Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How to pray: Jesus' advice to those advocating for social justice

During our Bible study at the home of Ross and Gloria Kinsler, retired Presbyterian missionaries who have written a book called "Jubilee Justice and the Struggle for Life," we looked at Luke 11, in which Jesus' disciples ask him "how to pray." This chapter deeply touched me as an advocate for those in need.

From the context it appears that the disciples were mainly interested in petitionary prayer, and they were requesting a formula to help them ask (and receive) what they want from God. So Jesus responded with what has come to be know as the "Lord's prayer," and explained how prayers works and what we need to pray for. 

Our little group of activists tends to interpret the Bible from a social justice perspective. Thanks to Ched Myers, who founded this group twenty plus years ago, I have come to see "give us this day our daily prayer"  as referring to the manna passage in Exodus 16 wherein God rains down from heaven enough food for the daily use of the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. Jill quoted this passage in a recent talk she gave about God's "sharing economy":

When they measured [manna] by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
This passage may be what Jesus was alluding to when he said, "Give us this day our daily bread." Give us what we need, neither more or less, just as God gave the Hebrews what they needed in the wilderness. He may also have had in mind a passage from Proverbs, as Shayne Claiborne notes in his book, The Irresistible Revolution:
 "Give me neither poverty nor riches. Give me only my daily bread. That I not be full and deny You and say, "Who is the LORD?" (Proverbs 30:8))
According to Jill's recent sermon, the manna passage is at the heart of the "sharing economy." Finally, it's worth noting that Jesus says "give us," not "give me," daily bread. It's about feeding the community, not just individuals. 

Jesus then tells us to forgive debts, one of the major themes of his prophetic ministry. As Jill often points out, when Jesus first announced his ministry in his hometown, he declared that he has come to proclaim "good news to the poor" and the "acceptable year of the Lord," which most scholars agree is Jubilee, a time when debts are forgiven and land redistributed. 

The Torah makes clear that it is wrong to extract interest from the poor, including those who are aliens and guest workers in our country:
"If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you.” Lev. 25: 35-36
 In the Beatitudes, Jesus takes this teaching to its ultimate extreme: "If anyone asks for money, give him what he asks for, expecting nothing in return." 

The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35) can be understood in an economic as well as spiritual context, as a member of our Bible study pointed out. In this parable a servant to a super rich master has run up a stupendous debt and is forgiven his debt. He then turns around and puts the squeeze on a poor man who owes him a relatively miniscule debt. This story seems very relevant today as we consider how Wall Street bankers behaved after they were bailed out by the government, and then foreclosed on low-income homeowners, causing many to lose all the assets. See

Jesus then gives examples of how to ask for what we need, and how God responds to our requests. He tells a parable about a man who has visitors at his home but lacks food to feed them. Since hospitality is a core teaching and practice of the Jewish faith, he feels obligated to go to his neighbor at midnight and ask for three loaves of bread. His neighbor is reluctant to get up but the man is persistent. The word can also be translated as "impudent" or "shameless." It is pretty shameless to pound on one's neighbor's door at midnight, waking up him and his family. The neighbor isn't in the mood to give, but does so only because of this unrelenting demand.

When I read this passage, I realized that this is the situation in which many of us who advocate for the poor and for immigrants find ourselves. We are demanding that our neighbors give generously when they are not in the mood. But Jesus wants us to be bold, and confident, in making these requests:

"Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door will be opened."

As a lobbyist, I know the importance of persistence. Jill and I often go to City Council meetings, and I go to Congressional offices; and we return over and over again since that's the way to show commitment and to build relationships necessary to change hearts and policies. 

This passage can also be interpreted to mean "If I ask for what I want, God will give it to me." Jesus assures us there is nothing wrong with asking God for what we want and need. Most of Jesus' disciples were poor and needed to ask for help from God and from others from time to time. Even privileged advocates like Jill and me have needs that only God can meet.  As Jill pointed out, it takes courage to ask for what we need. She added, "And sometimes I don't even know what I want!" I know from personal experience how hard it is to ask for help, even from a friend.

But in this context, Jesus is telling us not just to ask for what we want, but also for what the strangers in our midst want and need. 

In other words, Jesus is giving us encouragement to be advocates on behalf of others. Advocating for others can be challenging, as I discovered when I worked for seven years to get one homeless, handicapped woman housed. As a social justice advocate, I am grateful for Jesus' assurance that our demands for justice will ultimately prevail. 

This brings us to the ultimate ask. What should we be asking for? Clearly not for snakes or scorpions, but for something that will truly nurture and empower us. Here Jesus surprises us. What Jesus says we need to ask for is the Holy Spirit. It is worth noting that one of the words for the Holy Spirit is "the advocate."
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)
The Holy Spirit has many names--teacher, healer, comforter--but the word "advocate" reminds us that the Holy Spirit is prophetic.  Advocacy brings comfort to the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. The comfortable don't want to be awakened at midnight and told that their neighbor is in need. But the Holy Spirit gives us the boldness and confidence, and the wisdom, to speak out on behalf of those who need an advocate. Hopefully, we can also help those in need to get in touch with the Holy Spirit so they can also be advocates on their own behalf.

This is what we should pray for, says Jesus. We need to practice God's sharing economy ("forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others"); and we need to ask for the courage to advocate on behalf of  "God's kingdom"--the kingdom in which God is in charge, making sure that everyone has their "daily bread": enough food, clothing, health care and housing to live a life of dignity. It is encouraging to know that if we ask, God will answer. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled" (Matthew 5:6).
Loving God, give us the confidence to ask for your Holy Spirit to guide us  and to make us advocates on behalf of those who are in need. Give us the boldness to ask our neighbors to help us to help others. Teach us to trust that you will give us what we need, and forgive us our shortcomings, as long as we are willing to be your faithful servants. 


11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.[b]
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.[c]
And lead us not into temptation.[d]’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity[e] he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


  1. Luke 11:2 Some manuscripts Our Father in heaven
  2. Luke 11:2 Some manuscripts come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
  3. Luke 11:4 Greek everyone who is indebted to us
  4. Luke 11:4 Some manuscripts temptation, but deliver us from the evil one
  5. Luke 11:8 Or yet to preserve his good name
  6. Luke 11:11 Some manuscripts for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for
New International Version (NIV)
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment