Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Jesus's Prayers and Christian Praying

Christ Blessing the Children, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)

Why do so many of my fellow Christian citizens insist on praying in public settings? No simple answer can suffice, of course. But one reason, I believe, is that many Christians give far greater attention to the Gospel of John than to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus prays frequently but almost always privately, and he distinctly instructs his followers to pray in private, not in public. Jesus also warns against lengthy prayers. Among Jesus's own prayers quoted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the most extensive is 36 words in length (Lk 10:21, New Revised Standard Version).

In contrast, the Gospel of John makes no mention at all of Jesus's teachings about prayer, has Jesus praying publicly, and gives an account of Jesus declaiming one prayer that is 629 words in length (Jn 17:1-26, NRSV).

I believe that this contrast bears directly on the issue of public prayer in the United States.

The Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the "Synoptic Gospels," because they "see together" or share a common orientation, whereas the orientation of John, the "Fourth Gospel," is fundamentally different.

With slightly varying details, the Synoptic Gospels report six prayers in which they quote Jesus's words:

The Synoptic Gospels describe many other instances of Jesus at prayer, but they do so without quoting any of his language. This implies what the Synoptics often state explicitly: that Jesus typically prayed alone.

Jesus is described as praying at crucial times in his ministry: at his baptism;2 before choosing his apostles;3 in the midst of healing;4 before his transfiguration;5 before his death;6 and on the cross.7

In Jesus's day-to-day life the Synoptic Gospels often mention his offering blessings before eating,8 and they tell of Jesus praying over children as he blesses them.9

Jesus also frequently gives guidance about praying. Prayers should be humble, not self-righteous;
10 should be forgiving, particularly of enemies;11 should be trusting, not doubting;12 should be persistent, without loss of heart.13

Jesus particularly commends the prayer "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"14 and he urges his disciples to pray for deliverance from trial and temptation.15 Jesus teaches the Lord's Prayer to his disciples—at the disciples' request, according to Luke's account.16

Most to our point here, Jesus cautions that prayer should be private, not public:
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.... Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:1, 5–6)
And Jesus teaches that prayers should be brief, not elaborate:
"When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." (Mt 6:7–8)
We may note that in the Synoptic chart displayed above, the final four of Jesus's six prayers consist of but a single sentence each.

The Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel contains none of the prayers of Jesus quoted or mentioned in the Synoptics. Nor does John contain a single teaching of Jesus concerning prayer. In fact the words "pray" and "prayer" never appear in John's Gospel.

Instead, John presents three prayers of Jesus, utterly different in tone and content from the Synoptic prayers. First:
"Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." (The story of the raising of Lazarus, John 11:41–42)
This is a public prayer, spoken for the purpose of influencing a crowd.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine." (As Jesus is facing arrest, John 12:27–30)
Here again John reports a public prayer, spoken for the sake of a crowd.

The third prayer presented by John is the lengthy declamation mentioned in the introductory paragraphs above, known as the "high-priestly prayer" or Jesus's "farewell to his disciples" (John 17:1–26). This prayer is elaborately theological, and it is seventeen times longer than the most extensive of Jesus's prayers in the Synoptics.

Twice John mentions Jesus giving thanks before a meal.
17 But one need not look in John for Jesus's prayerful blessing of children, or for Jesus's prayer for God to forgive his tormentors. In John the principal theme of Jesus's prayers is Jesus himself: 
"Father...glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you...." (John 17:1)
This is typical of what has been called the extravagant doting of John's Gospel.


In its article "Prayers of Jesus," The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia offers the opinion that the high-priestly prayer from John's Gospel "may be regarded as the sole example furnished by the evangelists of our Lord's method of prayer." This is simply incorrect.

We have seen that John presents only three prayers of Jesus and includes not a single teaching of Jesus concerning prayer. The Synoptic Gospels, in contrast, quote the words of six of Jesus's own prayers, make numerous references to Jesus's solitary "method of prayer," and include a dozen teachings of Jesus concerning prayer.

Most biblical scholars agree that the entirety of John's Gospel, including Jesus's prayers, is written in the author's own unique language. Even biblical translators sometimes find it impossible to tell where Jesus's language is supposed to end and John's language to resume.18

The scholarly consensus is that the Fourth Gospel expresses John's theological beliefs about Jesus far more abundantly than it yields possible insight concerning the Jesus of history.


One commentator has written that for Christians "it has to be a choice between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels." Yet this choice is not possible for many of my Christian friends, across all denominations, including the greater part of earnest Christian students I have known in recent years. The Gospel of John has so thoroughly dominated every aspect of their religious formation that they are virtually unaware of Jesus's method of praying as presented in the Synoptics.

From the Synoptic Gospels they characteristically know the Christmas stories, along with a few of Jesus's parables and the Lord's Prayer. But they do not know that one of Jesus's most trenchant parables warns against the dangers of pride and self-righteousness in prayer,19 or that the Lord's Prayer is immediately prefaced by Jesus's explicit warnings against lengthy and public praying.20

To take John's Gospel alone as a model of Jesus's "method of prayer" is to think of prayer as public and elaborate. Many Christians I know are pressing for this method of praying as a cultural—indeed, legal—norm for our nation.

To take the Synoptic Gospels as offering a more likely representation of Jesus's method of praying, as I believe it is right to do, is to think of prayer as brief, not elaborate, and private, not public.

Prayer is in fact the only thing that Jesus ever advised his followers to keep in the closet:
"When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father...." (Mt 6:6, King James Version)


1. Mt 14:23; Mk 1:35; Mk 6:46; Lk 5:16; Lk 6:12; Lk 9:18; Lk 11:1.
2. Lk 3:21–22.
3. Lk 6:12–13.
4. Mk 7:32-35.
5. Lk 9:28–29.
6. Mt 26:36–46; Mk 14:32–41; Lk 22:39–46.
7. Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34; Lk 23:34, 46.
8. Mt 14:19; Mt 15:36; Mt 26:26–27; Mk 6:41; Mk 8:6–7; Mk 14:22–23; Lk 9:16; Lk 22:17-19;
       Lk 24:30.
9. Mt 19:13–15 (see also Mk 10:13–16; Lk 18:15–17).
10. Lk 18:9–14.
11. Mt 5:43–48; Mk 11:25–26; Lk 6:27–28.
12. Mt 18:19; Mt 21:21–22; Mk 11:22–24.
13. Lk 11:5–13; 18:1–8.
14. Lk 18:13–14.
15. Mk 14:37–38; Lk 21:36; 22:40, 45–46.
16. Mt 6:9-13; Lk 11:1–4.
17. Jn 6:11, 23.
18. See the NRSV textual footnotes at John 3:15, 21, and 30.
19. Lk 18:9-14.
20. Mt 6:5–8.


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