Proper 12: Genesis 18.20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2.6-15 [16-19]; Luke 11.1-13
Almighty God, who sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THIS Sunday’s readings are self-evidently paradigms of prayer (Genesis and Luke 11.1-13), and guidance on living in Christ (Colossians 2.6-19). They are also intriguing explorations of the nature of God. To note this is not to suggest that they are pursuing two different and large topics. On the contrary, the conclusion to which they lead is that it is through prayer that we come to know what God is really like.
Like many acts of interpretation, this has an element of circularity. We cannot begin to pray without some idea or image of the God we are addressing, and yet our prayers are likely to lead us to new and deeper forms of understanding. That, in turn, creates a relationship that drives the one praying back to prayer.
Genesis 18.20-32 begins too late to make it clear that the process of coming to know God is a matter of active concern to God, as well as to those who seek him. Verses 16-19 find the Lord wrestling with an internal debate, as he and his angelic companions leave the hospitality of Abraham’s tent (Genesis 18.1-15).
Can he confide in Abraham about the punishments about to be inflicted on the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? If Abraham is going be the father of nations and an example of righteousness, then he will have to be told the truth. Thus begins a process of haggling, as the future patriarch pleads for the cities to be spared, by proposing ever-reducing numbers of godly individuals whose goodness might be enough to save their fellow citizens.
God’s agreement to the downward adjustment in the bargaining is not weakness or impatience with being pestered, whatever appearances suggest. Rather, it is proof that Abraham has wagered on a certainty — the very nature of God — in making his importunate requests. Human beings might lapse into wickedness, but God can only ever be God: just, righteous, and compassionate.
It is to this God that Jesus directs his prayers, and his disciples would have been well-grounded in the same ideas through praying the traditional prayers of the synagogue and the household. And yet their response upon seeing Jesus once more at prayer (Luke 6.12, 9.18, 28-29) is not that of the initiated. Their request “Lord, teach us to pray” suggests that his way of praying outside the conventional settings is unlike anything that they have practised themselves (Luke 11.1).
In what follows, they will be shown that it is possible to approach God as a loving parent, although always recognising God’s holiness and mystery. They will learn to focus on the coming of God’s Kingdom as the most important object of prayer.
At the same time, they will need to ask for the essentials to keep them going through their earthly lives (some scholars read the unusual adjective “epiousios” as a gesture towards the eternal bread of the life of the Kingdom). They must not neglect to set their human relationships right, even as they prepare for what lies beyond this world.
Finally, they must be realistic about the dangers that lie in wait for those who have set the Kingdom as their goal. When the story is taken up in Acts, that threat has been made actual: Stephen is killed by an angry crowd (Acts 7.54-60), the convert Saul is hunted by antagonists (Acts 9.23-25), James is executed, and Peter is imprisoned (Acts 12.1-5).
The parable that follows Jesus’s instruction in prayer illustrates the value of persistence. Exasperated though he is, the neighbour responds to his friend’s pleas for bread to feed the unexpected guest, even though the whole household has gone to bed (Luke 11.5-8). The same tactics work on the unjust judge, who eventually judges in favour of a widow who has repeatedly appealed to him (Luke 18.1-8).
This should encourage anyone who is unconvinced about the value of prayer, but so far it says nothing — or nothing affirmative — about the character of the one who answers prayer. Jesus has not overlooked this.
Taking parenthood as his model, he reminds the disciples that no parent would respond to a child’s request for food by producing some inedible and even sadistic substitute. God, whom they may call Father, is the source of all goodness and generosity, and must therefore be expected to give the gifts of the Holy Spirit liberally to those who ask (Luke 11.11-13).
The key word is “ask”. Unlike the disturbed neighbour, God wants to give gifts to his children. Perhaps it is not venturing into heresy to think that it is prayer that enables God to reveal himself as God.
Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to the Bishop of Ely.