Notes on Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

As we continue this survey of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, having already explored the core Synoptic traditions, as well as the passages and references unique to the Gospel of Matthew, we now turn to the Gospel of Luke. In considering the Lukan evidence, one is first struck by the emphasis given to prayer as a detail in the narrative, where it is mentioned, by the author (trad. Luke), quite apart from any specific traditions he has inherited. This will be touched on further in a future study on prayer in the book of Acts, but here it suffices to point out how this emphasis on prayer is expressed in the Gospel narrative.

First, prayer is associated with the Temple at several key points in the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2). The angelic appearance to Zechariah in the opening episode takes place, in the Temple sanctuary, at a time when people are praying in the precincts, coinciding with the evening (afternoon) sacrifice and the offering of incense (1:10). This is the same public “hour of prayer” which serves as the narrative setting in Acts 3:1ff. Moreover, the angel’s visitation is said to be in response to Zechariah’s own prayer to God (1:13). In a later episode, we read of the aged prophetess Anna, that she was regularly in the Temple precincts (2:37), doing service to God with fasting and prayer (de/hsi$, request, petition, supplication). These details are important in establishing the idea of the Temple as a place for worship, prayer, and teaching—rather than for cultic ritual and sacrificial offerings (see also 18:10ff). While this is part of the wider Synoptic tradition (cf. the discussion in Parts 6 and 7 of “Jesus and the Law”), it is given special emphasis in Luke-Acts, where the early believers in Jerusalem are portrayed as continuing to frequent the Temple (24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff, 42; cf. also the article on “The Law in Luke-Acts”). This new, purified role and purpose for the Temple (in the New Covenant) provides a point of contact between early Christianity and the finest elements of Israelite/Jewish religion in the Old Covenant (as represented by the figures of Zechariah/Elizabeth, Joseph/Mary, and Simeon/Anna in the Infancy narratives).

Second, the Lukan Gospel provides a number of introductory/summary narrative statements which include the detail that Jesus was engaged in prayer, indicating that it was typical of his practice during the period of his ministry. The pattern of these notices, while again related to the wider Gospel tradition, is distinctively Lukan:

    • Lk 3:21—Of all the Gospel descriptions of the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:9-11 par), only Luke includes the detail that Jesus was praying when the Spirit descends, etc:
      “And it came to be, in the dunking of all the people, and Yeshua also being dunked and speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], and (at) the opening up of the heaven…”
    • Lk 5:16—Curiously, in 4:42f which is parallel to the Synoptic Mk 1:35ff there is no mention of Jesus praying; this detail is given separately, at 5:16, following the call of the disciples and cleansing of the Leper (par Mk 1:16-20, 40-45):
      “and he was making space (for himself) down under in the desolate places, and (was) speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying]”
    • Lk 6:12—Only Luke mentions Jesus praying on the mountain at the time of his selecting the Twelve disciples/apostles (Mk 3:13ff par):
      “And it came to be in those days, with his going out onto the mountain to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], he was spending (time all) through the night in th(is) speaking out toward God.”
    • Lk 9:18—Again it is only Luke who mentions Jesus in prayer prior to his question to the disciples regarding his identity (Mk 9:27ff par):
      “And it came to be, in his being down alone speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], his learners [i.e. disciples] were (there) with him and…”
    • Lk 9:28-29—Similarly, in the Transfiguration episode (Mk 9:2-8 par), Luke is alone in stating that the purpose in going up on the mountain was to pray:
      “And it came to be, as if [i.e. about] eight days after these sayings, [and] (with) his taking along (the) Rock {Peter} and Yohanan and Ya’aqob, he stepped up onto the mountain to speak out toward God [i.e. pray]. And it came to be, in his speaking out toward (God)…”
      As in the Baptism narrative, the divine manifestation (and voice) comes after Jesus has been praying.
    • Lk 11:1—The narrative introduction prior to Jesus’ teaching on prayer (cf. below).

Luke 11:1-13

The major section in the Lukan Gospel dealing with Jesus’ teaching on prayer is 11:1-13. It includes the famous Lord’s Prayer, which I discussed in detail in earlier notes in this series. I will not repeat that study here, but will make mention of place of the Lord’s Prayer in the section of the Gospel as we have it. This may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction, with a request by the disciples (v. 1)
    • The Lord’s Prayer (vv. 2-4)
    • A Parable illustrating the need for boldness in prayer (vv. 5-8)
    • Additional sayings on prayer [Q material] (vv. 9-13)

The narrative introduction is entirely Lukan in style and vocabulary; moreover, it evinces an interest in prayer (and the background detail of Jesus engaged in prayer) that is distinct to Luke among the Synoptics (cp. the passages noted above).

Verse 1

“And it came to be, in his being in a certain place (and) speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], as he ceased [i.e. finished], one of his learners [i.e. disciples] said to him, ‘Lord, teach us (how) to speak out toward (God), even as Yohanan also taught his learners’.”

