Jesus gives the disciples—and the crowds listening in—a prayer guide, which includes big things, like a call for a whole new world: “Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s a prayer for the transformation of all things, for “this earthly life to swing up into heaven,” as Thomas Müntzer, the sixteenth-century radical reformer, would put it: for our lives “to be totally transfigured” into heavenly life.
The prayer isn’t only about big things, like the transformation of the world; it also has to do with basic things, ordinary things, mundane existence, like bread, food. “Give us this day our daily bread.” This prayer is about having enough to eat, like the story of manna in the wilderness, when God provided food for the Israelites—not too much, not too little, but just enough for everyone to live. Our daily bread, where every meal is like manna.
This prayer is also about controversial issues, like economics and politics, the stuff of our personal and public lives, like money and property. “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” The Greek word for debts here means, well, debts. Like a mortgage, like a school loan, like credit cards. You could turn it into a spiritual metaphor if you wanted to, so the word could be about sinning against someone, which is probably a helpful thing to do with the passage. But the literal meaning is about money, about debt forgiveness, about interest rates and investment strategies—the whole economic life of money, reaching from our bank accounts to global financial markets. Debts make the world go round.
“Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus didn’t come up with this on his own, on the spot; he’s reminding people of God’s law, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, about jubilee: “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts,” it says in Deuteronomy 15, “every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor.” A lot of people would be happy and a lot of people would be angry if all the debts were forgiven. To enact this prayer would involve an economic collapse, mostly because our modern systems of finance are built upon legacies of injustice, a long history of the exploitation of land and people, legacies of debt.
The same goes for trespasses in the prayer: “to forgive others their trespasses.” This is about trespassing—crossing into territory without authorization, entering a piece of land without permission. Like I said earlier, to live out this prayer would make a lot of people happy and a lot of people angry—because our world is founded on private property: property lines marking one home from another, what’s mine from what’s yours, not to mention the borders that establish countries and the people who trespass invisible lines in deserts. In 1986 president Ronald Reagan signed into law an immigration bill that forgave trespasses, like this prayer talks about—almost 3 million people were granted amnesty, people who had entered the United States without official permission. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you.”
So, this prayer is about big things and little things, about good things and hard things, about human needs and desires and power, about daily food and money and borders. In other words, this prayer has to do with our lives, with all of who we are, with our struggles and hopes, with our wants and necessities. Everything is included in Jesus’ prayer—all of the messy confusion of our lives, of our society, of our daily existence. There is nothing outside the domain of prayer—all of our passing thoughts are included, our wandering hopes, our rambling longings.
That’s why the distractions are the most interesting parts, when we pray—the thoughts that interrupt us when we’re trying to focus on the holy things. Victor White, a Dominican friar, used to say that the distractions are revelations because they confront us with what we really care about. The interruptions should be the focus of our attention. That’s where all of the important stuff happens. Distractions point out to us that we are praying for the wrong things, because we’re trying to ignore what we really care about—not the pious things that we think we should care about, not the important matters that we want to convince ourselves to care about, but the central concerns of our lives, our real concerns and desires interrupting our holy prayers.
God doesn’t need our prayers, especially our half-hearted pious prayers. Instead, God is interested in us, in who we are, who we really are, not who we pretend to be, as if we could fake God out, as if we could trick God into thinking that we only have righteous thoughts, that we only want justice in the world—as if world hunger keeps us up at night.
I don’t think the point of prayer is to force God to care about something that God wouldn’t already care about if we weren’t here praying about it—as if we need to bug God in order to get anything good to happen in the world, as if God doesn’t really care about the world more than we do. To pray for those reasons means that we think God is lost without us, that the world is lost without us, that God is as easily distracted as we are. Or it means that we think our spiritual lives are all about faking God into thinking that we are angels, occupied only with holy matters—or to think that God gets a kick at listening to us battle our way through all the impious things in our heads until we finally get to a state of unselfishness, a prayer-life purged of all ungodliness.
