One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’ ”
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’ “Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
“Teach Us to Pray”
July 29, 2007
I think I’ve heard that prayer somewhere before. While it’s not in its completed form as we know it, this passage from Luke is the source for what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. We say this prayer every single week, along with millions of other churches. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer is the second most frequently spoken prayer in the world, right behind, “Dear Lord, please don’t let that cop behind me turn his lights on.”
The danger with such a familiar prayer is that it can become rote and lose its flavor. When you’ve said it so much, do you even know what you’re saying? So it’s important to take a look at the prayer and its original context. One day Jesus is by himself praying and a disciple approaches and says to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”
Now right away, we have an interesting concept: we have to be taught how to pray. In the public speaking class I teach, I talk about how everyone assumes they know how to listen well. If you have two ears, you can listen. But actually, good listening is a skill that must be learned. Prayer is the same way. Praying takes learning and practice.
So Jesus gives them a lesson in prayer, with this string of petitions as an example. It’s important to note that Jesus is not giving the disciples some magic words to say. He’s not saying, “If you repeat this words, burn some incense, and turn in a circle three times, all your wishes will come true.” What he’s doing is giving the disciples a pattern for prayer. He’s demonstrating for them the elements of a faithful prayer.
In my journalism classes in college, we spent a lot of time on learning proper grammar. There’s a whole book of rules called “Strunk and White’s Elements of Style,” and we basically had to memorize it. When you think about it, it’s a bit unbelievable that the English language has so many rules about grammar.
Based on Jesus’ teaching here, I would say that there is a grammar to prayer, that there are certain rules we are to follow when constructing what we say to God. With this simple prayer, Jesus is laying out for the disciples some of the rules of the grammar of prayer.
The first thing to notice about this prayer is that Jesus doesn’t start by asking for stuff. He doesn’t begin by asking for daily bread or forgiveness. He begins by acknowledging God as both intimate and other. By calling God “Father,” Jesus is invoking a familial relationship with God. God is as close to us as our own parent. God loves us like a father.
But then Jesus puts the other end of the spectrum into place. “Hallowed be your name.” “Hallowed” is like “haloed.” It’s a way of giving God honor: “Your name is holy.” It’s a way of acknowledging that the One to whom we pray is greater than we could ever imagine. Before we start making requests, it’s important to establish the ground rules. Like the bumper sticker says, “Rule No. 1: there is a God. Rule No. 2: You’re not him.” I would add Rule No. 3: God’s name is sacred and holy, and should always be spoken as if we truly believe that.
Next comes the first request of the prayer, but notice it’s not a personal request. The grammar of prayer says that God’s will, not ours, comes first. Jesus says, “Your kingdom come.” Matthew’s version of the prayer adds, “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” This is not some pie-in-the-sky request. First and foremost, before we ask anything for ourselves, we must acknowledge that it is God’s will that must be done. In Jesus’ days it was believed that God’s kingdom was indeed coming soon, that God would come to earth and restore peace and harmony. People wanted that to happen more than they wanted anything else: “Your kingdom come.”
Only after calling on God’s will does Jesus offer the first personal petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” This line alludes to the Israelites’ time wandering in the wilderness, when God provided manna for them each day. Each morning, when they woke up and came out of their tents, there was bread on the ground. They were only to gather enough for that day; if they took more, it would go bad.
That’s almost a foreign concept to us today, isn’t it? Taking only what we need to survive each day. I continue to be astounded at the size of the portions restaurants serve around here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time I order a salad at the Cheesecake Factory, it comes with its own storage unit. It’s almost obscene how much food we have at our disposal, and how much of it gets disposed. There’s an imbalance in this world. There are those who have way too much to eat, and those who don’t have nearly enough. This line in the prayer promises that we will take each day only what we need to sustain us, allowing others the chance to do the same.
But this line is about more than just nutritional sustenance. The grammar of prayer states that communication with God is a daily necessity. When Jesus is being tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus tells him, “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This line acknowledges that, just like we need to eat every day, we need contact with God every day. That relationship is as essential as the food we eat. We can’t store it all up on Sunday and then not talk to God for six days. We need daily feeding and contact.
Next comes the line that gives a lot of people fits: “Forgive us our sins” – that part is OK – “for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Oh dear. That part doesn’t go down so smoothly. As you know, in this church we use “debts” instead of “sins,” and the Catholic church uses “trespasses.” It’s like the little boy who was reciting the Lord’s prayer and said, “And forgive us our trash baskets, as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”
That’s actually a pretty good way to describe it. People DO put trash in our baskets, don’t they? And we’re often tempted to put trash right back into their baskets! But – to extend the metaphor well beyond its usefulness – God has emptied the trash we’ve put in his basket. He’s forgiven us of our debts, our sins, our trespasses. And because of that gift of grace, we are compelled to extend the same to others. In the language of prayer, forgiveness received is always linked to forgiveness given. The one follows the other like I before E – except after C, of course.
The last line of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is, “And lead us not into temptation.” This has always puzzled some folks. Why would God lead us into temptation? Isn’t that Satan’s job? Another way to translate this line is, “And do not put us to the test.” I really like the way it’s translated in The Message: “Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.” There is actually a biblical history of God testing people: he did it with Abraham, he did it with Job. Jesus is simply telling the disciples to ask for God’s protection at all times.
Jesus follows up this prayer lesson with the parable about the neighbor who needs bread and the question about what we give our children. The point he is trying to make with both of those can be summed up in one word: persistence! Prayer is not a spare tire, something to be pulled out and used when there’s an emergency. Prayer is more like steering wheel, and essential and often-used tool which helps guide us. And we are called to use prayer persistently.
In the parable, Jesus is not saying that God is a sleepy friend who is reluctant to help us; he is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a prayerful search that keeps at it and keeps at it and refuses to give up. Fred Craddock says, “We don’t know what prayer is until we stand before a locked door with bloody knuckles.” We ask, we seek, we knock – all metaphors for prayer – because we trust that the One to whom we pray will answer.
Now, that answer isn’t always the one we’re looking for. God may not give the snake instead of the fish or the scorpion instead of the egg, but he doesn’t always give the fish or the egg, either! But through our persistence in praying, we are acknowledging or trust in God and in God’s will, even if it is different from our own.
What Jesus is telling the disciples here is if you want to learn to pray, you have to start by praying. Prayer is not just a routine, it’s not a going through the motions. It’s meant to be an action. We are to pray with boldness, not with reluctance or timidity. Even when we say a prayer we’ve said a thousand times, we are to say it as if we really believe what we’re saying, that we really do want God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done.
So we pray. We ask. We seek. We knock. And if we keep at it, day after day after day, even praying when we don’t feel like it, or praying when we’re tired, or praying when we’re not sure what to pray, or saying the Lord’s Prayer again, we’ll find that our eyes will be opened to how God answers prayer in our lives. We pray when we don’t need to in order to be prepared to pray when we do need to. And we take comfort in the fact that our prayers are effective, not because of what we say or do, but because we pray to a God who loves us and hears us and wants to answer us.
1 – With which version of the Lord’s Prayer are you most familiar (debts, sins, trespasses)? Which version is most meaningful to you?
2 – Did someone teach you how to pray?
3 – This prayer is forward-looking; it anticipates what will be rather than what is. What’s one forward-looking prayer you could offer to God this week?