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Jesus prays and teaches us about prayer at the Last Supper, in the Sermon on the Mount, and at the crucifixion. Learn more about what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have to say about Jesus and prayer in the Gospels and how praying relates to the Eucharist and the Psalms.


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How Jesus Prayed

by Michael Patella, O.S.B.

For most of us, prayer is a way in which we make our needs known to God. The great paradox, of course, is that God knows our needs and desires even before we are aware of them ourselves. The paradox increases when the Gospels show us Jesus at prayer. Why would Jesus need to pray? After all, he is the Son of God.

The Gospel accounts dealing with Jesus at prayer shed light on these assumptions. At the heart of the matter is that when they describe Jesus at prayer, they are actually showing us Jesus in communion with the Father. Taking our lesson from this relationship, we can see that through the Gospels, Jesus teaches his disciples and us how to converse with God so that we can be in communion with him as well.

The four evangelists show a great many examples of Jesus at prayer. It is to our benefit that they do. Because of the Incarnation, the Son of God takes on human form, and thus allows us to have eternal life with God. In the meantime, Jesus shows us how to begin that new life even now on earth. Much of that life for Jesus centers on prayer.

The Gospel accounts portray Jesus teaching about prayer and Jesus at prayer. Both the theory and the example show us how to orient ourselves to participate in Christ's life, and in so doing, be in constant communion with God.

The three Synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not paint a uniform picture of Jesus at prayer. Despite their discrepancies in this area, all show him praying at the Lord's Supper, on the Mount of Olives, and at the crucifixion. John also presents a praying Jesus in the passion narrative, but in a manner different from the other three evangelists. These various differences among the Gospels as well as their common elements give us an image of the praying Jesus that can both sustain us in our difficulty and challenge us in our ease.

Matthew

Studying Matthew's Gospel, we note that Jesus gives several admonitions on the necessity of prayer, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (5—7). We are to love and pray for our enemies (5:44), and when praying, we are not to do so for self-aggrandizement (6:6-8). In fact, at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself gives us the prayer to use, the Our Father, or Lord's Prayer (6:9-13).

Although Luke also includes the Our Father (Lk 11:2-4), it is Matthew's version that the Church from earliest times adopted for daily and liturgical use. And no wonder! The Matthean Our Father is a rich summary of Christian theology. It states the absolute transcendence of God (6:9), while maintaining our participation in that transcendence (6:10). It expresses our dependence on God for every need, and simultaneously it implies that we should also be looking out for the needs of others (6:10-11). It stresses the effects of the redemption and reorients human response accordingly (6:12). Finally, the Our Father ends on the hope that God's grace will be omnipresent through every difficulty (6:13). Of course, we can see within the Our Father the fundamental theology or mindset that should be the basis of the Christian life, and that is an utter dependence on a loving God.

Matthew's Jesus continues to talk about prayer in other parts of the Gospel, and what he says supports his earlier instruction. He tells people to pray for every necessity (21:22) and deliverance from hardship (24:20). Jesus confirms the efficacy of prayer as well (21:22). He prays for others and in front of others (19:13), but he also prefers praying alone and by himself (14:13, 23).

Mark

Mark does not feature the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, other passages in this Gospel discuss prayer. The lessons in Mark 11:24-25 and 12:40 are similar to what we find in Matthew. Jesus commissions the disciples to his ministry (6:7-13), but in one very tense scene, not even they are able to perform an exorcism. Unlike the parallel passage in Matthew (17:20), in Mark Jesus explains, "This kind can only come out through prayer" (9:29). Although Mark does not state as much, we can conclude that Jesus succeeds in the exorcism because he prays. Mark, like Matthew, also shows Jesus alone at prayer (6:46).

Luke

Luke includes an extensive "infancy narrative" at the beginning of his Gospel. In the verses leading up to Jesus' birth, we read that Zechariah has been praying for Elizabeth to bear a child. The announcement of this child occurs while the people are at prayer outside the temple as Zechariah goes to offer incense (1:10-17). Further along, the same angel appears to Mary to proclaim her the mother of the Son of God. These opening words of Gabriel have become the source for the Catholic prayer, the Hail Mary (1:26-32).

Both Zechariah in his canticle, the Benedictus (1:68-79), and Mary in hers, the Magnificat (1:46-55), sing out their prayers of joy at the marvels God works through them. This first chapter in Luke, then, sets the context on how we are to receive Christ in our lives: through longing trust in God's love shown by dedicated prayer. As Luke writes about Jesus' ministry, the evangelist shows Jesus providing the example of such longing and loving trust.

In comparison to the other two Synoptic writers, Luke presents Jesus praying more than speaking about prayer. Indeed, biblical scholars often refer to Luke as the "Gospel of prayer." Jesus spends the night alone in prayer before selecting the Twelve from among the disciples (6:12-16). He also prays alone with the disciples nearby (9:18-20). Only Luke shows Jesus praying before John baptizes him (3:21) and during the transfiguration (9:29). In Luke, Jesus also tells parables about prayer (18:1-8, 9-14).

Luke even uses different vocabulary and different grammatical constructions to show prayer. For example, the Greek verb translated "to beg" can also mean "to pray" (22:32). Likewise, "Father" becomes the first word of two prayers from the cross (23:34; 24:46).

