Luke 11:1-13, a play in three acts. After the Samaritan example of how to love God and love neighbor, and time-out at the feet of Jesus with Mary and Martha, scene one shows Jesus going to “a certain place” to pray, after which his disciples (now including Mary and Martha?) ask, “Teach us to pray.” He gives them specific things for which to pray in what we know as The Lord’s Prayer – in somewhat different form than the more familiar words reported by Matthew (6:9-13). The overall intentions, however, remain fundamentally the same. Scene two is a story about a man visited by a traveler in the middle of the night who has no bread to offer and in turn wakes up a nearby neighbor to borrow some bread. Scene three are some sayings which suggest that prayer is indeed hard work that requires us to ask, search and knock, but work that results in the gift of knowing and experiencing God’s presence and blessing.
The prayer Jesus offers has several petitions, all of which are to direct us to the work at hand, which Jesus and his fellow religionists would call tikkun olam – repair of the world. Then, as now, it does not take much analysis to determine that the world presently ordered is seriously broken or fractured. When we pray, and “we” is the operant word as the prayer offered is a prayer to be from and for the community and the world more than for any individual, we are to: 1) Respect God’s presence and name; 2) Invite God’s reign, or what the Bible calls “The Day of the Lord,” and more specifically The Jubilee Year; 3) A return to manna season and bread that is given daily, that time when the people of God relied on God and one another, not self-reliance; 4) The Forgiveness of debts and sins (which were understood to be debts unto God); Protection from “the time of Trial,” which may be persecutions of the community which were well under way at the time of Luke’s account, and/or protection from judgment on the coming Day of the Lord (which the Bible construes as potentially both positive and negative).
It helps to recall that way back in chapter 4, Luke reports that when Jesus teaches in his hometown synagogue he reads from Isaiah 61, a description of Israel’s hope for The Day of the Lord in language reminiscent of Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee year – a year in which the central focus was to be the return of land to the original families or clans that had been lost to indebtedness. Think here mortgage foreclosures, farm foreclosures, massive credit debts, student loans and the like all forgiven so as to provide a complete reboot to the community economy. In part this is crucial, especially in Israel where soil and land conditions can vary vastly from one farm to another since the families that have managed a specific plot best know what is necessary to make it fruitful – a win-win for the entire community. Jubilee is viewed as a divine act of mercy and forgiveness, the two most prominent aspects of God’s own character. We have so domesticated this prayer, and in English translation further mangled it to protect the very imperial interests it was originally meant to challenge, that we say it and say it and say it with no recognition of the radical nature of the prayer Jesus teaches.
Act two: The story of the midnight guest is also hampered by translation in that the word given as “persistence” more likely should be “shamelessness.” Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame, so utterly unlike the world in which we currently find ourselves. It would be shameful not to have bread to offer the midnight traveler even if it is the middle of the night. Yet, to stand outside your neighbor’s house knocking and calling out is to risk further shame and public embarrassment since you probably are disturbing other’s sleep as well – Luke, after all, is understood to be addressing an urban community of Christians. The man’s shameless persistence, however, results in finally wearing down the reluctant neighbor who grudgingly embodies Jesus’s earlier teaching on radical neighborliness in the Samaritan story in chapter 10. This story means to ask if we are willing to set aside our own prestige to persist in providing for others while praying for things like debt relief, forgiveness of sins, and to repair the many ways in which the world we inhabit might be repaired to look more like God’s kingdom than our own?
As Walter Brueggemann observes in his article on “The Day of the Lord,” for which Jesus teaches us to pray, in his book Reverberations of Faith: “When we speak and think in conventional religious cadences, this claim for “the day” may sound routine and conventional. We should, however, notice in this rhetoric a claim that is always “strange and new” – Israel’s sustained assertion that the public life of the world is fully answerable to the personal rule of this God. Such a claim deabsolutizes our human pretensions, all claims of self-assured superpowers, all of the blind trust in “might makes right,” all the notions of a manageable moral calculus that orders and controls the world.” [Bureggemann, p 46]
Finally, act three – our shameless persistence in praying The Day of the Lord and Jubilee Year into reality demands us to ask, search and knock – that is, the very act of praying is meant to lead us into actions that help sustain the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity – I use the old King James “Charity” instead of love because it better describes what biblical “love of neighbor” is all about. And because in popular song, literature, the popular imagination, and even the hymnody of the Church, any and all notions of such love as the Lord commands have been diluted to so much pablum. Love and prayer are by nature hard work, not some warm and fuzz feeling.
It is Stanley Hauerwas in his seminal volume, A Community of Character, who insists that, “The Hebrew-Christian tradition helps sustain the virtue of Hope in a world that rarely shows evidence that such Hope is justified.” He goes on to say that the ongoing formation of families, alongside prayer, acts of justice and mercy, and generally living out of the biblical worldview, “witnesses to our belief that the falseness of this world is finally bounded by a more profound truth.” [p 174]
The result of such prayer as Jesus commends, and the result of our shameless persistence in prayer, in asking, in searching, in knocking, is a profound and very real experience of the Holy Spirit, or what might be called a deep knowledge and apprehension of the abiding presence and blessing of God. Such experiences invite us to join Jesus in tikkun olam – repair of the world.
As an aside, I am sometimes asked, given the falseness of this world, why I still hold onto faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed. Of all the things I might say, in the end it has been the profound, repeated and surprising presence and blessing of God I have experienced in a great variety of places, among a great diversity of people; in the unfolding silence of a sunrise viewed from a mountain top over the Atlantic Ocean; in a few words of a random poem; playing music with others; and in the care and comfort received from people I would otherwise never have met or known had I abandoned the disciplines of the very kind of prayer Jesus offers in this little three-act play in the eleventh chapter of Luke. As a result of such experiences I choose to participate in acts that sustain the virtue of Hope despite living in a world that rarely offers much evidence that such hope is justified. But, “rarely” still means that the evidence is there for those who choose to see and hear and experience the power and the glory of the Mercy, Forgiveness and Love of the living God.