The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12C)
28 July 2019
O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy, that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
We are continuing on our way with Jesus, with his face set to Jerusalem. Along the way, in the encounters with the people he meets and with whom he is travelling, he is sharing his teachings. Each situation gives rise to an opportunity for Jesus to help us understand more about the nature of the unfolding Kingdom of God. This device, a hallmark of Luke’s narrative, helps us see Jesus’ teaching as a natural part of not only his ministry, but his personality; the way he approaches life.1
When Jesus met that argumentative lawyer, he reinforced the central teaching of the law, reminding him and all of us of our duty to love God and love our neighbour. In that story about the traveller and the Samaritan Jesus told in response to the lawyer’s question, he made it crystal clear that our neighbours are not simply those whom we resemble, those who look and sound like us, those who come from the same people as we do, but that our neighbours are, in truth, all our fellow humans. Indeed, our neighbour could be someone unexpected, someone despised, marginalised, alien, and that such a person is perfectly capable of showing us the sort of neighbour love demanded by the Law, even if we wouldn’t expect it or might hesitate to give it in return. In his subsequent encounter with Martha and Mary, Jesus taught us that there are different kinds of ministry and different kinds of faithfulness. Now Jesus and his friends have continued along their way and stopped for some rest. The disciples see Jesus praying and this momentary observation leads one to ask the natural question, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples;” “teach us to do as you do, teach us to be like you, to pray like you.” In this way the Lord’s Prayer is shown to be something that emerges from the natural setting of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples and becomes, therefore, an organic component of the earliest teachings of the Church.
It is always funny to hear the familiar words from our English tradition, a venerable one that goes back to the early middle ages, translated differently. It always brings us up short. When I was in seminary, I participated in a day-long workshop on consensus building. Early in the day, we were broken into groups and asked to come up with, through consensus, a better, clearer version of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a maddening exercise because we took it for granted that we had to think up something new and original. Whatever we wrote just didn’t match to the clarity, the succinctness, the eloquence of “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” and “give us this day our daily bread” or “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Everything we wrote sounded pedestrian or condescending. In the end, our consensus was that the Prayer Book was best left alone.
Now, we weren’t working with the original Greek of the New Testament texts or of the Didache, which has the version closest to the one that has come down through liturgy and tradition. We were working with English words, but the meaning of Jesus’ teaching and its focus on the necessities of life, or should I say of Life (with a capital “L”), grew clearer and clearer through our discussions, as it does when we look here at today’s Gospel.
In response to the disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” Jesus replied, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” We honour the name of God. We recognise that we are living at a time when the Kingdom of God is near and we wish for it to open up before us. We seek our basic human needs and that need is something that God recognises as a good thing, validates. Finally, we recognise our human weakness, that we will fall into sin, that we will wrong our neighbour, and we should seek to do better, seek God’s forgiveness, seek the power to do better next time, just as we want to be able to share that forgiveness with others. And here we are: what it took Jesus three lines to say succinctly, it takes me six or more to flesh out, even though we understood him perfectly the first time.
This prayer is so central to the practice of our faith—that is to say the actual doing of living out of our relationship with God—because it encompasses everything we require. We seek to honour and love God, we seek to honour and love our neighbour even though we know we will mess it up from time to time, and we seek the sustenance to carry out these works of love as long as we inhabit our fleshly bodies in this world that God has made and pronounced good. The work we do in the flesh, the work we do in our bodies matters, Jesus is telling us, so we pray to live rightly in them, live in accordance with the law of love as long as we have breath.
Perhaps this is the key to understanding what Jesus says next, “And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” I don’t think that Jesus is just telling us that everything that we undertake in his name will be successful. I don’t think he is setting up unrealistic expectations that would invariably lead to our self-doubt, lead to thinking, “well, if I were doing this right, if I were truly pure of heart, everything would go my way; so what’s wrong with me?” Indeed, Jesus has just reminded his disciples that they are likely to come to a town where their teachings will be rejected, as his own were in that Samaritan village, and that they are to dust themselves off and keep going. What Jesus is actually doing here is reminding us to persevere, to carry out our ministry of honouring God and neighbour and forgiving the sins of others as God and others may forgive our own sins. He is saying that only by engaging in this work, only by asking, seeking, knocking can we ever hope for results. We shouldn’t just not bother in the first place for fear of rejection. We need to ask, seek, and knock, even if we don’t always succeed, for nothing can happen unless we get down to work and give it a go.
Jesus even seems to be saying that if you give people a chance, they will respond with kindness and neighbour love: “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?” That is to say, most people are not jerks. Seek, ask, knock, give people a chance to respond to love with love.
The coupling of that fundamental prayer with the invocation to keep at our ministry, as taught by Jesus not from on high but rather in the midst of his daily life with his disciples, shows us that the work before us, while at times frustrating and unfruitful, is also not beyond our abilities. It is straight forward. It is something that each and every one of us is capable of carrying out without losing sight of the things that matter. And that it is OK if we fail or mess up as long as we get back at it. All the things of the world belong to God, for God’s “is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever,” and God is telling us that we are an integral part of that world, of that unfolding kingdom, and that we are loved and forgiven, so that we may in turn love and forgive others, advancing God’s works and bringing us closer to that kingdom’s coming for which we pray.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Barnstable Village, Mass.
Joachim and Anna, 26 July 2019
1Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, 3 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 177, 179. The folding of teaching material naturally into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry is a Lucan technique and stands in contrast to the way in which Matthew handles similar material.
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume