Surprising Teachings on Prayer

Our Sunday Gospel readings this summer from Luke’s journey narrative provide a framework or outline for developing a sound Christian spirituality. One essential element in any variety of Christian spirituality is prayer. Luke’s Gospel is an excellent place to learn about biblical prayer. Luke tells us that at the most decisive and important moments in Jesus’ ministry—his baptism, choice of the Twelve Apostles, sermon on the plain, transfiguration and especially during his passion—Jesus prayed. In fact, if you want to know what events Luke regarded as most important, look to his many references to Jesus at prayer. Luke also provides two large blocks of Jesus’ surprising teachings about prayer, which is why Luke is sometimes called “the Gospel of prayer.” In the first block, read today, Jesus tells us what to pray for, how to pray and why we should pray.

 

Jesus’ first instruction on prayer is set within his own practice of prayer. Luke’s notice that Jesus was at prayer indicates the importance of what follows. In response to his disciples’ request, Jesus gives them and us a sample prayer. It is the short version of what we call the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. The longer version that is more familiar to us appears in Matt 6:9-13, in the Sermon on the Mount. With this sample prayer Jesus teaches us first of all to address God as a loving father. Next he prays for the full coming of God’s kingdom and for the time when all creation will acknowledge and celebrate the holiness of God. Then he teaches us to ask the Father for sustenance in our everyday life, for forgiveness of our sins (provided we forgive others) and for protection during the trials or tests accompanying the full manifestation of God’s kingdom.

Having shown us what to pray for, Jesus then teaches us to pray—with persistence and boldness. His parable of the friend at midnight reflects a common experience. Often a friend or family member (especially a child) will be so persistent in making a request that we find it easier to give in rather than continue to resist. We grow weary of hearing, “Please, please, please….” The surprising point of Jesus’ parable is the idea that if we are persistent and bold enough in prayer, God will eventually give in to our petitions. The reading from Genesis 18 about Abraham bargaining with God illustrates this biblical attitude perfectly. And Jesus’ own repeated insistence on the almost automatic efficacy of the prayer of petition (“ask and you will receive”) further encourages persistence and boldness in prayer.

The best reason why we should pray is that God wants to answer our prayers. This point is made by the parable about the father who wants to give good gifts to his son. If human parents naturally want to give good gifts to their children, how much more does God want to give us good gifts. And God wants to give us the greatest gift of all, the Holy Spirit. These are indeed surprising teachings on prayer.

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