In these Monday Notes on Prayer, I am beginning a series exploring Jesus’ own teaching (and example) regarding prayer. We have already explored the famous “Lord’s Prayer” in some detail (cf. the earlier series), as well as the great Prayer-discourse in John 17 (cf. those notes). Now, as a follow-up, we will examine other key passages in the Gospels. Using the same critical approach adopted in other study series on the Gospels (esp. the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”), I will begin with the Synoptic Tradition, as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to passages and details that are unique to Matthew and Luke, as well as the separate Johannine Tradition (Gospel of John).
As a point of departure, it is worth noting the Greek word (group) which is commonly translated into English by “pray(er)”. Most frequently it is the noun proseuxh/ (proseuch¢¡) and related verb proseu/xomai (proseúchomai, mid. deponent). Both are compound prefixed forms of eu)xh/ (euch¢¡) and eu&xomai (eúchomai) respectively. Fundamentally, this root refers to speaking out, especially in the sense of making one’s wishes known, expressing them out loud. Early on, this word group came to be used frequently in a religious context, i.e. of speaking out to God—either in the specific sense of a vow, or more generally as prayer. The noun eu)xh/ is rare in the New Testament (just 3 occurrences), but is used in both primary senses (Acts 18:18; 21:23; James 5:15); the verb eu&xomai is likewise relatively rare (Acts 26:29; 27:29; Rom 9:3; 2 Cor 13:7, 9; James 5:16; 3 John 2). The compound forms, with the prefixed preposition/particle pro$ (“toward”), focuses the meaning more precisely in context—i.e. of speaking out toward God, addressing the deity in prayer or with a specific vow. As such, both noun and verb occur frequently in the New Testament (36 and 85 times, respectively).
If we look at the Gospel of Mark, either in Jesus’ own recorded words (sayings), or in the narrative describing his behavior, there are 12 occurrences of the proseux- word group (10 vb, 2 noun), of which the most relevant passages (within the Gospel tradition) may fairly be divided into five groups, which we will survey here, noting in each case the Synoptic parallels.
1. Mark 1:35; 6:46 (cf. also 9:29)
In these two passages, the narrative mentions Jesus’ practice of going off to a deserted place, to be alone, and spending the time in communication (prayer) with God. In each instance, this is mentioned following a period of ministry activity in which Jesus performed healings or other miracles in public (1:29-34; 6:30-44 par). Matthew does not preserve the episode of Mark 1:35ff (cp. Matt 8:18); Luke does have it (4:42-44), but curiously makes no mention of Jesus in prayer, despite the fact that this is a relatively common theme in his Gospel (compare 5:15-16 and 6:12).
The implication of these references is likely twofold: (1) the need for Jesus to spend time away from the crowds, and (2) the juxtaposition of miracles–prayer suggests that there is a connection between the efficacy of healing power and prayer to God. Jesus makes this quite explicit in the exorcism episode of Mark 9:14-29, which concludes (v. 29) with his declaration that “this kind [i.e. of evil spirit] is not able to come out in [i.e. by] anything if not [i.e. except] in speaking out toward (God) [i.e. by prayer]”. Matthew has this same episode (17:14-20), though ending with an entirely different saying (v. 20) drawn from a separate tradition involving Jesus’ teaching on prayer (cf. 21:21 = Mark 11:22-23). Luke also records a version of the episode (9:37-43), but without any such climactic saying, and thus (again, strangely) no reference to prayer. It is possible that the Lukan Gospel seeks overall to give a different emphasis to the role and purpose of prayer. I shall discuss this further in the upcoming notes.
2. Mark 11:17
In the Temple “cleansing” episode, Jesus cites Isaiah 56:7 (together with Jer 7:11); this detail is found in all three Synoptic versions (the Johannine version draws upon a different line tradition [and Scripture citation]). The juxtaposition of the two quotations (in Greek, generally corresponding with the LXX) reads [Isaiah in bold]:
“My house shall be called a house of speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayer] for all the nations,
but you have made it a cave of (violent) robbers!”
Matthew and Luke each have a shortened version of Isa 56:7, omitting the phrase “for all the nations”, which is especially curious for the latter, given the central importance of this theme (i.e. the mission to the Gentiles) in Luke-Acts. The use of Isa 56:7 in the context of the Temple action by Jesus, with its disruption of the apparatus of the Temple ritual, suggests a new purpose for the Temple—prayer (i.e. direct communication with God), rather than the ritual of sacrificial offerings, etc. The extent to which Jesus himself intended this is much debated, but there can be little doubt that this re-interpretation of the Temple (its meaning and significance) took firm root in early Christianity, and is evidenced at many points in the New Testament. For more on this subject, see my articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (both in “Jesus and the Law” and “The Law in Luke-Acts”).
