Sunday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Commentary on Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

It was the custom for a Jewish rabbi or teacher to teach his followers a simple prayer they could regularly use. The disciples of Jesus, then, make a similar request of their rabbi. And they use as an argument that John the Baptist had done so for his disciples. It would indeed be interesting to know what kind of prayer John the Baptist did teach but it will have to remain something that is forever hidden from us.

In response, Jesus does more than they ask, for he teaches them WHAT to pray for, HOW to pray and WHAT RESULTS they can expect from their prayer.

It might be worth noting that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray and not a prayer to say. In response Jesus says to them: “Say this when you pray…” and there follows what we know as the “Lord’s Prayer”. The version in today’s Gospel passage is from Luke and is shorter than the version we have in Matthew. As such it may indeed be the earlier version and closer to what Jesus actually said. (We know that many parts of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels come from a common source which each adapted to their own particular needs.)

For centuries now we have been reciting the Lord’s Prayer (in Matthew’s version). We do so before Communion at every Eucharist and, for instance, when we say the Rosary. Yet, as it is presented here by Jesus, it is less a prayer to be recited than a list of things around which our prayer should be centred. Each phrase, in a way, can stand on its own and be a topic for prayer in its own right.

Let us have a look at the contents of this prayer:

It begins by addressing God as “Father.” We do not address him as Lord, or Master, or Judge. We do not even call him, the Source of all being, Creator, but by the much more personal term, Father. And St Paul reminds us that this title is meant to be understood on the warmest and most intimate level. He tells us to call God Abba (“Papa”) – titles used affectionately by young children all over the world. And thus we, too, are to address him.

But by each one of us together calling him “Father” there is a further implication, namely, that we are all his children and thus also brothers and sisters of each other, members of one great family. And this is no pious imagining but a fact. Unless we accept this as fact, it will be difficult for us to call God “Father.” He is always ‘our’ Father, never ‘my’ Father alone. And that ‘our’ is totally inclusive, not allowing of even one exception.

As we will see, the Lord’s Prayer is much more than just a prayer of petition; it is also a statement of who we are and what we are – to God and to each other. We confirm or condemn ourselves every time we pray it.

May your name be held holy
For the Jews, a name was not simply a label indicating identity. It denoted the whole person. When Moses spoke to God in the burning bush, he needed to know God’s name in order to know who he was. So here we are praying that God himself and not just his name be revered by all. It is not just a prayer for people to avoid irreverent language. In a sense, too, who can make God’s name or God himself “holy?” His holiness in no way depends on us. What we are rather asking for is that God’s holiness be acknowledged by us, not only by our words, but by the way we live. In other words, it is a prayer that God’s holiness be reflected in our own lives and in the lives of every single person.

Your kingdom come
The Kingdom of God we may understand as a world in which everything that God stands for becomes a reality in the lives of people everywhere – a world that is built on truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, human dignity, peace. We know it is God’s will that such a world should be the shared experience of all but it depends a great deal on our response and co-operation. Some elements of the Kingdom can be found in many places and in many communities but we are only too aware that, for the world at large, the Kingdom is still far from being a reality and much of the blame lies with us. So in saying this invocation we are not only calling on God’s help but reminding ourselves of working with God to make the Kingdom a reality.

Give us each day our daily bread
In the second half of the prayer we pray more directly for our own needs. And we begin with present needs. Notice that we ask for today’s bread, food, today’s material needs. Is that what we normally pray for? Or are our anxieties reaching far out into the future? Yet in praying this way we express our trust in a caring God. It is also the acceptance of a challenge by all of us to see that every person has their needs for today supplied. There is no need for worry and anxiety about the future.

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us
Here we pray in repentance for our past sinful actions but our prayer is conditional, linking us once again to all those around us. We pray that God will forgive us all that we have done wrong, BECAUSE we already have forgiven all those who we feel have done wrong to us. Again it is a prayer that throws us back on ourselves. We are praying to share God’s most beautiful quality – his readiness to forgive not just “seventy time seven times” but indefinitely.

Do not put us to the test
Finally, we pray for protection from future trials that might overwhelm us. Trials where we might fail and betray our following of him.

We probably will have to admit that we seldom do justice to this prayer. It not only puts us in touch with God but also in touch with ourselves. While we can, of course, continue to recite the Lord’s Prayer, it would be useful at times to take it sometimes very slowly, one petition at a time and even stopping altogether when one petition is particularly meaningful to us.

Two more points
Jesus, however, does not stop with teaching his disciples how to pray. He makes two points. First, he tells a parable about a man wanting some bread in the middle of the night. Naturally, his neighbour is reluctant to get up and give him some. But the man keeps badgering. Eventually, says Jesus, “persistence will be enough to make [the neighbour] get up and give his friend all he wants.” The message is clear enough. When we really want something from God, we must keep asking. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives … who searches always finds … who knocks will have the door opened.”

Second, he reminds them that they are dealing with a loving and compassionate Father. Even human fathers will not give stones when asked for bread or scorpions when asked for eggs. “How much more”, then, can we expect from the Father of all!

A contradiction?
At first sight, there seems to be a slight contradiction here. If our Father cares for us so much, why do we have to ask so insistently? We continue to pray not because God has to be reminded of our wants. “Don’t babble as the pagans do,” Jesus said on another occasion.

He does not need to be persuaded, to have his arm twisted to give us what we NEED. But he certainly does not always give us what we WANT, for our wants are often short-sighted and self-centred. The way we pray and what we ask for can be extremely revealing of where we are in our relationship with God, with people and with the world around us. Persevering prayer can help us become more aware of what we should really be asking for. It helps to purify our prayer, make clear our values and hopes, and lead us to ask for what is really in our very best interests. And those things we can be absolutely sure God wants us to have.

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