ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year of Luke
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A reading from the book of Genesis 18:20-32
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 138:1-3. 6-8.R/. v.3
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
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Take a look. The verb “to pray” is not mentioned in the Gospel according to John. The nouns “prayer” or “prayers” are not mentioned in the Gospel of John. The activity of “praying” is mentioned twice in one sentence in the Gospel of John:
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
At that moment Jesus is praying for his intimate friends, not for the people of the world. That is the extent of the Lord’s praying as far as the Gospel of John is concerned.
Prayer related words—to pray, prayed, prayer, prayers, praying, prays—occur quite frequently in the four Gospels. But the distribution across the four is interesting. If we put all these “praying words” together, we find that they occur 18 times Matthew’s Gospel, 12 times in St Mark, and 28 times in Luke’s Gospel. Since Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles we must include his mention of these words in that book. In Acts these words occur 33 times, giving Luke a grand total of 61 times. Against John’s two mentions in one sentence, it is obvious that Luke’s Gospel is a Gospel of Prayer.
Luke’s story begins with people praying. The priest Zechariah is in the inner court of the Temple, the House of God’s Presence, in Jerusalem. He kindling the incense on which wafted the prayers of the whole congregation of assembled people to their God, the precise moment of prayer in which the angel Gabriel appears. To Zechariah, a man too old to hope, God’s angel comes to announce that a much prayed-for child is soon to be born to his aging wife Elizabeth.
The meeting of mothers, a meeting in which the older woman recognises the identity of her young cousin’s child, Mary bursts into prayer, to a song of praise that has never been far from Christian lips:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour!
The birth of John (the Benedictus), the birth of Jesus (the Gloria), the presentation in the Temple (the Nunc Dimittis) are each garlanded with prayers. When Jesus is baptised and the work of welcoming and healing is about to begin, instantly coming out of the waters he turns to prayer and, in that praying, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends and God tells who it is who has been anointed to announce good news to a broken world:
You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
Beginnings are cradled in prayer.
… and Endings
The ending of Luke’s Gospel is, in broad outline, the same as the endings in Mark and Matthew. The trials, death, and resurrection of Jesus are presented by these three gospel-makers, each with individual emphasis, to be sure, yet the same story may be traced in each. It is in the detail that differences abound and, in Luke’s case, one detail, among his many peculiarities, catches the attention of the careful reader. According to Luke, the ending of the life of Jesus is shrouded in prayer.
After the last meal with his disciples, Jesus, as was his custom, went to the Mount of Olives. Jesus warns his followers to pray less they be brought by God to the test:
Pray that you do not come in to a trial.
He goes to pray:
And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done. Luke 22:41-42
Some ancient traditions add that an angel appeared to comfort him and that his sweat fell like drops of blood as he prayed the more fervently. While on the best manuscript evidence this may not be so, the agony of his prayer is plain. When he rises from his prayer and returns to his disciples they are asleep, and yet again warns them to pray in order that they may not come to trial. Lack the strength of prayer, they will be brought to trial and they will fail, and nobody, not even Peter, stands up to be counted.
Brought to the Place of the Skull, the place of crucifixion, there are two lasts prayers to be prayed. For those who brought him to this place of execution there is a prayer:
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
And for himself, a final prayer, at the evening of his life, an offering to his Father:
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
A prayer of one sent to seek and to save the lost, a prayer that the seeking and the saving have not been in vain, a prayer that all that has been done and all that has been said would not be without the grace of salvation for all humanity. A prayer that all will be well, all manner of thing will be well.
