31 Jul Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 28, 2019
‘Lord, Teach us to Pray’. This prayer is the key to prayer. This alone will unlock for us the doorway to prayer.
In terms of our readings today, Luke’s version of the ‘Our Father’ is situated between two stories that teach us about persistence in prayer. The story of Abraham prayerfully arguing with God, struggling to make sense of the suffering of the innocent. And the parable of the persistent friend knocking at your door at midnight asking for a loaf of bread.
I love this very human story of Abraham who does not yet seem to understand the merciful tenderness of God’s love. Trying to bargain with God to spare the whole city for the sake of first 50, then 45, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous people. God of course agrees. Later Jewish tradition whittles it down to 1 righteous person. Jeremiah 5:1 says, ‘Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look around and take note! Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth—so that I may pardon Jerusalem.’
Many years ago I read a novel, ‘The Last of the Just’ that shook me to my core. (by André Schwarz-Bart). It follows the multi generational history of a Jewish family. It is based on the idea that God spares the world at any given moment because there is at least one righteous person living in the world. The novel concludes with a young Jewish boy, Ernie Levy, who is ‘the last of the just’. The heart of the drama is that he lives in the Jewish Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. I won’t tell you how it ends.
Isaiah(53) speaks of the one righteous person, the suffering servant, who takes upon himself the sins of humanity. Jesus is both ‘the last of the just’ and the first of the many who are saved by his death and resurrection. The record of our sins being nailed to the Cross in Baptism, as St. Paul tells us today.
We are disciples, learners, apprentices to the prayer of Jesus. Jesus’ regular, disciplined practice of prayer is our model. With the disciples in our gospel today we wish to enter into his prayer, his relationship of intimacy with the Father. Throughout the gospels we find Jesus frequently going off to a lonely place to pray, seeking solitude, a time apart. Life is full of distractions, dissipations, cluttered with the duties of the moment. It is easy to feel lost among the many, to live in a kind of perpetual forgetfulness, a spiral of eventual indifference to ‘the one thing necessary’. St. Paul says ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.’ The disciples witness the prayer of Jesus, it wakes them up to the fact that they really don’t know how to pray.
Over and over again they see Jesus seeking solitude, they have prayed with him the Liturgical prayers of the Jewish people, the daily recitation of the Shema, ‘Hear O Israel…, the Berekoth, the prayer of blessing over bread broken together, Shabbat or Sabbath prayers, the regular discipline of praying the psalms together, the study of scripture and commentary. All of these would have been a regular part of the prayer of Jesus and his disciples. But in his solitary intimacy with the Father, in their mutual indwelling, there is something more, and the disciples hunger for this more. Hunger for this more is at the heart of Christian prayer. ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ And what is Jesus’ response to this request, this hunger? ‘When you pray say, ‘Father’, Abba, Papa, Daddy. What stands at the beginning of prayer is a relationship. It is significant that Jesus addresses G_d, not with the sacred name, nor any of the replacement names for G_d that were part of the Jewish tradition of prayer. He invites us to sanctify the name, to hallow it, to reverence, to hold it with the holiness that it deserves, and to pray that others will do the same. ‘May your name be held Holy’. What stands at the beginning of prayer is a relationship of radical intimacy, of foundational closeness, self-communication, and sheltering tenderness.
In a way, everything else in the ‘Our Father’, flows from, is an elaboration of, this opening phrase. ‘Father, Abba,May your name be held holy, sanctified, set apart, honoured’. The rest of the prayer tells us how to do this. By praying for the coming of the kingdom of G-d, by living into the lifestyle of the Reign of G-d. Radical trust in God’s providential care. Praying for our ‘daily bread’, the bread of subsistence, ‘Manna’ to sustain us in our journey through the wilderness, the desert, our Eucharistic bread. Living a life of forgiveness, sustained by our own experience of the tender mercy, the bottomless compassion of God. Asking God to strengthen and sustain us in our time of trial, and temptation.
With persistence let us ask, search, and knock, with the ‘Our Father’ as our guide. The given will be given to us, we will find what we’re searching for, and the door will be opened.