Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Model Prayer: Teach Us How To Pray – SOTM #16

The prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” is recorded by both Luke and Matthew. Matthew, in chapter 6, places it in the context of Jesus description of the showy prayers of the Pharisees. Luke frames it in a different context. In chapter 11, after observing Jesus praying, his disciples request that he teach them how to pray. Like most public speakers Jesus appears to have repeated his teachings and his illustrations in various contexts, but we get essentially the same teaching in all instances.

The lessons we take away from this “example” prayer is the same whether we are considering it from Matthew’s account or Luke’s. It is important, though, to keep the context of Matthew’s account in mind as we deal with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His immediate audience was a large group of “disciples” who had come from miles around to hear him teach. But also present were the Pharisees, if not in person – though they very likely were there in person – at least they were in the thoughts of Jesus and his hearers. The Pharisees were champions at prayer, and at every other display of “righteousness.”

Jesus’ model prayer was nestled in the midst of his critique of the prayers of the Jewish religious leaders. His model prayer is meant to contrast with their prayers, which were public, and showy, and consisted of long repetitive recitations thought to make them more meaningful through sheer force of their verbosity.

Jesus model prayer, by contrast, and with the fewest words, focuses on five things: 1) recognition of God, the Father, and worship of Him, 2) a wish that the kingdom of heaven would come and that it would be as effective on earth as it is in heaven, 3) a prayer for daily needs (bread), 4) a request for forgiveness of sin and a reminder that we must forgive those who have harmed us, and 5) a prayer that God will protect us from the evil in the world.

Bear in mind that this is a model prayer, not intended, by Jesus, to become a liturgical piece, repeated until its meaning was lost as thoroughly as was any of the meaning that might have once existed in the prayers of the Pharisees. “This, then is how you should pray,” Jesus said. Not what you should pray but how you should pray. Even the categories of concern listed in the previous paragraph are merely illustrative of what might go into a prayer.

Undoubtedly the aspect of Jesus’ prayers that caused his disciples to ask him to teach them to pray was the sense they gained, watching and listening to him, that he was really talking to someone who, in turn, was really listening. The example Jesus gave them models a conversation in which the one praying makes contact with another One whom he trusts and respects; One he believes will do the simple, practical things he asks. The requests are framed to consider the will of the One being petitioned. They address the concerns of daily living as citizens of a kingdom within a kingdom: i.e. the barest needs of the supplicant, a concern for reconciliation with others, and a desire to escape the contamination of this world’s evil.

Those foci will not always represent the content of the believer’s prayers, but they catch the spirit of genuine prayer. Prayer, as represented by Jesus, is unpretentious, practical, God conscious, trusting, otherward, and sincere. It will look and sound different on different tongues. Its content and character will be shaped by its context, sometimes quiet, sometime urgent, sometimes shaking the place in which it is prayed. There will be those who seem to be “better at it” than others – the fervent prayers of righteous men and women will seem to avail more than the prayers of others. But it should never be Pharisaic, pointing to, and elevating, the one praying.

We all should be “better at it.” The fact that Jesus accepted the offer to teach his disciples to pray seems to say that it can be learned, and if learned, then learned to a greater or lesser degree.

Lord, teach us to pray, to pray well and often, and to glorify You in all that we pray for, and pray about.

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