The Lord ' s teaching on the subject of prayer. Again the scene is far away from Jerusalem; no special note of time or place enables us to fix the scene or date with any exactness. Somewhere in the course of the last journeyings towards Jerusalem, related especially in this Gospel, did this scene and its teaching take place.
Prayer continued. The wisdom of perseverance in prayer is pressed. The Lord introduces his argument by the short parable of the selfish neighbor.
How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? In St. Matthew we find the last portion of this teaching related as having taken place at a much earlier period of the Lord's ministry. It is more than probable that much of Jesus Christ's general instruction was repeated on more than one occasion. There is an important difference between the words reported by the two evangelists. St. Matthew, instead of the "Holy Spirit," has the more general expression, "good things." In both accounts, however, is the Master's assurance that prayer, if persisted in, would ever be heard and granted, and there is the all-important limitation that the thing prayed for must be something" good" in the eyes of the heavenly Father. How many requests are made by us, poor, shortsighted, often selfish men, which, if granted, would be harmful rather than a blessing to the asker! Here the Lord, the Reader of hearts, having taken notice of some of the deep earnest longings, perhaps scarcely crystallized into prayer, of his own disciples, of a John or a James, pictures the case of one who deserves a special deepening of the spiritual life, and prays some prayer for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Such a prayer, says Christ, must be granted.
Christ teaching his disciples to pray.
"He was praying in a certain place." Might not he have dispensed with the special season and act of prayer? Was not his whole life one continuous act of prayer? Did he not always realize that communion with the Father to which praying is the means? Yes; but even he needed the time and the place of prayer. "Made in all things like to his brethren," he, too, required to recruit the energy; he, too, for power with God and men, must lift up his eyes to heaven. Those who say that they can dispense with the particular form and the definite act; that all places are their oratories, and all words and deeds the form of their conference with the Unseen; have realized a spirituality sublimated beyond Christ's, and, it may safely be said, beyond the truth and limits of our human nature. Is it private or is it social prayer of which the evangelist informs us? It would seem that the disciples heard the "strong crying" of their Master; it may be that he and they were united in prayer—he speaking with them and for them, as the Father of the family, as the Head of the household. Be this as it may, one of his followers, impressed with the action, expresses the desire that such instruction should be given them as the Baptist had given to his proselytes. And the request, by whomsoever proffered, occasions an answer which is full of meaning. Notice its two points — what to pray for, and how to pray.
I. WHAT TO PRAY FOR . This is set forth in the words which are so familiar to the Christian ear. The same words, slightly modified, are found in the sermon from the mount. There they are presented in opposition to the repetitions and much speaking of the Pharisees' prayers; here they are presented as the brief but comprehensive summary of the desires of a true disciple of Christ. "When ye pray, say," etc. Notice two points.
1 . A good deal has been made of supposed parallels between the Lord's Prayer and some devotional utterances in Jewish and even in heathen scriptures. Supposing, for the sake of argument, that our Lord appropriated sentences in use by his countrymen: what matters it? Did he not express his innermost feeling on the cross in the words of the Psalter? The affectation of novelty is one of the poorest kinds of affectation. What could have been more worthy of the Divine Teacher than the selection of that which was fitted to nurture the soul-life from the devotional literature which his followers already had, or which had moulded the sweetest elements of the religious consciousness of his nation? And for the rest, if he is the Truth, I should expect to find traces of his thought, rays of the light by which he has lightened all men, in every quarter and age of his world. Truth is always Catholic. The finder of truth unites scattered fragments, and, as he unites, he creates a new thing, a new unity. The thoughts of many generations might be gathered into the prayer which Christ taught his disciples; but not the less on that account would it be a new and blessed fact.
2 . Observe, further, there are slight differences in the form of the fourth and the fifth petitions in the prayer as rendered in Luke, and the prayer as rendered in Matthew. May we not infer from this that, whilst the prayer is to be used, whilst it is more than a mere outline, whilst it is indeed the Breviary of the Christian Church, it is not pressed on us as a hard-and-fast rule. For the same reason that rendered it fitting that Christ should teach words, it may well be argued that it is expedient, so far, to prescribe words when the wants of many are to be interpreted, sometimes even when the wants of individual worshippers are to be expressed. But there is an elasticity, a freedom, which is an essential element of spiritual worship. Christ's prayer is not to be slavishly used. His own deviations in the second from the first giving of it are suggestive of flexibleness. And so also his commands. In the Third Gospel we read, "say ye;" but in the first, "After this manner pray ye." Have these sentences in the heart; let the mind realize the fullness that is in them; at times speak them forth; yet take your liberty. As those who have confidence as to their entering into the holiest in the blood of Jesus, let the cry of the Spirit of adoption freely ascend, "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit."
