“Lord, teach us to pray.”
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.” 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 indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
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; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 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.’ 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.
“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. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 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!” (Luke 11:1-13)
“Lord, teach us to pray.” Ironically, Luke places Jesus’s answer right after the famous story of his visit with Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Martha welcomes him and works hard to do her due diligence as a host, but Mary’s unwavering attention to Jesus, hanging on his every word, annoys her, of course. Mary leaves her to do the hard work.
So Mary asks Jesus to tell her sister to get off her duff and set the table. Jesus answers that Mary “has chosen the better part.” Not that Martha chose a bad part, but without open-hearted attentiveness to Christ, all other attention becomes distraction.
When the disciples requested, “Teach us to pray,” Jesus could have answered, “Watch Mary.” In a roundabout way, that is what I think he did.
The Lord’s Prayer As Preamble
It certainly seems otherwise. He gives a lesson on petitionary prayer, the prayer that asks for stuff, not the contemplative prayer of Mary whose prayer is answered in the praying, in the mutual gaze of love with the Lord. Yet, he boils petitionary prayer down to contemplative prayer.
Jesus starts with the short version of the Lord’s Prayer. Granted it starts with doxology – “hallowed be your name” – but leads quickly to the most basic petitions for God’s reign of peace on earth, for daily sustenance in the meantime, and for mercy that frees us from bondage to our sins, catches us up in God’s acts of mercy, and spares us the suffering we otherwise deserve. We may read that as the answer to his disciples’ request and the rest as an odd footnote.
Try reading it the other way around. To the request, “Teach us to pray,” Jesus gives the Lord’s prayer as preamble. The main point follows in the peculiar parable. Do not mistake for God the image of the neighbor who gives to get the needy friend off his back. The point is the image of the asker, the pray-er: Persist. God will hear and respond. Don’t give up on God before you ever ask.
From Petition to Contemplation
At a professional workshop for therapists on spirituality, a presenter defined prayer as “asking God for stuff.” I really annoyed the presenter with my persistent disagreement. The presenter might have cited Luke 11:1-13, but I cite these verses as evidence that prayer is much more.
Jesus counsels us to ask persistently, and we will receive. Well, yes, we will receive, but we know we will not receive exactly what we ask for. If God provided perfect customer service like that, we would not have a personal relationship with God, only a consumer relationship. Furthermore, Jesus will pray in great anxiety later for God to take the cup of crucifixion from him, and we know he did not get exactly what he requested.
But he received, and though he suffered terribly on the way to the answer, he got much more than he prayed for. The removal of the cup does not hold a candle to resurrection to eternal life. So it is with us.
Yet, let us not focus exclusively on our one literal death and life thereafter. For deaths and resurrections punctuate our days, foreshadowing our ultimate destination. Our unanswered prayers come to better answers in small and large ways if we pray watchfully and wakefully.
What We Truly Want
Asking a store clerk or merchant for what we want puts all the emphasis on the goods, none on the goodness of loving care. Asking a parent for a fish or egg is asking for more than food. It is asking for love. And whatever God gives us, it will be love in the end.
More specifically, it will be the Holy Spirit, the divine energy of love that God gives through Christ for us to humbly receive like little children. Filled with the Spirit, we give back even to those who ask for it while we try to get our kids to bed.
Pray for what we want? We can scarcely name it amid the clamor of commercial messages telling us what their sponsors want us to want.
But in our deepest selves, we want God’s love and we want to give back. We want the Holy Spirit, that energy of love that makes it all happen. God may not give us literally anything we ask, but God will give us the Holy Spirit, which is what all our desire boils down to in the end.
It is all Mary wanted as she sat at Jesus’ feet. It is what the disciples wanted when they asked him to teach them how to pray. And if you are honest with yourself and God, it is what you want.
Ask for it. That is petition. But deeper still, it is contemplation, the long, loving look you only get by the grace of God.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).