A closer look at Luke (Part 10): Prayer and woe

Luke 11

Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders of the day was often antagonistic, and that is a key component of the stories in today’s section of Luke. One thing to keep in mind as we read about Jesus’ often bitter interactions with these leaders is the contrast between his tone and message toward them and his compassion for all others. This exposes a key component to his heart and mission: an extreme openness to all who might be considered outsiders, or in some cases, followers, compared to the aggressive rebukes of the leaders who had guided them away from the heart of God.

I think this is something we should always maintain at the front of our thoughts about Jesus: it wasn’t the people we would expect that he rebuked, and it wasn’t the people we would expect that he invited openly. Our current culture is perhaps as divided as it has ever been, creating an extreme mentality of “us vs. them,” and this absolutely holds true among people who profess to follow Christ. Perhaps we should take a step back and consider humbly whether our exclusive message and harsh judgments towards the words and actions of certain groups really align with the way Jesus interacted with people. I find it incredibly telling that the only people Jesus consistently rebukes are religious leaders who, as he maintained, should know better.

Anyway, this chapter begins with his disciples asking him to teach them how to pray. The “Lord’s Prayer” is one of the most well-known Biblical passages, but the version Luke recounts is much more concise than the one most have memorized: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation” (2-4).

I think we a few key points that reveal some of the ways we’ve missed the mark with our current “Christian” culture. First, the beginning of the prayer is a practice in humility, openness, and a desire for God’s kingdom. Humility is a trait that very few non-Christians would ascribe to Christians in our current culture. As for “your kingdom come,” we must not misinterpret this. Modern American “Christianity” has defined for itself an idea of what it considers to be a “Christian nation,” but if we were to go point-by-point through each of the pieces such a nation prioritizes, every single one contradicts the kingdom of God Jesus has been proclaiming throughout the first 10 chapters of this gospel. We cannot ascribe our modern idea of a “Christian nation” to this reference to “your kingdom come.” That is a fatal error, as we see in our own culture and the fact that the words and actions of “Christians” are bringing about death, suffering, and an exodus from the faith.

No, in order to honestly pray to God and express our desire for “your kingdom come,” we must recognize what that kingdom actually looks like. At this point in the text, Jesus has already given us a very clear idea. It doesn’t look like anything we have in place today (or really ever have throughout history). It definitely doesn’t look like the “idealized” America espoused by so many “Christians” in our world.

Next in the prayer, Jesus directs us to request our daily bread. This recalls the story of God providing the Israelites with manna in the desert as told in Exodus 16. The key component is that it is our daily bread, as the Israelites were directed to only ever collect that day’s portion (or a second day’s portion on the sixth day) rather than hording extra. In fact, when some did gather more than they needed, “it bred worms and rotted” (Exodus 16:20).

What is our world if not materialistic and greedy? The entire premise of only seeking out and collecting what we need to get us through the day is entirely foreign to us. But this is what we are directed to ask of God. As we’ve seen in our world, having more than that turns our attention away from generosity and love and towards selfishness, hording, and self-reliance. We saw that in the extreme at the beginning of this current pandemic, as people emptied store shelves of vital supplies and food in a selfish desire to make sure they had enough toilet paper (and other things) to last 10 lifetimes at the expense of everyone around them.

Next, Jesus directs us to request God’s forgiveness for our failings while also acknowledging our own forgiveness of others. This is vital, because it combines both parts into one thought. We cannot go to God and request forgiveness as we personally are holding a grudge and not forgiving others. This part holds us accountable and reveals the way our relationship with God and our relationship with others is bound together.

These words are very easy to gloss over, as so many of us have recited this prayer hundreds or thousands of times in our lives. But there’s a reason Jesus told us to pray these words. And if we actually think about them, we realize just how disingenuous our words are when we pray them while living out the lifestyle of modern American “Christianity.” That’s convicting.

There are so many things in this chapter we could focus on, but I want to jump ahead to Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in the last half of the chapter. Specifically, I want to focus on two.

