July 24, 2022, Two Things about Prayer, Luke 11:1-13 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
I was talking with a friend recently, who is going through a rough time, as so many people are these days. She is a woman of strong faith; she’s been a Christian for many years. But she said this to me, “I don’t do a lot of praying. But I talk to God all the time.” It’s a distinction people often make. There’s what we think of as real, official “prayer” prayer – and then there’s our ongoing conversation with God, often consisting of words like “help” and “thank you” or “why?” and “when?” and “how?” People often think that “real” prayer means using the right words, or knowing the right formula, or sometimes even being the right kind of person – the kind of person who seems to have an “in” with God.
I think there might have been something of that sort of idea in the minds of the disciples when they came to Jesus and asked him to teach them how to pray. Clearly, Jesus spoke to God with a kind of confidence and intimacy that people had never seen before. And when Jesus prayed, things happened. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to pray like that? Don’t we all? Don’t our hearts long to speak to God like Jesus did, a Son speaking to his Father; and like Moses, who spoke to God “as a man speaks to his friend, face to face.” I know that’s something I desire, so very much. There are times when I feel closer than other times, but I always want more.
Jesus gave us words to pray that have been the central prayer of his people of all nations and races and denominations for two thousand years now. The prayer we call “the Lord’s Prayer” is the gold standard. Its a prayer all of us probably have had imprinted on our hearts and minds since our childhoods. But as perfect a model as the Lord’s Prayer is, Jesus had more to teach them about prayer than just giving them a formula for the “right” words to pray.
I think one of the most common misunderstandings people have about “real” prayer is that it isn’t supposed to be about ourselves. I can’t even count how many times I have heard people say, “I know it’s wrong to pray for myself….” So many people have arrived at the false conclusion that prayer is only properly spiritual if it’s not something we really want for ourselves. But look at this model prayer that Jesus gave us; what does he tell us to pray for? He tells us to ask God to provide our basic needs for today, which would be food and shelter and clothing – but also enough money to pay the bills, good work to do, strength and healing and rest. He tells us to ask forgiveness for all our bad choices and our disobedience – with the expectation, of course, that we who seek forgiveness will also offer forgiveness. And he tells us to ask God to spare us from “a time of testing” which literally means “fiery trials.” We can pray: please God, be gentle and merciful to me. Please give me comfort in my sorrow. Please give me relief from my pain. Please let this danger pass me by. It’s OK to cry out to God in our own very personal need. Jesus put that in his prayer. You should never feel guilty for bringing your own needs and desires to the Father.
But if there was one thing Jesus really wanted to impress on the hearts of his disciples on that day, I think it was this: that prayer and persistence go hand in hand. And in typical Jesus fashion, he tells them a story drawn right from the most everyday of everyday life. Could he have chosen a more unexpected plot for a parable teaching about prayer? Nothing like the beautiful image from John’s Revelation, of the prayers of the saints rising to God like incense. Nothing remotely resembling the solemn rites of Temple and Cathedral, the people’s voices raised in a glorious harmony of praise and petition.
No, Jesus tells a very down-to-earth story about a man who has out-of-town guests drop in unexpectedly, late one night, and his pantry is pretty much bare. Right from the start, we already find ourselves feeling sympathy for this poor guy. We’ve all been there, or at least we can easily imagine ourselves there! And, of course, remember, this is the first century – no all-night grocery stores – no grocery stores at all. And it’s the Middle East – so hospitality isn’t just a matter of politeness; it is a sacred duty. So, consider the annoyance and awkwardness of the situation as we know it – and multiply it times twenty. At least.
As our hero’s wife no doubt points out to him in the strongest terms, he has no choice but to head over to the house of their good friends and beg a few loaves of bread from them, even though it’s very late. He goes to his good friend, and his good friend answers him, “Are you kidding me right now? Shut up and go away, before you wake up the kids!” But our hero won’t go back home without food for his guests, so he just keeps on pounding on the door until his friend, or maybe by now it’s his former friend, gets up and shoves several loaves of bread in his hands before going back to his warm bed.
The story is a little bit humorous, really. And when the story has ended, Jesus looks his disciples in the eye. And he says, “This man’s friend wouldn’t give him a blessed thing just for the sake of their friendship. But because he knocked, and kept knocking, and wouldn’t quit, for that reason the man got out of bed and gave him everything he asked for.” That’s the moral of the story.
First, let’s be sure of what Jesus is not saying. The heartless friend in his warm bed does not represent God, who won’t trouble himself to help someone until he’s tired of listening to him. This is a parable like the parable of the hard-hearted judge, who won’t give the poor widow justice until she wears him out with her continual pleading. The significance of the heartless friend and the merciless judge is not that God is like them; it is that God is completely and utterly UNlike them.
If even this sorry excuse for a friend will get up and give this man the bread he needs for his guests, then how infinitely much more will God the Father, who loves us beyond measure, answer our prayers when we persevere? Because the story actually has two clear messages: one, that God is always ready and willing to hear the cry of his children. But the second message that the story teaches is this: that the act of prayer calls for us to be persistent – to cry out and keep on crying out. Prayer is not about getting the words exactly right or making the right sacrifices; prayer is about pounding on the door and not giving up.
And then, just to be sure he drives the message home, Jesus goes on to say the exact same thing in a new way. “So, I say to you….” he begins, and he talks about asking and searching and knocking. This is very familiar territory to us. But if you read this in the Greek you see that the verb tense gives us a better understanding of what Jesus was saying. Literally, Jesus says “Ask and keep on asking, and it will be given to you. Search and keep on searching, and you will find what you’re looking for. Knock and keep on knocking” – just like our hero in the parable – “and the door is sure to be opened to you.”
If you didn’t understand the first time, here it is again. The act of prayer calls for perseverance. If you want to know how to pray, here it is: pray, and keep on praying. Don’t give up. But not because God is like the bad friend in the story. Jesus completes his teaching with these words of comfort. “Most of you have children, right? Answer me this: if your child was hungry and came to you asking for a fish, would you give them a snake? If they held out their hand for an egg, would you put a scorpion in it? You human parents, who are so imperfect and so unreliable in your loving, even you would never do such a thing! How can you even imagine, Jesus says, that the perfect Father, who loves you beyond all knowing, would do any less for his children who come in search of his Holy Spirit?”
“Lord, teach us to pray,” asked the disciples of Jesus. And he gave them the prayer we know and love: a model, an example to guide their prayers and ours down through the ages. But Jesus also taught them two principles, two truths at the heart of what prayer is. And the first is, that prayer is perseverance: to pray and never give up in your praying, to seek and never give up in your seeking, to knock and never give up in your knocking. And the second and most important is this, that prayer is trust: to know that your prayers are always heard by your Father who loves you, and who always delights to give you good things. There is something of a mystery, I think, in how those two truths work together. But the way into the mystery is to do as my friend does – a hundred times a day, she told me – talk to God, enter into the relationship of prayer with your Father – and your understanding, and your perseverance, and above all, your trust, will grow. +