Do We Have A Prayer?
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Luke 11: 1-13
July 28, 2019
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at God’s disposition, and listening to God’s voice in the depth of our hearts.”
–Mother Teresa, Catholic Saint and Nun in Calcutta, 1910-1997
Our Gospel passage today is Jesus teaching us The Lord’s Prayer, the prayer we say in church every Sunday: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
Maybe the most striking thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that we probably we would never pray for any of these things if Jesus didn’t teach us to do it. Think about what we normally pray for. We often pray for others, but for the most part it’s our friends. Often if it comes to dealing with the people we don’t like in our lives, what we’re praying is that God would guarantee that things go in my personal favor and to my enemy’s detriment.
In contrast, Jesus teaches us to pray that God empower us to forgive our enemies.
When it comes to kingdoms, our normal prayer is for our kingdom, our nation, to thrive. In contrast, Jesus teaches us to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom—which implies, by the way, that there must be something wrong with human kingdoms.
And when it comes to asking for things for ourselves, few of us make such tame and humble requests as “give us this day our daily bread.” Our prayer requests are more in line with the Janis Joplin song: “Oh Lord, won’t ya buy me a Mercedes Benz!” We ask for the sun, the moon and the stars. This may in part be because we live in a land of privilege. If we lived in a situation of poverty and drought, maybe “give us this day our daily bread” would have a lot more meaning. We don’t get Jesus’ point that we should be grateful that our most basic needs are provided.
We pray to God as if God is a sales associate at a car dealership. God has something we want, and we’re negotiating with God to get the best deal. In contrast, Jesus teaches us that God is not a sales associate—rather God is our father. And a good father, Jesus tells us, doesn’t give us what we want, but what is genuinely good for us—even if we don’t think so at the time.
There are seven petitions implied or directly spoken in The Lord’s Prayer—that God’s name be hallowed; that God’s kingdom come; that God’s will be done on earth; that God give us our daily bread; that God forgive us; that we forgive others; and that the Lord spare us from evil circumstance. Almost every petition is asking God to do something and us being passive while God does it. It is God who brings the Kingdom; it is God’s will we want done on earth; it is God we implore for bread; it is God we ask to forgive us; and it is God whom we beg to deliver us from evil. Even the hallowing of God’s name is in the passive voice—this petition isn’t a prayer that I praise God, but that all creation praise God.
This prayer puts all power in God’s hands.
This prayer puts all power in God’s hands. Not only that, it’s a prayer that God do what God wants to do anyway—establish God’s kingdom on earth, ensure God’s will is done on earth, give us all what we truly need, forgive us our sins, and protect us from evil. There’s no room for a Mercedes Benz in this prayer because this prayer isn’t about you and me. It’s about God—God’s sovereignty, God’s power, God’s will, God’s parental care.
In this prayer, we are simply asking God to be God.
Scholars call The Lord’s Prayer an eschatological prayer. Eschatology is the study of the end times. This is a prayer that God bring about the End Times. We Christians have a very ambivalent relationship to the End Times. On the one hand, we always say, at least, that we want Jesus to return and establish God’s kingdom here on earth. On the other hand, we imagine terrible horrors as the End Times approach and we don’t particularly want to deal with those. And by the way, this is exactly the real point of the last line of the prayer in Luke. When we say the prayer every week we pray, “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” But in the original prayer it says, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” “The time of trial” was code language in the early church for being persecuted for your faith. In those days some 2000 years ago, you could lose your job, get beaten up by your neighbors, or arrested, tortured, and executed for being a Christian. The prayer is that God enable us to avoid that time of suffering. In fact, it’s a petition that the End-Times come not with the violent rending of reality as we understand it, but in a peaceful way for the whole world.
As I said, in nearly every petition of the Lord’s Prayer we are asking God to do things, and in many cases they are things only God can do. This is because it’s an eschatological prayer—only God can bring about the End Times. But there is one thing, and one thing only, in this whole prayer, that we are asked to do.
Wow, you might think, Jesus is teaching us to pray that God bring the End Times, but in the prayer there is one thing he expects us to do! We have an actual role to play in speeding the return of the Messiah! It’s vital that we know what this is, don’t you think? There’s one thing, in this whole prayer, that Jesus is asking us to do. It’s the thing most essential as we approach the End Times. It’s the thing that’s most essential that we human beings can do to assure that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What is this essential thing? Is it to ensure the safety and security of Israel against its enemies, as the Christian Zionists believe? Is it to establish that Christianity is the official religion of the United States, as the Dominionists believe? What is this one essential thing, this thing that lies at the heart of the End Time ethics which Jesus is calling us to practice? Tell us what it is and we’ll do it!
It is this: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Or as we say it every Sunday: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In this whole prayer, there is only thing that we humans are expected to do and indeed that we are committing to: we are expected to forgive.
Everything else is in the hands of God. God doesn’t need our help to bring about the end times. Jesus doesn’t need us to fight his enemies or to establish Christian rule. The way we roll out the red carpet for Jesus’ return is to forgive.
Why is it easier to believe we need to play vital role in Middle East politics or promote the Christianization of America or identify God’s enemies and smite them in order to speed the end times rather than simply to practice forgiveness? Why it so hard to forgive?
Simply put, because it’s not the way of the world in which we live. Forgiveness is not a value of this world, but of God’s world, of the Kingdom of Heaven. As long as forgiveness is not the most important ethic of this world, we have to keep on praying that God’s Kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven—because this world just isn’t good enough.
And that’s why we must forgive. Because forgiveness is the main way we make this world a bit more like the world that God intends for it to be. Forgiveness is how we make the world better.
Forgiveness is desperately needed in our nation right now. The polarization that afflicts us is a cancer on our society. Our attitude on all sides and in all things is “If you don’t agree with me, you shouldn’t breathe the same air I breathe.” Many of the wrongs and slights we feel are real, but just as many are imagined or exaggerated. We have begun to hate each other simply because we’re different; and even if we don’t hate “them,” we just prefer to have nothing to do with “them,” whoever “they” are. As soon as we peg someone as conservative or liberal, we assume a whole raft of things about them that are likely not true; but even if they are true, the fact that we disagree shouldn’t be a reason for hatred, suspicion, and fear.
At the most basic level, we need to forgive each other for being different. For having different points of view and experiences from me that threaten my own world view.
Forgiveness is more than just saying, “I accept you as you are.” It’s a decision to stay in relationship with the person you have forgiven, to keep them in your prayers, to desire their well-being, to understand at some basic level that your well-being is dependent on their well-being. That is what Jesus teaches us after all, when he says, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Our own forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive others.
You may wonder how to begin to forgive. Frankly, start with whom you hate. Who comes to mind when you think of the worst person you can imagine? I suggest you start your forgiving right there. And since your assumptions about that person also color other people you associate with that person, many of them closer to your life, then they are next on the list.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you suddenly agree with others or even that you like them. But it does mean that you no longer view them as inhuman and unworthy to live. It means that you will share the table with them at communion or visit them in the hospital or pray for them when they are in a crisis or listen to them in a discussion. You won’t wish harm on them and will recognize that thinking that way about anyone else is a sure sign you need to forgive them. Forgiveness is an insight given us by the Spirit of God, that the people we find most despicable in the world are as much beloved Children of God as we are, and we are called to treat them that way.
Forgiveness is harder than hatred, harder than avoiding people, harder even than war sometimes. That’s why it’s so necessary. It tells you something about this world that forgiveness is so hard to do. And it tells you something about the Kingdom of God that forgiveness is its most important value.
Which is why we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”