17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 24 July 2016

"Jesus teaches us to pray"

Scripture Reading – Luke 11:1-13

Once Jesus was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘Say this when you pray:

“Father, may your name be held holy,
your kingdom come;
give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test.”’

He also said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend and goes to him in the middle of the night to say, “My friend, lend me three loaves, because a friend of mine on his travels has just arrived at my house and I have nothing to offer him”; and the man answers from inside the house, “Do not bother me. The door is bolted now, and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up to give it you.” I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it him for friendship’s sake, persistence will be enough to make him get up and give his friend all he wants.

‘So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him. What father among you would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or hand him a snake instead of a fish? Or hand him a scorpion if he asked for an egg? If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com

REFLECTION

“Jesus teaches us to pray”

by Fr Richard Ebejer SDB

I have had the good fortune to work as a Salesian Priest in West Africa for a number of years. There is something special about Africa; there is a warmth in people who are welcoming and kind. In spite of the challenges they face, they have a cheerfulness and a hopeful attitude towards life. What gives them great strength is their faith, placing their trust in God. The memories that I cherish most are the moments of prayers and thanks-giving during Mass and night vigils when people burst out into song, dance and prayer, thanking God for the many blessings that have received. All the hardships and sorrows they face are forgotten as they get engaged in exultant prayer.

In contrast, when I was on a recent visit to a particular city in Italy, I observed hundreds of tourists flocking to get into the Cathedral, a real gem of art and architecture. One of the side doors was reserved for a Chapel, equally artistically exquisite, but reserved only for prayer. Sadly there was only a trickle going to the chapel. I couldn’t help asking myself, “Have we, here in the West, forgotten how to pray? Have we lost our connection with the spiritual realm?”

Today’s readings speak to us about prayer.  I am sure that the apostles knew their prayers and would have often had recited the psalms and the different Jewish prayers. But, somehow, when they saw Jesus in prayer, they realised how far short they fell from the ideal. Our own understanding of prayer sometimes can be limiting, seeing it only as asking, or begging, for the things we need, and prayer can easily become an endless list of petitions. Perhaps that is why, as modern society has become more self-sufficient, we have lost touch with prayer, with the ability to spend time in quiet recollection.

In the Gospel, Jesus responds to the apostles request and teaches them how to pray, not so much by giving the words they have to say, but more importantly the spirit in which they should pray. The Lord’s prayer is quite familiar to most of us, but the version we hear in Luke’s Gospel is slightly different and has a more natural feel to it. The initial focus of the prayer is on God himself – if we truly love God our desire should be for God to be acknowledged and loved by all; that he truly reigns in people’s hearts.

Our particular needs only come secondary, but in expressing them there is an element of filial entrustment of oneself into God’s own providence. We entrust to him our present as we pray for our daily bread, our past as we ask forgiveness for our sins, and our future as we ask that we may be protected from trials.

Prayer at the end of the day is a relationship, a relationship of trust. We have a beautiful example of this in Abraham;  who as a friend of God, he felt bold enough to keep on asking, to keep on knocking and searching, as he pleaded for the city to be spared. Jesus also invites us to be consistent (and persistent) in prayer, not so much in our demands, as to remain in relationship with God and be open to his gift of the Holy Spirit.

Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict were much impressed on their respective visits to Africa. Pope Benedict described Africa as the spiritual lung of the world, while Francis was taken by surprise to see the vibrant joy that Africans have for the Gospel. May we also be able to discover the joy that is to be found in prayer, to joy to be found in being in a relationship with God.

