"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

July 27, 2013

“Lord, teach us to pray” – Four homilies

Filed under: Homilies — komonchak @ 9:35 am

Seventeenth Sunday of the Year – July 25, 1971 – CNR

It would seem that the liturgy uses the first and third readings today in order to speak about prayer. Abraham stands as the intercessor for the just few who live in Sodom. This probably was not the primary intention of the story, however, but rather the mercy of God for the many because of the just lives of the few. In any case, I’d rather direct attention to the reading from Luke’s Gospel.

The disciples ask Jesus to tech them how to pray, and his answer is what we call the Lord’s prayer. It is a shorter form than the one we are accustomed to pray, probably closer in length to the original than Matthew’s form.

Jesus’ disciples may address their God as Jesus did, as “Father.” It is the form of address a son can use to speak easily and intimately with his father, and in itself this simple word says much about the dignity of Jesus and about the great favor that has been shown to us, that his Father should now be ours, too. The odd little parable that follows illustrates what this means. Because it is a father whom one addresses, one knows that one’s knocking will be heard. The prayer-ful relationship is not some simple magical, automatic mechanism of request and response; it the relationship of father and child. One scholar said that the kernel of the New Testament’s teaching on prayer is found in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, when he calls “Abba, Father,” the one from whom he receives his cup of pain.

Our first prayer is to be for the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of his Kingdom. This is one prayer: God’s name is shown and declared to be holy when he accomplishes his full plan. This is a prayer, then, that what God intends for man–the purpose of his creation, his redeeming, the goal for which Jesus lived and died, the end the Church exists to serve–that all this be accomplished by him. Our first thoughts in prayer, then, are to be that God’s saving will be fulfilled, that he fulfill it.

“Give us each day our daily bread” is the next prayer. Originally probably itself a reference to the coming of the great and final meal of God’s kingdom, this prayer in Luke has become a prayer for the daily necessities of life: for food and drink and clothing. It is fitting that it should be made, but fitting also that it should come after the prayer for his purposes, for all we pray for blesses us only if it is part of his plan of salvation.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”: a central plea, including the recognition of our unworthiness before him whom we call Father and also of the need for us to extend to others the favor we have received.

“And do not bring us to the test”: the “test” is the great and final struggle between Good and Evil at the last day: an image from the apocalyptic worldview of the day.

It is a very simple prayer, but it includes the essentials of our religious relationship. It acknowledges the sovereignty of our God, for we pray for the hallowing of his name; but it knows also his graciousness, for we call him Father and acknowledge his forgiveness of our sins. And it admits our dependence on him, for it seeks the bread of life from his hand. We are never more directly aware of our place before God that when we can make this our prayer, humbly yet confidently.



The request the disciples bring to Jesus in today’s Gospel–“Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples”–indicates a growing consciousness on their part that something new and distinct was happening in Jesus of Nazareth. He did not come with the intention of starting a new religion; he announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, that is, the renewal and restoration of Israel. (Thus the twelve apostles symbolize the restored twelve tribes of Israel.) But in the course of his ministry, as some Jews began to stumble along behind him, others refused to come, and this little band–can we call it the “Jesus Movement”–began to be differentiated and to be added to the rich variety of religious movements within Judaism. The disciples thus ask Jesus: “How are we to pray?”

His reply has come down to us in two forms, the shorter form we heard today from Luke’s Gospel and the longer one that we use regularly in our public and private prayer. The scholars disagree as to which is likely closer to the original words of Jesus; it may be that the two versions reflect the differing liturgical practices of the churches to which the two evangelists belonged. It has perhaps already been a bit domesticated, as it is often in the way people interpret it today.

Originally, scholars think, it was a prayer for the realization of the Kingdom whose imminent coming Jesus was proclaiming. The first petition we heard today is in the passive voice: “Hallowed be your name,” but its real meaning is active: “Hallow your name”, that is, show, manifest, demonstrate the holiness of your name–that is, by your saving work. Similarly, in the more familiar form we pray everyday: “Thy will be done,” doesn’t pray that we and others fulfill God’s will, but that the saving will of God, as it exists in heaven, be fulfilled on earth.” “Thy Kingdom come” means: show yourself to be king, bring on the reign of your mercy.

The petition: “Give us each day our daily bread” or “Give us today our daily bread” is difficult to interpret. The Greek word that is translated “daily” does not appear anywhere else in the NT nor anywhere else in all Greek literature. Which of course creates a problem–as you might find if you came across an utterly new word to you and discovered that it’s not found in any dictionary nor has ever been used, as far as you know, by anyone else before. St. Jerome faced the problem already–he’s the one to whom we owe the translation “daily.” Scholars think it could mean: Give us today the bread we need for our survival” or “Give us today tomorrow’s bread.” Most of them incline towards the latter–which would fit in with our interpretation of the prayer as a prayer for the coming of the Kingdom, which often was symbolized as a great banquet.

Forgive us our sins (or debts) as we forgive those of others–this is a petition that acknowledges that if the coming Kingdom is one of God’s mercy, then we cannot expect to share in this great blessing unless we are prepared ourselves to forgive as we wish to be forgiven–something that Jesus urged also in several parables.

The concluding petition: lead us not into temptation, means, as the translation we have just heard indicates: don’t bring us to the final test that will accompany the drama of the fulfilment of God’s will.

In the prayer, then, there is still visible something of the dramatic character of the mission and ministry of Jesus–the drama of what he said was about to happen, of what was beginning in his work, the drama of the new community that was beginning to form around him and his message, the drama of the decision necessary to follow after him. It is not wrong for us to domesticate the petitions and to interpret them in less dramatic terms of our everyday needs, but every once in a while it may be helpful to us to remember the origins of this so familiar prayer in that ancient drama, to try to put ourselves back into it, to recognize that it remains the drama of discipleship, and to place our humbler petitions, needs, desires in the larger context of the great plan of salvation that was realized in Christ and that anchors our lives, but the complete fulfilment of which awaits the day when God hallows his name, accomplishes his will, and brings his kingdom of grace.


