Exemplary Prayers – II

In our last  post we said any address to Jesus in the Gospels can be read as a prayer to God. Sometimes that will seem outrageous. For consider the question of Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11) By this time, Jesus has had a night of abuse. He has been deserted by his disciples, condemned by false witnesses in a kangaroo court, slapped around, and bound over to the governor for judgment.

Pilate is traditionally treated as one of the greatest villains of history. Therefore, it may be offensive to speak of anything he says as a prayer. Still, which of us has not asked this question in one form or another? How can this man from a no-count backwater, with no following but a rabble of limping crazies, be a king? Even if he is a king in that desert, so what? Even if he is a very great king: say, king of England, or of wherever, so what? There have been kings all through history who have been able to refrain from theological claims about themselves. Those who could not,like  the late emperors of Rome, we simply call megalomaniacs, and let it go.

But is this the King of Israel? The name Israel means “He Who Fights With God?” Such an extraordinary suggestion is not easily dismissed. If we know ourselves at all well, we know ourselves to be subjects of that king; we are those who fight with God. We are the ones who see our daily struggles as having something to do with God and our relation to him. If Jesus is that king, then he is already within the defenses, upon us, hand to hand. Is he? Can faith not ask? Does the asking itself not in a sense imply the faith? Is Pilate not a brother, and his question very much ours?

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To complete this thought experiment with a Resurrection appearance, we can remember the women at the tomb. Better readers than I have noticed that throughout the Gospel, nobody understands Jesus’ message. Crowds get their healing and go away. Very possibly the same crowd that greets Jesus as a king with palms and Hosanna’s is the one that screams for his blood a few days later. The disciples constantly misunderstand too, and Jesus upbraids them for obtuseness and lack of faith. He tells them plainly what is going to happen, at least three times within the compass of Matthew, yet they still seem surprised—or maybe only too sleepy to concern themselves with it.

At last at the tomb, for the first time someone is confronted with the resurrected Lord. This must be a sight at least as frightening as the ghost on the sea in the middle of the night. But this time, maybe for the first time, the response is exactly right: they take hold of his feet and worship him. This worship is an act, not a phrase. It may be the first prayer in the Gospel untainted by human confusions.

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