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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Futility and the Lord's Prayer

Sunday School today will look at Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and Luke 1:11-13

Ecclesiastes (based on the Greek word for church) is a "counter" work to much of the Scripture. Qoheleth is the feminine active participle of the word for assemble in Hebrew. It means public speaker or preacher. The first words hebel which conveys the image of a breath; hence transient, vain. Five times we hear this word. Vain, Vain, says the preacher. vain. vain, and all vain. This is not going to be a typical uplifting sermon. The author is not a provider of pious platitudes. but a harsh "realism" pronouncing the limits of human understanding.

The Hebrew is distinctive (Sibley Towner in The New Interpreter's Bible, volume 5) and probably indicative of the later date of its composition. Scholars think it best situated in post-exile times. Influences of Aramaic pervade the text, indicating a time when the Semitic neighbors of Israelite have significant contact impacting the language (Ezra actually contains sections written in Aramaic). In addition, the work has a philosophical bent not usually found in the Jewish Bible, and appears more at home in the context of the Hellenized (Greek influenced) period of the 4th or 3rd centuries before Christ.

The basic theme of the first chapter is a repetition of the "futility" of things, which is also a theme of the entire work. The author sees death casting a pall of hopelessness on all of life. There were many first century rabbis who debated whether this work (The canonicity of Song of Songs and Ezekiel were similarly questioned) was inspired of God. The problems included contradictions within the text and a general tone which seems at odds with the general message in the Jewish Scripture.

For our purposes I think this rather downbeat message today might be seen as a "picture" of why 
we need a Savior! The pairing with today's Gospel is especially fruitful in that prayer is the human experience of reaching outside the futility of this world and calling out to the One who saves.
The Lord's Prayer is probably intended as a model for prayer. There are three ancient texts which include it. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each have a version, and the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles which is usually dated in New Testament times), which is similar to Matthew. One value of the differences is it provides insight into the composition of the Gospels.

Matthew has gathered up three chapters of Jesus' words into what we call "The Sermon on the Mount." Much of the same material, often times modified, is found sprinkled throughout Luke. Matthew inserted the prayer into a three-fold exhortation "don't do your acts of piety to be seen." When you give do it in secret so the Father sees it. The parallel is broken by the Lord's prayer, which is also more liturgical ("who art in heaven"), an additional phrase "your will be done," and the verbs are in the aorist (indicating one time action). Mt provides us with a prayer for the end of the world and God's deliverance of His people.

Luke has set his version of the prayer in the context of Jesus praying. Prior to this, Luke's Jesus had sent out the "seventy" on mission. 10:25-42 begins with a lawyer "testing" Jesus with questions about the commandments. It is worth noting that the  Greek word will reappear in the Lord's prayer (it can be translated test or tempt). Luke combines love of God and neighbor as a single commandment, then illustrates it with a parable found only in Luke, "the God Samaritan." Then Jesus visits two sisters and Martha complains about Mary. After this Jesus is some place in prayer.

The prayer Jesus provides is a thoroughly Jewish prayer. The Kaddish prayer for example calls out to make God's name holy. Praying for the Kingdom is a  plea for deliverance from this world's ruler and for God to reign. The kingship of God is is a recurring theme in the Jewish Scriptures. By changing the verbs from aorist to present tense, Luke shifts the meaning of the petition into daily life. The kind of bread we pray for is uncertain. Unfortunately, epiousian, is not found in any other ancient Greek writings so the translation is based on etymology and three probable meanings are "daily", "future" and "necessary." Luke also uses the kath' hemeran  which means 'day by day' or 'each day' and so he would have us pray for our daily needs rather than a once and for all giving of the "Bread" which probably means the heavenly Messianic banquet at the end of time. Luke changes "debt" to "sin" in reference to our offenses against God. Ironically, the Lord's prayer as we know it uses "trespasses" which is found in neither Biblical work. In Luke we sin against God and forgive the debts of others.The different verses include themes found throughout the Gospel and remind us that this prayer is fully integrated into the life of a believer. It flows out of the faith of the Jews, the faith of Jesus and encompasses the faith life of Christians.

What follows in verses 5-8 is an example of human request from real life. Borrowing from the neighbors was much more common in my youth, when I regularly seemed to be getting an egg or slice of butter, or fielding a similar request. One is struck by the poverty of the people. The request is for three loaves because "I have nothing" to feed a guest. To have a home empty of food makes the request more desperate. The continued requesting would have offended against societal norms. Jesus' punch line is that human beings will cave in on requests to quiet the intrusion (similar to the widow and judge parable). In rabbinic argument it is customary to begin with the lesser (human) and build to the greater (God). The Lord says we should be inspired to ask, seek and knock because we will receive. This is not an exhortation to beg God endlessly, it is a declaration of trust in God and a belief that He wants to provide for His children. In spite of human wickedness, parents provide for their children. So much more God the Father will provide for His.

One of the central tenants of Jesus' own faith was the the Father hears him. This has been an endless theme of the Sunday School teaching the last four months. It is amazing how often this theme pops up.  Jesus seems intent on making us trust God in ways that we are reluctant to do. We have a nominal faith (in name) which is no doubt sincere--we would like to believe God hears us; but we pray in the 'name' of Jesus (nominal means a name) but not in "The Name (in union with His will)" of Jesus. To pray the Lord's prayer in communion with Jesus is to pray for God to rule as King.

If one does not pray from a heart centered in Jesus then fish and egg, snake and scorpion are less easy to differentiate. We sometimes pray for snakes and scorpions without realizing it, because we are fallible sinners. We do not see the whole picture. There are unexpected consequences. Prayer needs to be centered in Gospel values and the heart of Jesus. If we seek God then in our prayers we will be lead to pray for the good things we really need. Note that for Luke the gift of God is the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost event in Acts is the fulfillment of the gift giving. In our prayer, we must ask for and open up to the Life/Breath of God--His Spirit. As we conclude I invite you to pray for the Holy Spirit, trusting the Father wants to give you this gift and is giving you this gift now.

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