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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Looking to God: A Call to Pray (11:1-13)
Looking to God: A Call to Pray (11:1-13)

As this section has already shown, discipleship involves concern for one's neighbor and attention to Jesus. As we move "from earth up," the last central focus of discipleship is looking to God. Here the stress is on prayer and the attitude we bring to the Father in prayer. God's gift of the Spirit is also highlighted as Luke gives us a version of the Lord's Prayer, as well as a brief parable and exhortation to pray.

As we look at the setting for the Lord's Prayer, a very important point emerges. The prayer is really poorly named, at least in its Lukan setting. Here the prayer is the direct result of a request from the disciples to be given a community prayer such as John the Baptist's community has. Such community prayers were not unusual. The Jews had the Eighteen Benedictions, and the disciples' remarks make it clear that John also had a community prayer. The Qumran community had numerous hymns and prayers (1Q34; 4Q507-9). This makes the Lord's Prayer really "the Disciples' Prayer." It was given to exemplify the attitude of dependence that Jesus' disciples should have.

The disciples' request also reflects the independent identity they were developing as they followed Jesus. The more they followed Jesus the more they realized that he was forming a new community, a distinct expression of Jewish hope. So they wanted to know how to pray to mark their distinctiveness. This is the only time in Jesus' ministry that there is a request for instruction on prayer.

The communal emphasis is seen even at the prayer's start, Father. In fact, even in introducing the prayer as a call to the Father, Jesus does it with a pronoun reminiscent of the Southern U.S. idiom "you all": when you [plural] pray, say . . . As disciples come before the Father, they are to affirm their unity and share a sense of family. This communal character laid a solid groundwork for the liturgical use of the Lord's Prayer. The communal perspective reflected in the prayer is difficult to appreciate today in a highly individualized society. But community before God, even sharing the same goals in intercession, is a major part of discipleship.

A second major theme is to be found in the prayer's content. The prayer does not use an individualized checklist of specific wants and needs as we often hear at prayer meetings. The prayer is focused like a laser beam on expressing a dependent approach to God, on the quality of the community's life with him. It expresses a desire for holiness, for God's ruling presence, for a life of forgiveness, and it recognizes that provision and spiritual protection come from God. It asks God to work on the heart and seeks to be submissive to his will.

The prayer's structure is simple: one address, two statements and three requests. The ABCs of discipleship are reflected in its content.

The address of God as Father is important, since it focuses on the relationship God has with his children. The expression goes back to the Aramaic abba, which combines respect for the father's authority with a sense of intimacy. The term has often been misinterpreted as meaning "Daddy," but the ancient evidence for this does not exist (Barr 1988:28-47; for a critical evaluation of Barr's challenge to this standard reading, Witherington 1990:217-18). Jesus' introduction of such intimacy in prayer is perhaps not entirely unprecedented in Judaism, but it certainly is unusual in the context of prayer (Sirach 23:1, 4; 51:10; Dunn 1975:21-26). Disciples should feel close to God, since they are part of his family and have ready access to him.

But intimacy does not do away with respect. So the prayer's first statement is Hallowed be your name. The disciple approaches God's person with the recognition that God is holy—that is, "set apart" and unique. There is none like him, and no one has the authority he possesses. This note of submission is the prayer's heartbeat. To sanctify God's name means not only that God is set apart, but also that his uniqueness should be made known (Is 52:5-6; Ezek 36:20-21; Rom 2:24). The Jewish background to this can be seen in a portion of the Kaddish, a prayer that often closed synagogue services: "Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole of Israel, speedily and soon." The disciple desires the visible manifestation of God's presence in the world.

The second declaration is for God's kingdom to come. This hope centers on the full realization of God's promise. More is meant here than eternal life. Rather, the disciple desires that the creation be restored to its fullness and that sin, injustice and chaos be banished. The whole of the disciple's life is lived in reflection of what God will eventually do. The later request regarding forgiveness is built on the premise that one day justice will prevail. Jesus' earlier call to love (6:27-36) also rests on the realization that wrongs done to one who loves with vulnerability will be reversed. The disciples long for the day when God will show his authority in justice. The rest of the New Testament tells us that this hope will be fully realized with Jesus' return. But this awareness was beyond the grasp of the disciples when Jesus originally taught this prayer. They only knew and hoped that one day God would bring full redemption.

With God's character and authority established, Jesus turns to the matter of requests. Basic needs are acknowledged as the Father's provision is requested. Jesus starts with the most basic material need, food. The term artos is probably broad in force here, a reference to all kinds of food, not just the most common ancient staple, bread (Lk 7:33; Jn 13:18; 2 Thess 3:8; Behm 1964:477-78). As important as the request is, the attitude it reflects is even more important: the disciples know that God cares daily for his own. In contrast, the Jewish Eighteen Benedictions asks for a annual supply of food (requests 9 and 18). The recognition of God's continual presence and care is fuel for the life of disciples.