John

The Greek word for "pray" or "prayer" never appears in John's Gospel, and scenes of Jesus at prayer are arranged in a manner different from those in the Synoptic accounts. To indicate that Jesus is praying, John writes that Jesus "raised his eyes" (11:41; 17:1). The Fourth Evangelist also uses the Greek verb meaning "to ask" on two occasions in which the context suggests that Jesus is at prayer (17:9; 17:20). Despite the fact that in portraying Jesus' prayer life, John pays little attention to the same details as the Synoptics, all of Jn 17 is dedicated to Jesus' prayer for his disciples as he approaches his impending arrest, death, and resurrection.

The Passion Narratives

If we compare the Synoptic passages of Jesus' prayer in the garden with Jn 17, we can observe several points of contact as well as some points of divergence between the two. The major similarity between John and the Synoptics is that Jesus makes this prayer before his arrest. In all four Gospels, therefore, this last prayer of Jesus with his company of followers serves to show the reader the mind and intention of Jesus' earthly ministry. Among the Synoptic accounts, it is to do the Father's will. In John, Jesus specifies exactly what the Father's will is for us. Jesus expressly states that his earthly mission, which fulfills the Father's will, is to unite the disciples to God the Father: "so that they may be one just as we are" (John 17:11).

The most obvious difference between this prayer in John and the Synoptic accounts of Jesus in the garden is in the tone. In John, Jesus is not praying in a state of fear or near despair. As with the Synoptic presentations, John's Jesus knows that he is about to undergo a severe trial, but his prayer is not about letting the cup pass; it is about strengthening and protecting the group of believers once he is gone (17:14-26). It is good for us to remember that these words apply to believers today as well.

The three Synoptic Gospels situate Jesus' great passion prayer at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. In this garden, Jesus is most distraught (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:39-46). In Matthew and Mark, Jesus falls flat on the ground from fear and tension. In Luke, he is on his knees but sweats so profusely that the drops appear like blood. In all three versions, Jesus prays not only to alter the Father's will but also for the strength to carry out that will, whatever it may be.

The Synoptics, moreover, exhibit similar, but certainly not exact, accounts of Jesus' last prayer from the cross (Mt 27:45-56; Mk 15:33-41; Lk 23:44-49). Matthew and Mark's version are most alike in citing the final words of Jesus. Often called the "Prayer of Dereliction," the cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is the first line of Psalm 22. This psalm itself is a deep lament that plumbs the deepest recesses of despair before giving way to a slim glimmer of hope at the conclusion. As scandalous as some might find it, Matthew and Mark show us Jesus feeling absolutely abandoned by family, friends, and even God, and he cries out in despairing lament because of it. We are not to think that Jesus easily gains resurrection for the human race!

Luke and John, however, viewing matters from the perspective of the resurrection, portray Jesus in a more acquiescent posture at the moment of death. Nonetheless, Luke still draws on the psalms to formulate Jesus' last prayer: "Into your hands I commend my spirit..." (Ps 31:6; Lk 23:46). In John, Jesus voices his physical thirst (19:28), and although Jesus is not quoting any one psalm directly, his words strongly echo Ps 42:3; 63:2; 69:22.

The Psalms

From earliest times until today, Christians view the Old Testament as prefiguring Christ, even though non-Christians may view these same books differently. As we see above, the evangelists put the words of the psalms on the lips of Jesus during his passion. Along these lines, ancient monks and nuns in the Egyptian desert heard Jesus' voice in all the psalms. They believed the psalms were written by King David, but they also believed that the pre-existent Christ inspired David to do the writing (Ps 110:1). For this reason, they prayed the whole Psalter daily. This tradition has grown and changed, but it still continues, faithful to the ancient practice.

In Christian monasteries and many religious houses throughout the world, vowed men and women gather three to seven times daily to pray the psalms. If the psalms are the voice of Christ, then listening to and speaking with that voice unites their lives with Christ's, the objective Jesus sets forth in Jn 17.

The Eucharist

In all four Gospels, Jesus' ministry, passion, death, and resurrection receive their focus at the Eucharist. The Synoptic accounts show Jesus actually blessing the bread and cup (Mt 26:26-30; Mk 14:22-26; Lk 22:14-23), while in John, Jesus washes the disciples' feet and provides a lengthy discourse (13—17). If we read these texts carefully, we can see that Jesus is at prayer in all of them.

This heavy emphasis on the Eucharist, despite the differences among the four narratives, leads scholars to conclude that it was of prime importance in Jesus' ministry and a Christian practice from the earliest moments of the Church's history. The Eucharist, according to Tradition and Scripture, is Christ's perfect example of prayer—perfect because we are most closely aligned with Jesus' ministry, passion, death, and resurrection when we participate in it.

In the Gospels, Jesus converses with God. In a good conversation, two people share part of their lives with each other. Likewise, Christ converses with us through his passion, death, and resurrection. By reading Scripture, we converse with him and grow in his life. In communal and private prayer we become one with Christ who is one with God. We fulfill, then, Jesus' own prayer to the Father about us, "that they may be one just as we are" (Jn 17:11).

Michael Patella, O.S.B., is an associate professor of New Testament at Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minn. He is the author of The Death of Jesus (Cahiers de la Revue Biblique, 1999) and the "Gospel of Luke" for the New Collegeville Bible Commentary (2003), He writes the "Seers' Corner" for The Bible Today.

Next: The Kingdom of Heaven (by William O'Malley, S.J.)

 

Praying With Scriptures

Monastic men and women today continue the ancient monastic practice of lection divina, that is, sacred reading of Scripture. Beginning with the Gospels, spend 15 to 20 minutes every day meditatively reading and re-reading a biblical passage.

 

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