Lord, Teach Us To Pray, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), July 25, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Seventeenth Sunday in OT, Year C
July 25, 2004
Gen 18:20-32; Col 2:12-14; Lk 11:1-13

1) There’s a startling aspect to the request Jesus’ disciple in the Gospel, “Lord, teach us to pray.” On its face, it seems like a straightforward-enough petition. But when one understands well the context in which it would have been asked, it would be similar to Curt Shilling or Pedro Martinez asking someone to teach them how to throw a fast ball. The Jewish disciples of Jesus already should have been experts on prayer. The whole of what we call today the Old Testament was one long instruction on how to pray. We see Abraham praying in the first reading. Several times we see Moses climb Mount Sinai on enter the Tent with the Ark of the Covenant to converse with God. The 150 psalms were prayers the Jews sung over and over again, with inspired words put on their lips to praise and thank God, to beg forgiveness, to ask for specific things for themselves or for others. The books of the prophets all contain explicit examples of prayer. The wisdom literature shares the fruit of much prayer and is the source of deep contemplation on the mysteries of God. Yet Jesus’ disciples, fully educated by the school of prayer which was the history of the Jews and the Hebrew Bible, knew that there was something different about Jesus’ prayer that they hadn’t picked up from the rabbis in the synagogues or in the Temple. His example of prayer — going off to the desert, heading up on a mountain, stealing a corner in a garden, often spending all night in prayer — enticed them to ask him to teach them his secret. Implicitly they knew that the type of prayer to which God was calling them was more than merely making some time for God, more than merely reflecting on the Torah or putting the sacred words of the Psalms on their lips. So they turned to Jesus to find out his secret and Jesus didn’t let them down.

2) In today’s Gospel and throughout his public ministry, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in three ways: by his own contagious example of prayer, by what he taught about the proper dispositions of the one who prays, and by the specific prayer he taught us a model, the Our Father. We’ll take each in turn.

3) Jesus taught us about prayer first by his example. In today’s Gospel, we read that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” Jesus was constantly praying and it was this personal example of prayer that precipitated the disciple’s question for him to teach them how to pray. Jesus by his own witness showed how important prayer is. If Jesus, who is God, prayed so much, then he is teaching by his example how important prayer must be in our lives, for we’re not God. He was showing the priority that prayer must have in the life of each of us. Sometimes people will say, “But I’m too busy to find much time for prayer.” Jesus was far busier than any of us. The crowds were constantly following him, bringing their sick and lame, hunting him down in houses and as soon as he got off of boats. Despite all of the pressing work of preaching and healing, Jesus was always stealing away time to pray. In this, as in all things, he teaches by example and then says, “Come, follow me!”

4) In his prayer, Jesus also teaches us something that was a quantum leap over the way of prayer a faithful Jew would have been taught in Old Testament times. Jesus revealed that prayer was to be FILIAL, the prayer of a son or a daughter, to a Father who loves his child with great affection. In the Old Testament mentality, God was awesome, transcendent and distant that there was not always understood the great intimacy and love that God wanted to have with us. Jesus came to reveal the Father’s face and to teach us to pray to him as a beloved son or daughter. We see this in the petitions Jesus himself prayed. Every one features an intimate, confident, loving address to his Father. We can take several examples: “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven of earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will!” (Mt 11:25-26). “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me” (Jn 11:41). “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (Jn 17:1). “Father, forgive them for the know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Jesus’ prayer to the Father was never a mere conversation for the sake of a conversation. His prayer always had a purpose: to help him to embody ever more the Father’s will and conform himself to it. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42). His whole life was such a prayer to do the Father’s will perfectly. “I have come down from heaven,” he sent elsewhere, summarizing his mission, “not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). By the example of his own prayer, Jesus came to reveal to us the true purpose of OUR PRAYER AND OUR LIFE. Prayer is to seek the Father’s will, to come to know it (“for he who seeks, finds”), to come to embrace it and love it, and to love it so much that we burn to do it. Our prayer is meant to help us know God our Father better, to love him more deeply as a beloved child, and to grow to love him so much that His will becomes our will.

