by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“When you pray, say: ‘Father, bring it about that your name is held holy’…Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Luke 11: 1-13
A quick analysis of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples reveals that he saw prayer made up of three significant components: Recognition of the goodness of God, requesting the willingness to do what God asks of us, and expressing our hope and trust in God’s ongoing, providential care.
Having said that, I suggest there is benefit in stopping to reflect closely on the words of that prayer which we pray so often that we can slip into reciting it almost without thinking. For much of what follows, I am indebted to Bishop Geoffrey Robinson (RIP) from whom I was once privileged to hear a truly inspirational analysis of the prayer we label as the Lord’s Prayer or The Our Father.
The gospel-reading for this Sunday opens with a request a disciple put to Jesus after seeing the way in which he prayed: “Now it happened that he was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said: ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples'” (Luke11:1). Foundational to understanding the significance of the answer Jesus gave is his opening phrase: “When you pray, this is what to say: ‘Father, may you bring it about that your name is held holy’” (Luke 11: 2).
The English translation we have of Luke’s Gospel comes from the original Greek in which God is addressed by Jesus as patér, a word which, in its turn, was a translation of the Aramaic word abba, an intimate word meaning dad or daddy.
This reflected the intimate relationship Jesus had with God, and it seems as though Jesus was encouraging those close to him to cultivate a similarly intimate relationship with God. In Jesus’ culture there were many names for God and the names themselves were regarded as holy. That practice was later echoed in the New Testament when Paul, in his letter to the Philippians wrote: “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, of those on earth and of those under the earth” (Philippians 2, 10-11). In Jewish culture there was a constant practice to proclaim God’s name as holy, so it was a departure from the norm for Jesus to bypass that practice as he encouraged those listening to him to take up the practice of addressing God with an intimate term.
We use the word holy by analogy with God’s holiness, but when Jesus encourages his audience to pray that God’s name be held holy, he is making the point that God’s holiness is unique, that God is totally beyond human comprehension. And yet, he encourages his followers to address that God as daddy. To respect the name of God was important to Jesus, but even more important was the need not to distance ourselves from God but to cultivate an intimate relationship with God.
Then follows a second appeal to God, which , over centuries, has been diluted to “thy kingdom come”. The Greek word basilea, which has been translated as ‘kingdom’, is more appropriately understood as ‘the reign of God’. Biblical scholars of today suggest that a more accurate rendition of this part of the prayer would be “may your reign, God, embrace the hearts of all humanity”. If the hearts and minds of humanity were faithful to God, surely whatever God asked of us, his loyal followers, would add up to doing God’s will.
Similarly, ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is a watered-down translation of the Greek for which a more appropriate rendition is “keep providing us, day in and day out, with all that we need to nourish our physical, emotional and spiritual lives”. And then, follows a request to God to help us to recognise the need to be rescued from ourselves, from the human frailties that lead us to harm those around us, but with the reminder that being forgiven will depend on the extent to which we reach out to forgive those who have hurt us. Yet, we know only too well how long it takes us to let go of wanting to get even with those whom we feel have slighted, hurt or wounded us.
If only we could realise the importance of building an intimate relationship with God and then praying, not for our own, personal needs and wants, but that God be afforded a central place in in the minds and hearts of humankind, then the world would not be held hostage to groups and individuals bent on violence, destruction, competition and injustice.
Regarding that part of Jesus’ prayer where he taught his disciples to pray for their needs, Bishop Robinson commented: “The three prayers for ourselves that Jesus considered so important that he included them in this prayer are that we may have the necessities of life, that we may learn to forgive and that we may have the humility to recognise our own weakness. He taught us to pray for what we need, and the Western world needs to learn the difference between what we need and what we want. A sustainable future for this planet demands that the whole human race live according to needs rather than desires.”
What immediately follows the words of the prayer Jesus taught in response to a request from one disciple is a second, somewhat puzzling, lesson on the importance of hospitality. A traveller had arrived, tired and hungry, at a village and knocked on the first door he came to, requesting food and rest. The house owner, not having enough to meet the stranger’s request, but realising that, to turn away the stranger would be a dereliction of the duty of hospitality, woke one of his neighbours who sought for an excuse to deny the request of the man who had woken him. The first man was not going to let all the other residents of his village carry the shame of denying hospitality to a stranger in need. So, he persisted with his request until he shamed his neighbour into helping the man who had turned up tired and hungry. Are there times in our lives when others have to work at shaming us into doing what we really know in our hearts is right, just and merciful?
If today’s gospel-reading succeeds in doing nothing more than reminding us that we can slip into mindless recitation of the prayer with which we are most familiar, it has been worthy of our reflection. However, if it has helped us to look with new eyes at the prayer that Jesus left us, then it will be a worthwhile step towards changing our hearts and giving new meaning to what is involved in being disciples of Jesus.