Prayer is not only at the heart of the Christian life, it is also at the heart of a lot of Christian frustration, misunderstanding, and even pain.
How do we pray? How does God answer prayer? Why does God sometimes seem to ignore my prayers? These questions will be roiling just beneath the placid countenance most of our hearers will bring to our sermon this Sunday. With this in mind, could there be a better - or more challenging - passage to preach on prayer than Luke's depiction of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray?
An immediate challenge is how much Luke packs into these thirteen verses: the Lord's prayer, a parable on prayer, and then several sayings about prayer. The preacher will therefore need to make a decision: deal with one section in detail, cover all three, or teach more broadly on prayer referencing specific elements. I'll work through the sections following Luke's narrative and then offer a few homiletical suggestions at the end.
The Disciples' Prayer
Coming just after the visit with Mary and Martha, this scene begins with Jesus again at prayer. Luke, more than any other evangelist, stresses the importance of prayer in Jesus' life (see 3:21, 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28, 10:21-22, 11:1, 22:41-4, 23:46). Given the disciples exposure to Jesus' practice, and their awareness that John had taught his disciples to pray, it's only natural that they would ask him for instruction. Luke's version of Jesus' response - what we call the Lord's Prayer but, given the intended audience and use might be better named the Disciples' Prayer - is briefer and simpler than that found in Matthew. While it shares elements of the eschatological nature of the Matthean rendering - "your kingdom come," "do not bring us to the time of trial" - it also tempers these by omitting some phrases - God's "earthly and heavenly will" and "deliverance from the evil one" - thereby emphasizing the more down-to-earth concerns of securing "bread for tomorrow" and tending a community formed by shared forgiveness. Thoroughly Jewish in character - doxology followed by petition - Jesus invites us to address the Holy One of Israel as pater, "Father." One addresses God, that is, akin to the way a child would ask a parent something of dear need and desire.
A Parable on Prayer
The temptation is to interpret Jesus' parable as indication that God needs cajoling, or at least that the hallmark of Christian prayer is persistence. The Greek anaideia, however, is better translated "shamelessness" than "persistence," and so implies a boldness that comes from familiarity. Note that the parable's breadless host asks only once, making bold to count on his neighbor's conformity to the duties of hospitality. He is in this sense "shameless," counting on his friend's desire not fail communal expectations. So also, Jesus intimates, should we make bold to offer our petitions to God, shamelessly calling on God to keep God's promises.
Sayings About Prayer
Next comes one of the more familiar commands of Jesus: ask, search, knock. Popular piety has again interpreted this as a call to persistence (rendering it "ask and keep asking" and so forth). It might be more helpful, though, to read Jesus' instruction as inviting trust - ask, search, knock...confident that you will receive what you ask. Of course there is no one among those listening who would give a snake or a scorpion to a beseeching child, so how then, Jesus implies, can we not trust that God as divine parent will give us all that we need, including and especially the Holy Spirit?
Preaching on Prayer
We - preachers and hearers alike - tend to fixate on the mechanics of prayer: how, why, when. Jesus' instructions to his followers, however, focus on a different question: who. This is not to imply that the questions we bring are in any way unworthy of being asked. Given the numerous challenges of daily life and acknowledging the deeply felt and too often unmet needs we carry with us, our questions about mechanics are incredibly understandable and deserve a hearing. Yet while it is important to acknowledge the validity of our questions, it's also important to recognize that Jesus seems more interested, at this point, in invitation than explanation. In this passage, that is, Jesus invites us into relationship with God through prayer, offering us the opportunity to approach the God whose name is too holy to speak and whose countenance too terrible to behold with the familiarity, boldness, and trust of a young child running to her parent for both provision and protection.
Prayer, according to both this passage and Luke's larger portrait of Jesus, is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God. Hence, after a life and ministry of prayer, Jesus prays yet again while hanging on the cross (23:46). Similarly, we are invited to make all of our needs, wants, hurts, hopes, and desires known to God. While at other places in Scripture we are told that God knows our needs without being asked (Mt. 6:8), here we are invited to make them known, to speak them into existence in the confidence that whatever may happen, this relationship can bear hearing these things and may actually even depend upon hearing them.
Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies that our two best prayers are, "help me, help me, help me" and "thank you, thank you, thank you" (p. 82). I think Jesus might agree, as there rests in Jesus' words to his disciples then and now an invitation, above all else, to honesty, the candor that comes from intimacy, where oversensitivity to each other's feelings is put to the side not out of contempt but from trust. So while no matter carefully you craft your sermon you will not be able to address all of our questions about the "hows" and "whys" of prayer, you will be able to invite us into a deeper, more honest, and more trusting relationship with the God who desires to be known chiefly as loving parent, provider of all that is good and protector of all in need. While this may not give us everything we want, it at least gives us what we most need. Give us this day our daily bread; indeed.