Lord Teach Us How To Pray

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

One of the catch phrases we often hear today is “trust me” which translates “Trust me that what I say is true” or “Trust me, I am not leading you on.” Well, in point of fact we know it is not always wise to trust what just anyone tells us, but it’s certainly a good personal quality and very wise to trust people whom we both know and love. Therefore, it is certainly the pinnacle of wisdom oweverHjjjnHppppp’’’to always trust Jesus, whom we know and love above all others, to trust and put into action whatever he teaches us about life, about how we should live, and, as in today’s Gospel, how we should pray.

Among the most important things that Jesus teaches his disciples is definitely how we should pray. Since everything that ultimately matters in this life is related to God and comes from God, we need to know how to pray to God. For instance, we learn from the Gospels that Jesus taught his disciples not to multiply their words as if the sheer number of words would gain them their petition. Nor were they to make a public spectacle of their prayer when praying privately to God.  A public spectacle of such prayer has the effect of drawing attention to oneself and quickly leads to hypocrisy.  When it comes to private prayer, things should be kept between God and ourselves.

In today’s gospel from St. Luke, the apostles specifically asked Jesus to teach them how to pray the way He does.  It is here that Jesus teaches them the greatest and most perfect prayer ever composed, and we call it the Lord’s Prayer not only because it is directed to God who is Our Lord, but also because it was taught by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  This greatest of prayers is certainly not wordy, and its subject matter is really quite simple.  The first part of the prayer is praise directed to the glory of God, putting God always before ourselves, and this should always be the primary mark of the prayer of every Christian. It is a prayer that is basically private, but also a prayer that is also essentially common and therefore can rightly me made publicly and is so as part of our divine worship.

Most of our private prayers often have to do with petition, with asking God for favors related to the things we need in our daily life.  But note that the Lord’s prayer begins by focusing not on the worldly needs that we all have, but focuses on our need to praise the glory of God, which activity in truth is our greatest human need.  We pray in the first part of prayer that God’s name be hallowed in this world, which is another way of saying that God has the primacy in our daily life.  And secondly we asked that God’s kingdom come, that is, that the reign of God be extended over our hearts and the hearts of all mankind.  In reality these two petitions are not only directed to the praise of God’s glory, but they also are petitions for the most profound needs that we have as human beings, two deeply spiritual needs.

First we have the profound need to honor and glorify God as our Creator and Redeemer, and, secondly, we have the equally profound need for our wills to be always conformed to the divine will, that is, that God’s reign should extend over our wills.  It is precisely here that we can see that this is the perfect prayer of the Lord Jesus, for no one ever hallowed the name of the Father as Jesus his son did, and no one ever more perfectly subjected his human will to the will of the Father, and that is why the kingdom of God has come to us in Jesus Christ.

Too many Christians mentally bypass this first part of the Lord’s prayer with little attention, as if these words were simply pious praise, pious words directed to God and not the perfect expression of our deepest needs that only God can fulfill.  We quickly pass on to the second part of the prayer in which we ask God to meet our daily needs, beginning with “give us this day our daily bread.”  Now bread certainly is a human need and here represents all of our basic human needs in this world, and thus the prayer is a way of recognizing that we owe everything to God.

However here again things are not so simple. The greatest bread that we need, in fact, is a spiritual bread, that is, the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist. It is the greatest daily bread, readily available to us, that can truly perfect us as human beings and children of God, and thus we must ask for it daily.

And then our prayer immediately turns to another daily need that is again profoundly spiritual, that God will forgive our sins on a daily basis.  Just as we need our daily temporal sustenance, and also our Heavenly Bread or sustenance, so we also need to be forgiven on a daily basis for the ways in which we have offended God, be they small or large offenses.  Man always needs to be forgiven, and the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that our need for forgiveness from God is conditioned upon our willingness to forgive those who have offended us.  Unless God forgives our sins, his kingdom can never really come into our hearts for all eternity.  And unwillingness to forgive others is the most certain way to cut ourselves off from the mercy of God and his eternal kingdom.

Daily bread and daily mercies sum up our deepest daily needs, just as the first part of the Our Father sums up the needs that cover our whole existence, that our lives hallow God’s name and that his kingdom come ever more deeply into our hearts.

