We have this beautiful scene in our gospel where the disciples see Jesus praying and then, they ask him to teach them. The disciples would have seen him go away by himself a few times. Maybe they sneaked up behind him to see what he was doing exactly. Rabbis would have taught their disciples the rudimentary elements of prayer. Do this, say this, take this posture, ask like this. And Jesus, does something very similar in response to his disciples’ request.
The prayer of Jesus though, is completely different. Jesus prayed with a right and intimacy with the Father, which belonged to him as the unique son of the Father. The prayers, even of John the Baptist, still belonged to the Old Covenant. God was above, the Creator and we were below, creatures. One couldn’t come close to God. The Jews had a great sense of God’s intimacy. God’s Word was close to them. Still, God was the Father of Israel, not your father. The intimacy Jesus had with the Father could not be taught, it was a gift that had to be given. In response to the disciples’ request, Jesus invites them to call God, ‘Abba’. No Rabbi would have dared to call God this way. Jesus was inviting them into the love he himself shared with the Father. Through the mediation of Jesus, his Father becomes our Father as well. I would like to pick out a few points on prayer from the gospel.
1. Relationship. This then, is the very first thing about prayer. It is about relationship with the Father. Prayer then, is not magic. If I think, I need this from God and if I pray this novena or go on pilgrimage or give to charity, God will grant me what I want – that is not how prayer works. God might give me what I ask for because he loves me, but I can’t pay God in this way. These devotions and practices are all good, but they should be done in the right spirit. When I love someone, it is natural that I give them gifts, spend time with them, do things for them. I’ll also ask them for what I need. But if I just get some gifts each time I want something, that is a business transaction, not love. It is like magic. Prayer then, is about relationship of love, with the Father.
This relationship, as already mentioned, is made possible because of the work of Christ. On the Cross, Jesus took our sins to himself. He became our priest who intercedes for us. In his name, the Father has forgiven us our sins. Our prayers are heard because they are taken up into the prayer of his Son, Jesus. Any prayer – even that from those who do not know Christ – reaches the Father only through Christ, the one mediator between God and man. And in Jesus, God has given us everything. In Jesus, we see the goodness of God.
2. Goodness. All prayer flows out of the knowledge of the goodness of God. Often, we approach God as if he was a tyrant, or some kind of monster, who wants to cause us harm. But in Christ, especially on the Cross, we can see that God is simply for us, not against us. Paul says, all God’s promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ for us in Jesus. It means that we can pray with confidence for what we need. We don’t need to manipulate or try to trick God into giving us what we want – he already knows our needs. Jesus says, ‘the one who asks, always receives’. This might seem like a complete exaggeration, if not an outright lie. Ask anyone who has prayed to win the lottery. But God wants to give us what is good: Jesus says ‘if we who are evil can give good things, how much more will the Father who is always good give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’. Because it is the Holy Spirit who reveals to us the goodness of God. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we pray with the confidence that God is for us, and loves us.
3. Humility. St Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church who taught so much on prayer was asked by her sisters to teach them on prayer. And she spent the first part teaching them on humility. She said without humility, it is impossible to pray. I come before God knowing I cannot save myself. Jesus said, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5). For us, as fallen creatures, to accept this is terribly difficult. We always want to be in control. But we can truly pray only as we are willing to hand over control of our lives to God. We cannot control our own lives, the world, let alone God. I once hitchhiked with a family during my seminary years. As it turned out, the wife was a practicing Catholic and she was thrilled to have someone to talk something spiritual on the way back. The husband was very pleasant but said he did not believe in God and pretty much stayed out of the conversation. At one point, the traffic got terribly slow, stuck behind a large truck on our narrow road. The husband then, told everyone, ‘Okay, positive thoughts, everyone, that the truck turns to the next side road’. It amazed me, that this man, who considered himself too rational to believe in God, would believe that having ‘positive thoughts’ (positive for whom?) will cause the truck to randomly turn to a side alley. But this is what we are like. Positive thoughts or anything else, puts us in control, while with God we have to be in a relationship of dependence. But we can let go of things we hold on to, when we know it is in the hands of a Father who loves us. Humility means that I can stand as who I am before God. I don’t have to pretend to be something else. With people, we are constantly comparing ourselves with others. We can do the same before God. We can try to justify ourselves: ‘I might have done wrong, but have you seen what that person did? I am so much better than everyone else’. And if we are justifying ourselves, God cannot justify us. But when we know God as our Father, our value, our worth comes from being God’s son or daughter.
4. Forgiveness. We pray because we know we are forgiven. But God also requires us to forgive others. Forgiveness, as anyone would know is not difficult, it is impossible. But it becomes possible, when we let go of our competition with others, when we come to know God’s goodness for ourselves.
This Word has come to us today. It is about relationship with the Father, who is good; we pray in humility, knowing we are forgiven. Maybe you pray a lot already, maybe you don’t pray at all. It is an invitation to enter into this relationship. God wants to reveal himself to us as our Father. To show us his love. But like any relationship, it requires time. It doesn’t have to be long, even just some ten minutes or so to start. Come before the Father. Let him fill you with his Love.