One important way we affirm our freedom for God and from the gods is by praying to him. Happily, Jesus frees us to do this by speaking to us, today, through the same words of truth he spoke yesterday to liberate his disciples for this same purpose.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father [Abba] knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8, New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]).
When Jesus speaks of Gentiles, he means Olympians. When we pray, as people seeking to act as faithful witnesses to him, he frees us from the need to babble. In this case, the squeaky wheel does not get the grease.
A nice example of what Jesus means was given by his predecessor the prophet Elijah. In his days, as in ours, the people of Yahweh spoke of Yahweh while acting as minions of Jupiter (called Baal in that time and place). Elijah decided that enough was enough. He had Ahab, ruler of Yahweh’s people, gather all of them on Mount Carmel. There the 450 prophets of Jupiter would prepare a bull for sacrifice to Jupiter. Elijah, sole prophet of Yahweh, would prepare an identical sacrifice for Yahweh. The god who answered with fire to consume the sacrifice—that would be the one true god whom Yahweh’s people would serve. Everyone agreed (1 Kings 18:20-24).
Early in the morning, Elijah encouraged the 450 prophets of Jupiter to call on him. They prayed loudly for a fiery answer and danced around the sacrifice they had prepared until noon. Nothing happened.
Elijah mocked them. “Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!” (1 Kings 18:27 Good News Translation [GNT]).
It was a question of pride now. The prophets of Jupiter shouted louder and started ritually cutting themselves. Their blood flowed freely as they danced with greater frenzy for hours around their sacrifice to Jupiter. Still no fire.
Then it was Elijah’s turn. He prayed, “O [Yahweh], the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove now that you are the God of Israel and that I am your servant and have done all this at your command. answer me, so that this people will know that you, [Yahweh,] are God and that you are bringing them back to yourself” (vs. 36-37, GNT).
In response, Yahweh answered with fire, thoroughly consumed the sacrifice, and convinced all the people (briefly) that he alone was god.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father [Abba] knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8, NRSV).
From all this excitement we may learn two lessons. One, Abba is absolutely free in relation to us. There is no way we may behave that can constrain or coerce Abba to respond to our requests or conform to our will. Our virtue is never so impressive that he feels obligated to do want we want. No matter how much we pray or how long, no matter how piously or desperately, no matter what words we use or whether we are kneeling and fasting while we repeat them, no matter whether we pray at home, while walking, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or on Mount Sinai itself, we can never merit a response.
At the same time, Abba loves us and, in that love, chooses to be free for us. He is not indifferent to our needs. Unlike Jupiter, we need not imagine that, in our hour of need, we might find Abba daydreaming, using the toilet (Elijah’s satirical words), on vacation, sleeping, or otherwise distracted. In truth, he loves us and knows exactly what we need better than we do ourselves.
Rather than having us continue our slavish yet self-centered Olympian ways, Jesus frees us again today to pray to Abba like real witnesses. Following the example of Elijah, a right good witness himself, we can pray right to the point with all confidence that Abba will freely respond to our prayer in the most helpful way possible.
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