taking the words of Jesus seriously

Prayer is a central aspect of the Christian life. A key element in our belief is that God answers the faithful prayer of believers. The Lord himself asserts that if we have sufficient prayer, he tells us, we can move mountains (Mark 11:23). It would appear that the gospels — as well as the Psalms and other parts of scripture — put a high premium on prayer’s effectiveness.

True, many of us can bear witness to answered prayers, for which we are grateful, from which we have drawn strength and a deepened faith. But we must also painfully reckon with the reality that countless prayers have gone heavenward from good-hearted persons with no apparent “answer.” Loved ones, despite passionate supplications, have died. Families and relationships have crumbled. Tragedies, personal and social, have taken their toll. Some slaves have not been delivered from their Egypts. Countless poor have not heard the good news.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” That very question is posed by the disciples in the 11th chapter of Luke’s gospel. It is an entrée to Jesus’ giving what we know as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Those famous words, so central to our church tradition, entreat us to make supplication — “Give us… forgive us…lead us not…”

Jesus then tells a tale that seems to underscore the matter of persistent prayer bearing the desired fruit (Luke 11:5-8). A man whose own pantry is empty bangs at a neighbor’s door in the middle of the night, pleading for bread to offer to a guest. At first, the neighbor refuses, given that it is late and the family is all in bed. But he eventually gets up and gives the bread because of his friend’s “boldness” in continuing to knock and plead. Jesus then tags on the moral of the story: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).

Keep praying, don’t give up, don’t grow weary — eventually God will answer. Prayer “works,” but only if we persevere.

Such a vision of prayer is inspiring and empowering. And yet, this teaching raises some unsettling questions. Does it imply that if we don’t pray hard enough, the prayer won’t be answered? If a loved one dies of cancer, are we partly to blame for the paucity of our prayer? Is Jesus insinuating that if only we had prayed harder, God would have granted the requested healing and our loved one would have lived?

Theologically, these teachings suggest some odd notions about God. Are God’s love, mercy, and healing conditional on our relentless effort? Does God withhold the “answer to prayer” until we have successfully reached or exceeded some litmus test of persistence? Is God like the Wizard of Oz demanding that Dorothy and her companions pass some grueling tests before their wishes are granted?

A more contextualized reading of this parable reveals a very different understanding of what Jesus is saying about prayer — one that avoids the uncomfortable theology of skewed grace and that more fundamentally challenges our discipleship.

Hospitality was a fundamental tenet of biblical Israel. The ancient tale of Abraham and Sarah showing hospitality to the visitors (Genesis 18:1-16) held a sacred place in their historical memory. The letter to the Hebrews evokes this story, recognizing that hospitality is a sacred act of welcoming the divine in human form (13:2).

As Jesus spins the tale, his listeners would recognize that the friend faces a crisis: He is unable to fulfill the fundamental obligation of hospitality. He must do whatever he can so as not to fail and fall into shame. The listeners also realize that the neighbor in bed, likewise, has a cultural and moral obligation to act — the duty of hospitality is communal. His refusal to help is brazen and unacceptable. He is aggravating the crisis by his failure to assist in hospitality to the visitor.

These sorts of situations may well have been common in Jesus’ day. Under the double burden of taxation from both imperial Rome and the corrupt Herodian regime, many Galilean peasant families struggled to make ends meet. Economic times were hard. Surplus bread was scarce. Meeting the moral obligation of hospitality was not easy but no less obligatory, according to cultural mores.

It is significant that Luke has Jesus offering this story as a gloss on “the Lord’s Prayer,” which itself evokes the image of “our daily bread.” This is a critical clue in fully comprehending this teaching. Most Christians tend to hear it as quaint shorthand for our “spiritual” needs and perhaps our general material sustenance. In fact, Jesus is evoking the manna story in Exodus 16. This story is the taproot of the broader covenantal economic vision of the Israelite community. God gives concrete instructions to the Israelites in the desert that each family is to gather as much as they need, no more, no less (Exodus 16:16-18). The core principle — enough for everyone — is a building block of the new community God is forming in contrast to imperial Egypt.