… and in between
The beginnings are swaddled in prayer. The endings are entombed in prayer. In between there is a whole manual of praying that is a guide-book for those who would seek to follow him on the way, to be People of the Way. First, there is Jesus, the man who prays. Luke tells that Jesus was accustomed to retreat to the desert or to climb a mountain to pray. Before hard choices are made, praying had to be done:
In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in the prayer of God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. Luke 6:12-16
In the prayer of God! That is precisely what Luke says. Surely, God does not pray? Luke seems to be saying that in this and in every prayer Jesus turns his will so perfectly to God, that is, as it were, he reads the very mind of God. The Spirit of God poured into the Son is of such strength that the voice of Jesus speaks in his praying, and in all that he says and does, the very innermost desires of his Father. A prayer of Jesus, a prayer made as he rejoiced in the power of the Spirit in him, is a template of our praying:
In that same hour,
he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit
“I thank you, Father,
Lord of heaven and earth,
that you have hidden these things
from the wise and understanding
and revealed them to little children;
for such was your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me
by my Father,
and no one knows who the Son is
except the Father,
or who the Father is except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
The point of this window into the prayer of Jesus is to see that otherwise insignificant people, who are acorns in the business of praying, become mighty praying oaks. The reason is that their praying is in the same spirit and power of the Holy Spirit that gives strength to the praying of Jesus. The welcoming Jesus welcomes people into his praying and all praying is thus a praying-with, part of the intimate conversation with him that makes the coming of Jesus into our world so loving, so vulnerable, and so re-assuring. That is why we begin,
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Our prayer is in the Presence of the Father, the Presence of the Son, the Presence of the Holy Spirit. Anybody who thinks they can’t pray need to remember that the power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gives conviction to every thought and word we bring before God.
Luke’s Gospel differs from Mark, Matthew, and John in many ways. Indeed, each of our four Gospels is unique; each has a particular purpose and an individual voice to articulate that purpose. Among a catalogue of peculiar emphases, Luke’s insistence that prayer is at the very heart of things is underlined on his every page. As we have seen, his Gospel opens with Zechariah at prayer in the Temple of God. As it was in the beginning, so it is at the end. The risen Lord blesses his disciples as he ascends into heaven and then the disciples,
… worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the Temple blessing God.
We will, therefore, be very alert when his disciples make a request:
Lord, teach us to pray,
as John taught his disciples.
A reading from the book of Genesis 18:20-32
The Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down
to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty- five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.”
Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
The word of the Lord.
What has caused the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah has not been told in our Lectionary and, as we read the extract from the Book of Genesis today, we are as much in the dark as the Lord appears to be. The Lord is determined to investigate and announces that “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me”. But the next sentence announces, not that the Lord has travelled to Sodom. Rather,
… the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Genesis 18:22
First, “the men” are not men. We need to go back to the Lord’s appearance to Abraham as he was under the oak trees at Mamre. When, in the scorching heat, Abraham, sitting in the shade of his tent, looked up, what he saw was “three men standing before him”. Not the Lord alone. Three men, two “men” and the Lord.
Notice that Abraham bows down to the ground and addresses them as “My Lord”. So throughout the story we have to think of the three men as “representing” the Lord and it is two of these ”men” who headed off for Sodom while the Lord remained standing before Abraham. These are, if you like, the avenging angels who will bring disaster to the cities of the plain. But before that happens, and before we know what is going to happen, Abraham steps forward and dares to bargain with the Lord. We must recall that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his family, are living in Sodom.
However, as yet we do not know why Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed unless we have already read chapter 19. And, understandably, chapter 19 in not in our Lectionary. But if your English vocabulary is up to much, you can probably make an educated guess. And you might be wrong.
Is the issue that these visitors from God are invited by Lot to stay the night in his house and that a mob of local men and boys demand that the strangers be handed over to them for a gang-rape?
Picture the scene. Lot is sitting in the city gate, just as Abraham is sitting in the shade of his tent. However, the men arrive at Abraham’s tent at midday; they arrive in Sodom at evening time, when darkness falls, a dangerous time to out in cities, then as now. Taking a page from his uncle’s book of manners, immediately Lot extends hospitality to the travellers, bowing down as Abraham did. He invites them “to turn aside” to his house to bathe their feet and spend the night there (read chapter 18:4-5). Lot hints at the danger that lies in his city by advising the men to make an early start to their departure in the morning. The men, equally polite and going through the appropriate gestures, refuse, saying they will be fine in the city square. But Lot insists and they turn aside and “came into his house. All these details are of the utmost importance if we are to read this story aright and not rush to judgment.
