Pleading to a patron: An ancient view of prayer

| Father Michael Joncas | July 23, 2019 | 0 Comments

If we understand prayer as communication with a divine power that has charge over life and its details, it becomes clear why many contemporary U.S. citizens, even some Catholic Christians, have difficulty with prayer. Taking pride in scientific and technological achievements, our culture has tended to reduce the areas of life in which God is in charge, whether the issue be the economy, politics, health, weather or personal relationships. So it is helpful to ponder this weekend’s Scriptures, which give us such strong witnesses to the need for and power of prayer.

To appreciate the Abrahamic negotiation in the Genesis passage (Gn 18:20-32), the confident assertions of the sacred poet in the psalm (Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8) or Jesus’ instructions to us about praying as his disciples (Lk 11:1-13), it helps to remember that in the Near East described in these biblical texts, the vast majority of the population were peasants who knew that they were in charge of very little in their lives. “Mother Nature” controlled the weather and climate that circumscribed their agriculture.

James Tissot—The Lord's Prayer

James Tissot—The Lord’s Prayer (Le Pater Noster), Public Domain

As the equivalent of serfs, peasants were told by the landowners, whose acreage they worked, what they were supposed to plant and how much of the crop they could keep for their own use. Surpassing the power of the landowners, the Roman Empire determined the taxes-in-crops peasants should pay.

In light of these social constraints, peasants could pray — that is, seek from a power controlling some aspect of their lives, benefits for themselves and their families. One prayed to influence the decision of a patron, someone who would acknowledge the social ties between the one praying and the patron, someone who would treat the client as if they belonged to the patron’s family.

Peasants prayed to God because they believed that ultimately God controlled “Mother Nature” and the social structures in which they lived, hoping that they would be treated as if they belonged to God’s family.

Notice how this framework illuminates the way Abraham pleads with God about the fate of Sodom. Abraham’s whittling away of God’s resistance strikes us as impertinent or even laughable, but his persistence is actually characteristic of a client pleading with a patron until the patron gives a favorable response. Similarly, the psalmist thanks God as the patron who has heard the prayer of the client: “when I called, you answered me” and “the LORD will complete what he has done for me.”

This theory of patronage also illuminates Jesus’ gift of a model prayer to his disciples, what we call the “Our Father.” First, he instructs them to address God as “Father” (Abba), considering God as one who is near to those who pray to him, treating them as members of his “family.” Since a patron can provide clients with materials (or better terms on materials) that they cannot obtain by their own abilities, calling on God as “Father” sets the context for five petitions found in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. For God to hallow God’s name is to manifest himself as he truly is: father, patron, ultimately in charge of life. For God to bring about his kingdom is to achieve his royal sovereignty definitively over all aspects of life. The next three petitions, formulated in the plural (highlighting the communal dimension of life in the ancient Near East in contrast to the individualism of our culture), follow on the opening praise of God-as-patron. They petition for the present (our daily sustenance), for the past (forgive our already committed sins) and for the future (preserve us from the temptation to apostasy).

Though the social conditions for Jesus’ disciples have changed over the last two millennia, the structure and content of the prayer Jesus enunciated can continue to inspire those who seek God as their ultimate patron. How God responds to our petitions calls for acute discernment, but that God responds to our petitions because of the mediation of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is a foundational belief of Christian faith.

Father Joncas, a composer, is an artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.


Sunday, July 28
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Category: Sunday Scriptures