Before He talks to them about persistence, Jesus teaches His disciples "the Lord's Prayer."
retold by Deborah
After Jesus finished praying, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
He said, “When you pray, say: ‘Heavenly Father, we honor and adore You. Our world shall be in accord with Your will. Give us food for today, and forgive us for the wrongs we do to You, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us. And don’t bring us to the time of trial.’ ”
And he said, “Suppose you go to a friend’s house in the middle of the night and say, ‘I need a couple of eggs and a loaf of bread, maybe some jam; a friend just showed up, and there’s nothing in the house to feed him.’ And he says, ‘Do you know what time it is? Everybody’s in bed, the kids are asleep — I was asleep a minute ago. Call me in the morning.’ I promise you, even if he won’t get up because of your friendship, he will give you whatever you need if you keep pestering him.
“And so I tell you: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Here's another one of those “difficult passages.” Argh. Is Jesus telling us that it is possible to plead and cajole and beg enough so that God will be persuaded to give us whatever it is we want? “Please, O please, most beneficent Provider, I really really really want a home on the Amalfi coast. Pleeeeeeze!!”
And if all we need to do is repeatedly ask — what of the untiring and devout prayers that have gone unanswered? Why are unceasing, heartfelt petitions denied?
Is this a rationale for heavenly shortcomings: exonerating God for diseases and disasters — laying the responsibility at our feet for not praying enough? Is this a justification to blame the victims for failing to “persist in prayer”?
I wonder. Perhaps the message is very different from what we may think.
His insistence on the power of repeated prayer follows Jesus’ very simple — and specific — teaching. We know it as “the Lord’s Prayer” and, as given in Luke’s gospel, it is less of a plea to God than a prescription for us.
“Thy kingdom come.”
After dedicating ourselves to honoring the Eternal One, Jesus’ Prayer vows that this world shall be conformed to God’s will. That means, as the prophets have always insisted, that justice be fairly administered, mercy be abundant, compassion rule, generosity abound, and peace abide. That’s not a prayer for a miracle, it’s a commitment to the Task.
In praying this prayer, we’re making a promise to God that we will do our part to bring about the holy Kingdom.
Our promise is followed by a request for nourishment. We ask for food to strengthen our bodies and our minds so that we can do what is needful.
I find it interesting that Jesus did not teach us to pray for long-term security: we don’t pray for silos filled with grain or refrigerators filled with food; we ask for enough for “this day.” It reminds me of the popular and powerful phrase in substance abuse recovery: “Just for today.” Today — this moment — is all any of us can promise: Yes, right now, I will commit to making the effort to follow Your will, Beloved Creator. I will try to remember that everywhere I go is “the holy land.”
I will try with all that is in me. Today.
By focusing on one day at a time, the holy Task of healing the earth becomes possible; small, achievable steps, one day at a time, one action at a time, one thought at a time. Give us — just for today — what we need in order to live as light-bearers; revealing Your love, following Your way.
That much: one day — this day — is all that Jesus asks of us. That much seems possible; that much we can try for; that much can be enough. With that one phrase our Lord encourages us to try, relieves us from hopelessness at the immensity of the task, and acknowledges our human failings and frailties. Which brings us to forgiveness.
This part of the Lord’s Prayer can be a real “yikes moment.” We have just pledged to build a holy, blessed Kingdom on earth by living as holy, blessed people, in accord with God’s holy, blessed will. You know: that business about being kind, compassionate, fair, generous, merciful, loving, and forgiving… The stuff that we always talk about, the stuff that Jesus preached about and embodied in His life, the stuff that makes up God’s policy on Right Living. The stuff that’s really hard to do.
Jesus, knowing us as He does, included a Forgiveness Clause in our Contract with God. The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t say “forgive us if we ever” fail to do God’s will, but — each day, we repeat — “forgive us.” It’s a done deal; every day we have and we will fall short of the glory of God. It’s not a condemnation, just a fact: no human person is perfect; we are going to mess up: we’ll envy, scorn, judge, hate, and generally step all over God’s will for us and for the world. We’ll behave badly.
The good news is: God’s forgiveness gives us an opportunity to begin again, to make a fresh start, each new day. And that “new day” can begin right this instant.
The not-so-good news is: Jesus has attached a proviso; He taught us to pray that we be forgiven — absolved of all our malice and mess ups — just as we have forgiven others. We are saying that we should be forgiven exactly the same way that we have forgiven others.
This means that, when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I say I am willing to be judged as harshly by the Holy One as I judged that guy who cut me off on the freeway this morning. It means that I am asking God to forgive me for my selfishness and unkindnesses just as much as I have forgiven the woman who was intentionally cruel and hurtful to my husband and son. Just the same; just as much.
When we pray as Jesus taught his disciples, we are tying God’s forgiveness of us to our willingness to forgive others. That goes for road hogs and rotten bosses, vicious gossips and unfaithful spouses, the dishonest and the devious, the cheats and deceivers, the hateful and hurtful people of every stripe and kind. In all cases, in the name of the Lord, we pray: “Forgive us, God, just like we forgive them.”
But what if we haven’t forgiven?
“Forgive us as we forgive others.”
This phrase should make us stop and consider the words we are saying. What if God were as harsh, as vindictive, as judgmental, as unforgiving as we often are?
Fortunately for us, God is better than that. The psalmists and prophets agree that the Beloved is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and quick to forgive. I don’t think Jesus is saying that God will do unto us as we do unto others, but he wants us to imagine what that would be like. What if God were as mean-spirited as we can be?
Grudges and hatred and dreams of revenge weigh down our souls, dragging our spirits into the muck, pulling us away from love and peace and charity, distancing us from God. Knowing this, Jesus set forth a “conditional forgiveness” within the Prayer as a warning of the harm that we can do — to ourselves as well as others — if we fail to forgive. Forgiveness, according to the Lord, is a Very Big Deal.
Then, lastly, we pray: Merciful God, please don’t make it harder for me than it already is. Keep us safely distant from situations in which our faith may be tested.
But let’s not forget Jesus’ story of the friend who preferred to sleep when we needed help. All of that business about knocking and shouting and searching must really be about us praying until God answers, right?
That’s certainly possible.
But I wonder. Why did Jesus tell that parable immediately after teaching His disciples how to pray (and what to pray for)?
Perhaps we’ve been mistaken about the cast of characters. Perhaps it isn’t God who is comfortably snug and secure, unconcerned with the needs of others and unwilling to lend a hand. Perhaps it isn’t God who needs to wake up.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
How can you bring about God’s gracious kingdom?
One word, one deed, one moment: one day at a time.