Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Persistent Prayer - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10C

The Insistent Friend (Jesus Mafa) 

Luke 11:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: 
Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
3     Give us each day our daily bread.
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


                How should we pray? What is the proper demeanor for approaching God? What words should we use? Jesus offers us one example of what prayer might look like. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us recite it on at least a weekly basis. I’ve written a book about the meaning of this prayer, which I titled Ultimate Allegiance. That’s because I have concluded that the Lord’s Prayer is the Christian version of a pledge of allegiance. The prayer is followed by a series of sayings that speak of persistence in prayer and God’s faithfulness.

                Since the passage starts with Jesus answering the request for a prayer on the part of the disciples, we can start with what is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. As you can see it is a somewhat abridged version of the one we have taken from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6:9-13). Even that prayer is not exactly the same as the one we pray on Sunday mornings, at least in Protestant circles. Did you notice, by the way, the request that God forgive sins (not trespasses or debts)? Though, it is interesting that the offer on our side is to forgive those who are indebted to us. If we forgive the debts of others, God forgives our sins.  So, in this prayer, we ask that God’s kingdom or realm would come, and in making this request we align ourselves with God’s purposes. We also declare our trust in God for our daily sustenance and seek forgiveness for our sins, along with a request that God would keep us from experiencing the time of trial. Regarding the last request, I’m not sure that Jesus meant that we should ask God to keep us from experiencing suffering. Much more likely Jesus is speaking of the day of judgment. That is, the request is set in an apocalyptic scenario.  

                With this prayer as the background, Jesus tells a parable to flesh out what this means. In the verses that follow Jesus speaks of being persistent in one’s prayer, and then speaks to why one should be persistent. That would be God’s faithfulness. After all, if humans give good gifts to their children, then surely God will do the same. Indeed, to those who ask, God will provide the Holy Spirit.

                When we read a parable like this, we might become cynical. After all, many a charlatan has used just these verses to teach a form of prosperity gospel that has destroyed the faith of many. Since I don’t think Jesus was a prosperity preacher, I will not let the abuse of the text keep me from hearing its message. So, what do we make of Jesus call to persistent prayer, especially in times of trouble?

                Looking at the parable, Jesus speaks of knocking on the door of one’s neighbor in the middle of the night seeking some bread to serve a late night visitor. Apparently the visitor wasn’t expected, because the one requesting help hadn’t gone to the market, and so the cupboard was bare. Jesus tells the disciples that even if the friend didn’t get out of bed due to the friendship (after all the door is locked and everyone is in bed), this friend (former friend) would get up out of bed and give the bread just to stop the knocking on the door (think Sheldon knocking on Penny’s door). So keep knocking, because eventually God will respond, if for no other reason, to stop the chatter. I don’t know about you, but I find this parable to be rather strange. I understand the principle of hospitality that is involved.  I get the idea of persistence as well. However, I’m more concerned about the image of God that is portrayed here. Is God going to respond to my persistent prayers just to shut me up?  Perhaps the message Jesus wants us to hear is that we should “pray without ceasing,” but that’s not quite what we hear in the story.

                From this statement we move on to the declaration on the part of Jesus: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” This is rather assertive, but is in line with the call to persistence. Keep at it. Don’t try to be pious. If you want something from God, then ask for it. As Douglas John Hall puts it:
Prayer is not meek, contrived, and merely “religious” act; it is the act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human. Real prayer cannot be faked. It’s only prerequisites are sufficient self-knowledge to recognize the depths of our need, and enough humility to ask for help [Feasting on the Word, p. 290]
Being humble enough to ask for help—we sometimes have a problem with asking for help. To ask for help is to make yourself vulnerable. But if you’re able, then maybe you can ask, seek, knock.  Then the door will be opened and you will receive that which you desire.

                And what is it that we should desire from God? Is it wealth beyond measure? What about fame? If we look at the prayer that Jesus taught the disciples, the focus is on basic necessities (food), forgiveness, and protection (either from temptation or judgment). And as the final statement in the passage declares: The gift we seek is the Holy Spirit. When go to God in prayer, with persistence, then we will receive the Holy Spirit. What more could we ask? Yes, we need food. We need forgiveness. We need deliverance. But most of all we have need for that which will enable us to be in ongoing relationship with God, and that is the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are the body of Christ, because the Spirit dwells within, linking us together with Christ and thus with God, whose name we declare to be hallowed. The one to whom we have pledged our allegiance. Indeed, this allegiance stands above all other allegiances. The good news is that this allegiance enables us to humbly love and serve our neighbor.   

Picture attribution: JESUS MAFA. The Insistent Friend, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48293 [retrieved July 18, 2016].

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