Praying with the Church 5 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Tradition

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This is the last chapter in the book on the general topic of set prayers before Scot McKnight begins exploring the different specific prayer traditions and some of the prayer book options.

As a pious Jew, it should be clear by this point in the book that Jesus prayed both spontaneously (and sometimes at great private length) and at the set times with others. Such prayers would have included the Shema, possibly the Amidah, and maybe the Ten Commandments. In this chapter, Scot explores Jesus’ contribution to the rhythm of the prayer tradition of Israel and his foundation for a new tradition of sacred rhythmical prayer. Scot sees three elements, one conservative and two progressive. In other words, Jesus “both adopted and adapted the sacred prayer rhythms of his people.”

First Element: Pray the Psalms

As soon as I saw the heading above, before I had even first read the section, my response was “Duh!” As soon as someone says it, it’s obvious. These are the great prayers of the Israelites gathered together. They cover all ‘moods’ and general sorts of prayers. And they remain amazingly appropriate to this day. We seem to do everything with the Psalms in our own tradition *except* pray them. Why is that?

Nevertheless, you see the Psalms constantly flowing from Jesus’ lips. His life was bathed with the Psalms. Jesus heard (and said with others) the Psalms in the ‘basilica’ (if you remember the analogy), i.e. the synagogue and temple, and took them from there into his ‘portiuncola’ (same analogy). The church has always followed him in doing so. The Psalms form the core of all prayer traditions. In order to be faithful to Jesus, it seems reasonable that we should develop similar habits. Scot notes that Billy Graham reads 5 Psalms and a chapter of Proverbs a day. Every day. (Actually, it’s less now for obvious reasons, but that was his habit for years.)

The Psalms help us come to God without pretense, which is actually what God wants. There is something primal and raw in the Psalms. No rules. No limits.

Second Element: Recite the Jesus Creed

I hope y’all remember that the “Jesus Creed” is Scot’s shorthand for the Shema as Jesus revised and extended it. Faithful Jews recited the Shema at least twice a day and you can be certain Jesus did the same, even if it was with his addition. It’s important to say the words out loud. To have them in a place you can see them, possibly. Anything you can do to keep them in your mind so your life and identity can begin to be shaped by them.

I’ve been developing the discipline of praying the Shema of Jesus twice a day myself. And I’ve begun reciting it together with my Sunday School class and encouraging them to make it a part of their daily routine and to consider it throughout each day as the early Christians did. Paul, James, and John draw their basic Christian behavioral principles from this revised Shema. John’s first letter is almost entirely shaped by it. The earliest text outside the NT on Christian education, the Didache, opens with it as “the way of life.”

Third Element: Pray the Lord’s Prayer

This was a new contribution of Jesus which he clearly instructed his followers to repeat as part of their sacred prayer rhythms in response to their question. Scot translates the opening in Luke as: “Whenever you pray, you should recite this prayer.” He explains why, but since I know little Greek myself I can’t judge his explanation. However, it seems completely reasonable, especially given all we know of first century Judaism. He also notes again the use of plural, not singular, pronouns. The prayer is intended to be prayed when the believers pray together.

The chapters up to here, especially these three points, convinced Scot McKnight of the central and almost essential nature of the Christian prayer tradition rooted in Jesus’ practice and the NT teachings. The rest of the book will explore traditions that grew from that beginning.

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