LECTIO DIVINA

by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB

Introduction to Lectio Divine

Before becoming a teacher of prayer, Jesus was a model of prayer. It was when they saw the Master at prayer, that the desire to pray was born in the disciples. In contemplating Jesus at prayer, the disciples became aware that they did not know how to pray the way their Master did. The disciples wanted to learn how to pray because they saw that they were unable to pray as their Master did. Prayer became a great challenge for them. Jesus taught not so much by word as by the example of his life. Jesus still teaches those who ask, if they want to learn. Before he said anything, he gave them an example, but by his words Jesus let his disciples see what they had been unable to discover for themselves while watching him at prayer. He spoke to them about the sentiments they should have when they turn to God as Father, and he urged them to develop the perseverance that is nourished by the trust that God our Father gives us.

The disciples’ security is based not on what they ask for, or on how or when they ask for it, but on the relationship they establish with God when they pray. When they see themselves as children they know that it is all right to ask God for what they need. They know they are praying to a Father who cares for them and they do not have to worry about how well they pray, or if they could pray better, because the best will be given to them by God who is their loving Father. The child of God can dare to ask God for the Spirit of the Father. Perhaps we do not pray well, because we are satisfied with too little. Are we perhaps bad disciples because we lack the courage to see ourselves as Children of God, as Jesus was and as he taught us we are? For Christians, to pray as Jesus taught us, means recognising ourselves as he recognised himself, the Son of God, and asking for what we would not have dared to ask for, namely his Spirit. We would not dare to ask for it if Jesus had not taught us to do so.

Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

Unlike Matthew, who inserts the prayer of the Our Father (Mt 6,9-13) as part of  a long teaching on prayer (Mt 6,1-15) in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5,1-7​​, 28), Luke prefers to create a new scenario for this important magisterial act of Jesus.  The time for him to leave this world was drawing near, and Jesus set out for Jerusalem (Lk 9, 51-19,28).  Being on the move all the time allowed him the opportunity to deepen his sharing with his followers and afforded him a chance to educate them. He wanted to win them over so that they would accompany him in his passion (Lk 9, 22-27.44-45). It is in this context that Jesus becomes their Master of prayer.

The scene has two parts, unequal in length and in content. A brief introduction locates the teaching of Jesus, but not very precisely (Lk 11, 1). “In a certain place”, somewhere along the road to Jerusalem, Jesus began to pray, and he was observed by one of the disciples. It was this disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray” that prompted this teaching of Jesus (Lk 11, 2-13).

The lesson is in two parts: the prayer itself (Lk 11, 2-4), and a more general catechesis on prayer (Lk 11:5-13).  It is interesting that the prayer Jesus taught is short. It has five petitions (not six as in Matthew’s version) and is introduced with the one word ‘Father’ (not ‘Our Father’ as in Mt 6,9a). But the catechesis is quite long, with images that are realistic and convincing. It insists first of all on perseverance (Lk 11, 5-8) and then on filial trust (Lk 11,9-13). It seems that Jesus attaches more importance to how we pray than to what we say.

Meditate: apply what the text says to life

Jesus was one of those masters who taught more by the example of their life than by their words. His teaching cannot be reduced to the sermons he gave. He formed his disciples best by his everyday actions. For this reason, those who wanted to learn from him had to follow him all the time. Jesus was the one who wanted his disciples to be his companions and he confided in those who were learning from him. Jesus did not teach from afar. The only way to learn from him was to live with him. The Gospel reminds us of this often. An anonymous disciple surprised Jesus while he was at prayer, and he was surprised that Jesus had not yet taught them how to pray, as all the other masters in Israel had taught their disciples. Seeing his master at prayer made him realize that he still needed to learn.

The request must have been unusual, not only because Jesus often prayed alone, as Luke tells us, but also because the disciple belonged to the people of Israel, a people who knew how to pray. How grateful we should be to this anonymous disciple who prompted this most valuable lesson from his master! He was in a position to see his Master praying, because he accompanied his Master always, even when he was not praying! Living with Jesus awakens in the disciple the desire to pray like him, and nourishes that desire. Could it be that we desire to spend so little time with Jesus that we have no great interest in learning from him how to pray?

