The only recorded time that Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus for instruction is the scene in today’s Gospel. They asked him to teach them to pray. It was a common practice for rabbis to teach their disciples a prayer in Jesus’ day. Jesus provided them with an “all-purpose” prayer. It was one they could pray alone or together, in good times and in bad. A prayer for all seasons. It also gives us insight into how Jesus prayed.
Rather than go through the prayer itself, I thought it might be helpful to look at some background for prayer. First, we need to look at the one to whom we are praying. What is our personal image of the Father? How do we imagine him? In our first reading from the Old Testament, god conjures up the image of a judge who will pass sentence on Sodom and Gomorrah. In Hebrew, Matthew’s Gospel, chapter twenty-five, Jesus uses the same, judge image of the Father when he talks about a final judgment when the sheep and goats are separated. That is the scary image with which many of us grew up.
In today’s Gospel from gentle Luke, Jesus addresses the father as “Abba.” As we know, abba means “Dad.” Jesus passes on to us his warm, familiar image. John the evangelist proclaims that god is love.That image has grown most strongly in the last several decades. God is love; God is also perfect. So, God is perfect love. The popular name for that is unconditional love.
Antony Campbell, an Australian Jesuit, writes that we cannot have a level playing field with conflicting God-images. If you want to say, “On the one hand, God is our judge; on the other, God is unconditional love,” these two tend to cancel out each other. A judge is, by definition, coolly impartial, even-handed. A lover is by definition biased in passion-ate favor of the beloved. If we try to hold both images simultaneously, we have no vibrant image of god that we can relate to. We get a spiritual headache trying to focus. We need to choose for ourselves one as our over-arching image.
Personally, in the Salesian tradition, I chose unconditional love. The image of God as judge then needs to fade far into the background in order to appreciate and live by the image of god as unconditional love. With a good and healthy image of God, we can then pray in a spiritually healthy way,
If we image god this way, it follows that we need to image ourselves as sons and daughters of God who unconditionally loves. And that is wonderful. Sons and daughters need to have and express a dependent attitude. God is the Holy One, a friend to be approached in awe and reverence: “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…” We pray thy will, not my will be done and for the coming of his kingdom, not my kingdom. This gives both meaning and direction to our lives. Today, Jesus speaks words. During passion he both speaks and models those words: “Father, let this cup pass . . . Not my will but yours be done…into your hands I commend my spirit.”
We cannot afford to be distracted by Jesus’ humorous example to a Jewish audience about a person wearing a friend down to get a favor. Why? We are part of a much later Christian community. If we have some spiritual maturity; we realize that we neither bargain with god nor feel that we have to beg God. There is no “us on our hind legs” begging for a treat. Abba wants to give us gifts that will help us; he loves us. We need to go to Jesus’ own conclusion of his humorous example: “How much more will the father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Jesus challenges us to do as he did; to ask our loving Father – with trust, period. We extend our open arms toward him in openness. Or, in more difficult times, we remember Amy Floirian’s example of the trapeze artist extending her arms back, vulnerably, towards her partner, the catcher.
What about Jesus’ insistence on persistence in prayer? Why do we need to repeat our requests? Delay in receiving a positive answer gently pushes us to rethink what we pray for. We may need to amend our petition to what will be better in the bigger picture. Let’s never mindlessly, rattle off this precious prayer. Let’s try always to pray this prayer attentively, from our hearts.
After all, it is the one prayer that Jesus himself taught us.