He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Why did the disciples, grown Jewish men, need to be taught how to pray? One can imagine that non-Jews might have made such a request of Jesus, but not people immersed in a conspicuously religious culture. Surely, the disciples had been raised in the synagogue, as many of us have been raised in the church. Surely, they had heard not only their mothers but many others pray, at least on occasion, if not every day.
The disciples had, no doubt, heard and recited many Jewish prayers. Nevertheless, something tells me that few if any of the disciples were pray-ers, in the “prayer warrior” sense of the term. I can imagine that Peter would have prayed, perhaps even regularly, for a good catch. Levi, the tax collector, might have prayed that a confrontation with a testy client would go in his favor. These are the kinds of prayers that I know well. They are prayers that, upon close inspection, are more about “me” than about God. They are prayers that use God for my own purposes. Considering how powerful God is, such prayers are completely reasonable to the logical mind. Lord, teach us to pray.
It is quite likely that the disciples expected Jesus to pray like any Jewish rabbi, but as it turned out, Jesus prayed in a way that diverged significantly from prayers to which they were accustomed. I believe this to be the case because Jesus’ prayers were sufficiently different to provoke the disciples, who were already familiar with prayer, to implore Jesus to teach them to pray. There is no reason to believe that they had ever approached any other rabbi with the same request. The way Jesus prayed captured the disciples’ imaginations.
There is something odd, though, about the disciples’ request for help with prayer. The disciples did not realize that when they talked to Jesus, they were, in a sense, praying. That claim may strike us as being theologically “off” since, in the common conception, prayer does not involve talking to someone we can see, but to the God who is unseen. Or else, it might strike us as cute or interesting that the disciples were praying in the course of normal conversation with Jesus, but that fact has no practical significance for us because Jesus is no longer in the flesh. Besides, it is not prayer unless you close your eyes, or get down on your knees, or adopt a “prayer language,” and pray to our Father which art in heaven. In contrast, Jesus was plainly visible to the disciples and they spoke with him face to face, man to man. That can’t be prayer! Or can it? Addressing Philip’s desire to see the Father, Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words, “When you talk to Me, you are talking to the Father.” All the time that the disciples were with Jesus, they were praying.
The disciples knew Jesus as a man, and needed constant reminding that he was God. As a consequence, talking to Jesus didn’t seem like prayer, at all. We know Jesus as God, and need constant reminding that he was a man. For us, talking to Jesus more easily fits our expectation of what prayer should look like. Sufficient evidence exists to argue that for both the disciples and us, the “constant reminding” is largely ineffective. During Jesus’ ministry, the apostle Peter gave lip-sevice to the fact that Jesus was God. Yet, Peter denied Jesus three times. Similarly, we might give intellectual assent to the fact of Jesus’ humanity, but in the next breath we minimize it. Jesus was a man, but… We are not in any position to fix the disciples’ problem, but perhaps I can fix my own. Though I have spent decades associated with a conspicuously religious culture, along with the disciples, I too must ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Orthodox Christian doctrine holds that Jesus was fully God and fully man. He was God in the flesh, yet Jesus emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant. He was made in the likeness of men to such an extent that it was not obvious even to those who spent a significant amount of time with him that he was God at all. He was known in the days of his flesh as a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people. For nearly three years, Jesus lived with the disciples. He became, not just their Master, but their friend. He was friend to a whole lot of people besides the twelve. To the paralyzed man let down into Jesus’ midst from the roof, Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” He told the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” The Scriptures are careful to be sure that we know that Jesus left no one out. He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, which includes all of us. Even to Judas, the traitor, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Jesus was the friend of all, no exceptions.
I have a very difficult time getting my head wrapped around the fact that Jesus is my friend. I might sing “What a friend we have in Jesus,” but living in the context of that friendship is nearly inconceivable for me. It is easy to see Jesus as a member of the Trinity, the second person in the Godhead, and to pray to him accordingly. But, praying to Jesus as my friend blows every presupposition, assumption, and category that exists. God is not supposed to be my friend; He is my God! But, when Jesus came in the flesh, it was to convince me that he is my friend. The disciples easily picked up this message. But, being friends, it never occurred to them that their interactions with him qualified as prayer to God. I pray to Jesus as God, but it does not easily occur to me that he is my friend. Lord, teach us to pray.
When the disciples witnessed Jesus praying, they saw a man praying to God as friend. That simple perception of God being a friend conferred on Jesus’ prayers an air that was incredibly different from other prayers. He was not praying to a far-off God, or to an aloof God seated on a throne, or to a God who sat in judgment, or to a God who did not truly care about his requests. What made Jesus’ prayers even more unusual was the fact that, not only did he pray to God as friend, but Jesus was a friend to God. Isn’t that the way friendship works? It is a two-way street. I am your friend and you are my friend. We are friends. Friends do things for each other.1 Friendships that only work in one direction generally don’t last. Jesus modeled a sound friendship with God. The disciples must have been flabbergasted by the way Jesus, the man, related to God. Lord, teach us to pray.
I learned early in the Spiritual Exercises that until I understand the friendship of Jesus, I will never be the person Jesus longs for me to be. And I will never have the kind of life that Jesus enjoyed. Though I struggle, this is now a major effort in my life.
1 All of us, given a few moments, could construct at least a short list of things that God has done for us today. Several times, Ignatius asks that we consider “what I have done for Christ, what I am doing for Christ, what I ought to do for Christ.” This contemplation is always done in light of what Jesus has done for me. The knee-jerk reaction from evangelicals is that this smacks of a “works salvation,” a quid quo pro. Ignatius would respond by saying, “No, this is all about friendship.” When Peter denied Christ, he was not sad because he had not lived up to his side of the salvation bargain, but because he had failed his friend, majorly.