One day, when Jesus had finished praying, one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach him to pray. The exchange is recorded in Luke 11:1-13 . I’m really glad that disciple asked that question! If I was around when Jesus was on the earth, that would have been one of my first questions. How are we supposed to talk to an all-knowing, all-powerful being that created us? What do we even say?? Doesn’t He know everything we are thinking already? How could we ever persuade Him to do anything?
In his response, Jesus starts with the Lord’s Prayer. For many of us, that is so familiar that we just recite it by rote and don’t really think about what Jesus is teaching us through it. As an example prayer, Jesus tells us to start off with praising God and then agreeing with Him. Then asking for our basic needs. Then realizing we need His forgiveness, and recognizing that we need to forgive others. Finally, asking Him to not lead us into temptation. These are critical elements for our own prayer. But it is also significant how short and simple the prayer is. In Mt 6:7-8 Jesus says “When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” God wants us to acknowledge our need by asking Him, but we don’t need to go on and on like we have to explain it to Him.
Because Jesus knew that some of us would be wondering how we could possibly influence God by our requests, he tells a parable about persistent requests in Luke 11:5-8. A man is asking a neighbor for some food to serve to an unexpected guest of his. The unwilling neighbor finally capitulates because the man is such a pest. The Greek word used to describe the man has 2 parts to its meaning: persistence and shamelessness or audacity. This is meaningful, because for us to even consider coming to the Almighty God and pressing Him for something requires audacity, and we wouldn’t dare do that unless instructed by Him to do so. We’ll see more of that in another passage in a moment.
Parables are an analogy for just the main point Jesus is trying to make. Not all of the aspects of the parable story apply to God. In this case, the parable is not implying that God is unwilling or reluctant to grant our requests. In fact the reluctant neighbor in the story just makes the point more strongly. If a person like that would grant a request of someone who is very persistent, how much more so would a loving God.
To reiterate this, Jesus continues on with the familiar passage of “Ask, and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-13) We need to believe that God is not reluctant to grant our requests, but eager to, like a loving earthly father giving his children good things. Note that the context of this whole passage on prayer is us asking for good things, things that are good from God’s perspective. This is not a formula for getting financial wealth, perfect health, etc.
Jesus makes his point on prayer more emphatically in Mt 15:21-28 , although that particular event is confusing to many people. When Jesus is travelling to the northern-most reaches of Israel where there were also quite a few Gentiles, a Gentile woman was repeatedly begging Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. At first, Jesus was ignoring her, but the woman persisted. When Jesus did finally respond to her, he simply said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Translation: you are a Gentile and that’s not who I’m here to preach and minister to. That was true, Jesus’ ministry while on this earth was almost exclusively to the Jews. It was only after he ascended to heaven that his apostles, through the power of the Holy Spirit, brought the Gospel to the Gentiles. This was confirmed by Jesus in Mt 10 when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the Gospel. He instructed them: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But back to the account of the Gentile woman. She was not to be deterred. She asked again for Jesus’ help. And again Jesus gave her a negative response: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Translation: Israel is the chosen people of God, so they get priority in hearing the good news of the Gospel and receiving the blessings of the Kingdom of God. If I had made it even this far with Jesus, at this point I would have made a fast retreat. This incredible prophet, who had the power to stop the wind and waves and heal the sick, seemed to be telling her to take a hike! So this is where I am amazed by this woman and her response: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She made no argument that she wasn’t spiritually a second-class citizen, or even that Jesus’ priority shouldn’t be the Jews. So why did she persist? Why did she still ask Jesus for healing for her daughter, even though he had seemingly already refused her request twice?? It was because she knew that God’s power was so immense, and His love so generous, that even though she wasn’t the target of Jesus current mission, just being nearby would be enough for some of his power and love to overflow to her daughter and be plenty to heal her!! Wow, that’s not usually how I approach God!
And she was clearly right, because Jesus immediately commended her “great faith” and healed her daughter. God wants us to keep praying for good things and never give up, not because we are a whining, spoiled, brat, but because we have utter confidence in the power and generosity of God. It is not that we deserve anything good, but that God is loving and generous! (I John 4:7-14) When we come to God in prayer, He doesn’t wants us to be timid about asking for good things, but he does want us to know the one we are talking to and what He is truly like! May these words of Jesus substantially alter our thinking about God when we come to Him in prayer.