“When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins for we too forgive all who do us wrong;’” Luke 11, 1-13
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were both written about the same time (AD 85-90, in Greek), some 15-20 years after Mark’s Gospel and a good decade before John’s Gospel. Despite the names attributed to them, all four Gospels had unknown authors. Today’s gospel reading gives us a version of the prayer we now know as the “Our Father”, a prayer we learned by heart as children and one to which we frequently return. Luke’s version is shorter, more direct and less personal than Matthew’s. For instance, Luke does not address God as our Father, and he has two petitions in comparison to Matthew’s three. Mark and John make no mention of this prayer. Moreover, it’s style is very different from the traditional Jewish way of praying, which was based on psalms, and firmly grounded in the tradition of the Law, Moses and the Prophets. There is a directness about this prayer of Jesus which was probably unfamiliar to the Jews of Jesus’ time. Implicit in the words of this prayer is a way of living life. I want to suggest that this was picked up with greater sensitivity in the Shaker tradition than in many of the other Christian traditions. The Shakers have a frequently repeated saying which sums up their approach to prayer in this way: “Hearts to God, hands to work!” In effect, they are saying to one another: “Take time to discern God’s vision for us and our world, and then bring that vision to life through practical action.” Prayer and the way we live are intimately related.
The prayer that Jesus taught the disciples in response to their request to him, after they has seen him frequently go apart to pray, was simple and direct. There is something of those qualities to be found in Abraham’s very personal engagement with God in today’s first reading. Abraham launches into a “conversation” with God, starting by blocking God’s way and then appealing to what he believes is God’s sense of fairness, and relying on a bit of simple psychology, giving God some positive strokes: “The men set out for Sodom, but Abraham stood in God’s path, blocking the way. Abraham confronted God: ‘Are you serious? Are you planning on getting rid of the good people together with the bad? What if there are fifty decent people left in the city, will you lump the good with the bad and get rid of the lot? Wouldn’t you spare the city for the sake of those fifty innocents? I can’t believe you’d do that, kill off the good and the bad alike as if there were no difference between them. Doesn’t the Judge of all the earth judge with justice?’” (Genesis 18, 22-25) And the bargaining went on until Abraham whittled the number down from fifty to ten: “‘For the sake of only ten, I will not destroy the city.’ When God finished talking with Abraham, God left. And Abraham went home.” (Genesis 18, 33)
I ask myself if there is that kind of freshness and openness when I take time to talk to God.
And that leads me to stop and reflect on what are some more fundamental questions. The first of these is: “Who is the God with whom I engage when I pray? What is my image of the God in whom I believe and to whom I pray?”
John reminded us that God is love. Have I really taken that image of God to heart, or is God someone of whom I’m a bit wary? Do I see God as a bean-counter, tallying up all my faults, failures and mistakes? Do I regard God as friend, who forgives, who has no interest in getting even, but one whose focus is on forgiveness, compassion and mercy?
Then it is worth asking myself why I pray and what is it I pray for. If you’re like me, you probably find yourself praying for something you think is missing in your life. I am grateful to God for the good health I have enjoyed over many years and my prayer is that it will continue. But logically, if it continues the way I would like it to be, does that mean that I will not die? I pray to God in gratitude for many blessings that I have received, but I can forget that death and deterioration and change are integral to the human condition. Friends and people I love and admire have gone from my life because of illness and death. Moreover, good people who have touched my life change and make choices to live in other places that are not easily accessible to me. So relationships that I cherish change and diminish because of separation. Even love itself undergoes changes in intensity and quality. Yet, if I trust God as loving father and mother I will come to trust that God’s love for me doesn’t change even though the circumstances of my life and relations undergo change and transformation.
The bottom line to all that is given to me in the latter part of today’s gospel reading, with a reminder to ask God for what I need rather than for what I want: “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need…If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing - you’re at least decent to your own children. So, don’t you think that the Father who conceived you in love will give you the Holy Spirit when you ask him?” (Luke 11, 10-13) I am reminded to ask God for what I need, rather than for what I want. Needs and wants are often poles apart. Am I prepared to pray for only what I need? Moreover, do I know what I really need?
Finally, we don’t have to be embarrassed by the fact that we all struggle with prayer. We can let busyness or disappointment push it aside. We can forget that God is always present to us even when we feel alienated or disinterested. Our faith in a loving God waxes and wanes. There are times when we think we can do without God. Yet, the God we all know is a God who runs after a prodigal son; one who welcomes us back irrespective of where we’ve been or what we’ve done or haven’t done. We all go through difficult patches at work and in family and with friends. As we mature, we come to reflect more closely on the good, the painful and the bitter experiences of our lives. In time, such reflection leads us to recognise that God’s grace and presence are to be found in everything that comes our way - in sickness, in the death of loved ones, in personal failures and disappointments, in fractured relationships, in separations. But with patient practice, we’ll find God by staying with our experience rather than running from it. And there are times when the familiar can become stale, and we can end up taking God for granted. So, we have to start all over again. I invite you, therefore, to pause a while with a different version of the prayer Jesus gave to his disciples in response to their request: So, he said: “When you pray, say: ‘Father, reveal who you are; set the world right; keep us alive with three square meals; keep us forgiven with you and forgiving of others; keep us safe from ourselves and the evil that surrounds us.’” Looking at the familiar with new eyes can sometimes work wonders for us.