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Finding Jesus in His Prayers
By H. Stephen Shoemaker
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2004 H. Stephen Shoemaker
All rights reserved.
Jesus and Prayer
Jesus' way of praying is given to us not only in the words of his prayers, but also in his habits of prayer and his teaching about prayer. This first chapter will examine the habit of prayer Jesus inherited from his Jewish faith and his teachings about prayer that were both continuous and discontinuous with his tradition. There is both something ancient and something new in Jesus' way of praying.
(1) Jesus participated in the daily rhythm of Jewish prayers: every morning, afternoon, and evening. Morning and afternoon prayers always included the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, The Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4 AT)
The afternoon prayer featured the Tephillah, whose first benediction blesses Yahweh as God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, "most high God and Master of heaven and earth ... our shield." The early church adopted this rhythm of prayer by praying the Lord's Prayer three times a day. They would not have likely carried this rhythm on had not Jesus been faithful in this daily discipline of prayer.
(2) Jesus prayed the Hebrew blessings before and after meals. Before the meal he prayed:
Blessed be thou, Lord our God, king of the world
Who makest bread to come forth from the earth.
After the meal was a three-part thanksgiving, the Birkat ha-mazon, which combined a prayer for mercy upon Israel with a prayer of thanksgiving for nourishment and for the land.
(3) Jesus prayed the prayers of the weekly Shabbat service in the synagogue, "as his custom was" (Luke 4:16), which included the Shema, the Tephillah, and concluded with the Kaddish, which formed the background of Jesus' "Lord's Prayer":
May his great name be magnified and sanctified
in the world that he created according to his good pleasure!
May he make his reign prevail
during your life and during your days,
and during the life of the entire house of Israel
at this very moment and very soon.
And let them say: Amen!
May the name of the Lord—blessed be he!—
be blessed, praised, glorified, extolled,
exalted, honored, magnified, and hymned!
It is above and beyond
any blessing, hymn, praise, consolation
that men utter in this world.
And let them say: Amen!
(4) Jesus engaged in extemporaneous and private prayer. To describe his prayer life from within Israel's traditional prayers does not tell us enough. The Gospels portray him as one who spent hours, even whole nights, in solitary prayer:
And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
And after he had taken leave of them, he went into the hills to pray. (Mark 6:46)
Especially before important decisions, he went aside for concentrated prayer:
In these days he went out into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples. (Luke 6:12)
He also taught his disciples to observe a rhythm of action and prayer:
The apostles returned to Jesus, and told them all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while." (Mark 6:30-31)
(5) Jesus prayed prayers of blessing and intercession. He prayed for children and, laying his hands on them, blessed them (Mark 10:16). He prayed for his friends (John 17), for Jerusalem, and for his nation, Israel (Luke 19:41-42).
For Jesus, prayer was at times a spiritual combat with the forces of evil in the world.
These are no wimpy prayers, but a call to arms: "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation" (Matthew 26:41 NKJV). Once Jesus' disciples came back discouraged because their spiritual power was not sufficient to drive out certain evil spirits. Jesus replied, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer" (Mark 9:29).
In Luke 22:31 Jesus describes his prayer for Peter in face of Peter's spiritual testing:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.
There is little doubt that Jesus saw prayer as a way of garnering the power of God in face of the power of evil.
We also learn of Jesus' way of prayer by his teaching about prayer. It was one of the things spiritual masters taught their disciples. So Jesus' disciples asked, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). In answer Jesus taught at least these three things:
1. No show-offy prayers
2. No long-winded prayers
3. No embarrassed prayers
First, no show-offy prayers. In Matthew 6:1, 5 he warns against parading your prayers in public:
Beware of practicing your piety before [others] in order to be seen by them.... And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by [others].
Jesus does not here forbid public prayer—he himself prayed publicly—but rather the kind of prayer we pray in order to be seen by others. He calls those who do so "hypocrites," which literally means, "play actors."
It is important to remember who it is to whom we pray. No one else matters. The anecdote is told about Bill Moyers when he was press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson asked him to pray at some state dinner. Mid-prayer Johnson interrupted and said, "Speak up, Bill, I can't hear you." Moyers replied, "Mr. President, you're not the one I'm speaking to." So, Jesus says, no show-offy prayers designed for the admiration of others.
