Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In response to the disciples’ request, that he teach them how to pray, Jesus offers a version of what we have come to know as “the Lord’s Prayer”. Its words are as familiar as any that appear in the Bible, but the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, merits more attention, particularly in the context in which Jesus places it.
First, notice that this isn’t a prayer of passivity. Every line of the prayer is an imperative, a command: Holy be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us bread. Forgive our sins. Save us from the time of trial. Interestingly, this prayer doesn’t contain the, “your will be done” line, a verse that appears in Matthew’s more familiar version, a passage that seems to let us off the hook.
Then to make sure that the disciples get the message, Jesus tells a parable with this implication: If you need bread to serve your guests, knock on your neighbor’s door, even in the middle of the night, and ask him for it. And be persistent, even if he won’t unlock the door and tells you through the closed door that everyone in the house is asleep, don’t take no for an answer. Recognize that your neighbor is going to get you the bread, not because he is your friend, but because he knows you won’t go away unless he gives you what you want.
This isn’t the way we usually think of prayer, but this is how Jesus says we should pray – underscoring the illustration of persistent prayer with a promise: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you”. Christianity isn’t a passive religion. We aren’t called to sit back and wait for the kingdom to come – we are being taught to summon it.
That’s why it’s not enough to pray with words. It’s not enough to quietly ask God for peace, expecting nothing to happen, and when nothing does, submissively going on our way. If we pray for peace and then drive automobiles whose unquenchable thirst for gasoline ensures that America will wage war to secure sources of petroleum for us, we pray in vain. If we pray for justice and do nothing on behalf of those who support our economy to earn a “living wage”, justice will not prevail.
The trouble with really praying “your kingdom come” is that two kings can’t rule over the same kingdom. As long as we worship at the feet of corporate America, the kingdom of God can’t be realized.
This isn’t a passage that says if we don’t get what we want we should “just pray harder”. It is about getting up in the middle of the night, worrying God, worrying your neighbor, worrying yourself, and doing something about the worry.
Any way you look at it, a persistent knock at the door in the middle of the night is at best disturbing and unwelcome. Yet that is just the analogy that Jesus uses to explain to his disciples how he wants them to pray.
I recently read the following description of one tactic U.S. soldiers in Iraq use to gather intelligence about insurgents.
The Americans call it a “soft knock.” American soldiers on patrol pound on an Iraqi family’s front door, then parade in, each with 70 pounds of body armor, ammunition and M-16 assault rifles. Sometimes they search the house room by room. Sometimes they sit and talk. Depending on the family’s mood, sweet tea is served.
It is being done throughout Baghdad. As part of the new security plan, soldiers are trying to narrow the gap between Iraqis and Americans, in hopes that will leave the locals feeling safer — a task that has always seemed beyond the Americans in the four years they have been here.
On a recent night in western Baghdad, the conversation went like this.
“We don’t want to harass you or anything,” Lt. Johnny Mulholland, 23, said to the father through his interpreter.
The lieutenant had planted himself on the couch. His fellow soldiers hung about like linebackers waiting to block any trouble.
“We just want to learn a little bit about the neighborhood,” he said.
As unwelcome as the “soft knock” of the American soldiers was in this Iraqi home, imagine being awakened in the middle of the night by less polite U.S. troops, charged with the awful responsibility of locating an enemy that can only be found living in the most normal of neighborhoods in Baghdad or Fallujah. Imagine living in one these neighborhoods, and hearing a knock in the middle of the night. Just as likely the knock is likely to be a the kick of the heel of a heavy boot, followed by the swift entrance of heavily armed solders, yelling commands in a foreign language, bringing terror into the stillness of the night, guns pointing at faces that only moments before rested in peace.
A knock on the door in the middle of the night, in a time of peace, isn’t welcome. In a time of war, it can mark the beginning of hell on earth.
It is this same dread of a knock on the door in the middle of the night that has led the Pentagon to implement a policy in the U.S. of never sending the pair of crisply uniformed officers to the doors of wives and parents of American service men and women to announce the death of their spouse or child, except during hours of daylight. A knock at the door in the middle of the night, followed by the words, “We regret to inform you…” is news too disturbing to be received in the dark.
Yet, Jesus asks us to pray in a way that is likely to disturb all sense of order and propriety.
Because you see, the coming of the kingdom was a threat to everything the established order held dear – and still is. Praying is more than wishing.
Prayer isn’t just “I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.” Praying as Jesus taught us is boots on the ground kind of prayer. Asking, searching, knocking. Doing the kind of work that it takes to bring on the kingdom of God.
I’m not sure where we got the idea that prayer was idle, mamby pampy stuff. Jesus, and the entire Bible, teach prayer as jawboning. In Genesis, Abraham haggles with God like a merchant in a bazaar. In Exodus, Moses makes God repent. God wants relationship, not unapproachable authority and power.
As Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written, “God… is creating history with us, alongside us, and wants, needs, cannot do without, our input. The limp passivity of what so often passes as Christian prayer is anathema to the Bible. When we pray, we are to be totally energized beings staking everything on God’s future for the world.”
Jesus in telling his disciples to pray – “your kingdom come”, was being subversive. In order for the kingdom of God to come, the Kingdom of Imperial Rome had to fall. Rome as it turned out proved smarter than that, and instead subverted Christianity to conform to its own goals. We, in America, have done much the same.
Jesus imagined a kingdom where the currency of the realm wasn’t denari, and as Christians today when we pray, your kingdom come, we are praying, whether we think about it or not, for the entrance into the world of a kingdom not ruled by the dollar. Jesus, in his prayer, was calling for the wealthy and powerful to be brought to their knees. If your interests are fully vested in the established order, you might think twice before you pray, “your kingdom come.”
Elsewhere we find Jesus adding, “on earth as it is in heaven”. So let’s don’t pretend that Jesus is talking only about the great by and by. Jesus is asking that we pray in a way intended to change the world in which we live now.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in reference to his 1964 march alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
It is a mistake to use the prayer “God’s will be done” as an excuse for lethargy. If we think we can kick back and let God take care of creation – then we are practicing the wrong religion. Ours is a god who works with us as co-creators of the kingdom.
Jesus is urging persistence in prayer: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Or in the words of an African proverb: “When you pray, move your feet.”