UNDERSTANDING THE LORD’S PRAYER
Matthew 6: 5-15
Author Kurt Rommel, in his book on the Lord’s Prayer, says that in this prayer: “We are invited to speak with God, to talk openly with the Father. For two thousand years now Christians have been speaking with their Father in words that we call the Lord’s Prayer. During those years these words have been variously used and abused. They have been screamed and shouted, babbled and stammered, whispered and sung. They have been mouthed in theatrical performance and in terror’s prison. They have also been thoughtlessly recited and fervently prayed….We are invited to think about the words we say, and know what we’re getting into when we pray these words of Jesus.” [OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN, Fortress Press, 1981, pp. 5-6.] So, are you ready? Are you ready to study the words that can tumble from a sleepy tongue as easily as “Amazing Grace?” Are you ready to set aside what you think is there to know what is actually there? Let us come to Jesus’ own words as we seek to understand our Lord’s Prayer.
“Father of us all” is actually the Greek translation of Matthew. It is universally translated “Our Father.” The unfortunate thing to learn is that the familiar way, “Our Father” sounds like God is that because we who believe in him call him that. But the original translation “Father of us all” means God is your Heavenly Father because he claimed the world’s people as his children first, not because we call God “Father.” And what about the name “Father” that some find troubling and others find comforting? It is a relational title tied originally to the time in which it was said. The analogy of a Father being a protector in his community, the planner of a child’s marriage, and the provider of the family (first century model, remember!), along with Jesus being the first born son who would naturally inherit all that was the Father’s, and who will come to claim the bride (which is the church) who his Father has already chosen for him: that’s the relationship that is lifted up. God protects, God plans (read providence here), and God provides. This is a title of gratitude offered back to God. “The one in the Heavens:” that’s actually the next phrase. It sets God apart as holy, mighty, and omniscient, unlike any human king or power. It puts a gap between us and God and between Heaven and Earth that is bridged by the Son. There is rightly a gap between the role and responsibility of parents and the role and responsibility of children. Families with troubled households too often have parents who have abdicated their power to their children who are only to happy to take it, but who have the inability to predict the outcome of their choices. It breaks the first rule of parenting which is: the parent is the parent and the child is the child. Seems simple, but gets mixed up so often. God is always God and any time children try to act like god there is trouble. Heaven has a different role in life’s plan than earth has: one rules and the other is ruled. By our actions, the next phrase suggests: “may your name be hallowed,” or “holy,” set apart from common use to its special place in our lives. It gives God and God’s name the extraordinary respect that Jews gave it, not ever uttering the name of God, unlike some on our streets who, in profanity, seem to be breaking into prayer with their thoughtless and angry words. How many times God must be hurt and disappointed when one in the world calls his name just to put emphasis on a thought or to swear! The English language has so many adjectives and adverbs and exclamations that are hardly used because people fall back on cheapening and defaming the name of God. Is it any wonder when some really do want to pray, that God has trouble differentiating the prayers from the cries of anger? This first part of the Lord’s Prayer gives glory and reverence to God- appropriate starting words. Now come the words of petition.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” These words are revolutionary except that they have been prayed so often in ordinary and distracted ways. If God’s Kingdom is to come on earth; if God’s will is to be done by humans on earth as it is done by angels in Heaven, then it will take an extraordinary realignment of human priorities, human wills, and human actions. These words call for changes in the praying person before God can make any changes! We can pray for others to change, and God’s Holy Spirit can change a heart whose soil has been tilled and in which the seeds of the Gospel have been planted. But for those humans whose hearts are like rocky soil, the Gospel seed cannot take root, and no amount of watering can get a seed sitting on a rock to grow. So we ourselves can help bring in the Kingdom by our actions, lives, and words. If our bumper stickers and necklaces show others a fish, but our actions only look fishy, we are a disservice to the Kingdom of God. Be sure of your willingness to collaborate with God if you pray that part of the prayer.
Now here come the petitions: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Before good preservatives and refrigeration, bread would get hard or moldy quickly. Bring home a delicious loaf of warm bread from a restaurant and set it outside to try it yourself. This petition implores God to let us find food enough for each day, but not enough to hoard it from one day to the next. Our daily task, this petition suggests, should be about having enough for today and caring that others are fed as well. It is a request and a moral mandate. “Forgive us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave (past tense) the debts of others.” In plain English, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgave our debtors.” The traditional reading makes “forgave” past tense, but “forgive,” present tense, perhaps reflects reality. You’ll notice that trespasses are not in the prayer; it is a tag line listed in verses 14 and 15. “Debts” had to do with the Jewish formula for forgiveness, and Jesus knew and practiced it. “Remorse” is the first step towards forgiveness, then “repentance” and then “restitution:” paying for what has been broken. Sometimes Christians forget that, because Jesus paid the price for our sins. But the price paid by us to those we have hurt (or by Jesus when we sin against God), should never be forgotten. The original text in Matthew does not soften the words to “trespasses” but keeps the power of the price of sin with the word “debts.” It is not as popular, but it is there in the words of Jesus. “And do not bring us into temptation.” This is a petition to not test our faith and resolve, for fear that we might cave in a fail. There are many examples in the Bible of food or lust or power testing men and women of faith. We don’t relish the thought of being the next person God tests. “But deliver us from evil.” This tag line says, “Alright, if I am going to be tested, please give me the courage, moral backbone, and strength to say “no” to temptations. How vital it is that we have that and pray for it “each day,” like our request for daily bread. We need daily prayer to fight off the wiles of evil ones.
In some manuscripts, the prayer of Jesus stops there; but in most Bibles there is a footnote saying that the majority of manuscripts close the prayer with an ascription of praise back to God; Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and most others include those words of praise: “For Thine (Yours) is the Kingdom, power, and glory, (a threefold ascription) forever (or “forever and ever just for emphasis). Amen.(Close prayer, “So may it be.”)
The Lord’s Prayer. We will pray it in many languages in a few minutes. It is powerful, it is necessary for daily strength and connection with God, it is the prayer Jesus himself taught, and it asks things both of God and of us. Few words are more powerful when taken seriously. May you use the prayer as a shepherd uses a rod and staff: for protection and connection.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 27, 2007