In spite of the Lukan syntax and specific prayer-emphasis, there is an important matrix of traditional Gospel elements here in this narrative summary:

    • Jesus in the (regular) act of prayer (see above)
    • His disciples observing him, wishing to follow his example (i.e. to pray like he does)
    • The significance of disciples following the pattern of religious behavior established by their master is emphasized by mention of John the Baptist
    • The reference to John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray (cf. 5:33 par) indicates the importance of (a certain manner of) prayer within Jewish tradition

This positioning of prayer within the wider Jewish (religious) tradition, is comparable to the teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15 (cf. the previous study), which also contains a version of the Lord’s Prayer. While Jesus’ instruction on prayer generally continues the Jewish tradition—indeed, there is very little that is distinctively ‘Christian’ in the Lord’s Prayer, etc—he gives to it a number of different points of emphasis and interpretation. This was perhaps more clearly evident in the Matthean teachings (in the Sermon on the Mount), but it is very much at work in this Lukan passage as well.

Verses 2-4

(On the Lord’s Prayer, consult the notes, for both the Matthean and Lukan versions, previously posted as part of this Notes on Prayer series.)

Verses 5-8

This parable is unique to Luke’s Gospel (so-called “L” material). It may well have been told on a separate occasion originally, and included here by way of the thematic association (prayer); either way, in its Lukan context, it serves to illustrate further the disciples’ request on how they should pray. If the Lord’s Prayer presented the proper form and content of prayer, this parable in vv. 5-8 stresses the need for boldness in prayer, regardless of the circumstances. Several points or details in this parable are worth noting:

    • The characters involved are not strangers, but friends—people dear (fi/lo$) to each other, at least to some extent (v. 5, 8)
    • The person making the request does not do so for himself (cp. the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, v. 3), but on behalf of another friend (v. 6)
    • The request is made at an inopportune time (“the middle of the night”), otherwise there would be no problem in meeting the request; moreover, the house is locked up and everyone is in bed (v. 7)
    • Commentators question the significance of the scenario depicted in verse 7, especially the householder’s statement to his friend that “I am not able, standing up (out of bed), to give (anything) to you”; how would this relate to God the Father? The details of the parable should not be pressed so far; it functions as a qal wahomer illustration—if a human being will respond this way, how much more so will God do so for his friends!

In verse 8, Jesus brings out the point of his illustration:

“I relate to you, if he will not even give to him, standing up (to do so), through being [i.e. because he is] his dear (friend), yet through his lack of respect [a)nai/deia], rising he will give to him as (many thing)s as he needs.”

The key word is a)nai/deia, which I translated as “lack of respect”, but it could be rendered even more forcefully as “(being) without shame, shameless(ness)”. Respect for the time and situation ought to have prompted the person making the request to wait until a more appropriate time (i.e. in the morning), yet he went ahead, regardless of the situation, and woke up is friend in the middle of the night to make his request—which, one might add, was not particularly urgent. Thus, contrary to the way this parable is portrayed by many commentators, the stress is not on persistence in prayer (cp. with 18:1-8), but, rather on boldness—or, perhaps, better, that we should be willing to make our request to God without concern for the situation or what people would consider proper. This is surely to be regarded as an aspect of faith in prayer. We ought never to imagine that God is too ‘busy’ or that it might be better to wait until a more opportune moment; rather, when there is a need at hand, we should make our request boldly, at that very moment.

Verses 9-13

The sayings on prayer in these verses have their parallel in Matthew (Sermon on the Mount, 7:7-11), and thus are part of the so-called “Q” material common to both Gospels. Despite the difference in location, these sayings almost certainly stem from a single historical tradition, though, possibly, they may represent separate sayings combined (by theme) at a very early point in the collection of Gospel traditions. I tend to think that, in this particular instance, they were probably spoken together by Jesus.

The saying in vv. 9-10 corresponds with Matt 7:7-8:

“(You must) ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened up for you; for everyone asking receives, and the one seeking finds, and for the one knocking it [will be] opened up.”

The two versions are identical; the only difference being whether the final verb in Luke’s version is present (“it is opened up”) or future (“it will be opened up”, as in Matthew). The message is clear enough: God will answer those who pray to him. The three-fold idiom only emphasizing this point. God’s faithfulness in responding to prayer is further indicated through the illustration in vv. 11-12 (= Matt 7:9-10):

“And for what (one) out of you will the son ask the father (for) a fish and, in exchange for a fish, will give over a snake? or also—will he ask (for) an egg, and (the father) will give over a stinging (creature) [i.e. scorpion] (instead)?”

Here the emphasis is on a father giving a son what he needs (and would naturally ask for), i.e. food and sustenance (cp. the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, v. 3). The point is driven home through exaggeration—the father not only not giving the son what he needs, but giving what is actually harmful (and deadly) for him! Clearly, no human father would behave this way; most would genuinely wish to give their children what they need and request (much like the friend in the previous parable). In Matthew’s version the illustration is a bit different, though the basic point is certainly the same; the first comparison is a rock instead of bread, while the second is the same as the first Lukan comparison (a snake instead of a fish).