I am not sure of the cooking facilities in Lot’s house but, in contrast to Abraham, he prepared a feast of matzo bread, that is, unleavened bread. We are told “and they ate”. But before they lay down for the night the true spirit of the city came to the door:
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them. Genesis 19:4-5
Quickly Lot goes out, careful to close the door firmly behind him and an offers his two virgin daughters to the mob. It is too easy to rush to excuse him on the grounds that the sacred duty of hospitality demand that one protects the travellers one has invited into one’s house. It is disingenuous to allow Lot of the hook to sacrifice his daughters on the altar of hospitality. What the city’s men, young and old, is know, in the biblical sense of “to have sexual intercourse with” Any one who wishes in some way to excuse Lot should read the end of the story (19:20-38) when it is the drunken Lot who is doomed to deflower his daughters.
But this does not mean that the point of the story is to condemn homosexuality, anymore that it is to excuse a drunken father or to approve the action of his daughters. The daughters father the Moabite and Ammonite peoples, deadly enemies of the people of Israel. That is their punishment. You might keep this in mind when you rad the Book of Ruth, the most beautiful story in the Hebrew Bible. Seven times in that story Ruth is names identified as Moabite woman. She belongs to the family of Jesus, as Matthew’s genealogy proclaims (Matthew 1:5).
So what, if any, moral is to be extracted from these stories? What is wrong is gang rape, rape of any kind, of men or women. It is not the kind of “knowing” that is abhorrent in the story; it is the “knowing”. It is the horror of “men and boys” bent on rape. Lot, a “sojourner”—an immigrant, we would say—is no one to set himself up as a judge, that is, to become an upholder of justice. The business of being a judge, a just judge, is at the heart of the conversation between the Lord and Abraham in today’s reading. It is the Lord’s justice, what the Lord’s justice demands, that is at the heart of this sordid story. Abraham steps forward and bravely and bluntly puts the challenge to the Lord, demanding the Lord be truly the Lord:
Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
What Abraham is demanding of God is not narrow human justice. He wants God to forgive as only God can forgive. And the Lord agrees:
If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will
forgive the whole place for their sake. Genesis 18:26
For God, to do what is called divine justice is to do mercy. That’s what makes God’s justice totally different from anything handed out in our courts.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 138:1-3. 6-8.R/. v.3
R/. On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord.
I give you thanks, O Lord,
with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple. R/.
I give thanks to your name for your steadfast love
and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
On the day I called, you answered me;
my strength of soul you increased. R/.
For though the Lord is high,
he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life.
you stretch out your hand
against the wrath of my enemies. R/.
Your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
R/. On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord.
Psalm 138 is a psalm of thanksgiving. This is a prayer from the heart, a prayer of greater thanks than any prayer that might be offered to any other gods.
This “other gods: in the prayer has worried commentators down the ages. The Jerusalem Bible offers “Before the angels I will bless you”. This is not entirely perverse for the JB is following the Latin Vulgate translation of St Jerome (342-420 A.D.), still the official Bible of the Latin (Roman) Church. Jerome wrote “In conspectus angelorum psallam tibi” (“I sing to you before the angels”). But it is not difficult to grant the poet some poetic licence and imagine praise to be given to the Lord far beyond any that might be given to whatever old gods that are imagined to be out there.
Christian churches are always orientated toward Jerusalem, that it, toward the Holy City, where the Temple the earthly home of the Lord, the place of God’s Presence on earth. The Lord is to be thanked above all for that steadfast love that endures forever and for that faithfulness that is totally dependable. It is always there so that when a call is made a swift answer is to hand. For no matter how distant the Lord may appear to be, the reality is that the Presence is near to the lowliest human being. The hand of the Lord is always stretched out to save; love is always near. For the Lord never abandons what has come from divine creative hands.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians
You have] been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
The word of the Lord.
