Historical Cultural Context
The Meaning and Types of Prayer
Jesus ends his farewell address with two prayers (Jn 17:1-19, 20-26). The first is concerned with Jesus’ immediate disciples after his death; the second looks to believers yet to come.
From a purely cultural perspective, prayer is a socially meaningful act of communication directed to persons perceived to be in control of the life situation of the one praying and performed for the purpose of getting results.
The message of the prayer reveals how the persons praying perceive themselves and God. This is captured in a traditional saying: lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, how and what we pray reveal what we believe about the one to whom we pray.
Prayer can address seven practical purposes. It can be: (1) instrumental (“I/we want”); (2) regulatory (“do as I/we tell you”); (3) interactional (“me/we and you”); (4) self-focused (“here I am/we are”); (5) heuristic (“tell me/us why”); (6) imaginative (“let’s pretend”); and (7) informative (“I have something to tell you”).
John 17:1-5. The first five verses of Jesus’ prayer focus on the core Mediterranean cultural value, honor. The key word is “glory” or “glorify.” Recalling that honor is a claim to worth and a public acknowledgement of that claim, we note that Jesus is praying in the presence of the disciples (and not in secret, as he once instructed them; see Mt 6:5-6).
This portion of Jesus’ prayer is instrumental, that is, it is a prayer to obtain a good (honor) and a service (public proclamation) from God to satisfy Jesus’ and his disciples’ social need: to be recognized as honorable people.
John 17:6-8. This portion of Jesus’ prayer is self-focused, that is, he identifies himself and his disciples to God, with special emphasis on the disciples.
John 17:9-11. Jesus now switches the focus of his prayer back to the instrumental mode. He asks the Father “to protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:11). This is a petition for unity in community. The reason for petitioning this protection for his disciples is that Jesus is taking leave of them.
What he expresses here in prayer, Jesus later accomplishes in deed when, dying on the cross, he entrusts his mother to the care and protection of a good friend.
Modern Western believers may consider this approach to Jesus’ prayer as esoteric. But careful reflection on Western styles of public prayer reveals that very often these are composed with greater concern to impress or edify the human listeners than to stir God to action. The reason for this is that Westerners are convinced that they are masters of their own destiny and are expected to look out for themselves. No one else will.
Our Middle Eastern ancestors in the faith believed that they had no control over their lives. Only God did, and public prayer stirred God to act because it put God’s honor on the line. That was Jesus’ intent in this prayer. How do American believers pray?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University