How do you pray? Who taught you to pray? What do you pray for?
When Jesus’ disciples ask their teacher to educate them in the ways of prayer, he equips them with the very words to say. His prayer begins, “Father.” It is such an informal way of addressing God that it must have seemed off putting to Jesus’ disciples. The best word we could use today that most reflects what Jesus said is, “Daddy.” This forward, and some might argue casual, address demonstrates the level of intimacy God wants to have with us. It also functions to remind us that God is God, and we are not. We are God’s children, not God’s captain.
Before we get too concerned about the level of familiarity with which this prayer begins, Jesus continues the prayer by saying, “Hallowed be your name.” Hallowed is not a word we use very often these days. Biblically, it means, “Holy,” and, “Set apart.” In the Law of Moses, God commands that the Israelites keep the Sabbath day holy. It is to be set apart and different from all the other days of the week. God’s name is to be set apart and different from all other names we know. However, there is also something significant about God’s name. Today, our names may or may not have some significance within our family, but regardless, our names do not define who we are. In the ancient world, your name was your identity. Therefore, Jesus teaches his disciples to set God apart from everything else they can ever know or experience. In the opening sentence of the prayer, we get deeply personal with God who, by God’s very nature, is at best separate and at worst completely inapproachable.
Jesus, however, knows precisely how approachable God is, because he is, after all, God. God in flesh we can see, touch, and know. And so his prayer continues, moving from praise to demand. “God, send your kingdom… now.” In the early years of Christianity, Jesus’ followers believed he would return within their lifespan to complete the work he started before his crucifixion. Two thousand plus years later, some of us might not even be sure he is coming back. Yet in this part of the prayer, Jesus seems to be teaching his followers to ask God to usher in what we might call today, “the end times.” Until that happens, though, Jesus tells us to pray for inroads from that kingdom to wend their way into every part of our world.
The prayer only gets bolder from there, demanding from God things we need: food, forgiveness, and faithfulness. In stark terms, Jesus’ followers are to approach God expressing their most basic needs. However, I believe these are some of our biggest struggles in this life.
The first seems simple enough. We ask God for the bread we need for the day. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, God wants us to depend on divine provision for even our most basic needs, and God wants us to ask for that provision every day. Remembering to ask can be difficult if you have a month’s worth of food in your pantry.
I am not entirely convinced that we should stop at bread. Part of my understanding of this prayer is that it covers all of our needs. When Jesus sends out missionaries, in the previous chapter, he instructs them to pack very light – carrying no purse, no bag, no sandals. They were to depend on the kindness of strangers to meet all of their needs. In a time when so many people throw away food, have multiple savings and retirement accounts, and rent storage units, while so many others go without even their most basic needs being met, this part of the prayer offers an opportunity for wealthy Christians to reflect on what they have and what they need.
Most of us know and acknowledge that we stand in need of forgiveness. The reality of our sin and our inability to do anything about it ourselves is a basic tenet of our faith. Jesus instructs his followers boldly to ask God to forgive our sins. However, our boldness comes from the fact that we ourselves are engaged in the act of forgiving. That is where the struggle comes in for me. It sounds like Jesus expects us to forgive people who sin against us, people who hurt us or our loved ones. That can be extremely difficult, and some might argue impossible without God’s help. Jesus also connects sin with the idea of being indebted to another. Personally, I would love it if the people I owed money to forgave my debt; however, I do not think they would appreciate it too much. Even though nobody owes me any money, I still hold a lot of IOUs. I am a kind and generous person. I give compliments, do favors, and donate money. Whenever I do any of those things and hold an expectation that the person receiving my kindness or generosity then owes me a kindness in return, I have made that person a debtor, with or without their consent. Jesus is not just talking about sin or money here. He wants his followers to treat others with love, compassion, and mercy without expecting anything in return.
Finally, we ask God for a strong faith. Jesus tells his followers to pray that God not bring them to the time of trial. This may be our earnest desire, but so many times our words belie our actions. I seem to be an expert at getting myself into situations that test my faithfulness. The apostle Paul identified this very struggle when he wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul experienced temptation, just as we experience it still. Our prayers for stronger faithfulness find affirmative answers when we are able to navigate away from situations that we know will put our faithfulness to God to the test.
This is the prayer. We say it so often, that it may seem to us deceptively simple. It is anything but. When we offer it, we connect with God who wants to connect with us, and we ask God to open us up to a living expression of faith that is at odds with so much that the world prizes.
This is why Jesus follows this prayer with a parable. Jesus knows his followers will not be able to live fully into this prayer by saying it just once. This prayer is an act of worship that leads to belief, and if we truly desire the world to reflect the ideals established by Jesus in this prayer, it takes repetition and time. Not as an exercise in rote recall or magical incantation, but as a delicious feast where we chew on each word, savoring every flavor that comes from it.
The parable is not about us and God, where we are the man banging on the door trying to roust a sleeping God out of bed. Rather, Jesus is teaching his followers to be both. We are to be the man, shamelessly banging on the door in the middle of the night, making our requests known. We are also to be the awakened man, chastened by the pleas of our neighbor, motivated to give them the bread they need for the day. We are to be like the ideal parent who gives fish and eggs, good gifts to our children, our sisters, and our brothers. Jesus teaches his followers that sometimes God uses us to answer the prayers of others.
And God always answers our prayers. Sometimes we might not get the answers we want, or the answers might not come in the ways or timeframe we expect. This reality can challenge our faith – shake it to the core. Words cannot explain why God sometimes answers our prayers with a “No.” Nor can words sufficiently address the pain, anger, and confusion that often follow God’s silence. Yet God does give us the Holy Spirit, which unites us as a body and a family of faith that cares for one another in the name of Jesus, so that we all might have the bread we need for today.