17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 25, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament

Today’s Gospel is a little lesson in prayer that Jesus gives to his disciples in reply to their request: “Teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” It is a request for a distinctive common prayer, something which expresses the group’s identity, draws them together in a common attitude toward God. In fact, how they pray also says something about what kind of God draws them together.

The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we heard today differs from the more familiar one we will recite together later in this Mass. Scholars disagree about which of the two is likely to be closer to the one that Jesus taught. Some think that Luke’s is closer in length. It begins with the name which Jesus himself used in his prayers: “Father,” a very intimate form of address, so intimate, familiar, that it is very rare to find it in anywhere else but on the lips of Jesus. And the intimacy which it implies he shares also with his disciples, who by this very name are brought into the same relation with God as Jesus enjoys. This is why in two places Paul speaks with wonder of the fact that Christians may address God as “Abba, Father”. He even sees it as a proof that the Spirit of Christ dwells in us also.

The first two petitions pray for the realization of God’s plan. God’s name will be hallowed–declared to be holy–when his kingdom comes, that is, when he brings out about his reign of grace. These parts of the prayer plead for God to accomplish his eternal will–which is why Matthew expands the prayer to include: “Thy will be done, thy will that is in heaven, thy will be done on earth.” The prayer for daily bread is a prayer for God’s assistance in meeting our daily needs. Since the kingdom, when it comes, will be a reign of forgiveness, only those may enjoy that blessing who are ready to forgive the sins of others. And the prayer ends with a plea not to be brought into the great Test that will occur at the end of all things. It is a prayer for fidelity in the face of temptation.

Then follows a call to perseverance in prayer, with an unflattering parable used to illustrate the virtue of persistence. The grumpy householder eventually gets up and helps his neighbor because if he doesn’t, neither he nor anyone else in their one-room house is going to get any rest. Well if even this grump will answer the plea, how much more will God answer ours? The one whom we may address as “Father,” will act as a father toward us. It may simply be that we’re going to have to be importunate, like the neighbor with unexpected guests, or, for that matter, like Abraham bargaining with God in our first reading. (This is the only reason I can see why this text was chosen to accompany our Gospel passage.)

Very homey examples, then. And underlying them the profound conviction that God has a care for us, for each of us, for all of us. That we can pray in the way Jesus teaches says who we have learned God to be from his words, including his own prayers, and from his actions which themselves embody God’s great answer to humanity’s need: the truth and grace of God.


Seventeenthy Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 29, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament

In the whole of the New Testament, in the four Gospels and in the Epistles of St. Paul and in the other writings of the apostolic age, there is only one example of a prayer taught by our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is the prayer that we know from its first words in the version of it found in St. Matthew’s Gospel: the Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer. It comes to us also in the version we heard today, from St. Luke’s Gospel, in a form shorter, crisper. The differences between the two versions, scholars think, are due in part to the different liturgical traditions in which this prayer was passed on. St. Matthew’s version expands on the prayer and makes it a bit more solemn; St. Luke’s version, according to the scholars, is probably closer to the original in length but adapts the prayer for everyday life.

The prayer was originally a prayer that God accomplish what Jesus himself had come to announce: that the Kingdom of God was at hand, about to begin. This kingdom would bring about the victory of God over all that stood in the way of his reigning over the world. That is what the disciples were to pray for: “Hallowed be thy name” and “Thy Kingdom come” were parallel petitions: they were a prayer to God to reveal his holiness by beginning his reign of justice and mercy. This would be to accomplish on earth his heavenly, that is, divine, will. In other words, the prayer is that God act, and it is only as a consequence, necessary as it is, that it is a prayer that human beings, that we ourselves, keep holy God’s name, submit to his rule, and accomplish his will on earth.

Both versions of the prayer begin with what is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the prayer: that we call God “Father.” There is no evidence before or apart from Jesus of prayers rendered to God in this form. Abba is a form of intimate address to God, and it is the word that Jesus himself used when he prayed to God. The Roman Missal introduces our saying of the Lord’s Prayer with this formula: “Taught by our Savior’s command and formed by the word of God, we dare to say.” We dare to say–as if it takes courage, as if it should be a matter of wonder, that we can call God Father, Abba. It is an intimacy made possible by God alone. It is because of the love that he has shown us in Christ that we can know him as Father, and have the confidence to make our own the intimate way in which Jesus spoke to his Father.

It is that intimacy and confidence that come through also when Jesus gives us a little instruction on praying: “Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you.” Jesus’s words don’t mean that every thing we pray for is going to be given to us. Of course, they don’t, and no NT author thought they meant that. What they mean is that we may pray with the absolute assurance and confidence that a child has with her loving parent. Parents don’t give their children stones when they ask for bread. How can you doubt that your Father, your Abba, will be less generous than your parents. Hasn’t it been true that we have sought one thing and found another, found something we weren’t seeking? Haven’t we knocked on one door and found another one opening? (My mother liked to quote the old adage: God does not close one door without opening another.) We should not presume that we always know what we most need. St. Augustine once said: “God is more willing to give than we are to receive.” And it would be a serious mistake to limit what God can give us to what we can ask for.

So that opening word to the Lord’s Prayer, “Father, Abba, it turns out, is meant to guide every prayer we say to God; it should determine our entire relationship with God, how we think of him, how we approach him, what our feelings and sentiments toward him are, how we deal with the successes or failures, difficulties or joys, we experience in our lives. So when Jesus answered his disciples request that he teach them to pray, the most important word he gave them was that first one, Abba, Father.


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