To grasp the meaning of this section of the letter to Colossian Christians, it is necessary to understand the ritual of baptism that brought these people into the fold of Jesus. Adults—and only adults as far as the New Testament is concerned—were brought to a river or a stream or a lake or a pool of some kind and entered the water naked. The one who baptised place a hand on the head and pronounced words of baptism (theses varies). Then the newly baptised man or woman emerged from the water to be enfolded with a white garment. Obviously, women were required to assist at the baptism of women and this was one of the important tasks women deacons undertook in the earliest days of the Christian story. Of course, these women would have been instructed by women, again a duty of women deacons.
The undressing and dressing required for the celebration of baptism became a metaphor for stripping off the old life, going to the tomb with Jesus and rising again to be clothed with the “white garment” of the Holy Spirit.
The act of entering the cleansing waters of baptism signalled the burial of one’s old life and the assumption to a new life. The writer adapts the Jewish practice of circumcision to explain what happens when one is immersed totally in the waters of baptism. People who were formerly immersed in sin, by entering into the death of Jesus (signified by total immersion in the water), are made alive in the life of Christ. Baptism moved those who have entered the waters to a new life, the very life of Jesus himself. Those who have been buried are raised and wrapped in the garment of the Holy Spirit. Whatever debt is owed by a life of sin, it is cancelled on entry into the new life in Christ. Having been baptised we have been nailed to the cross and are embraced by Jesus there before us. We are thus raised from the tomb of death and sin and brought into the resurrection life of Christ.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them,
“When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone
who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The Gospel of the Lord.
It is very important to remind ourselves that today’s Gospel lesson comes to us in a Gospel of Prayer. As we have seen, Luke’s Gospel is a Gospel of Prayer, beginning in prayer, ending in Prayer, and throughout all its pages constantly at prayer. We must recall that this Gospel began with Zechariah at prayer in the Temple of God. It ends with the Lord blessing his disciples as he ascends to heaven and in that moment,
…they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
Here in the middle of his Gospel, Luke records a request from one of these disciples:
Lord, teach us to pray,
as John taught his disciples.
The immediate context of their request comes when Jesus himself is at prayer in “a certain place” and has just ended his prayer. It is worth noting that it is “a certain one of his disciples” who asks, apparently on behalf of all, that Jesus “teach us to pray”. I believe that the request is for a prayer that will serve as a community at prayer. The immediate reply of Jesus surely confirms this prayer to be an essentially community prayer. In reply to the request of “a certain disciple, Jesus says,
When you (plural), say (plural) …
Look carefully at the words in the prayer: “our bread”, “give us”, “forgive us”, “our sins”, “for we ourselves forgive”, “indebted to us, and “do not lead us”. I am convinced that this prayer is a liturgical prayer, that is, a prayer that, first and foremost, is to be prayed at the table of the Lord’s Supper. That is why, perhaps, that the ancient liturgy in the city of Rome was introduced by Audemus dicere, (“we dare to say …").
St Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount is given as an example of how Christians ought to pray:
Pray then like this.
Further, we have in chapter 10 an example of how Jesus prayed:
In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth …
Twice more in his prayer Jesus addresses God as “Father”. That, too, is part of the context of Luke’s version of the prayer. Those who pray this prayer address God as Jesus did himself.
Scholars endlessly debate as to which came first, the “Our Father” as in Matthew, or the version given us by St Luke. It is unlikely that Jesus taught his disciples two versions of the prayer. We do not have an Aramaic version as spoken by Jesus. What we have are three Greek versions and the argument cannot be about which one Jesus actually gave to his disciples. That we will never know. We may debate which one is earliest and Matthew wins since his Gospel was written before Luke’s. But we may be on firmer ground to regard each version as coming from different churches, probably in Syria. Indeed, we cannot be absolutely certain that the Didache version is not the first recorded version of “the words our Saviour gave us”.
