Jesus teaches us in this Sunday’s Gospel reading for Mass more about the “better part” that he mentioned to Martha in last week’s reading. You may recall that Martha was upset that Mary was not helping with serving the guests when Jesus visited the house. She rather was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to her.
Jesus represents God the Father and through him Mary comes to know the Father’s love and mercy. This is the “better” part to which Jesus refers.
This Sunday the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. He responds by giving them the “Our Father.” The prayer is central to our lives as “pray-ers.” In giving us this prayer Jesus teaches us about God and our relationship with Him.
The very first words of this bedrock of Christian prayer speak to the relationship itself. He tells us to call God “our Father.” Jesus himself calls God “Father” in the most sincere and simple expression when he calls God “Abba.” This term is one of affection that a child uses when speaking to their father. In English this would be translated “daddy.”
The loving relationship of a father to a child is the relationship that God has for us. This is an intimate relationship of love. God knows us from before we are born. He knows us through and through and loves us for who we are. Through his Son he invites us to share in his life, to know him, to love him and to serve him.
Later in the Gospel passage, Jesus expounds on this relationship between God and man. The description of he uses draws for us a loving image of a father caring for his child. “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
The import of Jesus’ description of God’s relationship to us as Father is not that God’s relationship with us is “like” a father’s relationship to his children but it “is” a relationship between the Father and his children.
In the “Our Father,” Jesus teaches us not only to acknowledge God as our Father but to call him “Father.” In that expression, we come before him as his children. Then we express our reverence and respect, indeed our love, for the Father when we say “hallowed be thy name.”
The prayer continues with the greatest petition and desire of the heart — “thy will be done.” In this petition, we acknowledge that God knows what is best for man and for ourselves. He is the One who gives life and leads to life. He is the wise one who only gives good advice. He is the best of teachers in the way of life for he is the author of life.
In praying “thy will be done,” we humbly present ourselves to the Father seeking to know his will and longing for the ability to live according to it every day. Similarly, “thy kingdom come” recognizes the sovereignty of God over all creation. His kingdom represents life as he intends it to be lived. Love is the essence of this kingdom where peace, concord and joy abound. In a certain sense, this prayer is for the ultimate realization of “thy will be done.”
Jesus then offers a series of petitions. “Give us today our daily bread.” The prayer recognizes that all that we need for life comes from God. He is the one who provides for us, even in the most basic needs of life.
At the same time, Jesus’ choice of words here leads us to something more than material or temporal needs. He uses the word “bread.” The term is used elsewhere: “man does not live on bread alone but every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
There are Eucharistic overtones for Jesus also tells us: “I am the Bread of Life, whoever eats this bread will live forever,” or “take this all of you and eat of it” as he takes the bread, blesses and breaks it “for this is my body which will be given for you.”
The prayer continues recognizing the centrality of mercy in our relationship with God and each other: “and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” We ask the Father for mercy recognizing that he forgives. God is patient with us and longs for us to share in his healing love. Asking for forgiveness begins the process of healing and strengthening.
The first reading for Sunday’s Mass, taken from the book of Genesis, recalls God’s patience for the pleas of Abraham but also God’s willingness to relent on just punishment of his people for their sins. God is willing to forgive. Our prayer recognizes our sinfulness and the need for his mercy.
The corollary to this is that as we ask for God’s forgiveness we express our willingness, in deed in the Lukan formulation, the very activity of forgiving others. When we place ourselves as penitents before our Father seeking forgiveness we come as people who show mercy to others.
The final petition of the “Our Father” points to the end. The more familiar Matthean version reads: “and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The Lukan version reads: “and do not subject us to the final test.” Both recognize temptation that is present in life.
Sin can be described as a “turning away” from God. Through sin a distancing occurs, not in spatial terms but in terms of the relationship. Jesus recognizes that there are temptations that could lead us to “turn away” from God. In this petition we pray that God will lift these temptations or help us resist the temptations when they come along.
After giving the “Our Father” Jesus teaches on the importance of persistence in prayer. He gives the example of a neighbor knocking on the door at night looking for bread. Even though his neighbor is in bed and does not want to get up, he does not give up. He keeps asking until the neighbor helps him.
Jesus is telling us that an important aspect of prayer is to “keep praying.” Jesus is offering encouragement. It is as if he is saying: “keep at it, don’t give up.” He reiterates by saying: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Today Jesus continues his teaching on prayer. The basis of this prayer is a relationship. The relationship is between God and his people is one of a Father and his children. Our loving Father watches over us, protects us, teaches us and leads us to life. In prayer the relationship is fortified and strengthened so that we can experience the fullness of life that he offers.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.