These last couple Sundays and for a few more yet to come, we are reading through a section of St. Luke’s Gospel in which the evangelist has brought together a kind of compendium of our Lord’s teaching on discipleship. And in terms of the characteristic activity or, we might even say “lifestyle,” of discipleship, we come this morning to the very beating heart of the matter: prayer.
So we have just heard, in three brief paragraphs, our Lord gives us a form of prayer for repetition and emulation – a version of the “Our Father.” And he has given us a discipline of prayer – the parable of “the friend at midnight” illustrates the importance of persistence in prayer. And he has ended with a promise that God hears the prayers of his children and will provide for us exactly what we need to obtain our union with him – or actually, Jesus tell us, not what we need, but who we need: if you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for him.
We are given a form, a discipline, and a promise, but more deeply, as is thr foundation of all those, he also addresses the orientation of our hearts; he indicates the conversion of grace and love that lead to authentic prayer.
It’s worth noting, I think, that this teaching on prayer doesn’t begin out of the blue. Jesus doesn’t just suddenly say one morning, “Y’all sit down, today’s lesson is on prayer,” but rather Jesus teaches in response to an invitation: One of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
This is striking because, in a sense, they – just like all of us – already knew how to pray. These disciples were, everyone of them, faithful Jews, raised in the synagogue and in devout, observant families. And even if, like Matthew, some of them as adults had turned their backs on God and run to “a far country,” they would all nonetheless have been well-versed in the words and techniques and disciplines of Jewish prayer. They would have had vast swaths of the Psalms and other passages of the Hebrew Bible memorized.
Again, they had all of that just as we do, just as we have our missals and the Magnificat and iPhone apps and rosaries and all sorts of aids to prayer. They were devout. They were disciples of Jesus. We can trust that they already spent a great deal of time praying, and likely many of us would have had a kind of holy envy of their prayer lives. In a sense, and in a very important and true sense, they already knew how to pray. And yet they ask, Lord, teach us to pray.
But again, this invitation, this plea, for Jesus to teach them how to pray doesn’t come out of the blue. Rather, Luke tells us that Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
In other words, as the disciples observed Jesus in prayer, it was clear that they were encountering something qualitatively different than their own prayer – that Jesus’ prayer was more intense, more profound, more honest, more real, than what they themselves experienced.
Of course that makes us curious about just what they observed. Did our Lord seem to glow as he did on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration? Did the disciples have some sort of psycho-spiritual spine-tingling experience as our Lord prayed? Or was it simply our Lord’s manner as he prayed; could they see how completely natural prayer was for him? Well, we don’t know – we aren’t told – but it is clear that, whatever they saw, whatever they experienced, they knew that Jesus’ prayer was different, and better, than their own. It was the difference between a text message and a face-to-face conversation, the difference between a postcard and an embrace.
This may be pressing the matter a bit exegetically, but it’s almost as if when they get a taste of Jesus’ prayer, then they realize that they hadn’t really been praying at all. The anonymous disciple doesn’t ask, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” but simply, Lord, teach us to pray.
Now, to be sure, in response to that request, Jesus provides a “how” kind of answer: When you pray, say. So he gives a formula of prayer, to be memorized and repeated and used as a kind of standard of measure for all our prayer. And he also, in the little parable of the friend at midnight, gives a discipline of prayer: I tell you… he will give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. Pray, pray, pray, and pray some more. And he follows that with some Nike “Just Do It” encouragement: ask, seek, knock
But of course, a formula of words, even words given by the Lord himself, when disconnected from the actual intentions of our hearts, can be empty – the kind of vain repetition in prayer that Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount. And as to the disciplines of prayer, as the Protestant writer Jerry Bridges has said, discipline without desire is drudgery – and that can’t sustain or give life to prayer, prayer will fail. Or worse, we will sustain prayer merely as personal discipline and fall into a kind of earn-my-salvation Pelagian works righteousness.
So notice what Jesus does. Formula and discipline are necessary and good, he gives them to us, after all. But he gives them to us in a particular context – and this is the context that gave so much obvious life to Jesus’ own prayer, so much so that the reality and authenticity of his prayer was sensible to those nearby. And the context is God’s Fatherhood.
He begins with, When you pray, say: Our Father…” This sounds normal to us, but we have to remember this is actually something new. Jews did not, do not, pray to god as “Father” in this sense. It is only through the revelation of Jesus as the eternal Son of God that we come to know God as Father.
So he begins with God’s Fatherhood, and he ends with it as well, pointing to the loving, giving essence of fatherhood: If you [earthly fathers] who are wicked know haw to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
The proper home, the sustaining and life-giving ground of our prayer, is the intimate and loving bond of family. God’s Fatherhood and his own eternal Sonship form the key to Jesus’ own prayer.
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church answers the question, “From whom did Jesus learn how to pray?” this way: “Jesus, with his human heart, learned how to pray from his Mother and form the Jewish tradition. But his prayer sprang from a more secret source because he is the eternal Son of God who in his holy humanity offers the perfect filial prayer to his Father.”
This deep, abiding sense of the Fatherhood of God is the “secret source” of Jesus’ prayer, and he is telling us that the more we understand God not as some cosmic potentate or generic deity, but simply as a tender, caring Father, and ourselves as God’s own beloved children, the more our prayer will be like that of Jesus – real, connected, and strengthening. It will make our words, our formulas, authentic, and add desire to our discipline. It will change the orientation of our hearts, away from the devices and desires of this world, and towards horizon of eternity, towards God in prayer.
After all, it is one thing to send a petition to some very powerful but very distant overlord – or even to direct a wish list to a jolly fat man in a red suit on the North Pole. But it is an entirely different thing pour out your heart to a father who knows you and loves you and desires your good. And it is even a better thing to pour out our hearts in love to a heavenly Father is both our Source and our End, who has sought us and found us made us his own by adoption and grace, and who is determined to bring us safely home.
In fact, when we have such a Father – when we understand that we have such a Father – we will run to pour our hearts out to him – not just our wants and needs and sorrows, but our joy and gratitude and laughter as well. Our prayers will come alive, and in our prayer we will find that God the Father has been waiting for us, longing for us, eager for fellowship, eager to give us good gifts, even to send us the Holy Spirit.
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