We are indebted to that disciple’s dissatisfaction at being unable to pray, and his courage in acknowledging it, for the Christian prayer par excellence. We need not despair, then, if we have to admit that even after following Jesus for a long time, we still do not know how to pray. Like that first disciple, to whose ignorance and courage we owe the Our Father, we today ask the Lord to teach us to pray. Let’s not forget, Jesus taught the disciple to pray only when he asked.  He spoke about God to all who were willing to listen to him, he revealed his will to all he met, but only the one who asked him to teach him to pray was taught to speak to God as one speaks to a Father, and encouraged to think of himself as a child of God. His teaching is given freely, but Jesus wants to be asked. He asked for nothing in advance, but this does not mean that he did not want to be asked. Even if we do not deserve it and are unable to pay for it, we ought to value what Jesus has taught us.

When we think about it, we should not find it too painful to admit that we do not know how to pray. Admitting it is not a reason to leave Jesus or to get discouraged. Rather, it is a good reason to stay a bit longer with him, until we learn to pray, long enough to learn what he wants to teach us. The disciple who requested this lesson in prayer was one of those who had been fortunate enough to be with Jesus while he was praying. If we have no other reason to stay all our lives with Jesus, we can always use the excuse that we are unable to pray, which constitutes an excellent reason. Until we know how to pray like Jesus, we need him to teach us. Our ignorance in the matter of prayer is a good excuse to follow Jesus, wherever he goes. If we want Jesus to be our Master of prayer, we need to remain always in his company. Surely this is sufficient reason, and no other is needed, to help us to understand the precariousness of our prayer life, and the poor quality of our prayer. People who live at a distance from Jesus, and do not always listen to him and contemplate him, have no idea what it means to pray like him.

Jesus did not begin his teaching with a talk on prayer, (cf. Mt 6, 5-8), but with a short prayer. And the first thing he taught the apprentice in prayer was that he should feel himself a child of the God he was praying to. Any prayer that is not made through the Son, and to the Father, is not worthy of a Christian. Naturally, to ‘teach’ this, one must first spend a lot of time in prayer. Jesus communicates what he feels. His sentiments are seen in the prayer he taught. The one who prays is always a child of God, and cannot be anything else. Could we ever be taught anything better with so few words?

Jesus taught this interested disciple an enormous lesson in a few words – he taught him to see himself as a child of God. The teaching of Jesus was not limited to the words we should address to God. He made clear exactly how the disciple should feel while praying. Indeed, this is where our prayer should begin, with feeling that we are children of God. Jesus also taught us the words – what to say to God and in what order. In doing so he taught us that in prayer, God’s interests must take precedence over our demands. He taught us that we should pay heed to the things of the Father before asking for our own prayer to be heard. Even in prayer, God comes first. But with the words he chose, Jesus taught us that whatever we ask of God we can count on him as our Father.

In Luke the (Our) Father is formulated with an interesting “imbalance”. It is important to note that the first petitions are concentrated on God the Father – we ask for something for God – may his name be held holy and may his kingdom come! This priority is a masterly lesson which, unfortunately, often passes unnoticed. Anyone who wants to pray like Jesus must pay attention first to God and the things of God. Basically, this should not be too hard for us, since God is our Father.  But there are only two petitions concerning the things of God, while there are three for us – notice, not just for me but for us, all of us, including those who do not pray.  We pray for sufficient bread for today, enough to survive until tomorrow, for the forgiveness of our sins and for strength in time of trial. As our Father, God provides enough to nourish us today to ensure that we don’t have to live today worrying about tomorrow. As a Father, he welcomes us and calls us back when we abandon him. He accepts us again as his children and we regain him as our Father. As a Father, he does not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength; he allows our fidelity to be tested, but not defeated. It should be said that only one of the three requests has a condition attached: forgiveness of others. Anyone who wants to be forgiven by the Father must offer forgiveness to the brother who has offended him. Asking the Father to forgive our sins imposes on us the duty of forgiving those who offend us, cancelling from our hearts whatever offence we may have received, without banishing from our hearts the one who has offended us.  The Our Father is more than just a prayer – it is a complete school of prayer. The success of the prayer that Jesus teaches does not depend on whether or not we get what we ask for, but on whether or not we feel that we are children of the One who hears our prayer. When Jesus’ disciples pray, they may lack many things, but they can be sure that they do not lack a Father in God. No matter how many needs we may have, our greatest need is for someone who loves us and wants to help us. God is the Father of all who pray as Jesus taught us. When they pray, Jesus’ disciples become children of God. Then, and only then, can they ask God for what he wants and what he desires most, the coming of his Kingdom and that he be recognised on earth as God. They can ask for his Spirit so that they will know in their hearts that they are God’s children. Could we ask for anything better than to have God as our Father and his Spirit as our family patrimony?