5) Secondly, Jesus responded to the petition “Lord, teach us how to pray” by instructing us how to pray well. He teaches us about two of the essential attributes of such a person in today’s Gospel. He first taught us explicitly (as he did by his example above) that to pray well, we have to pray as a beloved Son. “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!” Just like a child trusts that his earthly parents will not give them something harmful when they ask for something good, so we’re called to trust in our Heavenly Father that he will give us something even better. Jesus says he will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him, with all the Spirit’s gifts. And the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, will reinforce the filial aspect of our prayer: Because we are children, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”(Gal 4:6). Jesus likewise teaches us to pray with perseverance, as Abraham did in the first reading. Jesus uses the analogy of a next door neighbor’s banging on the door at night to borrow three loaves of bread to extend hospitality to a late-arriving guest. The point of the analogy was that if a friend would eventually get out of bed and give what was requested not because of goodness but simply to get the neighbor off his back, how much more readily will the Father in Heaven who is GOOD give what is requested by those whom he loves. Jesus tells us to keep knocking on the door, to keep asking, to keep seeking, because the Father will open the door.

6) In the other parts of the Gospel, Jesus tells us much more about the proper dispositions of the one who prays well. In many of these, Jesus contrasted how God wants us to pray from how many of his day — most particularly those who had a reputation for being devout — were praying. Here, too, “he taught with authority, unlike the Scribes and Pharisees” (Mk 1:22).

a) He taught us that prayer requires first a true conversion of heart, a RECONCILIATION WITH GOD. Our prayer must come from a life that seeks to please God. “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus said, our prayer won’t gain us entrance to the King and his Kingdom (Mt 5:20). Our prayer seeking God’s will must come from a life that seeks to do God’s will, not one that uses God for our own means.

b) One practical consequence of this conversion of heart and reconciliation with God is that our prayer must be preceded by RECONCILIATION WITH OTHERS. He tells us that if we come to pray but recognize that our brother has something against us, to leave what we were going to offer to God in prayer and go first to reconcile with our brother and then come to pray” (Mt 5:23). This was a huge change from the ancient Jewish notion that thought that we should hate our those who have something against us, those who have made themselves our enemies. Jesus told us to pray well, we must pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us, because this is what pleases the father and makes us more like him (Mt 5:44-45).

c) Closely allied with this conversion and reconciliation with others is what Jesus taught us about praying with the HUMILITY that comes from knowing that we are sinners called to conversion. He told us the beautiful parable of the pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee — who was outwardly very religious — prayed, thanking God that he was not like other people, thieves, adulterers, or even like the tax collector beside him. The tax collector — one of the most notorious professions in the ancient world because it was riddled with corruption and extortion — prayed, simply, beating his breast and looking toward the ground, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said that it was only the latter prayer that was heard (Lk 18:10-14). This was a huge advance over the mentality of the time, which thought that self-righteous prayer, “thanking God for one’s own individual greatness” actually pleased God.

d) Jesus taught us to pray FOR THE FATHER ALONE and not to gain the attention of others. “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:4-5).

e) The Lord taught us to pray SIMPLY AND DIRECTLY knowing that our Father is listening and not imitate others who simply multiply words: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8).

f) He taught us to pray, not for a laundry list of requests and needs, but for the MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL, that we might do the Father’s will by striving to do his kingdom. “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:31-33). This leads to the last of the dispositions and the most striking of all the innovations Jesus taught.

g) Jesus teaches us us to pray IN HIS NAME. “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete (Jn 16:23-24).” Jesus is giving us his name to “drop” in our requests to the Father, so that we might go to Him, like so many of us do in the world in other circumstances, and say, “Jesus sent me!” But the key to this most striking request is to ask in Jesus’ name. There are many things we couldn’t honestly ask in Jesus’s name, because Jesus himself would never ask for them. Certain things he would never ask for because they are evil. Certain other things he wouldn’t ask for because they are too banal. Could you imagine Jesus getting down on his knees to ask God that Derek Lowe pitch a good game today against the Yankees? Praying in Jesus’ name, asking for the things that Jesus himself would ask for, is the simplest shortcut to having the proper dispositions to pray.