II. For in teaching to pray, we need instruction, not so much in what to say as in HOW TO SAY IT . "It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." Therefore, no sooner has Christ expounded the rule, or form, than he proceeds to exhibit the spirit of prayer, the right mental attitude, the faith without which the most perfect words are no prayer at all. And this he does, according to his wont, first in the shape of a simple parable, and next through an appeal to and from the heart of Fatherhood. The parable (verses 5-8) is very short, referring to things of commonplace life. A great many meanings have been fastened on every point in this little story. Take it, however, as it is wiser to do, as bringing out the one feature—that if, as between friend and friend, importunity overcomes reluctance; if it triumphs even over surliness; much more effectual will it be when reluctance to give is only seeming—when, indeed, that of which it takes hold is the willingness of eternal love! Therefore ought we to pray, and not to faint. Augustine (quoted by Trench) has some good sayings on this. "When God sometimes gives tardily, he commends his gifts; he does not deny them. Things long desired are more sweet in their attainment … God for a time withholds his gifts, that thou mayest learn to desire great things greatly." It is this great desiring of great things that is the moral of the story. Prayer is not a mere isolated act; it is, as typified in the story of Jacob with whom the angel wrestled, as proved in the history of the Lord himself, an energetic, prolonged dealing with God: "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." An old Greek writer calls it" the silence of the soul;" and there is in it the silence of the soul that ceases from the will of self, and worships only the sweet will of God. But there is another view taken in the word of Jesus. In this word it is described (verses 9, 10) as an asking; beyond this, as a seeking; beyond this even, as a knocking—"an ascending scale of earnestness." To this earnestness the promise is given. Mark how full and unqualified the promise is. The relation of friend to friend can teach much; but there is the relation more intimate still of child to parent, and this can teach more. For here we come into the inner circle of the thoughts which are connected with prayer. Therefore the Lord proceeds to illustrate what it is in his heart to teach by a reference to this analogy. What is it in his heart to teach? Surely, that the Father's good things are open to all his children, and, as the Crown of all, as the Gift of gifts, his own Holy Spirit. This is the climax of all childlike desire. Even in what is lower, the child stretches forth to this as his highest. "Father, give me the Holy Spirit." Is it possible to conceive a refusal? Would a parent who has bread meet the cry of a hungry child with the offer of a stone? Would he torment him by giving a serpent when he asked a fish? or by giving him a scorpion when he asked an egg? If it is so with us imperfect men, if we wish to share our good things with our children, how much more (verse 13) shall our heavenly Father give his Holy Spirit to them who ask him? His Fatherhood must be the fountain-light of his children's day. "Fear not," says Christ, "to appeal to it." "Blessed is the man that maketh the Lord his trust." Thus the Lord answers the request of the disciples. Is it not a request as pertinent to us in the nineteenth as to them in the first century? There is a secret in prayer which only the Lord can teach. We may recall a remarkable passage in the life of Coleridge which suggests this: "Shortly before his death he was conversing, solemnly, although familiarly, on his own history and thoughts. 'I have no difficulty,' he said, 'as to forgiveness. Indeed, I know not how to say with sincerity the clause in the Lord's Prayer which asks forgiveness as we forgive. I feel nothing answering to it in my heart, Neither do I find or reckon the most solemn faith in God as a real object the most arduous act of the reason and will. Oh no, my dear, it is to pray—to pray as God would have us: this is what at times makes me turn cold to my soul. Believe me, to pray with all your heart and strength, with the reason and will, to believe vividly that God will listen to your voice through Christ, and verily do the thing he pleases thereupon—this is the last, the greatest, achievement of the Christian's warfare on earth. Teach us to pray, O Lord! ' And then," adds his biographer, "he burst into a flood of tears, and begged me to pray for him. Oh, what a sight was there!"
The argument from the human fatherhood to the Divine.
