A few months ago there was news coverage of a report summarizing
studies of whether prayer made any difference in recovery from illness.
Groups of pray-ers were recruited to pray for certain desperately
ill patients, while other groups (the “controls”) had
no one to pray for them. Then, later, outcomes were compared. There
was no difference. The prayed-for patients fared no better than
the “controls”. “See”, the scoffers said
“It’s all a delusion. Prayer doesn’t change anything.
You’re just fooling yourselves . . .” Apart from the
simplistic silliness of the study and the evident lack of understanding
by the investigators that prayer changes mainly the pray-er, this
episode provides us an occasion to take a look at our own understanding
of what we call the prayer of petition. How, specifically, do we
interpret Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel?
It’s helpful, I think, to examine their context. Today’s
passage follows immediately on the disciples’ asking Jesus
to tell them what to ask God for. (“Pray” and “prayer”
in the New Testament virtually always mean petition.) Jesus responds
to their request with the five petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
The disciples are instructed to ask God to bring about his kingdom
in our world – now – and to spare them the tribulation
and temptation that will accompany the transition from the human
way of doing things to God’s way.
In today’s reading, Jesus reassures his disciples that, if
they really ask, God will do it. Do what? The context doesn’t
suggest that Jesus is urging his disciples to pray for a successful
surgical operation, or getting a new job, or any of the many other
things that would generally be considered “good”. The
focus is God’s kingdom. In Matthew’s Gospel the setting
of the Lord’s Prayer is even more explicit. In Matthew’s
context, Jesus goes so far as to tell his followers not
to ask God for food and clothing and other obvious necessities.
“God knows you need those things” He says, and goes
on to add “He who takes care of even the birds of the air
surely will look after you.”
No, Jesus instructs us to pray that God inaugurate his kingdom –
knowing that the prayer will change us. It is we who have
to change if the kingdom is to come. Gerhard Lohfink, the German
scripture scholar, has gone so far as to suggest that the kingdom’s
coming has been delayed simply because we haven’t really wanted
it. We’re too comfortable with the status quo, with
our conventional pieties and devotions – afraid, too, of what
might be asked of us if the kingdom were to be realized here tomorrow.
The clinical investigators posed the wrong question about prayer
and looked for the wrong outcomes. Have we been doing much better?