends. Amen.”
We also had our mealtime prayers. If we were at home or with our Methodist Romain family, we’d pray: “I fold my hands, I bow my head, to thank you God, for this good food. Amen.” Or, if we were with our Catholic Millay family, we’d pray: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.”
Those lessons stuck with me. I prayed every night, and I prayed before every meal; even at school. In college, I was part of a prayer group that met on Fridays at 5:00 p.m. Later, I discovered other ways of praying. Lexio Divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breath Prayer, to name a few. Did you know there are short orders for daily prayer and praise on pages 876 and 878 in our United Methodist Hymnals? Methodists have a tradition of prayer, too, which is linked to the ancient traditions of the church.
We all have our prayer histories, but the Lord’s Prayer goes back to the very foundation of Christian prayer. The text from Luke begins by telling us that Jesus was praying. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is always praying. He constantly withdrew to deserted places or to mountains to pray. He spent nights in prayer. He prayed before choosing the apostles. He prayed before going to Jerusalem. He prayed before his Transfiguration. He prayed before he fed the 5,000. He prayed the night before he was killed. He prayed while hanging on the cross in tortured agony. He prayed with his disciples after his resurrection.
So, when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray as John had taught his disciples, it’s easy to see how their request to learn wasn’t some theoretical, disconnected inquiry, but it came from actually watching Jesus pray all the time.
When I was a student at The University of Findlay, I remember attending an event put on by Campus Ministry. One of the speakers told us about the first time she visited Calcutta, India, to volunteer with Mother Teresa. She noticed how, throughout the day, the nuns kept stopping their work to pray. So, she asked Mother Teresa why they did that. In her practical mind, she imagined the nuns could get a lot more work done if they didn’t stop to pray all the time. And Mother Teresa responded by saying, “How could we get anything done if we did not stop to pray? How could we care for the sick, diseased, and dying without prayer?”
So, the pattern Jesus gives us is prayer all the time. The disciples saw Jesus pray that way, and they wanted to learn how to pray like Jesus. First, the prayer in Luke’s Gospel is shorter than Matthew’s version. In either gospel, the prayer is short, which fits with Jesus admonition that we not “pour out a flood of empty words” (Matthew 6:7 CEB). Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is only five sentences long.
Our address to God is Father. But, fathers in any age and culture parent quite differently. Some of us are or were fortunate to have wonderful fathers who are or were nurturing and loving. Others among us are not (or were not) so fortunate and had fathers who really could have been better. For these persons, the address to God as Father does not provide happy or pleasant thoughts. So, the address to God as Father can’t be detached from the rest of the text. It’s the rest of the text which describes God as nurturing by giving us the Holy Spirit.
The first two sentences of the prayer are confessional. God, our Father and Mother, has indeed shown God’s name to be holy, and God upholds the holiness of God’s name. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the kingdom of God has been brought near. At the same time, we yearn for the full realization of God’s kingdom: that all people would honor God, and that God’s reign would be completely realized. We hope for God’s dominion because it’s the only way justice can truly prevail for everyone.
The next three sentences of the prayer address three essential needs that we all have. The word that we usually translate as daily is somewhat problematic because it doesn’t appear in any Greek literature before the Gospels. So, it’s difficult to know exactly what it means. It could mean daily, tomorrow’s, or necessary.
Maybe it’s intentionally ambiguous because it’s suggesting all three. On one hand, we are praying for God’s dominion to come in its fullness, so the word could suggest that we hope for tomorrow’s bread: the bread of God’s dominion, and our hope to participate in the messianic wedding banquet. Yet, on the other hand, it’s also an acknowledgement that God provides our daily sustenance. God gives us what we need—our necessities—to live each day.
The next need which Jesus mentions is forgiveness. We ask God to forgive us of our sins. But, God’s forgiveness of our sins serves as a reminder that we also need to forgive those indebted to us. Not only those who sin or trespass against us, but those who are indebted to us. Our request for God’s forgiveness is in a Greek tense (aorist imperative) that expects that forgiveness from God to be definitive. But the tense for our forgiveness of others (present) suggests that our forgiving is a never-ending process. Forgiving others is something we must do all the time. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that we’re trying to forgive others for what they’ve done. Forgiveness isn’t easy for us, and the prayer subtly acknowledges that.
The final petition is about preservation. The “don’t lead us into temptation” (CEB) is misleading because God doesn’t lead us by the hand to temptation’s door. The NRSV provides a better translation by rendering it: “do not bring us to the time of trial.” In any case, it’s not about temptation as we normally think of it, which is an enticement to do evil. What we’re really asking for is protection and preservation from circumstances that test or imperil our faith.
We’ve all experienced situations where our faith has been deeply tested. For some of us, it was the death of a family member. For others, it was an unwanted transition. For others, it was the loss of a job and the security that disappeared with it. For some Christians around the world and throughout history, it’s been persecution, violence, or warfare among nations. Those moments, those times of trial, are troubling and full of stress. They can test our faith in God and make us wonder if God really cares about anything or anyone.
That’s probably why Jesus continues his lesson on prayer with the story of the friend at midnight. Jesus means to describe an unlikely scenario by asking, essentially, Could you imagine something like this happening? And the question—as asked in Greek—expects a negative answer. No one of Jesus day would have expected a friend to say, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to give you anything” (Luke 11:7 CEB). An answer like that would violate the conventions of hospitality and bring shame on the one who said it.
So, what Jesus presents is an absurd scenario in which even the important social and religious obligations of friendship and hospitality can’t compel a friend to get out of bed and respond to the need. But, even if a friend won’t do that, the friend will respond to the persistent pounding on the door. God, unlike the friend, is an eager giver. But, we still need to ask ourselves what God gives.
Jesus tells us that we should ask, and it will be given; search, and we will find; knock and the door will be opened. Yet, I think what God gives us is what we actually need, not necessarily what we want or desire. God gives us what is necessary and beneficial, like sustenance, forgiveness, and preservation. More than that, the direction we receive from Jesus in this prayer tells us that the establishment of God’s reign should be the primary focus of our prayers. Like a good and attentive parent, God gives us what we need. Most of us aren’t cruel enough to give our children snakes or scorpions when they’re hungry. (I mean, maybe you’re into those things as pets, but as a meal, I have my doubts).
One of my seminary professors, Geoffrey Wainwright, liked to use the terms Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: what we pray is what we believe. What we pray—especially the prayers of the church, like the Lord’s Prayer—both reveals and influences what we believe about the one to whom we pray. But we can also swap those phrases around. What we believe can improperly influence what we pray. If we think of God as a divine vending machine who dispenses whatever we ask for, then we’re going to be disappointed. That’s not what God is, and that’s not what the promise that God will answer our prayers is about.
Christians should not pray for whatever we want and expect to get it. Christians should pray for God to bring in the fullness of God’s reign and realm. That’s what it’s all about. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he stated what he wanted, but he also prayed for God’s will, not his own.
God is committed to accomplishing the establishment of God’s dominion. Those who pray as Jesus taught should expect that God intends to use us as a means toward that goal. Remember what Jesus said: “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13 CEB). It’s the Holy Spirit who helps us become instruments of and participants in God’s reign. In that sense, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate answer to our prayers.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay