Many believe that prayer is a transaction between ‘good’ people and God; but is this what Jesus is really on about? (Listen.)
An old friend of ours, Monique Lisbon, once wrote a satirical song with a chorus that goes like this: God can’t keep track of the human race / when everyone’s praying for a parking space. The song is her response to those Christians who quite literally ask God for everything: personal prosperity, a perfect spouse, a big house in a nice suburb, and a parking space right outside the front. Jesus says, “Ask, and you shall receive,” and so they ask, and ask, and ask some more: for the verse has been widely interpreted to mean that God is a fairy godmother just waiting to reward our earnest prayers by granting our heart’s desire.
If our prayer isn’t answered, then people will probably suggest that we’re not praying hard enough; or perhaps there is some secret sin that needs to be aired and dealt with before health, wealth and happiness are all ours. And so people who are impoverished or unemployed because of complex structural reasons are told to “have a go”, then punished and humiliated by Centrelink. People who are LGBTI+ are told to “pray the gay away”; when that doesn’t work, they are blamed and shamed, often to the point of self-loathing and self-harm. People who are sick or disabled are implicitly blamed, although no one quite says that aloud; but certainly when my mother was dying, a number of people grilled us on our prayer habits, and were clearly angry with us and disappointed in her when her health continued to decline.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Many believe that prayer is a transaction between ‘good’ people and God. Even our Prime Minister sees prayer, and not political change, as the only real answer to social problems. So, is this what Jesus means when he tells us to Ask, Seek, Knock? To find out, let’s go back to the context.
Immediately before the passage, Jesus is praying. His disciples ask him to teach them to pray, too, so he gives them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. In doing so, he teaches them, and us, to pray in particular ways.
First, notice that we are to pray together. Throughout this passage, Jesus speaks in the plural: When you-all pray; Our, not my, Father, give us, not me, today our bread, and so on. Elsewhere, he promises to be present when two or more are gathered in his name. And so as followers of Jesus, our primary practice is not to pray alone, but to pray with others: for then and only then does he promise to be present.
Second, we pray for God’s kingdom come; that is, not for our personal advantage, but for God’s priorities. We know from Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth what these priorities look like: good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the enslaved, and the proclamation of God’s jubilee justice: and it doesn’t take much imagination to see what these things might mean now. Then we see in Jesus’ life the joyful and inclusive nature of God’s kingdom; and as his disciples we are commissioned to continue his work and model this culture among ourselves. So we pray for God’s kingdom come, because bringing it about here on earth is our task.
Third, we pray for our daily bread. This is hard for many of us. Compared to most of the world, Australians are very wealthy; and being independent and self-sufficient are very highly valued in our culture. Praying for our daily bread is deeply countercultural, because it suggests we can’t meet our needs by our own efforts and instead must rely on God. Nevertheless, this is what we must pray for: and perhaps we need to let it shape us.
Fourth, we pray for forgiveness. We are all entangled in sin and we cannot avoid damaging relationships. We need God’s forgiveness for ourselves, and we need God’s help to forgive and love those who have hurt us.
Finally, we pray that we not be brought to trial. Like it or not, a Jesus-centred life invites persecution and conflict, and we are vulnerable. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we ask that the cup be passed from us; but if we must drink it, we must.
In summary, then, Jesus tells us that we are to pray together; that we are to pray for God’s kingdom come; and that we are to pray for sustenance, forgiveness, and protection from persecution. And that’s it.
And because we cannot bring about God’s kingdom in our own strength; because we cannot nourish ourselves; because we cannot forgive ourselves; and because we cannot protect ourselves, we need something else. This something else is what Jesus promises when he ends by saying, “If you 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!”
In other words, the answer to our prayers will be one thing and one thing only: the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. God’s presence is the only answer to each and every request that we make. If we will but ask, God will fill us with the presence which feeds and sustains us. If we will but ask, God’s Spirit will help us forgive and love our enemies. If we will but ask, God’s Spirit will help save us from times of trial, or at least it will go with us through them. If we will but seek God’s kingdom, that Spirit-filled social order known for justice, mercy and peace, then God will equip us: and with this will come healing, and wholeness, and shalom.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t pray about other things. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians: “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. Tell God what you (plural) need. Thank God for what God’s done. Then God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ” (4:6-7). But notice that here, too, we are told to pray in groups; we are to pray for what we need, not for what we want: and the answer will still be God’s peace. Not wealth, not a big house, and certainly not a parking space: but simply the presence which unites people and inspires them to love and serve one another, and form the new kingdom-community of love.
This raises some questions for us. Do we really want God’s presence? Do we really want the Holy Spirit to stir us, guide us, push us beyond our comfort zones, to challenge us to bring about God’s kingdom-culture here and now? Do we really want to be formed into one body, inspired to love and care for every member? Do we really want to accept offers of loving service? Or do we actually prefer to go it alone? Much less challenging to rely on our own efforts and wealth; much easier to seek individual salvation, or a meaningful existence, or eternal life: only, these are not ours to ask.
Instead, if we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we must pray as Jesus prays and as he teaches his disciples to do; we must seek the gift which, paradoxically, has already sought us out. So let us ask, and seek, and knock: and may the Holy Spirit flood us and unite us and shape us into a community of justice, mercy and peace. And as we keep praying and keep being transformed by God’s Holy Spirit, may we become ever more involved in God’s great project of birthing God’s new age here on earth. For through us, and through every community shaped by God’s kingdom-culture, God will care for the whole human race—but we can find our own damn parking space! Ω
A reflection on Luke 11:1-13 given to Sanctuary, 28 July 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. You can find Monique’s EP here.
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