July 28, 2013 –– 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Learning to Pray
Almost all people naturally pray. Yet it is not natural or easy to pray well.
Not all people pray often. Prayer can be the desperate last resort of the distressed.
Many people are skeptical about prayer. They come to prayer with the theological sophistication of Huck Finn:
Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fishline, but no hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.
Most of us have likely felt that way at times. We ask God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it doesn’t happen. Prayer becomes a big mystery. Like Huck, we can't "make it out no way." Maybe this was part of the disciples’ motivation when one of them asked, Lord, teach us to pray....
Luke especially portrays Jesus as a man of prayer. He stays up all night, praying (Lu 5:16). He chose the Twelve after a night of prayer (Lu 6:12-13). The Transfiguration happened as he was praying (Lu 9:29). It is no wonder the disciples wanted Jesus to teach us to pray.
So Luke presents Jesus giving these words as a response to the disciples. This prayer is at its simplest, which only emphasizes how profound it really is. Volumes have been written on what is called both The Lord’s Prayer and the Our Father. Back in 1988 I preached a sermon on this text that was seven pages long––about 25-30 minutes. In 1992 I did a series of nine sermons on The Lord’s Prayer that was 82 pages. My point is that I cannot cover this prayer in a 10-minute homily. Instead, I want to stress the one point that undergirds the whole thirteen verses of this reading.
Jesus would have given this prayer in Aramaic (or maybe Hebrew). Luke uses the Greek, pater (father)––which would not have been revolutionary, but behind the translation is the word abba (Mark actually uses this in his Gospel, 14:36), and the implication is revolutionary: God is our papa––Daddy! There is an intimacy here that matches exactly what the disciples saw in Jesus’ prayer life. Jesus says this intimacy with God is for all of us. Because God loves us like a good daddy loves his children, our Heavenly Father is always helping us to know him and his great love.
We were created to pray––to be in conversation with God. We are invited to pray. Peter writes in his first letter: Cast all your anxiety on [the Lord] because he cares for you (1Pet 5:7). Jesus himself invites: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Lu 11:9). The Psalmist gives the same reason as Jesus that we can have confidence to pray: As a father has compassion on his children / so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; / for he knows how we are formed, / he remembers that we are dust (Psa 103:13–14). Jesus says it this way: If you then, though you are [in comparison to God] evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Lu 11:13).
Now, I’ve said all this to make one point: God is always at work for us to know him (because to know God is eternal life––salvation). There is no prayer that is not answered.
Earthly fathers love their children and delight in giving good gifts to them. Good human fathers do not give their children “bad” things even if they foolishly ask for them. Neither does our Heavenly Father give us things which will be harmful to us. In our shortsightedness.... our weakness.... our stubbornness, we can find ourselves asking God for “snakes” and “scorpions” instead of “fish” and “eggs.” I may ask for a snake thinking it’s what I want, but God gives me a fish. I may wish for a scorpion believing it’s the right thing at the time (because the world can make harmful things look so good), but God still gives me eggs. God does not give us evil gifts when we ask for the good, but he does give us good gifts even when we seek what is harmful to us. When God answers our prayers the way we wish, it is because it fits with the way God wants us to know him. When God does not answer our prayers as we wish, it is because, if he did so, it would interfere with the way God wants us to know him. We need to understand that every true prayer we pray is actually our cry for God’s Spirit, and that is what the Father is always positively answering.
Jesus invites us to pray. He tells us how to pray. His Spirit is always drawing us to pray. Let’s not focus so much on what we think we want. Let’s renew each day the hunger and thirst of those first disciples and ask our Lord, teach us to pray.