By T. R. Robertson
Prayer, for many people, is like climbing onto Santa’s lap at the mall and giving him a list of everything you want. Others approach prayer like haggling with a used car salesman or reciting the pledge of allegiance.
For Jesus, prayer was a vital part of his mission, a strategy session with a ministry partner.
In Matthew 11 we find Jesus midway through his three-year ministry. He had preached to thousands, healed hundreds, and answered questions from seekers and cynics.
He had just received, according to Luke’s account (chapter 10), a glowing report from 72 of his ministry partners, who were returning from their two-man missionary trips. He’d also just received bad news from the ministry partners of his cousin John, who had been imprisoned by Herod.
John was guilty of the same thing Jesus had been doing: preaching a revolutionary message to rich and powerful people who would have rather maintained the status quo. Despite all their education and piety, they refused to consider the teachings of either John or Jesus.
While talking to a mixed crowd—curiosity seekers, disciples, and critics—Jesus paused in the middle of his teaching to offer up a short prayer to the Father.
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (Matthew 11:25, 26).
We know Jesus was quite comfortable praying for hours. This one, though, was so short it blended right in with his teaching, which he returned to immediately.
Both Matthew and Luke are clear that this was indeed a prayer addressed to God. They also agree that these words were spoken out loud, not a private prayer between Son and Father.
We could read this is an example of Jesus praying for the purpose of teaching those around him, like a preacher summarizing the points of his sermon in his closing prayer. His words are certainly instructive, both to those standing nearby and to those who read them today.
The words, though, seem more like a brief discussion between Jesus and his Father about the circumstances of the moment. It’s the same sort of brief conversations that take place between the members of any team working together.
A group of carpenters framing a house will pause several times during the day to make sure they’re all still following the plan. Computer programmers not only have regular meetings to discuss the project, but they frequently exchange online instant messages about specific issues that come up.
Similar quick conversations take place between people who are working together doing God’s mission.
On Mission Together
The Mizzou Christian Campus House has been sending a team to minster in a women’s state prison for more than 50 years. The members of the ministry team have changed over the decades, but it’s always been a close-knit group.
Often in the middle of a song service or between breaths during teaching or answering questions, one of us on the team will look to another and make a comment. “The raised hands over on the left side are getting frustrated we’re not calling on them.” Or, “They really sat up and noticed when you talked about being brutally honest with yourself. They want to hear more on that.” Sometimes, “Don’t let the whisperers on the back row bother you. At least they’re here. They’ll pick up what God wants them to hear.” And, “Maybe we should ask them to share with each other what’s working for them.”
Some of the women might hear what we say in those asides, so we don’t say anything we wouldn’t want heard. But with a crowd of prisoners who thrive on spontaneity and unpredictability, those little strategy sessions on the fly are essential.
I think we’re seeing something similar when Jesus voiced this quick prayer. I can picture him talking to this crowd, a mixture of followers and hecklers. He’s experienced a mixture of exhilaration at the response of the common folk and frustration at the continued resistance of the movers and shakers. Then it comes to him: this is the very thing he and the Father have discussed at length during those long, early-morning prayers. This is how they knew it would play out.
Without pausing to bow his head, fold his hands, or get down to his knees, he tossed an aside to the Father about what’s going on. “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”
Talking Strategy Together
This isn’t the only time Jesus talked strategy out loud with his mission partner, the Father. He also included his other mission partners, the disciples.
In John 13–16 we read about Jesus’ long pre-arrest strategy session with his disciples. He told them what to expect and how to continue the ministry after he was gone. He emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong connection to him and to the Father through the Holy Spirit, who would be their new ministry partner.
Then in chapter 17, he switched his focus and talked to the Father about the same things, driving it home to his disciples that God is as much a part of their mission team as are any of them. To be successful, they’ll need to not only give assent to that truth but live it daily. They’ll need to include God in their plans and in the strategy adjustments they make on the way.
My partners in the prison ministry have learned the same thing. As vital as our strategy conversations are among ourselves, we’ve learned to also include the Lord. A typical Monday evening trip to the prison includes both prayer to God about the ministry and conversations with each other about the constantly changing situations we expect to encounter.
During our time in the prison chapel, my wife will let the rest of us know she’s going to be counseling with someone one-on-one while the service continues. She’s also quite likely to be talking silently with God as she listens to the prisoner’s problems: Father, I really need you to help me know what to say to help this woman, because I’m feeling out of my depth here.
When we have students with us from the campus ministry, we’ll sometimes suggest they go sit with one of the women who has asked for prayer. We’ll send the student off with a quick practical reminder: “You can hold her hand while you pray, but you’re not allowed other contact.” We’ll also be silently asking the Father to help the student know what to say and do.
For anyone who, like Jesus, is active in doing God’s work on the go, prayer becomes a natural part of life, like it was for him. The more I’ve been involved in doing God’s mission, working with a team that includes leaders, apprentices, and the Lord himself, my prayer life has grown stronger. Seeing prayer as a natural extension of ministry-minded conversation replaces “I have to pray” with “I need to talk to my ministry partner.”
It’s all part of getting the job done.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.