SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Psalms: 138:1-3, 6-8
Surely most of us recall being taught how to pray. Whether we were fortunate enough to have a Catholic education where nuns would dutifully teach us our prayers, whether we attended religious education classes in our local parishes, or whether our parents patiently listened to us regurgitate the prayers we were asked to memorize, all of us were taught how to pray. We watched the actions of those we sat behind in church, and studied the postures and motions of those close to us to learn what was done when one was considered to be praying. Over time, we discovered what was comfortable for us, and we developed our own way of praying, both formally and informally.
Good Jews of Jesus’ day surely knew what it was to pray. From the moment the young boys were taken to the Temple, through their youth, all Jewish children became familiar with the Torah and learned how to pray. If this was the case, why did the disciples say to Jesus: “teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples”? Had they not learned their lessons well? Why were the disciples in need of further instruction in prayer?
If we were to add to the text of Scripture, what the disciples were asking for might be more like, “Jesus, teach us to pray like you pray!” By this point in Luke’s gospel, the disciples had prayed with Jesus numerous times, and they no doubt noticed something very different about the way Jesus prayed, compared with the way they were brought up to pray.
Our lengthy first reading from the Book of Genesis is really a simple prayer of petition. Abraham, as we so often do in prayer, is asking God for something. Abraham, out of concern for his relatives and the possible “innocent” people who also live in the city, is asking God to consider not destroying the city if he can find 50-45-40-30-20-10 good people living there. We know the rest of the story – God is unable to find any good people there worth counting, and of the two leaving the city before its destruction, Lot’s wife became collateral damage when she disobeyed and looked back, becoming a pillar of salt.
The prayer of Abraham in our first reading is formal, careful not to upset God, and most definitely subservient. The prayer of the psalmist in our responsorial psalm is less so. Like Abraham, the psalmist is carrying on a comfortable conversation with God, but it is largely a prayer of praise, with little to no petition at all.
Jesus’ prayer lesson begins by calling the God whose name cannot be spoken by good Jews, “Father.” There is an intimacy to His prayer, an intimacy no doubt noted by the disciples, an intimacy which caused them to want to pray like Jesus. God’s name remains as “hallowed” (blessed) as it was for the Jewish people, but the word Jesus uses is akin to “Daddy,” and it will be enshrined in the greatest of prayers as “Our Father.” The visible special relationship that Jesus has with God, His Father, is a relationship that is shared with us who follow in His footsteps.
We begin our prayer not just selfishly asking for something (although prayers of petition are common and welcome), but we pray that God’s kingdom come” (and God’s “will be done”), and in voicing that prayer we pledge to do all that we can to make God’s kingdom visible in our time and place. Next is the petition part: “Give us each day our daily bread.” We ask for the strength and sustenance necessary to sustain our faith and our resolve to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, especially in a world where the challenges to do otherwise are so omnipresent. As in all prayer, it is important to acknowledge our own sinfulness and to ask God to forgive them, precisely because “we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” Our pledge to forgive others is a profound promise, especially in a world where selfishness and revenge are so commonplace. Luke’s short version of the Our Father ends with a prayer, not unlike that uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane, that “we not be subject to the final test,” that, if it be God’s will, the cup of suffering will pass us by.
For the disciples, and for us, there is no prayer quite like that taught us by Jesus. His subsequent parables are meant to reinforce the picture of a God who cannot be disturbed, a God who is never “bothered,” for if we ask we “will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Jesus tried to teach that prayer is an expression of a relationship between unequals. When as disciples of Jesus we call on God as “Father,” we are invited into trusting intimacy with the eternal Creator of the universe, whose name is so sacred that good Jews could not even speak His name. Our relationship with God is one of grateful dependence and committed obedience. By sharing this style of praying, Jesus invites us to participate in His kind of relationship with the Father, a relationship that is intimate, trusting, confident, and filled with hope. Most of all, the gist of Jesus’ teaching about prayer is that God wants to give us what will give us life, for “how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Let us always treasure the prayer taught to us from the very lips of the God made flesh, and may we never tire of praising God and asking God for the gift of the Holy Spirit who should, in fact, be our “daily bread.”