Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

 

There are no atheists in foxholes. You have probably heard this saying before. It means that when you’re up against it, when you’re desperate, when there is nowhere else to turn, you cry out to God, regardless of whether you believe in him.

 

Prayers prompted by dire emergencies–“foxhole prayers” –have been offered from the trenches, both figuratively and literally speaking, from the dawn of time.

 

But what is prayer really? It’s a dialogue with God. We were created to be in relationship with God, to find joy in open and intimate communion with him. Indeed, this is ought to remind us of the very first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. What is chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

 

The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. At first glance, this seems to be a rather odd request, doesn’t it? If what we’ve said about prayer is valid, then what further instruction might the disciples need?

 

Moreover, the disciples are Jews. They have the Scriptures, in which prayers for all occasions are found. For the good times, there are prayers of thanksgiving. For the hard times, there are prayers of lament and prayers of petition. For the needs of others, there are prayers of intercession.

 

When they and their loved ones went to the synagogue or the temple to worship, they heard the prayers in the Psalms recited. There are also other prayers in the Scriptures, some even coming from improbable places, like the belly of a whale.

 

And yet they ask Jesus to teach them to pray. What would he teach them that they didn’t already know?

 

In their defense, they only do what any one of us would do. When we’re in the presence of experts, we ask about their area of expertise. Or at least we should. We ask scientists about the findings from their investigations. We ask sages about the wisdom from their observation and experience. We ask entrepreneurs about the key to their business success. So why wouldn’t we ask a religious teacher about the path to God they have found? What religious teachers offer about prayer, about communicating with God, belongs to their area of expertise.

 

So Jesus complies with their request. He teaches them what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father, if you’ve been raised in the Catholic Church. In any case, it is familiar to you, because we recite it at worship each Sunday. Indeed, it’s been used for almost two millennia in Christian worship everywhere. 

 

The prayer is found in two places in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13) and here in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-4). If you compare the two versions, you will notice slight differences. Perhaps the most striking is that the prayer in Luke lacks the third petition from Matthew (“thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”), as well as the seventh (“but deliver us from evil”). Why Luke omits these from his prayer is impossible to know with absolute certainty.

 

That the prayer is rich and meaningful goes without saying. It’s been cherished by millions upon millions down through the centuries.

 

But let us imagine for the moment that when Jesus offers it to them, the disciples look at him quizzically. They are nonplussed. They don’t seem to be satisfied. As we’ve mentioned earlier, the disciples are already familiar with the traditional Jewish prayers said in the home, the synagogue, and the temple. Indeed, each of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer has a parallel in the obligatory prayer of every Jew, which is called the Amidah (“standing prayer”). For example, “hallowed be your name” is similar to third Amidah blessing: “Thou art holy and Thy Name is holy and the holy praise Thee daily. Blessed art Thou 0 Lord, the holy G-d.” And “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” relates to the fourth Amidah: “Our Father, Our King, forgive and pardon all our sins.”

 

Jesus is at first perplexed at this response of the disciples. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. Jesus is a religious teacher, but he’s not clairvoyant. He is the Son of God, but he was made like us in all things except sin. Because this is so, he has to come to understand others in the same way that you and I do. He has to look and listen and ask questions.

 

He looks at his disciples and then it occurs to him: What they are really asking him is not how to pray, but how to pray effectively. In other words, they are asking him how to pray prayers that get heard and answered.

 

We can relate to this experience. We have a need or a desire, and we bring it to God. We ask God to meet the need, or fulfill the desire. We pray sincerely, believing that God is able and willing to answer our prayer. Some time passes. The need is still there. We recommit to praying. But more time passes, and no answer is forthcoming. We then grow weary. We begin to entertain the thought: “whatever prayer is, it doesn’t seem to be working for me.” We begin to wonder: “If God hears my request, if he sees my need, he doesn’t seem to be moved by it. The further thought inevitably follows: “Is God good? Can he be trusted?” And the longer the delay, the more inclined we are to conclude that prayer an exercise in futility, and that we should probably give it up altogether.   

 

Our struggle now is the same as that of the disciples then. We are all asking about how to pray effectively, how to pray prayers that get heard and answered.

 

Jesus now sees the root of what the disciples are asking him, and relates two parables, which are meant to encourage them in prayer. In fact, they are meant to encourage anyone who is about ready to give up on prayer.

 

There are three characters in the first. There is a man who has a friend coming to visit. But he has nothing to set before him when he arrives. The man therefore goes to another friend to ask him to provide three loaves of bread for his guest.

 

We feel somewhat awkward whenever we ask a favor of a friend. But we feel even more awkward when we call him after 10 pm, especially if we know that he receives no calls after that time.

 

But this is what the man does. And the response is what we might expect. His friend is already in bed, the kids are tucked in, and they are settled in for the night. “Go away! Come back tomorrow!”