Second, prayers need not go on and on:
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)
Jesus is not forbidding all repetitive prayer, but rather the kind of praying that believes that it can, by its way of praying, earn God's favor or wear God down until God finally listens. Jesus is saying, God's favor is already with you, God's ear is already inclined. No need to go on and on. God is your Abba who already knows your need and is coming to help.
Jesus' own practice of long solitary prayer suggests there is a place for repetitive and contemplative prayer. Such prayer is appropriate as a way of communing with God, of being in the presence of God. But this kind of prayer is very different from long prayers designed to curry favor with the Divine.
Third, Jesus says we need never be ashamed or embarrassed about coming to God for help.
In Luke 11, Jesus tells a parable about a man in a predicament. Someone has come to his house late at night and asked to stay. The sacred rules of hospitality of that time were that you always provided shelter when asked, and supplied a meal as well. Such rules were life-saving courtesies in the first-century world. The host is terribly embarrassed because he has nothing to give the guest to eat. So he goes to a friend's house at midnight. The door is shut, meaning everyone is in bed and the children are asleep—probably all in the same main room of the house. You know how hard it is to get children to go back to sleep once they have finally settled down! The man answers from within: "Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed" (Luke 11:7).
Jesus says, "Though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of the man's shamelessness, he will get up and give him whatever he needs" (Luke 11:8, adapted).
The Greek word anaideia is often translated "importunity" or "persistence," and indeed Jesus taught us to be persistent in prayer. We are to pray and keep on praying, not as those who believe that we will finally wear God down, but because our praying is a sign of hope in the God who will make good on divine promises. But here, in this parable, I think we should translate anaideia "shamelessness," as it most often is translated in ancient literature. And the meaning? God always wants to hear our voice. It doesn't matter how long it has been since we prayed, or what a mess we've made of our lives. God is ready to listen and to come to our aid. Don't let the feeling of shame keep you from approaching God in prayer.
Then Jesus adds to the teaching:
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! (Luke 11:13 NRSV)
Our God is a "how much more" God, a God beyond our human capacities to love and to give, so no ashamed prayer, no embarrassed prayer.
I heard of a businessmen's breakfast. As all the men were seated, one last man rushed in at the last moment and sat down. Naturally, they asked him to return thanks. After a long pause, he began, "Lord, I know you're as surprised about this as I am."
Go boldly, unashamed before God. Bang on the door in the middle of the night. It's okay. It doesn't matter if God hasn't heard your voice for awhile. Nothing matters except that you matter to God.
Joachim Jeremias, one of the great New Testament scholars of our time, says: "Jesus appeared in this world with a new prayer." This new prayer, or new way of praying, begins with the word Abba, the tenderest and most intimate address imaginable for God. Our every prayer, our every word, our every breath matters to this God. To this new prayer we now turn.CHAPTER 2
The Lord's Prayer Part 1
THE TEXTS OF THE LORD'S PRAYER: OR WHY DO SOME SAY "DEBTS," OTHERS "TRESPASSES," AND OTHERS "SINS"?
Luke records that one day as Jesus was finishing his time of prayer his disciples asked, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Jesus taught them what we call the Lord's Prayer or the Daily Prayer. It has the character of a daily prayer. The early church prayed it three times a day in the Jewish rhythm of morning, afternoon, and evening prayers (Didache 8:3). Here is a prayer for each and all of our days.
The shape of the Lord's Prayer has a beautiful simplicity and symmetry. There is a beginning: "Our Abba, in heaven." There is an ending: "For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory now and forever. Amen." And there are the two sets of three petitions. The first set of three is about God:
(1) Hallowed be your name
(2) Your kingdom come
(3) Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
The second set of three is about us:
(1) Give us today our daily bread.
(2) Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
(3) Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
We begin the prayer with God rather than ourselves—a rather countercultural notion. The hallowing of God's name, the coming of God's kingdom, the doing of God's will. Then the prayer moves to our most basic human needs, which are of the greatest concern to God: our bread, our forgiveness and forgivingness, and our protection.
The simplicity of this prayer is part of its spiritual genius. The other part is how it encompasses all of what Jesus was about in the mission of the gospel. It is, as Tertullian described it in the second century, "a summary of the gospel."
