When You Haven’t Got a Prayer
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 25, 2010
In Luke’s gospel we discover this piece of Jesus’ marvelous teaching on prayer, which might have become the paramount teaching of the church on the subject were it not for the fact that Matthew 6 includes a longer version of the prayer Jesus gives here, the one we have become accustomed to calling “The Lord’s Prayer,” and which we pray every Sunday.
Yet there is something important to see about prayer and its place in the life of believers from this compact version in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus’ teaching, which followed it.
Just after having visited the house of Mary and Martha – where Martha had busily ministered to the hunger of Jesus and his disciples, while Mary had sat at the Master’s tired feet – Jesus went out to pray, and one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray...” Failing to look closely at the passage, we might make the mistake of thinking that the request was, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” I know this request well. You probably know it too. In its contemporary manifestation, the question might go something like this: “Pastor, can you help me learn some beneficial prayer techniques...” or, “What is the appropriate body position for prayer?” or, “Where is the best place to go to pray, and how long should it take?”
Useful, if unanticipated, responses to these questions might be, “Where do you go to speak to members of your family, what techniques do you use, what body position do you use, how long should it take?”
There are plenty of prayer gurus and formulae for meditation floating through the cultural religious marketplace these days, no shortage of books, techniques, and spiritual guides ready to respond to a request like the one we might have anticipated from the disciples: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” But, as it turns out, that was not the request that was made. It was more straightforward, more needy, less presumptuous. To ask to be taught how to pray would have come from an assumption that it was already a recognized skill – like golf, say, or gourmet cooking – and that maybe a few lessons from a pro could sharpen up the game or the meal. But the request was more needy, more abject, hungrier and more helpless: “Lord, teach us to pray...” as if the subject were coming up for the very first time in that disciple’s life. Let’s take those actual words seriously, and perhaps we will be prepared to learn more from Jesus’ response than we had anticipated. This would make our lesson a great one for anyone whose prayer life is stuck at the starting line, anyone who thinks they ought to be praying, but have just not gotten around to getting started, and don’t know where to begin.
Jesus begins and ends his whole example prayer with our need. That is all. How are you, what is on your mind today? He encourages us just to lay those anxieties and needs out before God in all their un-fancy, unfinished human clumsiness. Jesus’ short example prayer gives permission for us to pray the sorts of petitions that most readily rise to our lips: He said,
When you pray, say: Father, holy be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
A contemporary expansion on this prayer could be rendered: “God, where are you? If you are there I need you now. It seems as though every time I bring home my paycheck, I’m looking over my shoulder, hoping that I won’t be the next one to be downsized. Forgive me for being such a busybody and know-it-all today; I am trying to learn to forgive other people for the very same thing. And Lord, give me strength to make it through the times when I’m tempted to believe you aren’t there and I really am on my own. That’s about it, Lord. Amen.”
Want to be taught to pray? Just start with what is on your mind, the way you would in a conversation with a good friend who asks, “How are you today?”
Still, about the time we reach the point in a prayer that is made up entirely of our needs, of “honey-do’s” for God, we may be tempted to wonder whether anyone is listening, whether the God of the entire universe really cares at all about our little worry over a performance review tomorrow with the boss. It is for this reluctance to open up our heartfelt needs before God that Jesus added the teaching of his little parable.
“Suppose one of you has a friend,” Jesus said, “and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And 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.’ I 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.”
It seems to me that we are meant to see that our really good human friends might be disinclined to respond to our needs if the process of responding would involve a great deal of trouble or inconvenience for them. But I know what you may be thinking. You may be thinking that you might have a really good friend or two whom you know you could go to even at a very inconvenient time, and if you really needed their help, they would still be willing to drop what they were doing – inconvenience or not – and help you out. And you would do the same for them. Jesus makes room for this thought in his parable, when he says “at least because of his persistence, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” This might be true a time or two, but if you called even your most dependable neighbor constantly, night after night in the middle of the night asking for yet another loaf of bread or cup of milk, I can imagine that eventually a realtor would be called, and soon your former close friend would provide you with a new, possibly less well-disposed neighbor for your to pester.
The fact is, only so much need-response is possible from any human being. Eventually – and for most of us weak and selfish creatures, this does not take an exceptionally long time – “response-ability” can be exhausted, and we would have to turn away even our best friends.
This sets us up to learn something important about the nature of God.
God is seen in contrast with that crotchety neighbor who only reluctantly gets up and goes to the bread box to provide for his neighbor’s need. If friends come through for each other, even if only to get their neighbor to quit leaning on the doorbell, how much more can we rely on God to listen to our petitions, the God who stands to gain nothing by listening to us, yet who provides for us in our world in ways beyond our imagining?
This is no guarantee that those who pray for a red wagon will get one. Jesus offers confident assurance that all heartfelt prayers are heard. Someone is listening. And isn’t this, at heart, our deepest need? Aren’t we longing to know that whether or not we get that new red wagon we are hoping for, someone cares, someone listens, someone has the best interests of our hearts and spirits in mind? Jesus makes talking to God sound like intimate and satisfying dinner conversation where we may express ourselves unselfconsciously with the confidence that we will be heard and understood. Prayer is not a means of getting something, certainly not primarily; it is a way of being in relationship to God. C.S. Lewis once said that he prayed because he couldn’t help himself from praying, and that he didn’t hope to change God in the process, but that in praying he discovered he was the one changed.
“Teach us to pray” is itself a petition that is met by a responsive and caring listener. Want to pray? Then just say what is on your mind. God wants to hear it. “Successful prayer” does not depend on posture, formal words, or even receiving the particular answer we had in mind, any more than relationship with someone we love depends on always looking perfect, never ending a sentence with a preposition, or constantly getting what we want from them. Relationship rests its heart in communication, in saying what lies in the depths of the heart.
Someone once said, prayer is not so much a way to receive things we don’t have as it is the way of coming to the realization of what we have been given.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”