He was praying in a certain place, and after he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
It’s the Boy Scout motto, drilled into my brain over years of camping trips, patrol meetings, merit badge requirements.
I loved being a Boy Scout. I joined as a Tiger Cub when I was in Kindergarten and I continued all the way through until I earned my Eagle Scout. To this day I can still recite the Boy Scout Law and Oath, I can remember how to tie countless knots, and I still hear that incessant reminder in my head all the time: Be prepared.
When I was 13 years old we met at the church to organize our caravan before heading off into the woods for two nights of camping. We had meticulously gone through all of our gear to make sure we had everything we needed, we had checked the weather forecast in order to bring the appropriate clothing, and we had even planned out all of the activities we would be doing until it was time to return home.
By the time we got to our campsite that night it was dark. But we were prepared for that eventuality and we hung up our flashlights in order to tie down the tarp and pull out the camping stove. The adults were always very good about giving the boys their space as we navigated the necessary survival techniques, and when we went to open the cooler to begin cooking dinner, we were glad that they were far away.
We were glad because the one boy who was responsible for bringing all of our food that weekend had forgotten that it was his responsibility.
We were prepared for everything, except for not having food.
So we did what any reasonable scouts would do, we kept the information to ourselves and went without food the entire weekend.
It was only on the ride home, when one of the boy let it slip how absolutely famished he was that the driver of our vehicle, our scout master, said, “I hope you boys learned your lesson.” We all grumbled about how we knew we were supposed to be prepared. And he waved that off and said, “No. We all could tell that you forgot to bring food and we had plenty to share, we were only waiting for you to come ask for help. I hope you learned that you can’t be prepared for everything, but that you can always ask for help.”
“Hey Jesus!” shouts one of the disciples. “When are you going to teach us to pray like John taught his followers?”
Jesus, reluctantly says, “When you pray, pray like this: Father, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgives us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”
Hopefully, the first thing you noticed as the scripture was being read this morning was how similar it sounded, but maybe not too similar. It’s familiarity stems precisely from the fact that this is Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer – the prayer we pray every week in this place.
And, if you recognized it, then you no doubt noticed it’s quite a bit shorter than Matthew’s version, the one we pray in church. In fact, it dispenses with some of the elevated language that we so often use and instead cuts right to the heart of the matter.
No fuss, no muss.
And even though we say something close to it every week we can’t help but wrestle with how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when considering this is how Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in response to them wanting to be educated in the way John the Baptist educated his disciples.
John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter into what we might call the program of salvation. You start here, and make your way here, and eventually you get over there. You confess and repent of your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.
In John’s worldview, redemption was all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees things differently. In fact, to the Lord of lords, the new thing has already happened in him, and it has happened for everyone. There’s no 12 step program to get God to do anything.
Jesus doesn’t come just to show the disciples, and us, a new way of life but is, himself, the new way.
This can be rather frustrating for the many of us who want Jesus to just be clear about what we should and shouldn’t do. Contrary to what we often hear from the church, Jesus does not call for perfect lives, but simply says the time has come for us to recognize how last, lost, least, little, and dead we all are.
And we are, all of us. Make no mistake: even those of us who look perfectly beautiful and wonderful and happy right now are but shells of people whose real lives are actually pulling at the seams.
The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want it to be laid out nice and clear as to what we are supposed to do, say, and believe. We like little trite and memorable zingers like, do a good turn daily, or be prepared.
But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with something that’s so simple, perhaps too simple, that it’s a prayer in which we don’t have to do much of anything. In fact the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive. Which, as we have said in nearly every week of this parable series, it intricately connected with our own willingness to die.
From the king forgiving the debt of his servant, to the father forgiving the prodigal son, to cancel someone’s debt, to really forgive, is only possible for someone who dies to their own version of what life could’ve been.
This so-called Lord’s Prayer rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that are often present in our own prayers. There’s not even a hint of ethical perfection, or moral equivocation. It just about the bare necessities to keep us together and fed so that we can get to the best part of life which comes through the realization that we have already died with Christ.
And we haven’t even gotten to the parable yet.
Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, and without being asked he starts rambling on with another one of his crazy stories.