Next the disciples ask for God's forgiveness. For the disciple, forgiveness is not a right but comes by God's grace. This is recognized in the clause that follows: in order to ask for forgiveness, one should be ready to give it as well. Judaism shared this understanding (Sirach 28:2; elsewhere in the New Testament, Eph 4:32; Col 3:13). Here sin is described as a debt to be forgiven. When someone acts against another, he or she incurs a debt. Sensitive disciples recognize that we should not ask God to do something for us that we are not willing to do for others.

The recognition of the need for forgiveness is significant for other reasons. First, it shows that disciples are aware that they live in an imperfect, fallen world and that they contribute to its imperfection. The world is full of victims because it is full of people who sin. Sin should not surprise us, but neither should it be ignored. Without forgiveness and the willingness to forgive, sin and animosity heighten. Second, there is the recognition that sin is not only against individuals; it is an act of opposition to God, an affront to the holiness proclaimed earlier in the prayer. Third, the recognition of the need for forgiveness reflects a humility that is central to healthy discipleship. The world is not divided between "us and them." Rather than pointing the finger at others, mature disciples start with a look at their own attitudes and behavior.

The final request is for spiritual protection. This petition is confusing at first glance. Why would God lead us into temptation? God does not tempt anyone (Jas 1:13-15). But this is a rhetorical statement that we must read carefully to understand its force. Disciples recognize God's power to protect us and keep us from succumbing to temptation, not because God wants to take us there but because he can keep it from "getting us." The first step in such prevention is to recognize this and rely on God to protect our steps. Such constant spiritual inventory serves as preventive care of the soul.

There is some question whether temptation in this context should be read more narrowly as persecution. But the previous remarks about forgiveness suggest a broader sense. In sum, to avoid sin we must go where God leads and embrace the spiritual wisdom, provision and protection God supplies (1 Cor 10:12-13).

The Lord's Prayer is really the community's prayer. What stands out in the prayer is its spirit of submission and dependence. It envisions a community that walks with God and looks to him for everything from food to forgiveness.

Now Jesus highlights the importance of prayer with a parable. Many features of this parable reflect the culture of the time. In the ancient world, food was not as readily available as it is in modern culture. Most food was prepared daily; preservatives were largely unknown. In addition, ancient culture put a high premium on hospitality (Stahlin 1967:20; 1974:161). Guests had the right to a good host who would provide for their needs. So the man who receives a late-night guest faces a dilemma: he has a guest but no food. He must make a choice: either to be rude by not welcoming this guest with food or to seek food from a neighbor, who may be able to help but may be in bed. One final cultural note is key. Most ancient Palestinian homes had only one room. Waking the father would mean risking waking the family.

Jesus turns this scenario into a lesson about boldness in prayer. It is midnight (mesonyktion). A friend has come and needs food. Jesus asks whether his listener would go to a neighbor to try to procure food for his guest. Cultural expectations would push him to try. The neighbor initially refuses to get up, noting that the house "has been closed" for the night and his children are in bed with him. To get the bread would cause great unrest. Anyone who has children and knows what it takes to get them to bed can identify with this reply!

Jesus says, however, "I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's shameless boldness [Greek] he will get up and give him as much as he needs." Then Jesus goes on: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." The juxtaposition of these exhortations shows that Jesus encourages boldness in prayer. The attitude here is like that of Hebrews 10:19-22. The key term is anaideia (NIV boldness), because it contains two ideas at once: both boldness and shamelessness. This kind of prayer has gall. Nothing will stop such a request from being set before God. The response is still God's choice, but the door is open for the request.

In verse 10 Jesus indicates God's openness to receive such bold petitions. In the context of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus is asking the disciples to pursue both the spiritual goals and the request for basic needs indicated in the earlier prayer with great boldness. Unlike the neighbor who is disturbed in the night and perhaps responds only grudgingly, God is ready and waiting to respond to us. All we need to do is ask, seek and knock. These are not blank-check promises that God will give us anything we want, but promises that requests for our spiritual welfare will be heard. The reference to the Holy Spirit in verse 13 shows this spiritual emphasis. God is especially willing to give spiritual aid to those who seek it.

So Jesus compares the disciple to a son who asks for something essential to eat, like a fish. A father will not feed him a poisonous snake, will he? If he asks for an egg, his father will not give him a poisonous spider, will he? Jesus knows the answer is "Of course not!" "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" As disciples bring their spiritual requests to the Father, they know that he is ready to help them. He longs to work in them and supply the Spirit for their needs. Like a father who feeds his child, so the Father will supply his disciples with the Spirit they need to be guided in their spiritual life. At the foundation of all discipleship is trust in the Father's goodness. He loves to provide for all our spiritual needs.

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