Those sorts of prayers have to do with a spirituality that is all about posturing before God and each other. And Jesus says that that’s a bad idea: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases,” he says at the beginning of our passage. People who do such things “think that they will be heard because of their many words.” That’s just a waste of your own time, Jesus says, because God “knows what you need before you ask.”
If God already knows, then what’s the point of prayer? That’s the question we’re wrestling with. If God knows what needs to be done in the world, then what’s the point of it all? If God already knows what we need, then why ask?
I think there are two good answers to this question—you might have other good answers, which I hope you’d share with me, with us. In the meantime, here two reasons for prayer that make sense to me.
First, prayer is how we come to recognize our dependence on God, that God is like a parent, and we are God’s children. We live, we survive, we breathe, because God has given us life. All that we have is a gift, a gift from the creator of all things—our breath, our words, our thoughts, all depend on the overflowing generosity of God, the one who holds the whole world in their hands. Prayer lets us feel our way into our dependency on God—to know ourselves as children, sustained by God’s care.
I think all of that is right. It’s the correct theological response, given everything else we say about God. And maybe that way of thinking makes sense to you, for your spiritual life. But if it doesn’t, I think there’s a second good answer. Here it is: Prayer is pointless, a waste, and that’s why we don’t like doing it. We’d rather do something productive or enjoyable or restful, anything that makes sense, given what we need for our lives, for our work, for our relationships, for our self-care. Prayer isn’t any of those because it doesn’t do anything; it’s the sort of thing that in the end gets us nowhere, in terms of progress in goodness—for ourselves or for the world. There’s nothing to show for it, nothing achieved through it. Instead, prayer is like friends wasting time together, the aimlessness of lovers in their extravagant wastefulness of time with each other—to be together for no reason other than love, for purposeless delight.
That’s why it’s silly to pretend to care about the important things in the world when we pray—as if we’re posturing before God, putting up a façade, as if God doesn’t already love us the way we are. We don’t need to convince God that we care about the right things. God would rather for us to be us, to be present as who we are, to say what we want instead of what we think we should want. Because God actually likes us and would rather us start where we are, with what we care about, with our embarrassing desires, with our shame and excitements and fears—with our distractions. Interruptions are gifts because they help us remember what we really care about, the hidden things, perhaps, that would be helpful to spend some time with, before God, instead of ignoring them, instead of dismissing them, instead of pretending that you’ve got your life all figured out, instead of running from yourself every time you let an honest thought dash across your mind.
You know you’re doing it right, in terms of a prayer life, when you aren’t distracted anymore—not because you’ve pounded them into submission, but because you’ve learned to let yourself follow where the distractions lead: a wandering with God into whatever it is that has you concerned.
Think of prayer as an act of patience, with yourself, before God—patience before a mystery, the enigma of your self before the gentle silence we call God, the peace that passes understanding, the great cloud of unknowing, the radiance of God’s darkness.
In an interview many years ago, Dan Rather asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta about her prayer life. He asked, “Mother Teresa, you are a woman of prayer; what is it that you say to God when you pray?” She answered: “Well, I don’t say anything; I just listen.” Dan Rather followed with another question: “What is it that God says to you during prayer?” Mother Teresa thought for a moment: “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.”
That’s the invitation of prayer—that kind of aimless, purposeless exploration of God’s interest in the messiness of our desires, in the confusion of our wants, in all the thoughts we’ve convinced ourselves we shouldn’t have while we pray.[i]
[i] My sermon is indebted to two of Herbert McCabe’s sermons: “Prayer” in God, Christ, and Us (London, UK: Continuum, 2003): 103-108; and “Prayer” in God Matters (London, UK: Continuum, 1987): 215-225. For the story about Mother Teresa, see Scott Cairns, “The Gift of Vocation,” Crux, vol. 42 no. 4 (Winter 2006): 21-23.