Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Gospel At 50,000 Feet

Sometimes it helps to read a gospel lesson from the macro-perspective. In the biggest sense, what is this story, this encounter, this passage trying to teach us? This coming Sunday, in Luke 11, Jesus will teach his disciples how to pray and then use two potentially troubling analogies to get his point across. If we forget what the passage looks like from 50,000 feet, tt's easy to get lost in the details, in the weeds, and misinterpret Jesus' point.

On the other hand, sometimes we need to get down into the details because the macro-perspective just isn't right. For example, last Sunday, when we heard the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, it is easy to step back and think that Jesus is saying that the contemplative life is better than a life of busy service. But, if you look at the details--at the text itself--you notice that Jesus isn't taking issue with Martha's service but with her drawn-apart-ness, her distraction. Something is pulling her away from whatever the one important thing is. Sometimes we need to get down and take a close look or else the careless sermon misses the true point.

This week, I think a back and forth between macro- and micro-perspectives is helpful. Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, and Jesus offers a simple answer, the framework of which is now very familiar to us. "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins for we forgive those indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."

That's it. That's all Jesus tells them to say. It's simple. It's straightforward. There's no petition for healing. There's no intercessory prayer at all. Just an acknowledgment of God, a hope for God's reign to come, a request for daily sustenance, a mutual commitment to forgiveness, and a petition to stay out of trouble. There's no magic to it except, perhaps, at how minimalist it is. (Have you read the psalms?)

But what is Jesus trying to teach us? Does he mean that the only words we should pray are these words? What about intercessory prayer? What about thanksgiving? What about silent prayer? And why does Jesus spend so much time praying in the garden before he is arrested? How many times did he need to say these simple words?

Of course, there's more value to this teaching than the words themselves. The two analogies that follow help us see what Jesus had in mind. "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him and midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread...'" At the end of the analogy, Jesus gives a practical, pragmatic explanation: "at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs." Jesus' teaching on prayer, therefore, isn't just about saying particular words; it's also about being persistent in prayer.

The second analogy offers an additional understanding: "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish...? How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" On the one hand, this is a simple reminder that God will give good things to those who ask him, but it's also a reminder that Jesus shows us that God is our heavenly parent. The "Our Father" of the Lord's Prayer is substantial. We approach God with confidence that God will hear us and respond to us as a loving parent would. Our prayers, therefore, are offered in confidence. Part of what Jesus wants to teach us about prayer is that we engage in prayer confident that God will receive our prayer and respond to our prayer in goodness.

So we step back up to the macro-perspective and receive the Lord's Prayer as more than powerful words. This is a tool for persistent, confident prayer. Every day, when we say the words that Jesus taught us, we are not only doing what he taught us to do, but we are also given the means to pray over and over and over--to stay connected in prayer. And these words, with their bareness, invite us to pray with confidence that God will give us all that we need--not just our daily bread but whatever we need that day. The words aren't powerful because they're magic; they're powerful because they invite us into a powerful practice. Jesus wasn't just teaching the disciples what to pray. He was teaching them how to pray.

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