Joachim Jeremias boldly wrote: "Jesus appeared in this world with a new prayer." Jesus brought a new prayer and a new way of praying, and it begins with the word Abba. Various phrases of the prayer could have been prayed by any Jew of Jesus' day. It has many similarities with the Kaddish, as cited in the last chapter. What is new is how Jesus arranged the prayer and how it begins.
"Abba," Luke begins the prayer. Matthew begins, "Our Abba." The actual Greek word is pater or "father." Joachim Jeremias suggests that behind every "pater" on Jesus' lips in the Gospels in the Greek New Testament is an echo of Jesus' Aramaic word Abba. Aramaic was Jesus' native tongue. Hebrew was the tongue of his religion and tradition. Growing up four miles from the bustling Greco- Roman city of Sepphoris, he may well have also known both Latin and Greek, but Aramaic was his everyday tongue. The Aramaic Abba was the word Jewish children and adults used for "father."
Joachim Jeremias influenced a generation of scholars with his conclusions:
We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way in his prayers.
Current scholarship, qualifying his claims, is questioning the absolute uniqueness of Jesus' use of Abba as an address to God. But there is little doubt that Jesus' use was startlingly novel. James D. G. Dunn writes: "When we 'listen in' on Jesus' prayers the distinctive word we hear is 'Abba.'"
Jeremias's early work suggested that a good translation of Abba might be "Daddy" or "Poppa" and that its derivation came from a child's earliest babbling words for father. While Abba could well have been babbled by children, current scholarship establishes that it first was an adult word for father in Aramaic or Hebrew. The name conveyed both intimacy and respect. For Jesus it was an address that expressed a relationship of remarkable intimacy, trust, confidence, and affection.
The word "father" had other associations in the Hebrew tradition. God the liberator had freed his "firstborn son" from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 4:22-23). God the covenant maker had created a covenant relationship with Israel the son, Israel the daughter. But there appears something startlingly new about the way Jesus prayed to God as Abba. God is a parent who loves us perfectly, provides for us faithfully, and takes immense delight in us.
At Jesus' baptism the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, and a voice from heaven said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11 NRSV). This scene depicts the "Abba-experience" which was, I believe, the heart of Jesus' spirituality. God delighted in Jesus; Jesus delighted in God.
But we do not stop there. Jesus said we, his disciples, could pray to God as Abba too: "Our Abba in heaven." This new way of praying was so central that the church felt that praying Abba was itself a manifestation of the Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ in them as they prayed (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). Abba, Abba, Abba—there was an ecstatic character to its use, as the human soul merged with God's Spirit.
God is the child's Abba, the child freely, unself-consciously babbling God's name. God is Israel's Abba—a God saving and setting Israel free. God is the world's Abba, gracious provider of all there is, "the faithfulness at the heart of things." God is the disciples' Abba: In following Jesus, we discover our own belovedness.
Should we pray Abba as in Luke or "Our Abba" as in Matthew? Luke's Abba may be more original; often the shorter version of a passage is. But scholar James Barr cautions us from jumping to this conclusion. "Our Abba" could just as easily been spoken by Jesus. Its sense is more consistent with the theology of the prayer. We pray Abba as part of a community and members together of God's whole creation. The kingdom of God is not just personal; it is social and communal. "Our Abba" better represents the character of the whole prayer.
"Our Abba in heaven." "Who art in heaven" reminds us that the God just pictured in the human analogy of a father and parent is beyond all we know of father, mother, parent.
Sometimes we use human analogies and earthly metaphors for God, saying: "God is like ..." Other times we bow beneath the holy otherness of God and say, "God is not like ..." Isaiah writes: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, says the LORD" (Isaiah 55:8). "Who art in heaven" says that God is beyond even our best images for God.
Here is another reason I prefer to use Abba rather than "father." Its foreignness helps preserve the mystery of God and blurs, however slightly, the patriarchal sense of "pater." The strangeness of Abba slows us up as we read it and causes us to ask, What did Jesus mean when he said Abba?
"Father," or "Mother," as a name for God can be, depending on our experience, a window open to God or a shut door. Abba throws some mystery back into the word, as does the phrase "who art in heaven." God, who is like a father or mother, is also unlike any mother or father we know. Our Abba in heaven.
Excerpted from Finding Jesus in His Prayers by H. Stephen Shoemaker. Copyright © 2004 H. Stephen Shoemaker. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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