The prayer: Father
If we insist on following Luke’s introduction to the letter, his version of the Lord’s Prayer is the mother of all prayers. But how can this one prayer give shape and content to all prayers?
If we listen to the story of Martha and Mary just told us before Jesus goes by himself to pray, we will learn that the first thing we must do is to listen. Mary sat at his feet and “listened to the word”, and so must all who would pray aright. We must listen to the praying of Jesus, even in the extremity of his pain:
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!
And even in the beginning of his sufferings, he knelt and prayed:
Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.
When we pray we must first turn to the one we call “Father”, as Jesus did in his praying. Because we are sons and daughters,
God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Knowing who we are and what we have become through the work of the Holy Spirit, our prayer must always be made to the Father. Whether our prayer is to Jesus, to Mary, to one of the saints, our prayer cannot be made unless know that God is their Father as God is our Father. To whomsoever we pray, it is and must be always in the context of who we are: children of God. That is the identity of all who are born to this earth:
… there is no God but one. For although there may be so- called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
I Corinthians 8:4-6
The Father is the Father of all our prayers.
The Prayer: Hallowed be your name!
Making holy God’s name, making the world aware of God’s presence as its creator, nurturer, and saviour, is itself a work only God can do. Long ago and far away in Iraq, in the city of Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel to fellow Jewish exiles and gave it as his opinion that their misfortune was self-inflicted. He reasoned that when they lived in God’s holy land, the land of Israel, they were given to idolatry, to worshipping the gods of wealth, violence, and to injustices of every kind. They defiled the very land with their unholy ways. The catastrophe of conquest and exile was not simply a matter of defeat by an all-conquering power. It was God’s punishment that they were scattered among alien peoples.
Ezekiel, however, made a quantum leap at this point. If God’s good name in the world depended on God’s people mirroring God’s holiness to the nations, then (though Ezekiel did not put is quite this way), we are in cloud-cuckoo land. The old assurance, You shall be holy as I am holy (Leviticus 11:45) was frequently more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Certainly, Ezekiel believed that unholy people who defiled their holy God were bound to suffer from an outpouring of God’s anger. Yet he believed that punishment was not an end in itself and that God would come up with an alternative strategy. If the people did not safeguard God’s reputation before the nations of the world, then God will do it for them. Ezekiel message is emphatic:
Thus says the Lord God:
“It is not for your sake, O house of Israel,
that I am about to act,
but for the sake of my holy name,
which you have profaned
among the nations to which you came.
And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name,
which has been profaned among the nations,
and which you have profaned among them.
And the nations will know that I am the Lord”,
declares the Lord God,
when through you
I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
But how can this come to pass? How can God’s name be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven? Ezekiel supplies a startling explanation:
I will take you from the nations
and gather you from all the countries
and bring you into your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water on you,
and you shall be clean
from all your uncleannesses,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
And I will give you a new heart,
and a new spirit I will put within you.
And I will remove the heart of stone
from your flesh
and give you a heart of flesh.
And I will put my Spirit within you,
and cause you to walk in my statutes
and be careful to obey my rules.
You shall dwell in the land
that I gave to your fathers,
and you shall be my people,
and I will be your God.
Ezekiel was a great poet. His imagination runs riot at the thought of what it will be like when the great day dawns and people are transfigured into a mirror image of God’s holiness. It will, he says, be like the Garden of Eden. Of course Eden, no more than Rome, can be built in a day.
Cleansing water, empowering Spirit, a call to faithful adherence to God’s will? It needs more than a poet’s insight to see the creative hand of God at work in our world. For Hallowed be your name! is the work to which Christians are called, the work that they are reminded of when they pray as Jesus prayed. They must be the light that lights up the world with the holiness of God. They are called to effect God’s heart transplant and renew the face of the earth. Christian disciples are called to be in their time and place the praying presence of Jesus of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead we have created darkness and horrors that can scarce be named. The last sentence of today’s Gospel is a judgement upon us. Jesus assumes that we,
... know how to give good gifts to your children …
Yet how we have betrayed them.
