Jesus and prayer are unusual!
1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread,
4 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
and lead us not into temptation.”
5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, 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!” (Luke 11:1-13 ESV)
The story of Jesus being asked to teach prayer is not that unusual in the stories of the religions of the world. All religions teach prayer and disciples, devotees, the curious, and the committed go to the leader, guru, priest, intercessor for tips. The disciple who approached Jesus even mentioned that John the Baptist taught his disciples prayer. In fact the world can regard the variety of religions as nonsensical precisely because ‘all prayers go to same God’. If you have the view of the big ear in the sky then it hears all. Since prayer is commonly described as ‘talking to God’, often what is sought is the right way to talk – what to say, what not to say, and there is the implicit – or explicit! – how can I get what I want out of prayer? How can I get results for my effort?
Many people regard Christian prayer similarly – that the right words or the right attitude or enough faith or our desperation will get God to comply. So when prayers are not answered as we believe they should be answered then there is crisis – often of faith itself. God didn’t answer my prayer and so there is no God.
However what happens here with Jesus being asked to teach his disciples to pray is unusual because his teaching says something about himself which affects his disciples, he reverses the expected order of prayer, and he focuses on the nature of the person to whom we pray more so than the ‘success’ of our prayers.
We don’t have a context for why the disciple came to Jesus other than Jesus was a man of prayer – it was noticed – and whatever was happening, it was something wanted. I think it was the intimacy with which Jesus related to God – especially calling him ‘Father’ – that may have drawn the question. It was his relationship with God that was different and troublesome. Remember how Jesus could seem to be too familiar with God, not deferential enough to the point where people could be drawn more to Jesus – the person they could see rather than the God they couldn’t see. And Jesus does it again with the request to teach prayer.
His response is clear – he gives words to say but, more importantly, he gives them his own relationship with God! Luke records most of the petitions of what has come to be called the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew gives us the other two petitions about God’s will being done among us and our deliverance from evil or the Evil One. But what the Christian Church, the followers of Jesus, have learnt from the beginning is that praying is about a relationship with God – it is not a shouting into the clouds hoping for a response – but it is communication between children and parent – Jesus gives us his relationship with God and says essentially, ‘You can call God, ‘Father’, because I say so; I make you family through these words’.
And the other thing Jesus does is to teach us that prayer is conversation – and yes, there is talking – as much as you want – but first there is listening. The disciples had to listen to hear Jesus teach them. They had to listen to memorise. They had to listen to consider what the petitions – requests – mean for them. Jesus gives them the agenda for prayer not a blank book of vouchers through which we can get God to do what we want. No, Jesus orients his disciples, his family to consider God’s name, kingdom, and will first in their time and place. He then orients them to consider daily needs, forgiveness, help with trials and temptations, and deliverance from evil – in other words, he gets the disciples to consider their lives from these perspectives and to seek God’s help with them all. This idea of listening first to God’s Word is automatic when we say the Lord’s Prayer because Jesus teaches them to us for us to say – listen then speak – and the same principle applies to all Christian prayer that we call out to God because he has spoken to us – maybe a minute before in the Bible reading, maybe recalling other Bible verses or a devotion or a sermon or a hymn or song we heard days or weeks or months ago. In prayer we are in conversation with God rather than simply dictating a shopping list or wish list ‘upstairs’. And this is possible because Jesus is the true Son of God who essentially puts his arm around us and says, ‘You say ‘Abba’ [Dad] too!’.
But what will God do with us and our prayers? Who are we to call God ‘Father’? We’re not Jesus after all! We might feel ok about prayer if we’ve been good but what about when we’ve sinned – struggled and failed, given into temptation, doubted it all, thought bad thoughts of God, and so on? And here Jesus gives us some pictures about God – that he is better than the man at night getting up because of his neighbour’s audacity – but you be audacious! God will not grumble at your prayer.
Jesus promises that God give to those who ask, those who seek in prayer will find, and those who knock in prayer when things are closed will find the doors opening. Of course this is where the wheels fall off and people can give up praying, stop believing in Jesus and God precisely because they asked and it was not given, they sought and didn’t find, and they knocked and the door they wanted didn’t open.
Jesus again paints a picture of God to say that he is better than us and we won’t give bad or dangerous things to our children imperfect – Jesus says ‘evil’ – as we are – and it is implied – and this is what we want! – that God will then give us the best versions of what we ask. This is how we expect things to go – ask what we want and God will give us the best version of it. However Jesus actually says that our heavenly Father will give us the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
If prayer is a mechanism to get God to give us what we want, then I suggest to you that we have forgotten the context here of what it was that caused the disciples to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. The four Gospel accounts are not full of story after story of how the disciples got to live with whatever they prayed for but they are full of Jesus’ closeness with the Father. That is what the disciples saw and wanted, I think, a close relationship with God not a cosmic vending machine. And that means learning to follow and trust God especially when things don’t go our way – and that is precisely why the Holy Spirit is needed because he wants us to keep our eyes on Jesus and remember what Jesus said and did.
And even Jesus didn’t get every prayer answered as it seemed best to him but he did teach us how to pray and how to trust that God’s will and way with us are not capricious or cruel – hard as they may be – and it is the Holy Spirit who will keep us focused on Jesus as we live our lives in our context.
Christian prayer is so often troublesome – hard to maintain regularly – and the results to our words – often the no results to our words can really challenge us – and so that is why Jesus taught about the nature of his Father – that he will not grumble about our prayers; that he will answer our prayers – all of them; that he will not give us serpents or scorpions but what we need to see and understand him is the Holy Spirit who will draw us to the truth that this God to whom we pray is good after all. That Jesus is the best guarantee that God is good to us. And that prayer is about listening to God and then speaking about our needs and the needs of others and growing in the intimacy and trust that God does bring good from everything.
And that is why the Lord’s Prayer is so powerful because it is Jesus’ gift to us – of his relationship with God – and using the words we’ve heard from him we can pour in and fill each petition with our life, our situations, and the people around us and their situation and needs – knowing that God will not be grumpy and that God will answer and help – and so we ask the Holy Spirit to help us grow in this intimacy with God each day and whenever we pray.
- Luke 11:1 - 13