What is prayer anyway? Reflection on Luke 12:1-23

8 Aug 2019 by Karyl Davison in: News

Although prayer is at the heart of the Christian life, it’s also something that causes a lot of frustration, misunderstanding, and even pain.

There are so many questions and dilemmas for the modern pray-er.  How do we pray? How does God answer prayer?  Does God answer prayer? What should we pray for? in practical terms, if farmer A prayers for rain when farmer B, just down the road is ready to harvest, who’s prayer should God answer?  What about the carpark prayer – why should God reward you with a carparking spot when 10 other poor sods are looking, and for all we know praying, for an empty parking bay?   What are we to think if we pray and pray for healing, and that healing never comes?  

So many questions - and what is prayer anyway?  

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.  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, 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 all the familiarity, boldness, and trust of a 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.   an so we see 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.


In his book, The Greatest Prayer, John Dominic Crossan says the Lord’s prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer.  It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer.  It is prayed by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ.  It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions the church.  It is prayed on all Sunday’s but it never mentions Sunday.  It is called the Lord’s Prayer but it never mentions “Lord’.


It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians but it never mentions the inspired inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, the atoning death, of bodily resurrection of Christ.  It is prayed by evangelical Christians but never mentions the good news.  It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians but it never mentions the Holy Spirit.


It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over doctrine, but it never mentions a single doctrine.  It is prayed by Christians who focus on the next life in heaven or in hell, but it never mentions the next life, heaven, or hell.  It is prayed by Christians who emphasize what it never mentions and also prayed by Christians who ignore what it does mention.


You could say that there’s nothing strange about this as it’s a Jewish prayer from the Jewish Jesus but that simply leads us to ask the same questions.  If it is a Jewish prayer, why does it not mention covenant, or law, temple, Torah, or purity?


So if it is not a Jewish prayer for Jews, or a Christian prayer for Christians, what is it?  Crossan suggests that it is a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world, a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth. 


It is revolutionary!  It presumes and proclaims the radical vision of justice which is at the core of Israel’s biblical tradition.  This is not retributive justice, that is judicial punishment but distributive justice, where everything is distributed fairly.  


The biblical tradition speaks of God as a God of justice and righteousness.  The two words express the same content.  A God of justice and righteousness is a God who does what is just by doing what is right, and does what is right by doing what is just.  It proclaims that God’s world must be distributed fairly and equitably among all God’s people, all of God’s creation.


In proclaiming this vision of distributive justice, the bible is imagining a well-run household, or family farm.  Are the fields well tended?  Are the animals properly provisioned?  Are the buildings adequately maintained?  Are the children and other dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered?  Are the sick given special care?  Do all have enough?  especially that – Do all have enough?  or, do some have far too much while others have far too little? 

It is this vision of a well-run household that the biblical writers apply to God on a global and cosmic scale.  Do all God’s children have enough?  if not, and the biblical writers perceive that they do not, what needs to change so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable and just proportion of God’s world?  The Lord’s Prayer proclaims what must change to ensure that everyone has enough.  

The parable that follows the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11 is humorous, and potentially problematic. 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 word often translated as ‘persistence’ is, according to biblical scholars, better translated "shamelessness."

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.

Next comes one of the more familiar commands of Jesus: ask, search, knock. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the passage because our experience contradicts Jesus’ words.   We have traditionally regarded this verse to be about persistence in prayer too.  So often we have asked and not received; we have searched and not found. In spite of our most fervent prayers for their health and safety, we have lost loved ones to cancer and senseless accidents. In spite of the fervent prayers of people around the world, daily we hear of tragedies of violence, hunger, disease, and natural disasters.

Serious theological problems, not to mention problematic understandings of prayer, arise from the NRSV translation of ‘persistence.’

First, the “persistence” reading of the parable may imply that God is reluctant, unaware, and needing to be roused by our prayers before God will do anything. It may imply that prayer is the means by which we harass God until God finally submits to doing what we want. “But the notion that, repeatedly, we must bang on the doors of heaven if we are to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer.”

But is shameless any better? Is this what “hallowed be your name” really means -- that God will act only out of potential shame if the prayer is ignored? In the end, do we really want to trust in the character of our prayers, whether persistent or shameless?

Walter Liefeld suggests another way.  The petitioner indeed acts with shameless disregard of his neighbor (and perhaps of the other neighbors who will witness this midnight disturbance), but the focus quickly shifts to the one in bed. Though the petitioner acts in a shameful way, his neighbor deals with the shame in a way that will bring honor to them both. Perhaps this is a better way to view what “hallowed by your name” means: God will act to honor God’s name even when we act in dishonorable ways. 

I wish I could give you a succinct definition of prayer, of what it is and what God does through prayer.  But I can’t.  What I can say is that my understanding of prayer has changed over the years.   These days I think of prayer as active, that leads me to act rather than simply something that’s going on in my head.   I also find Paul’s instructions about prayer in his first letter to the Thessalonians – pray without ceasing.  That is pray all the time – live your life as a prayer.  it must become like breathing.

At the recent Common Dreams conference, Matthew Fox offered this – prayer is the opening of myself to the God in me.    The one that I find most helpful is this:  prayer changes me.   Prayer changes the way I look at things – it works miracles on me, in my own nature.  Prayer changes me, and then I change things.