Conversations with Jesus at Christmas
Posted on 20 December 2011, 20:56
As Christmas approaches, I thought we might turn to the subject of prayer and listen to what Jesus had to say on the matter when I spoke with him in ‘Conversations with Jesus of Nazareth.’
The conversation is imagined but Jesus’ words are all his own:
SP: Prayer matters to you, teacher. But then unlike most people, you have a profound trust in your heavenly father.
JN: See the birds of the sky who neither sow, reap nor store food in barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than these birds?
SP: With such limitless trust prayer must be both easy and delightful.
JN: Or consider the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t toil, they don’t spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these.
SP: Your eyes are never far from creation, teacher. Indeed, I sometimes think it’s your scripture even more than the scriptures themselves.
JN: And if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is here today but tomorrow is thrown in the fire, then how much more will you be dressed, you of little faith?
SP: We learn from what we see and hear, and I suppose some of us had bad teachers of prayer; people who replaced simple trust with something else like pomposity, fear or self-righteousness.
JN: Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
SP: Tax collectors know nothing about the prayer. I know you like to speak well of them but I’ve never met a nice one myself, and I’ve met many nice Pharisees.
JN: The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men.’
SP: Not a good start, I grant you. We’ll call him Proud Peter.
JN: ‘I thank you that I am not like other men - extortioners, the unrighteous, adulterers or even such low-life as this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give tithes of all that I receive.’
SP: It seems Proud Peter must feel superior to others to make himself feel good. He must always have a list of people less good than him.
JN: So then see the tax collector –
SP: - who we’ll just call Low-Life –
JN: - standing far away. He won’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
SP: Which he is, because all those tax-collectors are on the make.
JN: Do not condemn and you won’t be condemned –
SP: - OK, OK -
JN: - yet I tell you, it was this man –
SP: - Low-Life? –
JN: - who went back to his house having made God smile, rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but they who humble themselves will be exalted.
SP: Is that so? Then it’s not so much the act of prayer which is important, but the attitude we bring to prayer. If we’re full of ourselves, it’s an empty experience. But when trust is there –
JN: - ask, and it will be given to you.
SP: You do keep things simple, teacher, even if it’s simply impossible.
JN: Your father in heaven knows your needs.
SP: Maybe, but as you know, that doesn’t stop a number of healers indulging in a few prayerful theatrics. They love all the ‘abracadabra’ stuff with their Jewish and pagan amulets.
JN: Do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do. They imagine that God will hear them merely because their prayers are so long.
SP: And it’s not just words with these healers; it’s much more theatrical than that. Young Tobit, for instance, burnt the heart and liver of a fish to keep the demon Asmodeus away from his bride. While the showman Eleazar, for his exorcisms, fills a bowl of water for the expelled demon to knock over on leaving - so the audience can see what’s happening! But not you, teacher – you apparently give a single command to the demon to quit, or the leprosy to disappear, the withered hand to stretch out, the deaf ears to open or the storm to abate. Just a single command.
JN: ‘When you pray, say this:
‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy,
your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
SP: And it’s that simple?
JN: Your father in heaven knows your needs.
SP: It’s the sort of simple prayer you could almost breathe throughout the day, and alongside side trust I notice another important attitude there –
JN: - Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone who is indebted to us?
SP: Yes, forgiving others is never easy.
JN: Peter once came to me and said, ‘Master, how often should I forgive someone who hurts me?’
SP: Good question. I find once hard enough.
JN: ‘Up to seven times?’ he said.
SP: Seven times seems excessive.
JN: Not seven times, I said, but seventy times seven.
SP: Seventy times seven is a ridiculous amount of forgiveness.
JN: So hear this. You have heard in the past that people were told ‘Do not commit murder’?
SP: Of course.
JN: But now I tell you that who ever is angry with his brother will be brought to trial.
SP: The courts will be busy.
JN: And whoever calls his brother a ‘good-for-nothing’ will be brought before the council, while anyone who naming his brother a worthless fool will be in danger of the fires of hell.
SP: And quite unfit for prayer?
JN: Quite so. So if you’re about to offer your gift to God at the altar and remember that someone has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with them –
SP: - and then come back and offer your gift to God?
JN: And then come back an offer your gift to God, yes.
SP: I’m learning.
JN: So whenever you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone –
SP: - anyone? –
JN: - yes, anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your stumblings.
SP: And now you remind me of Rabbi Hanna, ‘The commandment to love your neighbour is a commandment on which the whole world hangs,’ he says, ‘a mighty oath from Sinai. If you hate your neighbour whose deeds are wicked like your own, I the Lord will punish you as your judge. And if you love your neighbour whose deeds are like your own, I the Lord will be faithful to you and have mercy on you.’ You and the rabbi both see our treatment by God as reflecting our treatment of others.
JN: True. Set free and you will be set free, and one more thing –
JN: Don’t pray like the hypocrites.
SP: How do they pray?
JN: They love to stand up and pray in the houses of worship and on the street corners so that everyone will see them.
SP: They’re quite hard to miss when in full flow.
JN: But when you pray, go to your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen.
SP: As you do. Only you withdraw to the hills. Mark told me you went out long before daylight.
JN: Your father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.
SP: So good prayer needs trust, a readiness to forgive others and seclusion.
JN: Close the door, yes.
Conversations With Jesus of Nazareth by Simon Parke is published by White Crow Books.