First, I want to point to a verse that has often been quoted but that we truly need to reckon with today: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (42).

We often beat up on the Pharisees because Jesus often pointed to their failings. But really, we should be far kinder to this group of people for a couple reasons. The Pharisees were a group of Jews that so desperately wanted to please God that they added literally thousands of rules to the hundreds of rules given in the Torah in an effort to essentially build a fence around the rules God had passed down. Basically, the thought was that if you have an impenetrable fence of rules around the most important rules, and you never broke those additional rules, you would always be right with God because you couldn’t possibly ever break the actual rules. That’s kind of confusing, but basically, the Pharisees’ obsession with rules came from a desire to please god.

And the rules they created were highly restricting. Their devotion to God as evidenced by their devotion to their rules far surpasses anything we saw from almost every Christian today. We wish we had the devotion to God that the Pharisees had, except we really don’t because that would require far more of us than we really want to give.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that part in common with the Pharisees. The part that we do have in common is the bad part: they cared so much for the rules that they lacked compassion and love. This is what Jesus is pointing to in verse 42. They clung so tightly to the rules that even in their tithes they would measure out and clip off a tenth of a mint leaf to ensure they satisfied the rules. That’s devotion. But that’s all they had. As Jesus said, they “neglect justice and the love of God.” And notice that he doesn’t tell them that their devotion to following the rules is bad; in fact, he tells them that they should do both: “You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

Later, one of the experts in the law complains that Jesus’ words are insulting to them, as well (45). That move backfired, as Jesus had some choice words for them, too: “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (46).

I find that statement to be harshly convicting. Isn’t this exactly what we do in our current world? If we look at the leaders of white evangelical “Christianity” in America, they are overwhelmingly upper-middle class (or higher), male, Republican, heterosexual, and, of course, white. These are the most privileged demographic splits in the world (almost all of which, also, include me). So many of us can’t empathize with the pain of someone living through poverty who can’t afford rent even while working two full-time jobs because they’re stuck in minimum wage employment. We can’t empathize with someone who is afraid to go for a jog through their neighborhood because they might get shot simply because they have the wrong skin color. We can’t empathize with someone who has to be careful which bakery they try to buy a wedding cake from, because some bakers will refuse service to them just because of who they love.

It is so easy for us to sit in our nice, suburban homes and say things like, “Well, they should really just work harder,” about people living in poverty. Or, “they should do it the right way” about people trying to flee violence or poverty in their home nation and seeking refuge in America or people trying to protest police brutality. But that statement betrays our hearts: there is no right way. We’ve seen it with the different treatment of Colin Kaepernick respectfully kneeling during the National Anthem versus masked white men storming the Michigan state Capitol building and illegally interrupting the work of government while waiving automatic rifles. We’ve seen it with the fact that refugees who try to follow all the proper legal guidelines are still rejected with so many of us thanking God that they aren’t allowed to stay here and seeking to restrict the rules even more.

We load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, while we will not lift one finger to help them. Jesus was spot-on. We are the worst of the Pharisees, and we are the worst of the teachers of the law.

Finally, Jesus proclaims his final woe of the night: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (52).

I have a hard time reading that and not immediately thinking of the anti-science, anti-academic, anti-intellectual stance of so many “Christians” and “Christian” culture in our world. When we seek to belittle knowledge and intelligence and undermine facts simply because they are inconvenient to us, we take away the key to knowledge. We’re seeing right now one of the conclusions of that approach, as confirmed deaths from a deadly disease approach 100,000 with no signs of slowing down and a desire to not test because not testing allows us to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not an issue rather than confront the problem and do something about it.

All of these things are rooted in selfishness, arrogance, and greed. And that ties us right back to the key components of the simple prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray at the beginning of the chapter. The words of a prayer don’t matter; the condition of our heart is what matters. The purpose of these words is to ensure our heart is in the right place.

Our heart is not in the right place. Lord, teach us to pray.


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