What in the world does Janice Joplin have to do with prayer?
Here's a hint....
Hosea 1:2-10; Ps 85; Col 2:6-19; Lk 11:1-13
28 July 2019
“Teach us to pray,” the disciples ask Jesus. It is the only time in all of Scripture that the disciples make a direct request of Jesus to teach them anything. And we should not be surprised that they wanted Jesus to teach them to pray, since Luke’s Gospel shows Jesus at prayer before every major event in his three years of earthly ministry. According to Luke, Jesus was praying before he calls the disciples, before the Transfiguration, before the confession of Peter, before his revelation of his coming suffering and death, and just before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. And Jesus was even at prayer in his final moments of life, where two of the three sentences Luke records from the cross are in the form of prayer.
“Teach us to pray” . . . the very words of the disciples’ request reveal that prayer can be taught and learned, not just observed. The disciples must have noted not only the frequency of Jesus in prayer, but also the intimacy he shared with God in prayer, and the passion of his relationship with God expressed in prayer.. Prayer was obviously the driving force, the renewing wind, that filled Jesus with strength and focused his sense of mission. No wonder the disciples wanted to learn to pray like Jesus!
But when we read this Gospel lesson for today, in which Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer and offers a commentary in the form of a parable, we are left a bit mystified. We all know by heart – even non-church-goers often know well - the model prayer Jesus gives, or the Lord’s Prayer as it is commonly known, especially in the form that Matthew’s Gospel records it. Luke’s version – the version we heard this morning - is a bit more sparse, but the same content is there of the prayer that many recite daily in private devotions and we all join in weekly in public worship.
It is the parable that follows that may confuse us and raise questions. A man seeks bread from his neighbor in the middle of the night to serve an unexpected guest. At first, the neighbor refuses the request, but finally relents and gives the bread just to get the persistent and annoying neighbor away from his door.
On the surface, upon first hearing this parable, it may seem that Jesus is suggesting that the secret to prayer is stubborn persistence, our continual knocking on heaven’s door until God finally gives in to our nagging and begrudgingly answers our requests. But could this really be the truth about prayer that Jesus wants to teach us? Does God answer prayers on the basis of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”? Is it only our unrelenting and annoying knocking that finally opens God’s heart to grant our prayers? Surely this could not be the secret to prayer as practiced by Jesus! But if not, then what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching and this morning’s Gospel lesson?
While we could tear into the prayer, dissecting it and studying each and every word and phrase . . . I would like to focus our attention this morning on just two words of the Lord’s Prayer . . . the first two words of the prayer which gives us its alternative title, particularly as it is known by our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, the “Our Father”. These two opening words give us some vital information, not just about this specific prayer, but about all prayer in general.
The first great truth about prayer is found in the word, “Father” . . .
In fact, in this word lies the clue that unlocks the parable. Jesus teaches us to call on our God with the intimacy of the word “father”. To call God “father”, or more correctly, “abba” in the Aramaic language of Jesus, is actually closer to our more modern word, “daddy”. This is a word that suggests an exceedingly close, supportive, protective relationship, as healthy images of fatherhood do for us today. If you had a good relationship with your father, or someone else who acted like a good father figure for you, you will know what I mean. But “father”, for all its intimate connotations, is not the same as “buddy”. Jesus does not suggest that we are on the same level as God, even with this intimate language that he instructs us to use. While the title “Father” communicates a certain closeness, it also conveys a sense of respect. In the first century, this appeal to intimacy with the Divine Creator was a radical new thought, a surprising new insight about how to approach and address God. Israel’s Scriptures sometimes picture God as the father of the entire Hebrew people, the father of all Jews collectively, but the intimacy and informality of “abba” was something entirely new and profound in the teaching of Jesus.
This appeal to intimacy is key to understanding the parable Jesus uses to illustrate prayer in our Gospel lesson today . . . Jesus does not equate our approach to prayer as the persistent pounding of the neighbor on the door, but as the care of the father, the “abba”, the daddy inside the house for his children who are sleeping soundly all around him in the typical one-room Palestinian home of the first century. In other words, if we are to picture ourselves anywhere in this parable, it is not with the neighbor who franticly and repeatedly knocks on the door from the outside, but to see ourselves as the beloved children of the “abba”, safe and sound on the inside of the house. We are the children of God, the children of the protective father on the inside, not the next-door neighbor on the outside. And Jesus makes the point that even human fathers try to protect their children, and provide for their needs, at all costs. Hence, the reluctance of this man to awaken his entire household to answer the knocking at his door in the middle of the night, whatever the reason, even if for a good cause. How much more, Jesus teaches, does our heavenly Father look out for his children, and provide everything they need, including rest when they are weary. The beloved children of the father need not pound on the door to get the father’s attention. Gathered safely around him, all they need do is whisper, just once, and they have their father’s full and undivided attention. In Jesus’ parable, we are the children safely sleeping at our protective, loving father’s side, not the neighbor locked on the outside.
The second great truth about prayer is found in the opening word, “Our” . . .
You are a child of God, Jesus taught his followers. But – and this is important! – but, you are not an only child. Notice that the words of the Lord’s Prayer assume a community at prayer. Even when prayed individually, the “Our Father” is a communal prayer – the prayer of a community in relationship with one another. Jesus did not teach us to pray, “My Father . . . give me this day my daily bread.” Instead, all of the lines in the model prayer Jesus gives us are offered as plural pronouns – “our, we, us”. So, to pray as Jesus taught is to recognize that we are never solitary and alone in our prayers, but always placed in community when we relate to and pray to God. If God is our Father, then we must recognize that we share in the family of faith with many, many brothers and sisters who also call on him. And so our praying is not to be the selfish wish list of a spoiled child who wants a parent to dote solely on him or her, to serve that child’s every whim, but to place our prayers and wishes and requests in context with others.
All this brings to mind the words of Janice Joplin, who sang this hit song in the 1970’s. Janice sang:
O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
I worked hard all my lifetime; no help from my friends.
O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
Technically, I suppose, this might be a prayer, but it certainly is not a good one. And yet, it is not terribly far off from the prayers of many. Ms. Joplin’s song, which, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, she meant to be more parody than prayer, reveals the self-centeredness to which our prayers can easily degenerate when removed from the context of community.
“Our Father . . .”
Jesus teaches us that prayer is an act of adoration, of submission, of trust; it is an act of intimacy, of respect; and finally, an act of worship. And in all these dimensions, prayer is offered to God with the knowledge that I am connected to God through the life of faith as lived out in the teaching and practice of the Christian community, my brothers and sisters in the Church, for, as Jesus teaches us this morning, God is “Our Father”.