“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

Luke 11: 1-13
“Lord, Teach us to pray.” What an amazing request! Don’t you think that is unusual? It is when you consider that the word ‘pray’ is synonymous with ‘ask’, ‘request’ or ‘beg’. The disciples are asking Jesus to teach them to do what they just did! But is there more to it than meets the eye? Perhaps. It is scary to ask for something from someone in authority. Have you ever asked for a raise from your boss? Did it make you nervous? Frightened even? Do you know the movie ‘Fiddler on the Roof’? It’s one of my favourites – if you don’t have it, get it – you can borrow my copy. There is a wonderful scene where a young man named Motel is being encouraged by his beloved, Zeitel, to ask her father for her hand in marriage. When Motel protests that he can’t and Zeitel says, ‘Why not?’ Poor Motel replies rather woefully, ‘He will yell at me!’

Imagine living – like the disciples – in the age of the Roman Emperors when someone could be killed outright simply for approaching the Emperor’s throne unannounced! That’s a little more of a reaction than yelling. And yet, ‘praying’ is approaching God’s throne – God the creator of the universe, the one that makes Kings and Emperors tremble, the being with power not only over my earthly body, but my eternal spirit as well!

The request ‘teach us to pray’ doesn’t stop there: the sentence continues with ‘..as John taught his disciples’.  Hmmm. That sounds a bit like ‘keeping up with the Jones’ to me. Doesn’t it? Like the Israelite request for a King – hey all the other nations have one, we want one too! We don’t have much in the scripture about John’s teachings, so we are left a bit adrift on that one. But Jesus’ answer to his Disciples is revealing. He starts by saying, well pray like this: and then gives them a shortened version of what we have come to call the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.

Actually, the prayer he gives isn’t all that unusual. It mirrors a common Jewish prayer. There isn’t anything particularly Christian about the prayer. Jesus only makes a slight alteration to it: He prefers to address God as ‘Father’ – which isn’t unheard of in Judaism at that time, but wasn’t the normal opening for the prayer. We have an old Jewish/German prayer book that my husband found at a bookshop in Krakow. Every prayer begins with ‘O Lord Our God, King of the Universe’, which makes God sound very daunting and way out there somewhere. So, the first thing Jesus does is bring the concept of God into a familial relationship by calling him ‘Father’. He brings Him in closer to home.

He follows this with ‘hallowed by your name’. Now this is important, because in ancient cultures knowing the name of God meant that you had the ability to manipulate that God – as in magical formulae. This is one reason why God’s name YHWH was so revered, and never spoken. It is, in fact, why God refuses to tell Moses his name and says simply ‘I am’. Israel’s God was not to be used for man’s own gain – He deserves more respect than that. All Jewish prayers contain such a statement.

‘Your Kingdom Come’ acknowledges the new age of God’s reign that Jesus himself taught so much about – the kingdom of love, peace, and justice. ‘Give us each day our daily bread’ is a statement of thankfulness and awareness of who sustains us. The next sentence is very important, ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us’. Wow, talk about reminding us to be merciful! This is a restating of the golden rule isn’t it: Do unto others AS you would have them do unto you. The last sentence ‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ is actually referring to the end times – basically asking God to save us from impending doom.

But it is as if Jesus himself sees that this form of words isn’t enough to reassure the Disciples, so he illustrates further what God is like receiving our requests.
He starts with the story of the persistent friend. God might say ‘no’, but we have the freedom to keep trying, keep asking. This brings God again, down from the ‘scary’ level, to someone with whom we have a relationship. There is elasticity in a relationship. You may or may not like ‘The Simpsons’, but it has the endearing quality of a family that can fall out hugely with one another and yet underlying everything is a deep love that always brings them back together.

So Jesus says go ahead, ask, and seek. It is normal for those who ask to get and for those who look for something to find it. We should behave with God as we would with our own Father.  Jesus then moves on to tell about young children confusing words. Our English text doesn’t show this very well, but Jesus was drawing on the bilingualism of the middle east. Young children grew up learning Greek and Aramaic. ‘fish’ and ‘snake’ sound very different in English, but the two words Jesus used were the Greek ‘ichtys’ and the Aramaic ‘echis’. Mind you, there doesn’t need to be two languages at play for that to happen. Children confuse words all the time even in one language. In fact, adults learning a new language do that also.

I had a Greek friend named ‘Miltiades’ who learned to speak English at a college in Birmingham. He told me of attending a formal meal one night when he noticed that his place-setting was missing a knife. So, gathering his courage, he asked his neighbour, ‘May I please have one wife’. He suddenly noticed that the whole table went quiet before bursting into laughter! Jesus is saying, ‘Come on. We know what the child is actually wanting, and God knows what you are wanting.’ So really, don’t worry about getting the words exactly right. God knows. God cares. God will respond.

Then his last statement throws in a surprise – ‘If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father who is in Heaven give the Holy Spirit when you ask’. Holy Spirit? Where did that come from? When this story is told in the gospel of Matthew, it is worded as follows ‘…how much more will the Father in Heaven give good gifts to you His children.’ Now there are as many theories on this appearance of these words ‘Holy Spirit’ as there are scholars. I think it is a literary tool on Luke’s part to set up the next story where Jesus is accused of casting out demons by Beelzebul. However, Luke would not be astray in putting the ‘Holy Spirit’ in Jesus’ mouth at this point because it is in keeping with the rest of Jesus’ teaching. And perhaps we should take that as a huge hint – think now of the words ‘holy spirit’ on a big marquee with arrows pointing to it and underneath the words flashing ‘this is what you should pray for!!’

What is truly important, though, is that you pray. Go ahead, ask. I will leave you with another wonderful quote from Fiddler on the Roof: ‘From your mouth to God’s ears!’

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About Lois Loban Stuckenbruck

Trained as a Ballerina, then completed a BA in Business Adm and English Literature at Milligan College. More recently trained to be a lay pastor (Reader) in the Church of England. Wife of a Biblical Scholar, Mother of three. I'm an American who has also lived many years in England and Germany (currently Munich). I have worked as an Editorial Assistant, Systems Manager (Xerox Stars on Ethernet Network), and several positions in higher education fundraising (Alumni and Development).
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