Imagine you have a friend who is at home in bed at midnight, and you go knocking on her door because someone just showed up at your house and you don’t have anything to offer them. You aren’t prepared. And when you start banging on the door, she says, “Leave me alone!” However, even though she brushes you aside, you know that she will eventually give you what you need.
What kind of story is that?
Jesus has his friends imagine that God is like a sleepy friend. Someone who experiences the closest thing to death while we are still alive, sleep. And then Jesus has them picture this whole scene in which they break in upon the drowsy God with a battering ram of requests.
In other words, “I need you to wake up for me.”
We could, of course, explore why we/the disciples don’t have anything to entertain our untimely friends in the first place, but we will get there in due time.
First, Jesus calls the disciples to see that the sleeping friend is their only hope. That they are a people in need and the only one who can provide is the one who has something better to do.
And, to make matters all the more complicated, the figure of God in the story gives them the cold shoulder.
In other words, “Let me sleep!”
This is not the God we are often called to imagine in our minds. Don’t we all think and believe that God will drop everything for us should we only must the courage to knock on the door and ask?
It is certainly strange, but part of the parable functions in such a way to tell us, particularly with the language of sleeping and rising, that God rises to our prayers out of death.
But if we were good people, if we were prepared for friends showing up at strange times, we would never need to intrude upon the privacy of someone else in the middle of night. Many of us would never dare dream of knocking on a friend’s door let alone and neighbor in the middle of night. And why not? Because if we did so, it would show how in need we are of other people.
And we hate the idea of needing other people.
We hate that idea because we have all been fed a lie since the time we were kids that we have to get through whatever our lives are on our own – that we can’t trust or expect anyone to do anything for us. Otherwise we come off looking like beggars who haven’t worked hard enough to figure out our lives.
And yet, if we were dead to those judgments (most of the time self-inflicted), then we could show up at a friend’s house in the dark of the night with nothing more than a confession of our unpreparedness, and it would be the beautiful admission of our inability to be what we thought we were supposed to be, namely perfect.
Being unprepared, therefore, would raise us out of that death into something far greater than we can even imagine.
And yet, today, more often than not, this prayer and parable from Jesus get whittled down to some version of “you have to be persistent in prayer.” Which is another way of saying, “If we nag God enough, God will come through with what we need.”
When all of us know that’s simply untrue.
Of course we should be relentless with our prayers, with our needs, but if that’s all Jesus is saying with the parable then all of us will eventually be disappointed.
We will be disappointed because God does not answer our prayers the more we ask them. Far too often people (like me) tell people (like you) that if your prayers are unanswered then its because you don’t have enough faith.
Which is terrible.
Tell that to the mother whose child stops responding to the chemotherapy.
Tell that to the husband who has to make the decision about unplugging his wife from the respirator.
Tell that to the son who studies night after night only to bring in Ds and Fs.
This might be the most confounding thing about the parable – God rises from death, awakens from sleep, not to satisfy our requests, reasonable or unreasonable, but to raise us from our own deaths.
Therefore, if we walk away from today thinking that we can keep praying until we can con God into giving us something we really want or even need, then we have failed to see the gospel for what it really is. However, if we can take the story in all of its weirdness for what it is really saying, then we can constantly bring our death to the death bed of the Lord and rejoice.
Jesus concludes this particular parabolic encounter with a statement that we might rather ignore, but we are compelled to approach it head on. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
We don’t like being called evil.
It’s as if Jesus is saying, you, who can never seem to do enough, who avoids doing the right thing, who hangs your head among all the wrong things, who turns a blind eye toward the relentless injustices of the world, who believes that things will always get better if you just try harder, who struggles to be prepared for a world of unpredictability, if even you know what a good gift is, then how much more will God give to you!
Thanks be to God that the Lord will resurrect us from the death of our own foolishness.
There is no greater gift than this.
We can’t make it through life on our own – and that, dear friends, is why we pray. Not to get some things done for us, but to celebrate the greatest work of all that has already been done for us, in spite of us.
We can rejoice knowing that we have a friend at midnight and that, even in our death, that friend is there for us no matter what.
We can’t be prepared for everything, but we can always ask for help. In fact, it is the asking that sets us free. Amen.