Prayers Answered or Unanswered
Proper 12, Year C, RCL, Track 1, Luke 11:1-13
It is hard to express how important the code of hospitality was to the ancient civilization of Palestine. I spoke last week about how this code played into the interaction between Martha, Mary, and Jesus. This society was knit together by what is known as the honor-shame code. If you do honorable things, you and your family are honored. If your actions break the rules, you and your family receive shame. There was an unwritten ledger that the people of the community knew. They knew who were the honorable people and families and those in dishonor.
I believe that this code was easily manipulated by the people with power and wealth. With such means it was easy to make public gestures that would bring honor, saying your prayers loudly on the temple steps, or publicly contributing large sums of money to the temple coffers; two examples Jesus points out in the Gospel. Yet before we delve further into this, let’s begin where Jesus does, with the Lord’s Prayer.
Some people argue that the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer. And I’d push back on this idea. Much like last week, in which I expressed that all of our work, done in the love for Christ, is acceptable to him. I also believe that all of our prayers, offered in humility, are acceptable to him as well. What makes the Lord’s Prayer such a good example of prayer, is that it includes most of the major prayer principles: Adoration, Praise to God, Thanksgiving, Penitence, Oblation, Intercession, and Petition.
Father, hallowed be your name, is praise. We praise God and His holiness. We worship God knowing that His kingdom will come. God is in control, not us. This relinquishment of our power and control is an act of oblation. These are followed by a prayer of petition, as we ask for our daily needs to be met, bread being the most basic need in the ancient era. Imagery that also reflects the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness. A recourse that could not be hoarded. The Israelites had to rely on God’s provision each day, just as we do.
We then move to penitence, in which we ask for the forgiveness of our sins. This petition gets blended with a prayer of oblation in which we dedicate ourselves to following God by treating others the same way we would like God to treat us. As surely and desperately as we need daily bread we also need forgiveness. This Luken version of the prayer ends with a petition in which we ask God to protect us from the trials or temptations of life. Remove those outer and inner forces that keep us from following you to our fullest ability. At first, it seems odd that Jesus tells us how to pray by giving us this example, and then, in the same breath, he tells us two stories: one about giving bread to your friend and the other about giving snakes and scorpions to your children.
Growing up, we knew our neighbors, for better or worse. Likely most of you knew yours as well. We knew the grumpy old man, who griped about the smallest thing. We knew the mom who always had chocolate chip cookies to share. We knew if we did something wrong, our parents would find out before we even got home, let alone for us to have a chance to deny it. Everyone knew and seemed to care if you made the school honor roll. Imagine this awareness magnified to an extreme, in which the social norms, written or unwritten, were judged. Verdicts were handed down to you and your family by your collective neighbors. This community is kind of what the honor-shame society was like in ancient Palestine. So, if you were not fulfilling your expectations of hospitality, there would be a price to pay. To our modern ears, it sounds absurd for a man to go knocking at the neighbor’s door, in the middle of the night, for a few loaves of bread. But their society expected this couple to feed their unexpected guest or damage to their reputation would follow. Likewise, the sleeping neighbor had to give the bread, if asked.
This idea is laid out in the last sentence of this story with a poorly translated word. “At least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs." But the word persistence is actually “Shamelessness,” or as the footnotes of the New International Version (NIV Bible) offers, and may be best to translate, "to preserve his good name." At least [to preserve his good name] he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
This story leads directly into another story about a child asking for food, while the parents consider if a snake is a viable option. Both stories seem bizarre and unrelated to the Lord's Prayer. But what Jesus is trying to express to us, is that God is there for us through our prayers. When we make petitions, like the man seeking bread, God will give us what we need. The man’s petition was not fulfilled instantly; he had to rouse his neighbor awake and restate the situation a few times. Then the neighbor had to get out of bead, meander to the kitchen, over to the door, unbolt it, all before he could offer the bread. God moves in his own time, and we cannot see what is behind the locked door. We know that God is honorable. We know that God will do what is right. Even if we do not think God has heard our prayer, or we perceive that God does not want to give us what we ask, we are to have faith that He will.
But not all of our petitions are the same. As in the second story, we are asked to trust that God will take care of us and only give us what is good. God will not give them something harmful if a child asks for food. Jesus says if we will only give good things to our children then how much more can we expect from God.
Here is where I think we can also look at the story inversely. Sometimes as a parent, we recognize that our children want something inappropriate. It may be inappropriate for their age, or it may simply be dangerous. Violent video games for a younger child. A venomous snake as a pet. We, as parents, are not going to give our children something that is not in their best interest. Even if they repeatedly ask, we will do our best to keep them safe. So again, Christ gives us a story reminding us to trust God in the gifts we receive and in the prayers that are answered or unanswered.
One of the aspects that makes prayer difficult is not knowing. Not knowing if we have been heard. Not getting the answer to our prayers promptly, especially when we are in desperate need. Times like these are where our faith calls us to trust in God our Father to take care of us; to only give what is in our best interest and the interest of the coming kingdom.