Teach Us To Pray or, Will This Be On The Test?

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had 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:

Father, hallowed be your name,
your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test."

The Gospel reading for October 5, 2011, Wednesday of the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in 11:1-4. The request they make of Jesus in this short passage is quite intriguing. The apostles are always intriguing, generally I think because they are human beings, with the whole of what that means, but also because the succinct nature of biblical writing does not offer a lot of “back story” regarding who they are, where they came from, their motivations and behavior.  Why do they act the way they do? What is on their minds? They are also often lumped together as “apostles” or “disciples,” and do not speak as individuals. That is even the case in Luke 11:1, where it is noted that “one of his disciples” spoke to him. Which one? Does Luke not know? Or is it insignificant since he is representative not just of the disciples, but all disciples?

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Whoever makes the request, Jesus is asked on behalf of all of them: "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." When you think about it, the request is a little strange, too, since the disciples have been, ah, how can I put this?, disciples of the man they consider to be the Messiah for a period of time. He is called with the honorific "Lord," but they want to be taught like John's disciples. A number of questions arise: Has prayer not crossed their minds before this moment? Did they never consider to pray like Jesus when watching him pray? Has he never prayed with them before? After a year on the road with him, have they finally noticed: “Hey, what is Jesus doing talking off by himself anyways?” Or is the issue that they want formal prayer, techniques and words, like John taught his disciples? Is John considered the gold standard of a prayer teacher? Do they want to be taught John’s prayers?

Jesus does not ask the motivations of his disciples, he does not question them at all; instead, he offers them their desire and grants them a short prayer. But the concise prayer he offers them might be an indication that he has no interest in dissertations on prayer, its structure, poetry, form, and meaning, or entering into a Battle of the Disciples with respect to whose teacher constructs the most elaborate or best prayers; he gives to them only a brief and simple statement of reliance on and trust in God. In Luke’s shorter version (see Matthew 6:9-15) of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus concentrates on five simple things:

a)      The holiness of God (“Father, hallowed be your name”);

b)      A request for God’s coming kingdom to be established (“your Kingdom come”);

c)       Reliance on God in the present day (“Give us each day our daily bread” – Matthew has “this day” not “each day,” which fits better with the future orientation often suggested for this line in Matthew, in which Jesus is not asking for “daily bread” but the eschatological, heavenly “bread of tomorrow”; if this is the case in Matthew, Luke, as he does so often, focuses us on the present day);

d)      A entreaty for God’s forgiveness and simultaneous performative forgiveness of others (“and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us”);

e)      An appeal to be brought safely through the peirasmos, trial or test, associated with the end of time (“do not subject us to the final test,” which I read as a call for protection and deliverance during the time of trial not as a polite request to “skip” it).

It’s a simple prayer when you think about it, and perhaps the disciples wished for more, but it captures everything the disciples needed then and which we need today. It establishes God as the one to whom we must pray, the one who will care for us now and in the future time of trial, the one who forgives us with great mercy but asks that we act with great mercy towards others, and the one whose perfect kingdom we yearn for even now. It seems strange that the disciples were not aware of all these things, that they had not prayed them before with Jesus, or seen him pray them, in word and deed, many times. I suspect that they had been taught this many times and so their request might have been made just to make sure they had it right, that there were no questions that were going to be on the test that they might have missed. Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer reminds them of what he has taught. Consider it the study guide as you prepare for the test.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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