 

But the man will not go away! The only way to get rid of him is to get up and gives him what he wants.   

 

Bible student Chelsea Harmon notes that the parables that Jesus tells are calculated to surprise and even shock. We saw that two weeks ago when we considered the parable of the good Samaritan. To call a Samaritan good is an oxymoron. Samaritans and Jews are enemies! It would have been more in line with expectations to cast the Samaritan in the role of the thief than in that of compassionate helper.

 

So too in this parable. In Jesus’ time and place, to refuse hospitality to a neighbor, regardless of the time of day or night, would have been a moral outrage. In the ancient near East, there was a hospitality code, which was inviolable. Is that the reason why in the last analysis the friend decides to comply with his friend’s request? If so, he was certainly helped to remember his duty by his friend’s stubborn persistence. The man will not go away until he receives from his friend what he is asking for!

 

Consider how the parable speaks to our frustration as we struggle with prayer. The God to whom we’re praying often seems to us to be reluctant neighbor who can’t be bothered to get up and provide for our needs. But it is noteworthy that in the end he does, because of the man’s persistence.

 

It is important to see what’s going on here. Jesus is employing a common trope of Jewish legal argumentation, called, for our purposes, the “how much more.” Bible student Kenneth Bailey sets this up well:

 

“The parable said to the original listener, ‘When you go to this kind of neighbor everything is against you. It is night. He is asleep in bed. The door is locked. His children are asleep. [You annoy him.] He does not like you and yet you will receive even more than you ask.”

 

How much more, then, will God listen to our prayers and provide for what we need, not out of grudging duty to the hospitality code, but out of his great love for us as our Father!  

 

God remembers you. God loves you. He knows your needs better than you know them yourselves. Therefore, you can go before him boldly and persistently with your needs, confident that he will provide them in his own time and his own way. Since that is the case, how can we not ask, seek and knock?

 

In our translation, the force of these imperatives is somewhat blunted. To be truer to the original, we can interpret them to say: keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Don’t give up! When you consider who it is that is hearing those prayers, that he is a loving Father, it inspires you with new confidence to press on in your prayer life.

 

The second parable reinforces this point. Jesus appeals to the love that earthly fathers have for their children. Who among you fathers will give what is harmful to your children when they ask from you something good? Generally, fathers love their children. To give them what is harmful when they ask for what is good is unimaginable.

 

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!”

 

You may remember the parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel. The sections are virtually identical with one outstanding exception. For Matthew, that which God the Father gives is “good gifts.” For “good gifts” Luke substitutes “Holy Spirit.”

 

We won’t raise the text critical question about the variant reading we find here. Instead we will ask the more interesting question about the content of the gift.

 

Let it suffice for now to say that the Holy Spirit remains always the Spirit of the Son. The Spirit of the Son points to the greatest of all gifts, the indescribable gift of God’s Son. He is the measure of the Father’s abounding generosity, which in him shows itself to be measureless. That is why the Apostle Paul can exclaim: “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).

 

In this light, we can see that there is no contradiction between Luke and Matthew on what the Father gives. The Holy Spirit includes and contains all the good gifts that God has given, gives, and will give to us, in that, in and with Jesus Christ, who is the greatest gift, are also all good gifts.

 

It is not easy to be persistent in prayer, especially when we have struggled for years and even decades with unanswered prayer. We need to be encouraged. Jesus encourages us when he reminds us of the character of the one to whom we are praying. He is kind and loving and generous. He is not offended when we bring the same request to him day and day or year after year. Let us then persist in prayer, trusting that he hears and answers prayer.

 

Let me conclude with a story. There was a Presbyterian pastor at a pastors conference on Hilton Head Island, which I attended. He was eager to present and sell his book, which is on the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer always fascinated him since his earliest childhood.

 

When we asked him why, he recounted a memory. He grew up as many of us did. When he was a child, his family said grace at meals—bowed head, folded hands, closed eyes. There was no expectation that they would hear back from God; grace was just something they did. It was just one of those family rituals.

 

But their view of prayer dramatically changed. In fact, the entire life of his family changed when they witnessed what appeared to be the miraculous healing of a neighbor’s young child. When the child finally came home from the hospital, the family laughed and cried with the parents. It was an experience of relief and joy.

 

But there was more to the story. The man’s mother somehow felt responsible for the child’s illness. And she’d prayed for the child’s recovery like she’d never prayed before. Her prayers were desperate and unceasing. It was as if her own life were at stake too.

 

When the child recovered, it seemed that God heard and answered the prayers that had been made.

 

That experience of prayer changed the picture of God for this man’s family. No longer was God a benign, distant sovereign, on a throne somewhere in heaven, managing God only knows what, to an involved and caring Father, willing to hear and to answer our prayer.

 

These stories (testimonies) also encourage us to persist in prayer. Amen.

 

  

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