Jesus Christ revealed the Father to men, and he revealed him as the Father of men. He taught us to address him as such ( Luke 11:2 ), and to feel toward him.as such. He would have us realize that God sustains to us a relationship very closely indeed corresponding to that which a human father sustains to his child. In the text he teaches us that this analogy is so close and so real that we may draw practical inferences from the lower to the higher one. The particular conclusion which our Lord draws is—
I. FROM OUR GIVING TO HIS . No human father would give his son a stone when appeal was made to him for bread, etc.; would put him off with a response which would only be a bitter disappointment. Such a one would be not only an exception to his kind, but would be guilty of an act that would be simply monstrous in general regard. If, then, we, "being evil," cannot withhold "good gifts" from our children, how much less will the heavenly Father deny his blessings to us, his sons and daughters! What we, with our finite and limited love, could not refuse, it is certain that he, in his infinite goodness and boundless pity, will readily bestow. There are two blessings which we particularly want of God our heavenly Father. — provision for our temporal well-being, and succor for our soul. We cannot live without these. Our bodily nature craves the one, our spiritual nature needs the other. Bread we must have, and all that "bread" stands for, that we may live happily and serviceably as those that tread the path of mortal life. But "man cannot live on bread alone;" he needs those higher and holier gifts which nourish the soul, which feed the flame of piety and zeal, which strengthen him for spiritual conflict, and give him the victory over his worst enemies. For these two great blessings we may confidently ask God, and he will assuredly grant them. It is much more certain that God our Father will provide for our real necessities, and will strengthen our souls with all needful Divine influences, than it is certain that the kindest human father will not mock his beloved children when they appeal for his bounty. With holy boldness, then, may we go to the throne of grace, and pray for all those things that are requisite alike for the body as for the soul. But we may carry this argument with which our Lord has supplied us into other spheres, and may thus "assure our hearts" concerning him.
II. FROM OUR FORGING TO HIS . We may have a difficulty in realizing the great truth that God is willing to forgive us all our sin and to reinstate us fully in his favor. But if as sons we have been forgiven by our parents, or if as parents we have forgiven our children and taken them back into the fullness of our favor, we may argue safely from the human fatherhood to the Divine. If we, "being evil," with such small and scanty magnanimity as we possess, can forgive freely, how much more can he—he whose ways of mercy are as much higher than ours as the heaven is higher than the earth!
III. FROM OUR GUIDANCE TO HIS . How impossible it is for any of us that is a father to refuse guidance to one of our children when he comes to ask it of us! Only the most heartless, the most unfatherly, could think of declining it. And since that is so with us, in all our human imperfection, how positive it is that the Divine Father will guide us by the shaping of his providence, or by the prompting of his Spirit, when we see not our way, but make known our request unto him to "lead us all our journey through"!
IV. FROM OUR SOLICITUDE TO HIS . One of the very greatest questions we propose to ourselves is this—Does God care enough for each one of us to renew our life in another realm when we leave this world? Jesus Christ's declaration is the answer to this question ( John 5:24-29 ). But we find strong, reassuring help here. How much do we care for the continuance of the life of our children? How much do we not care? What words will express our parental solicitude that death should not strike them down, that they should live , and that their life should be large, free, blessed? If that is our concern for them, what will not God our Father desire for us? What will he not care that we do not perish in the arms of death, but have everlasting life in the embrace of his own heavenly love?—C.
Lessons on prayer.
Luke takes us from "the one thing needful," which Mary's loving waiting on her Lord illustrates, to a kindred subject, viz. the lessons on prayer which Jesus gave his disciples. He had been enjoying what we should now call a " retreat " with them, and had himself led the devotions of the little band. Struck by the beauty of his petitions, one of his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, as John had taught his disciples. To this appeal Jesus responds at once, and in doing so gives them first a form , which was also meant to be a model ; and secondly, a theory of prayer, in which we shall have little difficulty in finding its true philosophy. Let us look at these two matters in their order.
I. THE FORM AND MODEL OF PRAYER COMMONLY CALLED THE LORD 'S PRAYER . (Verses 2-4.) Jesus is represented here as saying to the disciples, "When ye pray, say ," while in Matthew 6:9 it is "After this manner therefore pray ye.' It is evident from this that he meant the words to answer the double purpose—to be a form in constant use, and to be a model constantly imitated. It is consequently most important to look carefully into its contents. And here we have to notice that it sets intercession before petition for personal benefits. Prayer thus becomes a great instrument for rendering us disinterested and unselfish. When modelled on this peerless prayer of Christ, it carries us at once into the wide interests of God's kingdom before we devote any consideration to petty personal interests. The genius of prayer is thus seen to be the subordination of self to the universal interest. The hallowing of the Father's precious Name comes first, then the coming of his kingdom, and then the doing of his will on earth as in heaven. What a statesmanlike view we are thus led to take of the general problem before we even think of the particular and personal problem! The moment we have in our closet entered intelligently and heartily into these three petitions, we have got out of the narrowness of petty cares and troubles into the broad expanse of the Divine love. We are taken to mountain-tops at once, and from the sublime heights of Divine compassion we are led to intercede for the world below us, that it may be as speedily as possible transmuted into something like what heaven happily is. Then for the minor personal petitions, these refer to daily bread, and daily pardon, and daily deliverance from evil—the personal blessings, in fact, which fit the individual for aiding the wider interest and subserving the universal blessing. We are thus warranted in asking for bread to sustain the body, for pardon to relieve the heavy-laden soul, for deliverance amid the further temptations to which we may be ,exposed. And in the petition for pardon, it is clearly implied that forgiveness can only be realized by a forgiving spirit. The soul which will not forgive a brother who asks for forgiveness shows that forgiveness has not been and cannot be realized. In fact, the unforgiving spirit is, as far as we can judge, the unpardonable sin (of. Matthew 18:21-35 ).
