The Sunday lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity in Year C continue through Luke’s gospel, and we now reach Luke 11.1–13 and Jesus’ teaching on prayer. In reading this, we need to be alert to the fact that both the lectionary divisions and the chapter divisions in our Bibles (which are not part of the NT text but were added by Archbishop Stephen Langton in the 13th century) can mislead us into thinking that each of these sections are isolated units, when in fact they include numerous connections with what has gone before. One interesting way to read these together is to take them as something of a manual of discipleship, comprising:
- grace in the face of rejection (Luke 9.51–55)
- costly decision-making (Luke 9.57–62)
- committed mission (Luke 10.1–12)
- practical action (Luke 10.25–37)
- devotion to Jesus (Luke 10.32–42)
- the rhythm of prayer (Luke 11.1–10)
The section begins ‘And it happened that‘, in the AV ‘And it came to pass that…’ and in modern versions ‘One day…’, all translating the Greek phrase Καὶ ἐγένετο. This is, as we have previously seen, a general statement by Luke locating this at some unspecified point in the model journey that Jesus has embarked on as he heads to the climax of his ministry in Jerusalem. He is in a ‘certain place’ just as previously he had approached a ‘certain village’ (Luke 10.38). And as, in the previous episode, Mary had modelled discipleship by her attention to one thing, which is attending to her one Lord, Jesus now exemplifies this in also being focussed on the One in prayer.
But Jesus’ attention to his Father is not something that he hid from his disciples; instead he showed them and shared with them. It is striking here that the term ‘disciple’ is not one of mere status or association; Luke is clear that these people are those who are genuinely concerned to learn from Jesus, as the term indicates (mathetes related to the cognate manthano ‘to learn’). Following Jesus on the way also involves being ready to learn from him and change as a result.
It appears as though John’s distinctive ministry gathered around him a distinctive community, whose particular practices (including fasting ‘often’, Luke 5.33) set them apart from other groups in first-century Judaism, and Jesus’ disciples wanted similarly to be distinctive. It is striking that, for Luke, a key distinctive marker was that they should pray, and this becomes a notable theme in his second book. As I have previously noted:
Prayer is a dominant and recurrent theme, particularly in the first half of Acts. Prayer or praying is mentioned 33 times in Acts; the majority, 23 occurrences, come in the first half and only ten feature in the second half, of which only six of these actually describe people praying. (It is as if, having made his point in the first half, Luke stops worrying about reporting prayer in the second half!) Quite often, we are simply told that someone prayed, but we are not necessarily told what they prayed—the words they used—whereas in the gospels we are usually told what the words are.
Addressing God as ‘father’ was not unknown in Judaism, and it has its roots in the Old Testament in verses like
Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?’ (Deut 32.6) and
But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name’ (Is 63.16).
But it was not a central feature, and it is absent from the Jewish Kaddish and the Eighteen Benedictions, which do have other themes in common with the Lord’s prayer, such as the longing for God to establish his kingdom. This distinctive approach of Jesus was so notable that Paul continues to refer to it, even including Jesus’ own Aramaic words of address to God, in Romans 8.15:
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
The close association here between the address of God as Father and the work of the Holy Spirit has already been expressed in the previous chapter. Jesus, ‘full of joy through the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 10.21) addresses God as Father, and rejoices in God’s revelation of himself. Specifically, we can only know him as father through divine revelation; it is not something we can simply work out for ourselves.
Luke also explicitly connects the work of the Spirit with the coming of the kingdom of God. This has already been anticipated in the words of Simeon in Luke 2.25–32, where the Spirit has revealed to him the hope of the restoration of Israel in the person of Jesus. And it is picked up at the beginning of Acts, where the disciples question about the kingdom (Acts 1.6) is answered with the promise of the sending of the Spirit (Acts 1.8). Thus the themes of the fatherhood of God, the coming of the kingdom, and the work of the Spirit are inextricably linked. The Spirit brings the presence of the kingdom in which we are adopted as children of our heavenly Father.
