"Jesus was praying in a certain place," Proper 12, Luke 11:1-13, Rev. Jonathan
Jesus’ disciples have just witnessed him praying and, they ask him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And, for once, Jesus just gives them a straightforward answer. He gives them this template for how to pray that we all know and love as the Lord’s Prayer. Only… this is Luke’s version, it’s a little different than the one we recite each week at church and whisper at times when we need the solace of those familiar words. I think those differences are a good opportunity to take a fresh look at what this prayer means for us
I must warn you, though. I was raised Baptist, so we’re going to go line by line through this passage. I promise it’s not a 45-minute sermon, though. So, let’s dive in:
To begin, this prayer is addressed to God as “Father.” Now, let me be the first to acknowledge that there are some problems with thinking of God as Father, or at least exclusively as Father. If God is a Father does that make God male, and if that makes God male, then are men somehow holier than women or other folks for that matter? Before I’m pelted with fruit and have to hide behind the pulpit, let me say: I certainly don’t think so. Or, what if you don’t or didn’t have a very good Father, might thinking of God as Father cause some unhelpful parallels. You bet. But, there is also a beauty to God as Father in this prayer. First of all, “Father” is a little formal for the actual word used in the passage, instead of the Greek work “Pater,” “Father,” this is the Aramaic word, “Abba” which is really more like “Dad.” It’s an intimate term, a term that you would use within a family for a father who tenderly cares for his children. This doesn’t mean that we only address God as a Father, indeed we should have a variety of image and metaphors for a limitless God. God is also our Mother, Jesus even refers to himself as Mother Hen who wants to gather us, his chicks, under the shadow of his protective wings. And, we read elsewhere that God is our rock, our firm foundation. But, this word “Abba,” “Dad” reveals the intimate, tender way that God cares for us and protects us.
So, then Dad, “Hallowed be your name”, Holy is your name. This has a double meaning, it both proclaims that this Parent God to whom we pray is Holy, and, when it is taken with the next line, “Your Kingdom come”,it is also a plea that God would make God’s name holy, that God would establish God’s holiness here and now. What would it look like for God’s name to be holy over all the earth and in our lives? I think our world and our lives would look a lot different. Wouldn’t it be a world that is more compassionate, more loving, more generous, and more just? It would look like God’s kingdom come.
“Give us each day our daily bread,”What is this “daily bread” Jesus is talking about? Perhaps it is a reference to the daily bread of our heavenly feast, when God’s Kingdom has fully come at the end of time. Maybe… But, probably a better understanding is that this refers to actual daily bread. It’s a prayer that God would provide for us, for even our most basic needs, just as God provided Manna for the Israelites, so we pray that God would provide bread for us, that God would meet our material needs. This is in keeping with the Gospel of Luke, which, more than any other Gospel emphasizes God’s care for the outcast, the poor, and the stranger. Luke reminds us that God cares about our real, tangible lives, and especially the lives of those on the margins, the poor, the strangers. When we look at the Lord’s Prayer this way, we are reminded that prayer makes a real, tangible difference in our lives and in our community.
Praying this way, this way that Jesus taught us, also puts us in the position of asking, of begging, even. When we ask for our daily bread, it’s a reminder that we are not God, we aren’t the ones who ultimately provide for ourselves. It is God who gives us what we need.
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Now here’s a tough one. This is the first petition that has a condition attached. There’s a couple of things to point out, here. In Matthew’s Gospel, this petition asks that God forgive our “debts,” and we’re very used to saying “trespasses” in the traditional version. I like that Luke uses the word “sin,” here. There’s no hiding from that word, sin. It’s a theologicalword that means “missing the mark” of what God intends for us to do and be. Sin creates spaces of separation in our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. But, it is impossible for us to avoid. So, we need God’s forgiveness and God’s help. And, notice, that the state of our soul before God, the forgiveness of our sins, is linked directly to our forgiveness of those who are indebted to us. The grammar suggests that Jesus assumesthat we are regularly in the habit of forgiving others’ debts. And, I do think that the word “indebted” here refers to those times when we feel wronged or betrayed by someone. For our freedom and for their freedom and for the health of our souls, we need to be in the habit of practicing forgiveness.
But I think we should also attend to the financial meaning of the word “indebted” as well. What would it look like if Christians were in the habit, also, of forgiving financial debt, of really helping those who fall on hard times without using debt as a mode of holding power over another person. It would be an economy of gift. For which we have an example right here, at this altar. On it, we lay our offerings and gifts of bread and wine, and we also lay our sins, our imperfections, and we are given back grace upon grace upon grace, we are given Jesus’ very life. And to that our only debt is thanksgiving. Wouldn’t it change the world if we practiced a little more of that gift economy..
“And, do not bring us to the time of trial” And, here we run into a theological snag, if you will. Does God bring us to the time of trial in the first place? Why do we need to ask God not to bring us there, at all? And, I don’t really know the answer to this, people much wiser than I have been pondering that question for millennia, because at its heart is the question, “why do bad things happen?” I don’t believe that God ever wants or causes bad things to happen to us, but we all know from our lives that trials docome. Don’t they? The shocking, the grief inducing, the anger raising things happen.
God promises to be with us in those trials, to never allow those trials to overwhelm us, such that we never shrink back from our confession that God’s name is holy and that we want God’s kingdom to come.
Jesus reinforces this theme, too, in the stories that he tells right after he teaches the Lord’s prayer. In the first story, Jesus tells about a neighbor who is so motivated to provide hospitality to a stranger, that he knocks on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night to borrow some bread to provide hospitality. (There were no 24 hour HEB’s in the Ancient Near East, I suppose.) The sleeping neighbor, of course, is in bed and is reluctant to get up and give the knocking neighbor what they want. But, Luke says, because of their “persistence” he will get up and give the neighbor what they want. I learned this week that “Persistence” is not the best translation of the word, there. A better translation would be shamelessness…
I’ve always read this parable to mean that we need to follow the knocking neighbors example of persistence and keep asking God for what we want and eventually, God will get tired of hearing us and give us what we want. Except, that’s the exact opposite of what the parable is trying to teach us. It’s really saying, we never have to “shame” or “guilt” God into giving us what is good for us. God already wants to do that, God is precisely notlike a human being that needs to be motivated by how they might look, what shame might come, if they refuse to give us what we request. We don’t have to convince God to care about us.
Finally, Jesus promises that God will never fail to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask- which means we will be empowered and asked to be agents of God’s Kingdom coming. We will be the agents of forgiveness, of grace, of offering. And that’s the same kingdom that we pray will come in the Lord’s Prayer. God promises to give us the grace, the power, and the will to do just that. The world needs Christians who will pray like this. May it be so with us.