Finally, at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to be delivered from evil, and here we are not talking simply about the temporal evils that afflict us in this world, pain, suffering of a bodily or metal nature; nor simply of the evil of sins that we commit. But we pray to be delivered from doing any evil,  whether from the evils of our formal sins, or from the evils we often may perpetrate that are not formally sins, but only because of our ignorance or inattention. So we do not pray simply “deliver us from sin,” our true sins, but from any and every evil that we may bring into this world through our blindness and ignorance. These non-inculpatory evils may not be true sins, but they are true evils nonetheless and truly offensive to God and neighbor. In other words, we pray here to always be in our actions on the side of goodness, that is, on the side of God.

But the previous words to this final petition seem to have even something much more profound in mind. We are used to saying “lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil” and but the translation used in today’s gospel actually seems to combine those two ideas and point to something much more dramatic, that is, “do not subject us to the final test. Thus the Lord’s Prayer seems to end with a reference to the end times, and it becomes a petition to deliver us from the monstrous temptation and evil that will occur at the end of time according to Jesus own teaching.

When Jesus speaks of the end times in the Gospel of St. Matthew, he states specifically in Matthew 24:22 that if these days were not cut short no one would be saved.  Surely this is the reference to the “final test” or temptation that closes the petitions of the Our Father in today’s translation.  The Christian thus prays to be delivered from all evil, but above all from this “final test” which means to be delivered from the tremendous temptations that will lead many astray to their own damnation.  When the end time occurs, and Jesus returns in glory, it will be preceded by a terrible cataclysm that Jesus warns of in the Gospels and in the Lord’s Prayer, where he especially taught them to pray to be delivered from that greatest of all temptations, to the loss of their faith and apostacy.

Of course, no one knows the day nor the hour when all this will happen, but the world will always remain a source of temptation to the Christian, and our age is no different. It is one thing never to be able to find the Lord, and quite another not to abandon the Lord once one has found him. The church has always seen apostasy as the greatest of sins, turning one’s back on the Lord, and thus turning one’s back on salvation itself.  And so the true Christian prays always to be delivered from this awful temptation, from this evil of all evils to be feared.  It makes no difference whether one abandons the Lord in the final test or in the many tests that will arise down through the ages prior to it.  We need to pray every day, above all, that He deliver us from that temptation.

This general instruction that Jesus gives on how to pray concludes with a teaching on the requirement of perseverance and trusting in God our Father to hear and respond when our prayers are good and sincere.  Perseverance in prayer is in itself good for us for a number of reasons. First, it keeps us from treating God like a servant, who has to do what we want and do it now.  Only God knows what we truly need and when we truly need it.   St. Augustine teaches that perseverance helps us to refine our petitions, to adjust our wills to the will of God over time, so that what we receive will be what we truly need and not simply what we want. At the same time, says Augustine, perseverance expands our hearts because God always gives us more than we ask for. But we are not always capable of receiving it because our hearts (our wills) are just too narrow, too confined by our own expectations.  My heart need to be expanded to receive the always greater gift God wants to give me, and by perseverance my heart is expanded by an ever greater desire for what God is going to give.

Persevering Prayer, then, leads to ever greater trust in God’s goodness and love, to trust that he is truly a good Father who wants to give us everything that is good for us and will never give us anything that is bad for us, even perhaps something in itself a good, but not good for me, at this time, in this circumstance, or maybe ever. But whatever I ask for that is truly good, and God alone knows that since he sees my whole being and the whole course of my life at once, I must trust that he will always, in His time, and in the best time for me, give me that good.

To be sure, all the things we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer are definitely good for all of us, and if we ask we will receive, no question about that, so long as we persevere in that prayer and trust in the goodness and love of Our Father. We shall receive our daily bread; we shall receive forgiveness of our sins, assuming that we are truly repentant and we have forgiven our neighbor; we shall persevere in union with Christ no matter what the temptation, even that final test if that should be our destiny. In a simple phrase that has become a cliché today, often falsely used, God teaches us one great lesson in the prayer He taught us: “trust Me.”

 

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