After teaching us what to pray for, Jesus teaches us how we are to pray. He uses two images, both of them with a father as the central figure – the father of a family who is forced to respond to the friend who comes seeking immediate help at an inopportune moment (Lk 11, 5-8), and the father who, no matter how bad he may be, cannot refuse the request of a son and who gives him, not just what he asks for, but the very best he can give (Lk 11, 11-13). Jesus uses this as the basis of his main exhortation: ask, seek, knock. Jesus promises that we will receive, but not what we ask for.  We will find, but not exactly what we are looking for. The door will be opened to us, but not always the door we want opened. Prayer to the Father does not always obtain what we want, but always more or better than what we desire. God our Father is indeed better than the best of fathers!

When we pray, what we receive is not the satisfaction of all our desires. Our prayer does not obtain the fulfilment of our petty desires. We know this very well! It is such a normal experience that, at times, it weakens our will to pray. We think that we can attain through prayer the things we cannot achieve by our own efforts. We pray for small miracles, forgetting the bigger miracle that has already occurred. Before ever we confess the error of our ways, or beg for God’s protection, he already lets us know that he is available to us as our Father. The prayer of God’s children does not depend on how serious their need may be, but on how great their trust is. What is important is not what we ask for, or how often we ask or when, but the relationship that exists between us and our God.

It is the child’s part to ask and the Father’s task to give. If our prayer is not born in total trust, if we ask without hope of receiving, or because there is nothing else we can do in the circumstances, or as a simple escape, or if we expect to receive because we insist a lot, then we are not praying like children of the Father.  When we realize that we are God’s children, we know there is no wrong time to ask, and no matter how much we ask for, we will never ask for more than we have already received. When children pray to their Father, they do not worry about the formula they use. They do not hide their need, because they need God more than anything else. They do not hide their poverty, not only because their Father is already aware of it, but because their poverty wins them God’s care and attention.  When we are aware that we are God’s children, we do not worry about asking for the best things for ourselves, what we need most or what we think we are lacking. We know that we have already received what we need most – we have God as our Father.  Nothing else matters. Jesus has taught us to transform our neediness into awareness that we are God’s children.  We are lacking so many things that we do not feel the absence of God.

When we are aware that we are God’s children, we know that we are not wasting time when we ask God for what we need, even when we ask for things that are not important. As children we dare to ask for God’s love, and we want to receive from our Father the best he has to give. As children, we aspire to receive God’s treasure and we are not satisfied with anything less. The children of God keep asking for his Spirit, even when the time seems inopportune. Could it be that we are not good disciples because we are not good at praying?  And could it be that we are not good at praying, because we do not dare to ask God for the thing that is most worthwhile? When we ask for the Spirit, we test God’s willingness to give us what we desire. It is the Spirit that makes us God’s children.  We can afford to miss out on other forms of prayer, provided we do not neglect to ask for God’s Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus himself teaches us.

PRAYER

Lord God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing holy,
support us always with your love.
Guide us so to use the good things of this world,
that even now we may hold fast to what endures for ever.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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