3. Mark 11:24-25
“Through [i.e. because of] this I say to you: all (thing)s, as (many) as you speak out toward (God) and ask (for), you must trust that you received (it), and it will be (so) for you.”
“And when you stand speaking out toward (God), release (it) if you hold (anything) against any(one), (so) that your Father the (One) in the heavens should also release for you your (moment)s of falling alongside.”
Here we have a pair of teachings (sayings) by Jesus, brought together. Only the first of these is found in the same context (cursing of the fig-tree) in Matthew (21:21), while the second is close to the saying in Matt 6:14f (in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. also 5:23-24). There is no parallel for either saying in the Gospel of Luke, though the idea of trusting that a person will receive what he/she asks for from God is found at a number of points throughout the Gospel tradition (Matt 7:7-11 [par Lk 11:9-13]; John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24ff, etc). In these sayings two things are said to hinder prayer from being answered by God: (1) a lack of trust in God, and (2) unresolved sin, especially that which involves a broken relationship with other people. Both are points of emphasis made by Jesus at various places throughout his teaching.
4. Mark 12:40
The reference to prayer here is part of a larger tradition whereby Jesus attacks conventional religious behavior, establishing a contrast for his followers—how they should think and behave in their religious conduct. The location of 12:38-40 in Mark, right before the episode of the widow’s offering (vv. 41-44), seems to be the result of “catchword bonding”, the two (originally separate) blocks of tradition being joined together because of the common reference to widows. At the same point in the Matthean narrative, in place of the “widow’s offering” scene, there is a much more extensive attack on the religious leaders (spanning all of chapter 23), much of which is drawn from a separate line of tradition (with parallels in Luke, cf. 11:39-52). By comparison, the (synoptic) tradition in Mark 12:38-40 is quite brief, directed against “the writers”, i.e. those literate men who are expert in written matters, especially the Scriptures and Torah, and all the religious authority (and prestige) that goes along with that expertise. They seem to be identified, in large measure (and typically in the Gospel tradition), with the Pharisee party (Matt 23:2).
The emphasis in vv. 38-39 is on their concern for worldly recognition and enhanced social status, along with the superficial trappings which mark such success and influence. The statement in verse 40 is more difficult, as it is not entirely clear how the two actions being described relate to one another:
- “they eat down the houses of the widows”
- “shining before (people as) speaking out long toward (God)”
The meaning of second phrase remains a bit uncertain, but the general idea seems to be that, even as they “consume” the houses of widows, these would-be religious leaders, at the same time, appear as highly devout persons engaged in much prayer (compare the Lukan portrait of the Pharisee in 18:10-14). To say that they “eat down” (consume/devour) the houses of widows is probably something of an extreme exaggeration, for effect. As those with knowledge of the law, and influential leaders, they should have been looking out for the poor in society—such as widows, who might be taken advantage of, to the point of being cheated out of their husband’s estate. A similar idea is implicit in the judgment against the rich man in Luke 16:19-31.
As for the rejection of prayer that is made publicly, to create and reinforce the impression of religious devotion, as opposed to true and earnest prayer made before God in private, that is the theme of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:5-8), which will be discussed again briefly in the next note.
5. Mark 14:32-39
The final Markan/Synoptic passage on prayer is the garden scene from the Passion narrative, found in all three Gospels. Even though the Passion/garden scene in John is quite different, there are interesting parallels to Mk 14:32ff elsewhere in that Gospel (12:23-28). I discussed this passage in the earlier studies on the Lord’s Prayer, in the context of the petition in Matt 6:13. In many ways, this episode summarizes Jesus’ teaching on prayer:
- He is by himself, in a desolate place, speaking out earnestly and intensely to the Father
- The moment represents the cumulation of his public ministry and work on earth
- Though separate, his disciples (especially those closest to him) remain nearby, and his behavior is meant to serve as an example for them to follow (as with the Lord’s Prayer, etc)
- Interspersed between his moments/sessions of prayer, Jesus gives instruction (regarding prayer) to his disciples, exhorting them essentially to follow his example
- This need (for prayer) is especially acute as the moment of his passion and death draws near—an eschatological time of darkness to come upon the world (and his followers)
With this (all too brief) survey of the Markan/Synoptic passages, we can now explore the references to prayer which are unique to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The next Monday study will focus on prayer in the Gospel of Matthew.