Proper 12 (July 24-30)
Texts: Luke 11:1-13;
Col 2:6-15; Gen 18:20-32
PRAYING GOD’S KINGDOM INTO OUR WORLD
Luke among the four Gospel writers is the one who most emphasizes Jesus praying. He’s the only one who has Jesus praying at his baptism, when he has a vision of the heaven open, a dove descending, and hears the voice of his heavenly father. Luke is the only one who has Jesus praying before several important events, like the calling of his disciples and the Transfiguration — another moment where Jesus is involved in a vision and hearing the voice of his heavenly father. More than any other Gospel writer, Luke emphasizes that it was Jesus’ habit to go off alone and pray. And today’s Gospel reading is not the only time Luke has Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. In Luke 18 Jesus tells them “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” It’s a parable that only Luke has Jesus telling, about a widow who badgers a judge until she gets what she wants — similar to this morning’s parable about the man knocking on his friend’s door at midnight. The parable about the widow in Luke 18 is then followed by another parable that only Luke tells: the familiar one about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple.
Okay, so why have I rehearsed for you all this stuff about Luke’s Gospel and Jesus praying? Because I want to place the beloved Lord’s Prayer in a wider context of prayer and to make the point that for Jesus prayer was mostly silent prayer, not with wrote words like the Lord’s prayer. In that Parable of the Pharisee and tax collector we just mentioned, the Pharisee is the one who makes a public display of his prayer, praying, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income’ (Luke 18:11-12). With the tax collector, on the other hand, Jesus emphasizes what he was doing, how he was praying, with only a simple prayer of very few words: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
When Jesus teaches the Lord’s prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s with the caveat of learning to pray alone, not making a public show of your prayer. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt 6:5-8)
Do you see how Jesus emphasized praying that didn’t necessarily focus on words? Here’s why.
Last week, we read the story of Jesus at Martha’s house with her sister Mary. Jesus speaks to a distracted Martha about the one most needful thing. I proposed to you both that the one most needful thing is being able to be fully present in the moment, and that the best practice to be able to be fully present is that of silent, contemplative prayer. The latter type of prayer is one in which we try to clear away our usual way of thinking, or at least to become an observer to it so that we aren’t always trapped in it.
Why? Because our usual form of distractive thinking is dualistic. What I mean by that is that we overlay what simply is in the present moment with our usual judgments of good and bad, us and them. Martha in her distraction, not fully present to her worthy task of hosting Jesus, begins to compare herself with her sister Mary and thus to make judgments in her mind about that. She judges her task as what her sister should be doing and becomes resentful. Similarly, the story that comes just before Martha and Mary, the great Parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and Levite no doubt had distracted, dualistic thinking when they came upon the man lying half-dead in the road. They could not be fully present in a way that provoked the response of compassion for a fellow human in need, so they passed by on the other side. For the Samaritan, on the other hand, it might have been understandable that the dualistic cultural conditioning of thinking Jews to be ethnic enemies would have kicked in. He had the most obvious excuse to pass by on the other side. But it was the Samaritan who was able to put our common human dualistic thinking aside and be fully present in the moment to the need of a fellow human being. Fully present, he did not see an ethnic enemy. He simply saw a person who desperately needed his help. So this morning I want to place the Lord’s Prayer in the wider context of the silent, contemplative prayer practices of Jesus which helped him to be more fully present in the moment.
And here’s today’s most basic point: since the coming of God’s reign in the world was Jesus’ central message and mission, his most important practice was the silent prayer needed to convert away from our usual human Us-vs-Them thinking. In our human kingdoms and cultures, we are taught to think constantly in terms of Us and Them, good and bad — those two dualisms combining together for the usual thinking of, ‘We are the good guys, and They are the bad guys.’ In God’s kingdom, God’s culture, we are to think not in terms of those dualistic judgments but in terms of the oneness of God’s creation. Before we lay judgments of good or bad on something or someone, we are to simply see it first for what it is, for who they are. The judgments sometimes come later. But our first habit should be to be fully present in the moment to simply see what is. And since we are raised in human cultures of dualistic thinking, we need practices to begin to convert our thinking suitable to God’s culture — where there is no Us and Them, only Us, only fellow brothers and sisters in God’s family.
