Lord Teach Us to Pray

In the gospel that we read today from Luke, we are given the scene where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them the Our Father. This is one of the first prayers we learn as Christians. And we recite it daily and even many times in the course of the day.

The Lord’s Prayer is directed to the Father: Our Father. Praying to the Father should be familiar to all of us who participate in the Mass, for every opening prayer we hear at Mass, indeed most of the prayers in the Missal, is directed to the father, it is prayed through the son, and it is offered in the Holy Spirit. The model of prayer given to us by Jesus is the model the Church uses in its liturgies, and it is a model for us in our private prayer: we should be willing to direct our prayers to our Heavenly Father.

I’d like us to look at the next part of the gospel reading, where we get from the words of our Lord three descriptions of this father to whom we pray. In the first place it is an indulgent father, a father who wants to give us good things when we pester him. Look back to our reading from the Old Testament, where Abraham negotiates with God. The first response to Abraham’s prayer is unsatisfactory, and so he suggests a lower number of good men in Sodom before the Lord will exact his vengeance. And like an indulgent father, the Lord agrees to a lower number. But Abraham keeps going, and again he gets God the indulgent father to listen to his new request and to agree to it.

Now let’s turn to the story of the man awakened in the middle of the night. If you come to my door banging on it for some loaves of bread, I might not answer the door. If I answer the door, I’m going to be in a very bad mood. But our loving father is not like me. He will get up and answer the door, and He will give us whatever good thing we need if only because of our persistence. So the first lesson we need to take from this reading is that our prayer life should include persistence towards our indulgent and loving Heavenly Father.

The second characteristic of our heavenly father that comes through these readings is that he is a generous father who will give us good things even if we don’t really merit them. We often struggle with this idea of merits. Scrupulosity is the tendency to slip into the misunderstanding that if you’re just good enough you can get to heaven. At the other extreme are the ones who have pretty much given up because they know they could never deserve heaven. Our generous father knows that we don’t really deserve heaven, but he showers us with good things.

Let’s go back to the negotiation that Abraham had with him over the number of good men. Abraham is not really a great negotiator; the Lord our God is a generous father. That’s why there needed only to be ten good men in that city to prevent its destruction. In the gospel today, our Lord says that everyone who asks receives. It is the asking that seems to be the key to an authentic relationship between God and his children.

The Psalm today reminds us that even though the Lord is exalted, yet the lowly he sees. So we should never slip into the wrong thinking that God is remote, that he is unapproachable, or that he doesn’t see what we do. The Lord is exalted, yet he sees the lowly. Every one of us is lowly compared to God, yet he sees us intimately and knows us completely. And he loves us generously, for everyone who asks receives. Our heavenly father is not a father who is remote, or disconnected, or prone to anger. He is a generous father who will give us good things even if we don’t really deserve them.

And, number three, our heavenly father is a loving father who will give us only good things. That is crystal clear in the example that Jesus uses when he asks his disciples what father would hand his son a scorpion when the son asks for an egg. And our heavenly father knows – even better than we – what is truly good, which is why the example that Jesus uses in contrast to the scorpion is that the father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

For it is a relationship with the father through the son and in the Holy Spirit that gives us the fullness of God in our lives. In his letter to the Colossians today, St. Paul explains why we know that our father loves us. St. Paul says that all of our transgressions have been forgiven. Jesus has obliterated – wiped out completely – the bond incurred by us in the original sin of Adam and Eve. Jesus has nailed it to the cross.

Our heavenly father loves us so much that he gave us his son to pay the debt that we owed him because of our original act of turning away from him. The sacrifice on the cross is the most profound sign of how much our father loves us. And that is why the Second Vatican Council declared the liturgy of the Mass to be the source and summit of our faith: its essential act – the heart of the Mass – is a representation – a mystical re-participation – of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross at Calvary.

As we read the Scriptures given to us for the seventeenth Sunday in ordinary time, it gives us an image of how to pray to our father. We should pray to our father in the same tone and attitude as an eight-year-old kid does when he’s asking his daddy for ice cream. We are told in the Scriptures to approach God as little children. And so it is only our pride that would prevent us from approaching him that way.

And what do little children do when they want something that is good? We see what they do as we read the Scriptures today. First we start with the subjunctive: as in the Lord’s prayer when we say that  “May thy kingdom come.” Little kids approach Daddy about getting some ice cream in that soft-pedal sort of way, don’t they? “Daddy, wouldn’t it be great to go to Culvers after dinner?” But they quickly move to the imperative: give us this day our daily bread. “Daddy give me some ice cream. Drive to Culvers.”

Little kids are persistent when they want something. Once the idea of going to get some ice cream has been raised, that little eight-year-old will just keep bringing it up to daddy, perhaps even going so far as tapping him on the shoulder and repeating, “Hey Dad, let’s go get some ice cream. Give me my ice cream, Dad.” That kind of persistence is something we should see in our own prayer lives.

And it’s okay to be demanding toward God. If what we demand from God is bad, he will in his love for us not give it to us. But the very act of persistently asking and even demanding something good from God is an act of worship of God. When we ask something of God that is truly good, we are implicitly acknowledging that God has the power to give us good things. That means our asking is also a way of glorifying God.

We can be persistent with our father because we are his adopted sons and daughters. St. Paul reminds us today that we were buried with Jesus in baptism and raised with him in faith. Our lives in Christ are lived in the grace of God. He truly is our father, our daddy, Abba. So believe that he is your loving father when you pray the Lord’s prayer. And be persistent in calling out to him for those good things that you need.

So let the model of the prayers at Mass be a model for us in our personal prayer lives. Let us pray to the father as Jesus taught us, knowing that the father loves us and will hear our prayers and respond to them as an indulgent and generous and loving father. Let us pray confidently through the Son, whose sacrifice on the Cross gained for us redemption and the gift of everlasting life. Let us pray in the Holy Spirit, who showers us with his gifts and is our defender and friend amid the trials and temptations of our earthly pilgrimage.

We are truly the sons and daughters of Our Heavenly Father. We are truly brothers and sisters in Christ, his only begotten Son. We are truly called as members of Christ’s bride – the Church protected by the Holy Spirit. May that reality pervade both our participation in the Holy Mass and our private prayer lives.

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