The Prayer: Your kingdom come!
We are between times. The Church, in Luke’s perspective, is both patient and surgeon. It is the patient in that it is forever undergoing heart surgery in order that its stone heart may be removed and a new heart of flesh be transplanted, to use Ezekiel’s startlingly modern image. The Church, too, is a surgeon to the world. The surgical procedures of Jesus—welcoming, chatting, feeding, and healing—are procedures by which the Church does what he did. These are the life-saving operations by which the Church goes about, as Jesus did, doing good. Unheralded, unnoticed, and unsung, the Church serves God’s kingdom building. That is to say, the Church, by its service to the peoples of the world, witnesses that God is responsible for creation and that we are all safe in God’s hands. Lost children will be found; dead sons and daughters will be restored to life. Praying is about entering into God’s excitement that all will be well, all manner of thing will be well. Matthew’s “Our Father” explains that the kingdom of God is created amongst us when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. That is the New Jerusalem is to be buildéd here among the dark satanic mills. In God’s good time, if Ezekiel, and Jesus, and Blake, are to be believed, everything will be transformed to be what God wishes us to become.
The Prayer: Give us each day our daily bread
The prayer moves from what is due to God, the hallowing of God’s Name, the recognition God’s Presence in our world, to our needs. We must pray to be sustained by our good God in order that we become fit for purpose. Constant nourishment is required if we are to be and to do what God demands. If humanity is to have ears to hear the cries of the poor, if men and women are to have eyes to see the hurt done to so many, if those who have hearts burning with joy, with love, with hope, then God must sustain humanity with the bread of angels.
First, we must feed on the food of God’s word, on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3). We are transfigured by listening, for the word gives strength to the weary. Those who take to heart God’s holy words will be readied to proclaim God’s holy name and to serve the coming kingdom.
But there is more to sustenance than the word. When Jesus wished to impress the stamp of his love on all who would seek to remember him, he took a piece of bread and a cup of wine. He broke the bread among those who sat at table and shared the cup. He made a command: Do this in remembrance of me. To understand what to expect when we pray for this bread and for this cup, we need do no more than take a Sunday walk to a little village named Emmaus.
No one, of course, believed the women. Their words of resurrection “seemed to them to be an idle tale, and they did not believe them (Luke 24:11). Two of them set out to go back home, disappointed and disillusioned. As they said to the stranger who joined them for company’s sake,
… we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.
So the stranger put these foolish men to rights by opening to them the Scriptures,
….beginning with Moses all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures, the things concerning himself.
But that wasn’t all. He stayed with them and at the table with them he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. They, we are told, recognised him in the breaking of the bread. We know, too, that their hearts burned within them as he open to them the Scriptures.
The Word and the Bread. All that we need to know about its meaning has been kaleidoscoped into an afternoon. Except we must not forget that, late as it was, the two them, Clophas and his wife, went back to Jerusalem to tell the story.
When we pray,
Give us each day our daily bread,
we are praying that what happened on that walk to Emmaus will happen to us and that we, too, will run out the doors of our churches and shout to the world the wonderful works of God.
The Prayer: forgive us our sins
Forgiveness is the most difficult demand made on the human heart. We have three versions of the Lord’s Prayer and in each the petition for forgiveness is the longest. It is the only one hedged about with a condition. Forgiveness is given in the measure that we have forgiven. We ask forgiveness for we ourselves forgive those indebted to us.
We are not making a bargain with God: you forgive because we forgive. God does not do bargaining. What awaits everyone is final judgement. In the meantime, we constantly stand in need of forgiveness when we refuse to give what we must give to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
What we owe to each other in the house-church, the parish we belong to, is love. This is not an option. St Paul gives Christians in Rome a simple sentence:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other.