So now we are more ready, I think, to hear the Lord’s Prayer in its context of converting our thinking away from the dualistic enculturation of human cultures to the nonjudgmental, unitary thinking of God’s culture. Jesus’s preferred prayer practice was silent prayer. He regularly took time in silence to undo the typical Us-vs-Them thinking of human cultures, opening himself to the spirit of oneness in God’s culture. But when he responds to the request from his disciples to give them words to pray with, like John the Baptist apparently gave to his disciples, his focus remains on the coming of God’s kingdom.
If you follow along in your Celebrate insert with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (11:2-4), you’ll notice that the opening is more focused on the petition praying for God’s kingdom to come. Jesus begins with simply, “Father,” not “Our father in heaven.” Luke also drops the part about, “your will be done on earth as in heaven.” So in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes neither mention of heaven in the prayer we pray. The effect of the opening of the prayer is completely focused on “Your kingdom come.” Jesus’ main mission is the bringing of God’s kingdom into the world, and so that’s the focus of his prayer.
The next part of the prayer, “Give us each day our daily bread,” has an important translation issue. It involves the word we translate as “daily.” The Greek word there (epiousios) appears to have been made-up by the Gospel writers. In all the millions of Greek documents scholars have studied, we’ve never found that Greek word anywhere else except in documents with or about the Lord’s Prayer. Two weeks ago, when reading Jesus’ great Parable of the Good Samaritan, we noted that the word for “compassion” that Jesus uses in the Gospels (splagchnizomai) is nowhere else in the Greek world used to mean “compassion.” So that was a case of the Gospel writers using a Greek word in a completely unique way. Here, with the word translated as “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer, we have a case of the Gospel writers completely making up a word. What’s going on?! I’ll repeat what I said two weeks ago. I think that what’s going on is the Gospel writers using words to reflect the fact that God’s culture, God’s kingdom, is so completely different than our cultures and kingdoms. So different that normal words sometimes seem to fail us. Being transformed to live in God’s kingdom requires thinking differently. It requires a radical conversion into a new way of being human.
So what might we say about, “Give us each day our daily bread”? The thing which makes the most sense to me is trying to guess which Aramaic word Jesus actually said that is being translated with a made-up Greek word. Many scholars are proposing that the Jesus’s Aramaic word was mahar, which translated into English is a word that indicates a time in the future, or simply “tomorrow.” In that case the best English translation of this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer would be, “Give us tomorrow’s bread today.”1 What makes sense to me about this translation is that it fits with the main theme of the prayer, “Your kingdom come.” Come. We’re praying for something still in the future to come into our today. So doesn’t it make complete sense for Jesus to pray, “Your kingdom come,” and then “Give us tomorrow’s bread today”?
A common Jewish vision of the coming of God’s kingdom was in terms of a great banquet. When the Messiah comes and launches God’s kingdom, setting things right in God’s creation, there will be a great feast for the whole human family. Everyone will be invited! Yes, when we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we pray for this great feast to happen, for the bread of the future to come today.
In Luke’s Gospel above all others, Jesus’ eating with others is a big deal. He anticipates the messianic banquet by the way he talks about feasts and the way he actually participates in and leads feasts. In Luke 14, he eats a Sabbath meal with Pharisees and tells them, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:12-13). In Luke 15, the Pharisees grumble about Jesus eating with sinners, so Jesus tells them three straight parables about something lost be found — a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son — and for all three a feast is thrown to celebrate. In Luke 19, Jesus invites himself over to the house of a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Do you see? He’s bringing in the messianic banquet where everyone is invited. Give us tomorrow’s bread today. With Jesus that begins to come true.
Let’s conclude with the end of today’s reading. Jesus tells us that God knows what we most need: the Holy Spirit! Really? That’s what we need the most? I think one of the commentaries I read this week put it best: “The Spirit is the means by which God’s reign arises in an anticipatory fashion.”2 On Sundays we come here and celebrate the coming of God’s kingdom with a feast for everyone. But there must be anticipation, too. Jesus launched it on Easter, but it’s a long process of coming to fulfillment. We are called to help bring it about, to anticipate its coming with every fiber of our being. We are called to pray it into being with our words and our deeds. Father, your kingdom come! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, July 24, 2022
1. See Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary, 2018), pages 313-14. In François Bovon, Luke 2 (Hermeneia Commentary, Fortress Press, 2013), pages 89ff., he indicates that this insight came as early as Jerome (ca. 345-420), who cites an Aramaic form of the petition in the Gospel of the Hebrews.
2. François Bovon, Luke 2 (Hermeneia Commentary), p. 107.