The gospel story of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray is not quite as straightforward as perhaps we may think. Rather than simply being an instruction in prayer in the sense of a petitioning of God, Jesus’ response shows us that he wants us to have a much broader understanding of what prayer is, or ought to be. Yes, he gives us a quick “how to”, but if we listen carefully, we hear him pressing us to understand what it is really about; and how necessary it is because, again, if we’re listening, he says, we’re evil!
Now, your reaction to that last statement might be, “Look, I didn’t come here to be insulted,” but think about how the disciples must have taken it.
It’s a common enough exercise, one that we often do in Bible study, or the practice of lectio divina (that is, praying with the scriptures); you may have encountered this during a retreat: it’s the use of one’s imagination to place yourself in the story you’re reading, trying to imagine yourself as one of the crowd, or a disciple listening to Jesus, or an Israelite witnessing the parting of the sea, and so on.
I invite you to enter into the gospel story today, that wonderful account of the disciples when they, almost childlike, ask our Lord to teach them how to pray.
I say “childlike” because there clearly is a sense in this that these grown adults, who’ve been people of prayer, at least in the conventional sense of being those who would go to the synagogue, who would go up to the Temple for the major feasts, and must have offered prayer. Here, however, one infers that they’ve come to the realization that they haven’t been doing it right. They are now confused, bewildered in knowing that whatever they had been doing, it really wasn’t adequate – teach us, Lord, how to pray properly.
So, these may not be children, but their appeal to Jesus is one in which they portray themselves as lost sheep, poor little lambs who have lost their way and now have found the loving shepherd who will now guide and protect them.
So, I don’t know if Jesus is taking this as an entirely sincere question, or sees in it a ploy, perhaps an unconscious one, to win his approval. I say this, because when we look at this answer, he doesn’t discuss so much how to pray, although he does give us all the basic formula, the now celebrated “Lord’s Prayer” which is the model of all our prayer. Rather, Jesus addresses the issues of attitude and expectation toward prayer, which really is one’s attitude and expectation of God. So, we get Jesus exhorting the disciples to persistence in prayer; how the persistence will pay off and our request will be answered – is this about proving the sincerity of our need to God? Well, I shouldn’t think so, God knows our true needs even before we ask Him.
Now, as he speaks, there is a subtle change in emphasis around what prayer is supposed to be doing. Ask and it will be given you—that speaks of intercessory prayer, petition; but then Jesus says to the disciples, “search.” Search? How is prayer a matter of searching? And then there is that famous line, “knock, and the door will be opened.” What does this have to do with my asking God to send me rent money, or cure my sick mother, or any other pressing need I might have?
Imagine you are there, and you’re listening to Jesus as he weaves into your understanding of prayer as asking God for something with these ideas of searching and opening.
And even as your head is spinning trying to grasp what he is getting at, then you hear this: you’re evil.
Jesus says this to his disciples, his followers, “If you then, who are evil know how to give good gifts… etc.”
He’s not talking to Pharisees, or temple officials, or officials from the court of Herod Antipas. He’s talking to James and John, Peter and Mary Magdalene, and saying to them, “you, who are evil.”
The Old Testament reading we heard, the one about Abraham praying on behalf of the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, there is an example of a community of evil. How can Jesus possibly be comparing his disciples, people like Peter who famously said to Jesus, “I have given up everything to follow you,” with the degenerate citizens of Sodom?
We might give a little nuance to this then. Perhaps, we’re not like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, we who are sitting in a Church ostensibly for the purpose of hearing God, communing with him, and trying to take what we learn and experience and applying it to being good people in the world. So, Jesus is not referring to us, that we might be those select 50 or 40 righteous who potentially redeem the cities. Maybe we can understand ourselves as kindly Abraham who is not a perfect person, yet is able to speak to God, and who intercedes on behalf of the sinful cities?
However, the text doesn’t bear that out. I checked the original Greek. Jesus describes the disciples as pornEroi – that’s Greek for evil or wicked. Now in the scriptures, and in contemporary literature to the Bible, that Greek word is often invoked, particularly in reference to human beings, as a contrasting term to God, to the divine. So, we are to God, as bad is to good, as darkness is to light, and so on.
That fits in with human understanding of the time about our place in the Cosmos. A great many people today think that in putting the earth at the centre of things as ancient people did in their maps of the universe, that this was a supreme act of egoism, of pride. We today are apt to think that anyone who places themselves at the centre of things is just that, they are full themselves. But that is not at all accurate. In the ancient mind, being at the centre of the universe, with all that space surrounding us, reaching up to the distant dome of heaven, why this meant that aside from the infernal regions below, the place of hell, being on Earth was the furthest you and I could be from God, from Heaven. Rather than thinking of themselves as being so important as to be at the centre, the sense was more like being at the bottom of a well and looking up seeing the sky through the well’s opening.
So, similarly, being “evil” not only implied wickedness, but also being far from God, unlike God, and so, in need of change, of growing out of this state and becoming more and more like God.
Jesus presses us to understand what prayer is really about; and the lesson he teaches has this surprising revelation: the disciples, you, me, we’re not who we think we are. We’re evil. And that shocking charge made against us ought to spur us to a prayer life that is more than asking God to do things for us, but to actually change us; to make us good by a life of active searching after him, persistent knocking at his door, not so that he might do us a favour, but so that he will let us in to partake of his divine nature.
Too many of us, lacking humility, presume our “goodness”. Well, we have the right politics, we give to the right causes, we post on Facebook and Instagram the right opinions; and we all do it in contradiction of each other. Like the soldiers of opposing armies, we’re all sure God is on our side.
We know that among the followers of Jesus were people from very different backgrounds, political perspectives, religious convictions. James and John, it is implied, were hotheads, Peter too apt to want to go along to get along with those around him, lacking the courage of his own convictions, and so on.
Yes, we ought to desire to have Christ as our friend, God as our protector, the Holy Spirit as our advocate; but not for what they can do for us; but rather for how they will change us. Yes, we can ask God to do good things for us, but how much greater is it to receive the Holy Spirit and begin to become truly holy?