READ: Exodus 16: Everybody’s Got A Right to Live

Later, at Mt. Sinai, the subsequent elements of biblical economics are laid out: the Sabbatical Year, with its release of debts, freeing of slaves, and resting of the land; and the Jubilee Year, with its redistribution of land (Deuteronomy 15, Leviticus 26). The covenantal economics of biblical Israel also included the provisions of gleaning by those who were poor and extending economic care to widows, orphans, and (significantly for Jesus’ parable) sojourners.

To ask God to provide us with our daily bread is to acknowledge the holy vision of covenantal economics that is part of the liberation from the oppressive economics of Egypt — or of any worldly empire, founded on hoarding, inequities, slavery, and bondage. (It’s no coincidence that the Lord’s Prayer also speaks of release of debts, another part of the sabbatical vision.)

By asserting a prayer for “our daily bread” and then telling a tale of bread urgently needed, Jesus is saying that what is at stake is not just one hungry visitor, but the covenantal faithfulness of his people. The midnight crisis of hospitality is, like the wilderness feeding, a “test” (Exodus 16:4). Meeting the needs of this sojourner, especially in hard economic times of colonial rule, manifests whether God’s people can live out a spiritual and practical commitment to an economy of enough for everyone. Or even that, faced with the political-economic vise-grip of Roman-Herodian oppression, Jesus is insisting that a return to covenantal, communal economics is the only hope for God’s people.

We must do all we can to feed the guest at midnight. We must not allow anyone to go hungry. We cannot let fear cause us to impede the flow of grace and the provision of enough manna/bread for everyone.

READ: Our Daily Bread: The Myths of Scarcity & Abundance

So is this a teaching about praying “hard enough?” Or is it a matter of our prayer being rooted in the deep collective memory of God’s holiness, God’s gracious provision, and God’s insistence on covenantal justice? Perhaps the provision of bread at midnight is not just a symbol to help us understand prayer — perhaps Jesus is reminding us that Christian prayer must always be linked to economic justice, to lives of discipleship that ensure enough for everyone, even in times of crisis and fear.

Nor is it coincidental that Jesus’ subsequent moral gloss includes the language “Knock and the door will be opened to you … to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” We tend to read this as an open-ended notion of the efficacy of prayer: ask for anything, seek anything, pray for anything, and you will be satisfied — that is, God will respond by meeting your appropriately pious request. But when we reflect carefully on the shrewd flow of this sequence — a prayer that includes a supplication for daily bread, a story about knocking on a door to plead for urgently needed bread, and a teaching about knocking on a door — a more focused and intentional meaning emerges: True prayer is intrinsically a prayer for justice, which is intimately linked to a communal and covenantal practice of justice. All our prayer, as followers of Jesus, must entail a prayer of enough bread for everyone; and our prayer-filled lives must be about ensuring enough bread for everyone. (The prayer, after all, is not for “my” daily bread, but for “our” daily bread.)

Perhaps one could even make the radical suggestion that Jesus’ famous dictum, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” is not simply a description of God’s grace — it may also be describing what happens in a covenantal community rooted in prayer. Here, too, Jesus is saying, part of prayer is nothing less than the imitation of God’s economy of grace. The graciousness of God, who provides enough for all God’s children, is embodied by a community that is founded on a gracious provision of enough for everybody.

A deeper engagement with these teachings of Jesus make it clear that it’s far more than a matter of “Pray hard enough and long enough and the prayer will be answered.” Contrary to the insinuations of the prosperity theologians, it is irrelevant how “persistently” we pray to get that spanking new Lexus. The prayer of Jesus’ disciples is not a blank check, but has a very specific content and character: bread, justice, and holiness embodied in covenantal community.

Tragically, good church folks are ofttimes so busy praying that we don’t hear the knocks at our door from those who need true economic justice. We are frequently so piously fixated on heaven that we forget a core principle of Jesus’ prayer: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As God graciously supplies our daily bread, we in turn ensure that all persons have their daily bread. Only then are we truly praying in the spirit of Jesus.

About The Author


Will O’Brien coordinates The Alternative Seminary, a grassroots program of biblical and theological study ( www.alternativeseminary.net ). He lives with his spouse Dee Dee Risher in the Vine & Fig Tree community in Philadelphia.

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