Sunday, July 28, 2013

Our Father...

The readings today are about prayer and perseverance, and there are ancient lessons and new lessons, but to understand what Jesus has to teach us, we first have to understand what Luke, the gospel writer, is doing. No gospel writer wrote his gospel because he was bored, he wrote it for a reason So what was Luke doing? Luke often portrays Jesus as a prophet, because this would resonate with his Jewish audience. Luke of course understood that Jesus was not just a prophet, but he portrayed him as walking the same path as the prophets and following in their footsteps. So Luke frames this question about how to pray in the form of prophetic teaching when the disciple says to him, "Teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples."  The disciple is saying, "Hey, John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray, so act like that prophet and teach us to pray." They were saying, "Be like the other prophets we know." The apostles had seen Jesus in prayer previously, and they wanted him to act like other prophets, so they wanted him to teach them to pray like the other prophets.

And here's where Jesus gives us an ancient teaching and a brand new teaching all at once. He is going to take something ordinary and do something completely unexpected with it. So the disciples want him to act like a prophet and teach them to pray. Fine, he'll do that, he'll teach them to pray. But then with that very first word of the prayer we have something completely new, and that first word is "Father."

Here's we need to understand a bit more background. Among Jewish literature, especially among the poetic scriptures, there had certainly been a tradition of comparing God to a father, and there are also writings about God's nurturing and motherly characteristics. So in Jewish history, there is present this poetic tradition of comparing God to a father, but it was never much more than a comparison. Fundamentally, God was YHWH, I Am Who Am, as he revealed to Moses in the burning bush. This name asserts God's complete transcendence, his complete otherness. God is the one who just exists, and he relies on no one else for his existence. Of course, throughout the Old Testament we see how much God does care for Israel and how close he actually is to those who love him. The Old Testament is the story of God's loving care for Israel, but it is always against the backdrop of the name YHWH, God is other.

So this newness, this twist that Jesus so often gives to the ordinary, comes when he addresses God simply as "Father." No comparison, nothing about how God is like a Father, he just says, "You, God, Father." Jesus shows us that this utterly transcendent God is in fact right here with us. He isn't merely like a father, he is our Father. He couldn't be closer. And then Jesus continues to show us how to interact with this Father: you assert his holiness, you ask for the things you need, and you pray for forgiveness of your sins.

So the totally new lesson Jesus has for his disciples is how God is actually their Father, he isn't just like a father. And now the ancient lesson comes when he teaches them to pray to this Father without ceasing. It's ancient because it's the same lesson we learn from Abraham in the first reading. Pray without ceasing. Be persistent in your prayer! Be obnoxious, even! This story about knocking on a neighbor's door at midnight is strange because if I were to knock on your door at midnight, I'd fully expect you to call the police! But Luke understands Jewish culture because in this culture, ties of family and friendship were paramount. Luke understands that of course you would get out of bed to help your friend at all hours, if not because it's the right thing to do, then at least because your friend is persistence.

The new lesson, that God really is our Father, and the ancient lesson, that we should pray to him relentlessly, should cause us to ask some questions: How well do I actually believe that God is my Father, and does that belief change me? Do I pray to him without ceasing?

In the examples Jesus gives about knocking on a friend's door at midnight and about how a Father gives a son exactly what he asks for, Jesus is inviting us to trust the Father. A wise son doesn't try to fill his own needs, because he knows that's what his father want's to do for him. All he has to do is ask. 

So we have to ask for what we need, and we have to ask without ceasing. So how persistent are we in our prayer? And not just prayer for ourselves, but prayer for others as well. I tell you, when I'm praying for myself, I am the most persistent person in the world, but when I'm praying for others, unless it's really serious, I often just offer a passing prayer for that person and then kind of move on. I suspect that many people are similar. But Jesus teaches us to be persistent in all of our prayer, not just the prayers for ourselves.

Sometimes, this persistent prayer is gentle, it is allowing God to be a constant presence in your life, and you are just always aware that he is right near you, and he cares for you.

But sometimes this persistent prayer is not a gentle thing. Sometimes when we pray, it's like were kicking down the door to heaven, not quietly knocking on the door. We ask for great things from God, because he can deliver great things! We don't sheepishly ask for things from God, gently calling him if he as time for us. We boldly ask great things from God, because we know he's great, and we know we are his children through baptism.

The sense of the Greek word we have translated as persistence could also be translated as "shamelessness." So the neighbor will give his friend what he needs because of his shamelessness. There is no need to be ashamed when you have a need and you need someone else to fill that need, especially when that need can only be filled by God. We turn to God without shame or embarrassment and ask him to do what we cannot do. And he promises that if we ask, we will receive; if we seek, we will find; and if we knock, the door is opened.

So remember the new lesson: that God is a Father who cares for you. Remember the ancient lesson: that you can approach this Father with boldness. Because he is your Father, you can approach him boldly, without shame. This Father loves you and cares for you, so trust him with everything.

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