Sunday, July 24, 2016
A Second Look at the Our Father (Sunday 17.C)
I have great little app on my phone called The Three Minute Retreat. Every day it offers a simple meditation, Jesuit-style, putting me in the mood for prayer with beautiful photos and, if I feel like it, some music in the background.
Sometimes I make my three minute retreat sitting up in bed; other times I go to their website and pray at my computer.
And other times—too many other times—I tell myself I don’t have three minutes! That’s sad, because it’s amazing how much God does for me in such a short time, every time I give him the chance.
I have this guilty feeling that if prayer’s not long, it’s not good. Yet how would you feel if your spouse or parents or friends refused any loving conversation less than half an hour? As I said in another homily, God does not demand huge blocks of time before he draws close to us.
A perfect example of this is the Lord’s Prayer, which we heard Jesus teach his apostles in this morning’s Gospel. I timed myself saying the Our Father this morning, and it took me 33 seconds, without rushing. Even when I paused at every phrase, the prayer took only twice that time—not even close to the length of the three minute retreat.
That tells me that Jesus wanted to make it easy for us to pray, and to pray properly.
Think about the opening the disciples gave the Lord. They’re eager students, asking to be taught. So what does he do? Does he tell them: ‘well, you’ve seen me spend hours in the hills, you’ve watched me spend the night in prayer to my Father—so do the same?’
No, he teaches them a 30 second prayer. And the only time he ever makes an issue of the length of prayer is in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asks “can you not watch an hour with me?”
And after giving the disciples the Our Father, Jesus continues his teaching by underling the need to persevere in prayer. How regularly we pray is more important, he seems to suggest, than how long we pray—although, of course, he himself spent long periods of time in prayer, and I don’t want to make light of that.
But everything in today’s Gospel passage points to the power of even the shortest prayer, if prayed often and well, and to the power of the Lord’s Prayer in particular.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Lord’s Prayer is so important, since it came from Jesus himself. Yet we can become so used to it that our familiarity steals its power and proper impact on our hearts and minds.
Tertullian, a Father of the Church who died around 225, called the Our Father “the short summary of the whole Gospel.” About four centuries the later, the great St. Augustine said it was the source of all other prayers.
So let’s have a second look at this prayer we all know so well, and which many of us say every day.
The version of the prayer we hear this morning from St. Luke’s Gospel is a bit shorter than in St. Matthew. Since that’s the version we usually pray, we’ll examine it.
If we take the prayer apart, we find seven petitions. The first three ask that God be glorified, the last four ask for our physical and spiritual needs. The great Protestant preacher William Barclay reminds us to take careful note of the order of the Lord's Prayer. “Before anything is asked for ourselves, God and his glory, and the reverence due to him, come first. Only when we give God his place will other things take their proper place.”
After calling on the Father by name, we pray that his name be hallowed or holy—that he be properly known and revered in our hearts.
Next we pray that the Kingdom of God may come. Books have been written about the meaning of that, and Jesus teaches often about the kingdom. The Kingdom of God is at the heart of what Jesus preached—to pray for its coming is to pray for the fulfillment of our faith. These few words, “thy Kingdom come” are a bridge between earth and heaven.
The third petition directed to the glory of God doesn’t appear in St. Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, but it certainly jumps out in the version we say: “Thy will be done.” To put it simply, we are praying that the great divine plan unfolds in our lives, in our Church, in our world, and in history. We know what God wills for us and for all creation, and when we pray this we are making a commitment to do our part.
The remaining four petitions cover the whole of life. William Barclay puts it beautifully: they cover present needs, past sins, and future trials.
We start with our most basic need, praying for our daily bread. “This goes back to the old story of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:11-21). Only enough for the needs of the day might be gathered. We are not to worry about the unknown future, but to live a day at a time” with confidence in God’s care.
The fifth petition covers past sin. When we pray we cannot do other than pray for forgiveness, for even the best of us are sinners “standing before the purity of God.” Built in to the petition “Forgive us our trespasses” is a reminder that it’s a meaningless prayer unless we’re ready to forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus taught that clearly in the parable of the unforgiving servant.
The last two petitions cover future trials. We pray to be shielded from temptation—which is really a prayer for the grace to resist temptation—and to be delivered from all evils.
All that in 33 seconds—66 seconds if you take your time! Perhaps it's time we took this perfect prayer a bit more to heart.