If the fatherhood of God was a minor theme in Judaism, the question of the nature of fatherhood loomed large in the Roman imperial context of Luke’s audience. The father of the household’s primary quality was that of having absolute authority over the members of the household, including in some circumstances the power over life and death. It was the father who decided whether a new-born should be kept or abandoned to exposure. By contrast, Luke portrays God as a father who is full of compassion and mercy.
The poetic form of the prayer still has the key structural elements of the longer version in Matt 6; the two petitions have the same pattern of four words as the three petitions in the longer version, and thus tie the honouring of God’s name with the coming of God’s kingdom. When we treat ‘Hallowed by your name’ as an extension of our address to God, we miss the point; ‘May your name be honoured’ functions as a parallel to ‘May your kingdom come, [may your will be done].’ We often pray it in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name:
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven…
But we should pray it in this way:
Our Father in heaven:
Your name be hallowed,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven…
We detach the acknowledgement of God, make that something personal that we do; but the prayer that Jesus taught makes the acknowledgement of God’s name one of the three petitions, and does not separate it from the other two. We long that people should encounter the kingdom, and that God’s will be done in their lives—and that they should come to know and worship God themselves.
The sense of anticipation of the coming kingdom is something that has marked the early chapters of Luke, with numerous characters full of expectation of the new thing God is about to do amongst his people. They are not, however, portrayed as passive observers, but active participants getting themselves ready for this new thing. We should therefore see Luke as understanding that these first petitions require our action as well as our expectation; we honour God ourselves, and we participate in the work of the Spirit which marks the presence of the kingdom in our midst (Luke 11.20), just as we actively participate in the kingdom dynamic of the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
In Luke, ‘testing’ (πειρασμός) is associated consistently with opposition and the pressure that results from faithful discipleship; this prayer becomes especially pertinent in the opposition that is experienced throughout Acts.
Whereas in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching about the Lord’s Prayer finds its place in Jesus’ teaching about other aspects of personal discipline, Luke here links it with further teaching on asking God for things. The two stories that follow (asking a neighbour for bread, and a son’s request to his father) are clearly linked to the teaching on the Lord’s prayer—the first through the repetition of the term ‘bread’, the second through the link with the language of fatherhood, and both through the repetition of ‘asking’ as a virtual synonym for ‘prayer’.
Both episodes make use of the principle of ‘how much more’, the first implicitly, and the second explicitly. The motif of friendship (indicated by the fourfold repetition of the term ‘friend’ in the first story) is an idea not discussed in Judaism, but prominent in debate amongst pagan philosophers. Friends can be superior, inferior, or equal, but they are bound together by concepts of honour and obligation. Friends will, because of honour, reluctantly be obliged to assist a neighbour—how much more will our generous Father in heaven respond to our request. Luke’s depiction of the story is quite ordinary and practical, and assumes the realities of everyday life: three loaves is what is needed for a modest meal and has no symbolic significance; the friend mentions that he ‘and my children’ are asleep, reflecting the usual first-century situation of a family living together in a single room (compare Luke 8.16 ‘a light on a stand is seen by all who enter a house’); and the neighbour is close by in a context where these small, one-room houses are built cheek by jowl next to one another. Again, there is no particular symbolic significance to the egg and the scorpion, despite both speculation and postulations about textual revision; eggs are a common part of the diet, and scorpions common in that part of the world, as I once found when camping on a beach in the open air and discovered a small scorpion in my sleeping bag.
If the concern in first response to the disciples’ question is the ‘technology of prayer’ (‘what should we say?’), the concern in the second half shifts decisively the the character of God (‘to whom do we pray?’). What matters above all is understanding the nature of the one to whom we pray—a loving and concerned father, not a sleeping and indifferent god, one who is concerned with our needs, and is more than willing to pour out his Spirit upon us.
We are urged to pray, since Jesus is the model pray-er, our Father is a loving responder to our prayer, the Spirit is poured out to assist and empower us; because to be a disciple is to be one who follows and learns from Jesus’ example ‘on the way’, and because we long, like all other disciples, to see God’s kingdom come, both realised now in our world and in the future when Jesus returns.