That is a debt that we must all pay. We owe love; nothing else will do in the community of love we call our local church and our universal Church. We have listened often enough to St Paul:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
I Corinthians 13:4-8
How can we teach the world to love, if we do not love one another? What Paul describes is what we owe to each other. Love defines who we are. Our brothers and sisters have a right to our love. That is why St Matthew’s edition of the Lord’s Prayer says quite bluntly,
Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.
That is not how we pray but it is what Matthew wrote. We are called to a lifetime of forgiveness so that there may be a lifetime of love. Love is a debt that must always be paid.
St Luke’s version calls on God to “forgive us our sins”, a constant prayer in the Hebrew Bible:
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.
Because he is the Son of God, Jesus on the cross can forgive those who put him there, for they do not know what it is they are doing. The cross of Jesus is shared pain, as all forgiveness shares the burden of hurt. Unforgiving hearts are hearts that refuse to carry the burden of other people’s sins. To forgive is not to forget. To be forgiven is not a license to forget pain inflicted. Forgiveness is remembering and sharing the pain with firm purpose of amendment not to inflict pain again.
The Lord’s Prayer in every version begins by addressing the Father and it is to our Father that we address our prayer for forgiveness. Our prayer is not only for our neglect of love to be forgiven and replaced with a fullness of kindness. It is a prayer that in the fullness of time we will be held to account for the little love we gave to sisters and brothers in the Lord. If we must stand before the Father seated in the place of judgement we can be certain that the Father will move to the seat of mercy. But perhaps the Father of mercies may pause to look into our hearts:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
The Prayer: and do not bring us to a testing
This is not the translation offered in the English Standard Version of the Bible. It offers And lead us not into temptation. The RSV has the same. The NRSV translates the Greek as And do not bring us to the time of trial. The Revised New Jerusalem Bible (published 2018) renders the Greek as And do not put us to the test. The Jerusalem Bible (1966) gave the same translation and the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) does likewise. The Revised English Bible (1989) offers the same as the JB. The New King James Version gives And do not lead us into temptation. The Latin Vulgate text has Et ne nos inducas in tentationem. It is evident that there is a difficulty in translating the Greek text of St Luke.
There are difficulties in translation and there are theological worries. From the point of view of theology, it is difficult to understand that God would lead us into temptation. St James in his letter is very clear:
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:12-15
One difficulty is that the Greek word for “tempting” and “testing” is capable of both translations and one has to depend on the context and choosing the translation that best fits the context. So many scholars point out that, while there is plenty of evidence that God tests the faith of those he has chosen, it is difficult to image God tempting people to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Tempting people to sin is hardly a duty of pastoral care.
There can be no doubt that God tests the faith of Abraham when he is bidden to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is hardly a temptation, for a parent is hardly likely to be tempted to kill his child. Job is hardly enduring temptation at God’s hands. He rejects any suggestion that God is tempting him.
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. Job 1:20-22
No matter how much his friends insist that God has turned against him because of sins that Job refuses to acknowledge, he readily admits that God is testing him. Indeed he defends God’s right to test his faith:
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back?
What he desires, that he does!
The Psalms provide evidence that God tests, not tempts. To further the wellbeing of his people, their mettle must be tested:
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.
To be tested is to discover the way that God insists we travel.
Proving the point
Today’s Gospel adds two illustrations to convince doubting mind and hearts that the Father will test his holy ones, directing them to generosity and care of little ones. If a man is called upon in the middle of the night to meet the needs of a friend and is sorely tried by the knocking, he will meet the demands made on him. Perhaps not for friendship’s sake but to get rid of the persistence of the neighbour the friend will provide what is needed. God will respond for friendship sake.
Even an evil, irresponsible parent will not give a scorpion when an egg is called for. Our heavenly Father has many good gifts and the greatest of these is the Holy Spirit who is there for the asking.
If humans can behave decently, what can the great God, Our Father who created us, not do to ensure the ultimate joy that every heart desires?
We do not pray Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. But by comparing one with the other we will grow, not only in understanding, but in wisdom.