Persistent Prayer

Persistent Prayer

Seventeenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Bruno Clifton shows us how Jesus teaches us to pray in His direct and open relationship with his Father.

It is a feature of Luke’s gospel that Jesus is often to be found praying. And, it is no surprise that having observed this frequent activity of Jesus, his disciples are moved to want to pray like him. So, Jesus takes the opportunity not only to teach them a prayer, but also to teach them the way to pray: persistently. To pray persistently is to pray like Jesus. What does that mean?

Our friend that Jesus imagines in today’s parable would seem to be in danger of losing that title. In the midst of an awkward situation someone has come to him for help and the implication is that this help only arrives after much asking.

‘I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs’ Luke 11,8.

But who is really making unreasonable demands on the friendship? The man who has gently put his children to bed and is now trying to sleep? Or the friend who is unorganised and demanding and bangs on people’s doors at midnight? And, what is more, keeps banging on them, until he gets what he wants!

Now, Jesus puts the granting of the man’s request down to his ‘persistence’, but there is a further nuance to the word Jesus uses. It is a particular type of persistence, an impudent or shameless persistence. It seems as if the reward comes to the man because he is shameless in asking and not simply because he persevered.

We might be able to see what to make of this interpretation if we look at Abraham’s entreaty in the book of Genesis that God not destroy the city of Sodom. Abraham knows how impertinent he is being in this dialogue with God, for he uses such rhetoric as he perseveres in asking for more and more.

‘Let me undertake to speak to my Lord, I who am dust and ashes’ Gen 18,27.31

‘Please let not my Lord be angry if I speak’ Gen 18,30.32

Abraham uses these idioms twice each, to colour his persistent petitions. Like the friend banging on the door, Abraham knows he is trying his luck with God, but he keeps going. He is shameless in his persistence.

The twist in the tale, of course, is that although God saves the one righteous man of Sodom and his family, he still destroys the city. But this should not distract us from the role that Abraham takes upon himself. It is the role of a man who has embarked on life with God, in relationship with God. Indeed, at the beginning of this scene Abraham goes with the LORD as he leaves Abraham’s hospitality to ‘send him on his way’ Gen 18,16. And in this relationship, Abraham has the boldness, the impudence to ask God for things repeatedly; and God is there.

Jesus presents this relationship with a stark simplicity: ‘ask, and it will be given to you’. This is the trajectory of the discourse here. Following the teaching of a prayer that encourages us to speak directly and simply to God as Father, Jesus gives examples of what this means by looking at our relationships here on earth. If human beings come through for each other, our friends, our parents, how much more will God, if we recognise that we are his children? This is the logic of the simple teaching of Jesus.

But, God himself has already made this promise:

‘But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you’ Isa 49,14-15.

Jesus has come to deepen our understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God. He has come to fulfil the promise of God. It is only the one who is like Jesus who prays like Jesus, who has no shame before God to keep on asking. Namely, one who is a child of God. Jesus teaches us that prayer is about simply and confidently calling God, Father. And because he is our Father, we can be bold and persistent.

Readings: Genesis 18:20-32 | Colossians 2:12-14 | Luke 11:1-13

fr Bruno is Vice-Regent of Blackfriars Hall and Studium, Oxford, where he teaches Biblical Studies.