7) The third and final way Jesus taught us how to pray was in teaching us the Our Father, as he does in the Gospel. In teaching us this prayer we call HIS prayer, the Lord’s prayer, Jesus was doing far more than merely teaching us a “magic formula” and spiritual “open sesame!” for us to rigidly follow. Rather he was teaching us about the types of things we should desire and ask our loving Father and the sequence, the priority, of the things we should desire and pray for. We see that Jesus didn’t mean principally to teach us a ritualistic formula by the fact that the words of the Our Father we have in today’s Gospel from St. Luke are different and briefer than the words found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which is the version of the Our Father we’re accustomed to pray. This is because when Jesus taught the Our Father, his intention was to teach us more than words, but the proper desires and the order of desires that should constitute our prayer.

8 ) When we examine the sacred thoughts he put into words, they encapsulate everything Jesus taught us by his example of prayer and what he described about the proper dispositions of the one who prays well. We’ll briefly consider each of these thoughts (from St. Matthew’s version, which is the one we are accustomed to pray) and ask ourselves what Jesus was teaching us by putting these thoughts in our minds and words on our lips.

a) “Father” — Jesus was teaching us to pray to the Father and have an intimate dialogue with him as a child adopted by him in baptism. Calling him, Father, means that we are already praying “in the name of Jesus,” for “in Christ Jesus, we are children of God” (Gal 3:26).

b) “Our” — Jesus teaches us to pray “OUR Father” and not “MY Father,” because he did not want our prayer to be selfish or self-centered, but focused on the reality that if we are all children of the same Father, we are brothers and sisters and should pray for and have concern for ALL our brothers and sisters in the faith. When we pray the Our Father, we are praying not just for ourselves and by ourselves, but for and in communion with all the sons and daughters of God through baptism.

c) “Who art in heaven” — Heaven is not so much a place as a way of being in which God is majestic in holiness. By recalling that God is in heaven, we both treat him with the reverential majesty he deserves as well as remind ourselves of His House, our homeland (Phil 3:20), which we are likewise called to seek (cf. Col 3:1).

The first part teaches us to whom we’re praying and how we should be praying, in communion with the family of God and focused on God where he awaits us for an eternal Communion. Next we get to the various petitions Jesus shows us we should desire and for which we should pray.

d) “Hallowed be thy name” — This is the first of seven petitions and it’s that God’s name be hallowed. At first glance, it may seem like a strange prayer, because, as we know, God’s name is already “holy, holy, holy.” God does not need to hallow it (make it holy). So what are we praying for? That God’s name may be hallowed IN us and THROUGH us. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount how we hallow God’s name: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). By our conduct, we either reflect God’s light or we blind others to God. By our actions, we either blaspheme God’s name and hallow it. This is obvious enough today. Every time a famous Catholic leader says he believes in God and believes in the sanctity of human life but thinks people should be able to massacre that life in the womb, others lose respect for God and the Church he founded. Every time a priest has abused his office and his priestly damage to hurt innocent children whom God told each of us to love and welcome in his name, the God whom he was supposed to represent suffers the fallout. Likewise, however, every time someone like a Missionary of Charity cares for someone no one else will care for, every time a member of our St. Vincent de Paul Society visits and helps a poor family in our neighborhoods, everytime a Catholic catechist with patience helps someone to get to know and love God, his name is made holy. Jesus in teaching us this petition has us pray that God’s name may be hallowed in our lives, so that others in seeing us may say, “he or she is a chip off the old divine block.”

e) “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven ” — These two petitions are allied. They are a Hebrew couplet, each phrase of which is meant to interpret the other. God’s kingdom is wherever God is king. We enter into God’s kingdom by making God king in our lives. The saints in heaven are definitively in God’s kingdom, where they continue to do his will perfectly; we enter into his kingdom here on earth by doing his will. Jesus is teaching us to pray to the Father that we might enter into his kingdom by doing his will, by letting the Lord be Lord over every aspect of our lives. It is likewise a prayer for us to know the Father’s will, so that we can do it, and meet Him, the King, in all our actions. This is a prayer directed to God that he might help us “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33). Jesus teaches us that one does not enter the kingdom by speaking words, but by “doing the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).