In verse 13 (Matt 7:11), Jesus explains the illustration in vv. 11-12 (as if the explanation and application were not obvious enough). It is here that the Lukan version differs most significantly from the Matthean; I give Matthew’s version first:

“So if you, being evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will your Father in the heavens give good (thing)s to the (one)s asking Him!”

Here the emphasis is on God giving “good (thing)s” (a)gaqa/), or “good gifts” (do/mata a)gaqa/), in a general sense. God will answer requests in prayer, by giving people what they need and which is truly beneficial for them. The Lukan version follows the Matthean rather closely, but there are a couple of key differences (points of difference indicated by italics):

“So if you, beginning under (as) evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will your Father out of heaven give the holy Spirit to the (one)s asking Him!”

It is worth considering each of these points of difference:

1. For the descriptive participle, Luke uses the verb u(pa/rxw (u(pa/rxonte$) instead of the verb of being ei)mi (o&nte$). It is possible that u(pa/rxw was used to soften the implication that the disciples of Jesus were called “evil” (ponhro/$). Literally, the verb means “begin under”, i.e. begin under a particular situation or condition, etc. Frequently it was used in an existential sense, of a person (or thing) coming into being, or for an existing condition, etc. As such, the verb could also be used, loosely, as an equivalent for the ordinary verb of being. Luke appears to have been particularly fond it, as more than half of the New Testament occurrences (31 out of 46) are in Luke-Acts (7 in the Gospel, 24 in Acts). Possibly the use here may relate to the idea of the disciples as human beings (who, generally speaking, are “evil”), without implying that they, specifically, are evil in character.

2. The description of God the Father in Luke’s version is “out of heaven” (e)c ou)ranou=), while in Matthew it the more proper title “the (One) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$). This latter title is virtually unique to Matthew’s Gospel (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:21, etc), and, as such, likely reflects the distinctive Matthean vocabulary and style (nearly half of all NT occurrences of the expression “in the heavens [pl.]” are in Matthew). If the wording were characteristic of the wider Gospel tradition (in Greek) of Jesus’ sayings, we would expect to see more evidence of it in the other Gospels (it is found elsewhere only at Mk 11:25).

While it is possible that the expression in the Lukan version (“out of heaven”, e)c ou)ranou=) reflects a stylistic difference (in Greek), it seems much more likely that it is meant to stress that the “good gifts” God the Father gives to Jesus’ disciples (believers) come from out of heaven. The manuscript tradition shows some uncertainty in this regard, with some key witnesses including a definite article (Ë75 a L 33), and others not. The presence of a definite article would indicate that the expression should be understood as a title (as in Matthew), i.e. “the Father the (One giving) out of Heaven”, or, perhaps even o( path\r o( as an abbreviation for “the Father the (One in Heaven)”. The lack of a definite article would best be understood as the source/origin for the Holy Spirit—the Father gives the Spirit from out of Heaven.

3. Most notably, Luke’s version makes specific (“[the] holy Spirit”) what is general in Matthew’s version (“good [thing]s”). If both sayings stem from a single historical tradition, as seems likely, it is hard to see how they both could accurately reflect what Jesus said (at the same time). Most critical commentators would regard the Lukan version as an interpretive or explanatory gloss (by the author), reflecting the idea of the Holy Spirit as the “gift” (do/ma) sent by the Father (Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17; Lk 24:49; cf. also John 4:10), and which, in turn, is the source of all (spiritual) “gifts” for believers (1 Cor 12; 14:1ff, etc). The Lukan evidence (from Acts), in particular, is strong confirmation for the critical view. This does not necessarily contradict a sound view of the Gospel’s inspiration, since it is simple enough to consider the Lukan version here as preserving an inspired interpretation of Jesus’ original words. Many similar such examples could be cited, both in Luke and elsewhere.

This emphasis on the Holy Spirit is significant for Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, in a number of ways:

    • It signifies the climax of this teaching—i.e., for the disciples of Jesus who remain faithful, and continue in prayer, following Jesus’ example and instruction, the end result will be the gift of the Spirit.
    • Ultimately, it is the Spirit (of God and Christ) that should be the focus of our prayer, i.e. it is the Spirit (its power, manifestation, etc) that we should be requesting from God the Father (cf. John 15:16, 26, etc); this is a key lesson, one which here is presented in terms of the initial sending of the Spirit (to the first believers).
    • The statement in verse 13, in its literary context, connects back to the Lord’s Prayer, and the request for the coming of God’s Kingdom. As I have noted previously, on several occasions, the framework of Luke-Acts associates the Kingdom with the coming of the Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. especially Acts 1:6-8). There is also the interesting variant reading of Lk 11:2 which reads (or glosses) the coming of the Kingdom as the coming of the Spirit.

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