Jewish Prayers

The readings for Sunday, July 24, 2016, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; and Luke 11:1-13.

Prayer is one of several major themes of Luke’s Gospel and is the subject of this Sunday’s Gospel. Luke begins, “Jesus was praying in a certain place … .” As was noted in this column a few weeks ago, Luke, more than the other three Gospels, depicts Jesus at prayer. The disciples respect Jesus’ privacy. They wait until he has finished his prayer, then approach him with a request, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John (the Baptizer) taught his disciples.” We know nothing of the prayer(s) the Baptizer taught his disciples, but there is a Jewish prayer called the Kaddish which could come close to what John taught them. The thoughts contained in the Kaddish are a mix of praise of God and petition. the “Gimme Factor.” The Lord’s Prayer echoes the Kaddish.

Here it is: “May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified throughout the world which he has created according to his will. May his kingship be established in your life and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future, and say, Amen. May his great name be blessed forever and ever, blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored, elevated, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One. Blessed is he above and beyond any blessings and hymns, praises, and consolations uttered in the world. Amen. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel. Amen.” The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come,” summarize most of the Jewish prayer. But the Lord’s Prayer is also a Jewish Prayer, originating from the Christian point of view, from the greatest Jew the world has known.

When we hear or see Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in this Sunday’s Gospel, we may well ask, “Why do we call it the “Our Father,” when there is no “Our” before “Father”? The answer is that the Gospels give us two forms of the Lord’s prayer, one in Matthew, the other in Luke. Luke’s version is shorter. If we would not have Matthew’s version, we would not be speaking of the “Our Father,” but of the “Father Prayer.” As in other duplicates in Matthew and Luke, Matthew’s version wins. The same happens with the Beatitudes, and even with the whole Sermon on the Mountain. Luke’s shorter version of the Sermon on the Mountain is not on a mountain but on “a great level place.” It is therefore called “the Sermon on the Plain,” but how many have even heard of this title?
Which of the two forms of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke and Matthew has a greater claim to be the original form? Probably Luke. Why? Luke seems influenced by the thought of St. Paul in Romans 8:15-16. Speaking of the Holy Spirit who lives in Christ and also in us, Paul writes, “You have not received the spirit of slavery …, but you have received the Spirit of sonship. When we cry out, “Abba (Father),” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. …” So the earliest form by which Christians dared to address God was very direct, simply “Abba,” that is, “Father,” not “Our Father.” Thus Paul and Luke encourage Christians to address God not indirectly under the cover of many, as in “Our,” but as if a daughter or son calling her or his father with the affectionate form “Daddy.” That seems daring, but that is how illogically intimate God can be with us and how illogically intimate we can be with God.

We are encouraged to compare the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, to note their similarities and differences. It is also quite possible that Jesus used various forms of this prayer, just as people of our time pray differently from day to day not in rote, memorized forms but with spontaneity and a certain freedom. The rest of this Sunday’s Gospel speaks to perseverance in prayer, first in a parable, then in thoughts flowing from the parable. In the parable a man unexpectedly hosts a visitor who just came from a long journey. Not a thing to eat in the house! The host goes to a friend, a neighbor, at midnight to borrow three loaves of bread. The neighbor and his family are already in bed, therefore “I cannot get up and give you anything.” Jesus notes that even though the neighbor will comply not because he is a friend, but because he cannot endure the pleading man’s continued nagging.

Application of the parable: Pester God until he yields to your petitions? No, that is not what the Lucan Jesus says. What he does say is that God is better than that. Jesus does this with humor. “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?