II. OUR LORD 'S THEORY OF PRAYER . ( Matthew 6:5-13 .) When we analyze our Lord's argument here, we find it to be analogical ; and the truth is that we are shut up in this matter to analogical reasoning. It can be shown that it is to analogy we owe our knowledge of human beings, of the lower animals, and finally of God above us. In order to ally other than analogical knowledge, we should require to become incarnated, so to speak, in the other being whose condition we desire to know. Seeing that this is impossible, we are shut up to the argument from analogy upon such a subject, £ Our Lord, then, looked around him, and saw that efficacious prayer was embedded as a fact in the very constitution of society. Petition is the form which conscious need assumes in social intercourse; and a response comes forth with more or less promptitude and grace, and demonstrates that the prayer has proved efficacious. It is further to be noticed that our Lord, in pointing out efficacious prayer as existing in the society of his time, gives us first an example of efficacious intercession , and then an example of efficacious personal petition. His illustrations consequently follow the lines laid down in his prescribed form of prayer. To encourage intercession, he presents the picture of the importunate friend begging successfully a supper for an unexpected and hungry guest; to encourage personal petition, he presents the picture of hungry children crying to their father for food; and he would have us to reason from the efficacious prayer among men to the certainty of prayer being efficacious when presented unto God. Let us look at the illustrations in the order given. A kindly, hospitable man is about to retire to rest with his household, having in the last meal consumed the small stock of food which his humble house contains; when, lo! to his surprise, a friend arrives after a long journey, hungry as well as weary—a most fitting object, therefore, of hospitality. What is to be done? He quickly decides. Having most probably arranged for the washing of the guest's feet, he passes out into the darkness, and seeks the door of a friend who can, he believes, lend him as many loaves as he needs. It is not a personal want he is about to urge, but the need of a hungry and weary friend. He stands before the door, consequently, in the simple majesty of disinterestedness. He begins to knock, but at first receives no encouragement. "Trouble me not," says his friend within: "the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee." Nothing daunted, however, and pocketing all his pride, for he knows well it is no selfish plea he is urging, he resolves to knock on till his beleaguered friend capitulates. At length importunity triumphs; the friend in bed sees plainly that the only chance of rest that night for himself and his children is to give in as soon as possible, and let the importunate petitioner have his way; and so he rises and gives him as many loaves as he needs. Here, then, according to our Lord, is a case of efficacious intercessory prayer as between men. It may not receive an immediate answer, but importunity secures an ultimate answer. We are warranted, therefore, in rising from efficacious intercessory prayer among men to the assurance that intercessory prayer will prove efficacious with God. God may keep us waiting, not certainly from any selfish consideration, but for our own good, but ultimately he will respond to every unselfish intercession. Hence our Lord reaches the assurance, " And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you," etc. The second case brought before us by Christ is efficacious prayer in the family circle. Hungry children present prayers to parents for food, for bread, for fish, for eggs, as among the humbler classes in Palestine; and the fathers who are asked for such things never think of mocking the hungry ones with a stone, a serpent, or a scorpion. The earthly parent hears and answers the children's prayer; the prayer is efficacious. So will it be, argues our Lord, as we appeal for the needful blessings to our Father in heaven. "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" It is surely instructive to think that earthly parents, in the midst of a "reign of law," which they only partially understand, can yet know how to give good things to their children. Be the times ever so hard, they can generally manage to give the little ones bread and keep them off the parish. Is it not reasonable to argue that the heavenly Father, who knows all " the reign of law ," because its Author and Lord, can give the Holy Spirit, or any minor and needful blessing his children crave, unto the prayerful? We have only, in conclusion, to emphasize the fact that the Holy Spirit is the great need of human souls. Let us ask him as God's supreme Gift, and we shall assuredly receive him even in Pentecostal power. It is this Gift which individuals and Churches need to make them truly useful!—R.M.E.