Notice that in these first three petitions, they all draw us into the glory of the Father, his name, his kingdom, his will. In none of these petitions do we mention ourselves explicitly. Our prayer is always meant to start with God and His will. That is the proper foundation for all other prayers. Jesus teaches that it is only after grounding our prayer to the Father in this way that we will have the proper dispositions to ask for “everything else besides” (Mt 6:33).

f) “Give us this day our daily bread.” — There are several things to note here. First Jesus doesn’t have us pray, “Give us EVERY day our daily bread” but “THIS day,” because he wanted us praying to the Father each day for it, confident in the Father’s daily providence. “Tomorrow will take care of itself” (Mt 6:34). Like the Jews in the desert who received manna each morning, so Jesus wants us to see in the daily material nourishment, the Father’s providence. We also pray “give US… OUR daily bread.” We are praying not just for our own needs, but the needs of everyone, which should open us up to the possibility of being God’s instrument to feed others’ hunger. The Fathers of the Church, in commenting upon the Our Father, recognized an entirely other level of this petition, however. They knew that man had more than a bodily that needed to be fed corporeally; he had a soul that needed to be filled spiritually. “Man does not live on bread alone,” Jesus said after fasting 40 days in the desert, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). In this petition, we are praying for the Father every day to give us this spiritual nourishment that comes from his word. In a most particular way, we are praying for him to give us the “Bread of Life that comes down from heaven so that man may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6:49). We are praying for the Eucharist. And God the Father has been generous in answering this prayer, making it possible for most of us in this country to receive that spiritual nourishment of His Son’s body and blood each day. How many of us come to the banquet God the Father has prepared for each of us each day?

g) “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” — Jesus teaches us to invoke the Father’s mercy, but he also explicitly has us put a condition on that mercy. As he explained, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14 ). We are like the servant who has been forgiven ten-thousand talents by the King who must forgive those who owe us 100 denarii (cf. Mt 18:23-35). I like to say that the one sure way we can be sure that we’ll go to Hell is if we refuse to forgive others, because if we refuse to forgive them, the Father will not forgive us, and we’ll need his forgiveness to enter into the life he so much wants to give us. Notice, too, that Jesus has us pray, “Forgive US OUR trespasses,” because our prayer is meant to be one of petitioning mercy in reparation for all the sins committed in the world, even those against us personally by people who have made themselves our “enemies.”

i) “Lead us not into temptation” — This sixth petition is built upon the previous one. If we know that we have sinned against the Lord, we recognize we’re vulnerable to giving into temptations when we fall into them. Jesus has us pray for the Father’s help so that we may not yield to temptation. Jesus told Peter, James and John in the Garden, “Stay awake and pray that you may not fall into temptation, for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). Jesus’ own example of prayerful reliance on the Father against temptation should guide us. He was “tempted in every way as we are, but never sinned” (Heb 4:15). As we see by the temptations of the devil in the desert, he was able to withstand those temptations to sin by trusting “on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” by “not putting God to the test,” and by “worshiping the Lord your God and serving Him alone” (Mt 4:1-11). We pray so that we may likewise be able to resist. St. Paul teaches us clearly that the Father wishes will provide what’s needed against every temptation, if we avail ourselves of his help: “No tempting has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor. 10:13).

j) “Deliver us from evil” — Jesus prayed during the Last Supper, “Father I do not ask you to take them out of the world but to protect them from the evil one” (Jn 17:15). In this last petition, Jesus has us make that prayer our own. We pray with confidence, for as St. Paul says, “If God is with us, who can be against us?… Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, … nor powers, … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31-35). The devil prowls “like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8), but God has defeated the devil (Jn 12:31; Rev 12:10). We pray to share in his victory. The prayer said at Mass sums up what we ask the Father in this petition: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

9) That prayer from the “embolism” at Mass teaches us the greatest context for the Our Father, because the Mass is the real enfleshing of everything for which Jesus taught us to pray. The Mass is Jesus’ greatest prayer, made once for all beginning in the Upper Room and culminating with his “it is finished!” on the Cross. In every Mass, Jesus (through the instrumentality of the priest) prays to the Father in heaven, joined by us. In it, we, together with Jesus, hallow the Father’s name. We carry out God’s will, doing this in memory of him, as we receive the King, the Bread of Life, and enter into his kingdom. We beg for the Father’s mercy throughout and make the sign of peace and reconciliation to our brothers. Through the Eucharist, the Father strengthens us against temptation and fills us with the one who has definitively defeated the Evil One. As we prepare to receive that Son who taught us how to relate to the Father, we ask the Father for the grace become more and more like Him whom we consume, so that we might pray to the Father and please the Father like He did.