Our Father: Some things the Lord’s Prayer teaches us about praying
Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name
Your Kingdom come
Your will be done
On Earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread (or bread for tomorrow)
And forgive us our debts (sins, trespasses)
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And do not bring us to the time of trial (lead us to temptation, test us to destruction)
But rescue us from the evil one (deliver us from evil)
Matt 6:9-13 NRSV with variations
The Pater Noster, Lord’s Prayer or Our Father is probably the most famous prayer in the Christian tradition. It is the prayer, offered by Jesus himself. Every moment of every day it echoes from church to church, from house church to campus ministry to mega church to country chapel, as it is prayed in a hundred different languages.
So as the prototype prayer of the Church, spoken by Jesus himself, it follows that we can learn something about God’s own understanding of prayer by looking at the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Though only a few verses in length there is a world of depth implied by each line and as we pray it we find God offering more and more of that depth to us.
Our Father in Heaven.
Our. Our Father. The prayer is plural. It is collective. Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray together. Everything that follows is about the whole community as well as the individual.
Father. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are not just a community but a family and God is the head of that family. And family meant even more to Jesus’s 1st century audience. Family was an extended economic unit; a business partnership. Most families worked together in a trade like fishing or carpentry (many of the disciples were working with their own fathers when Jesus called them). Family was also a legal and status group. You were vulnerable or protected under Jewish and Roman law based in large part of your family. And individual achievement was secondary to your family’s success and advancement over time.
Finally, Families were religious and political wholes. The head of the family made decisions for everyone. That’s why we see things like “and the household of so and so was baptized” in Acts. Breaking away from your family (as many early Christians were forced to) would be particularly traumatic and isolating.
God is the great adopter and Jesus and the gospel authors wanted us to the all the ways that Father captured the goodness of God. God protects, provides, leads and honors, making room not only for those who have honor and home elsewhere but especially for those who are forsaken and cast out.
Hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come. Your will be done. On Earth as it is in Heaven.
God has a plan at work in the world. Started in Creation and renewed in the birth of Jesus. God has a model for how humanity should relate to His creation and each other. God’s Kingdom isn’t just about worshiping right but also living good lives and treating each other fairly. God’s Kingdom and God’s love and justice go hand in hand.
Also God’s will is sometimes bigger than we can wrap our heads around. When we pray God always hears and cares but God’s plan is often hard. But in the long arc of everything God is working everything to the good, for us as individuals, for all humanity and finally for all the Creation. This is why we have to sometimes remind ourselves to pray not only for our wants and needs but also that we might stay open to the way God might unexpectedly work.
Give us this day our daily bread
The image here is intended to make us think back to the Exodus, to the story of the miraculous manna which fell from the sky each day. Each person could gather what they needed and eat their fill. But it couldn’t be stored and no one could take too much or too little. God is still providing. But like the Israelites, God doesn’t want us to have everything. God wants us to have enough. What we really need. If we have too much we forget we need God, we get arrogant and wasteful and cruel to one another. If we have too little and our needs aren’t met…well its self-explanatory why that is bad.
And remember, this is a collective prayer. We are praying this with people in very different situations than ours. Some with so very much, some with very little. Maybe in the same room or community, maybe across the world. But if God is the father of us all then those our or brothers and sisters without enough. Our daily bread means their daily bread (or daily lack of bread) is my problem.
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
We’re never going to be perfect. Each day we’re going to fall short. And that’s OK. God continually forgives. But we can’t hold on to the illusion of perfection. We have to name our faults and ask God for the Grace to get a little bit better every time we fail.
And we also can’t be the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18). We’ve been forgiven much and that calls us to forgive in turn. Our forgiveness isn’t conditional but it is important. We can’t ask for God’s kingdom even as we toss out its forgiveness.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
This is probably one of the hardest lines to understand. But in some ways its very simple. There are dark and trying things in this world. Until God’s renews the Creation and fully realizes the Kingdom in the world there won’t be perfect peace. There won’t be life without times of suffering and loss and difficulty. We can’t ask God to simply shield us away from all of these things. But instead we ask God to preserve us, to save us, to bring us back from the brink when things seem too much. God keep us in the world but help us to live faithfully in it.
In these few lines of verse we hear an awful lot about the shape of prayer and even a good deal about what a good Christian life might look like. By praying these ancient words we not only speak to God but perhaps also hear God speaking back in unexpected ways. If there’s one simple takeaway from this then it is this. Pray the Lord’s Prayer. Learn it inside and out. Carry it in your phone. Pray it throughout your day. Join in the tradition, join in the choir. Let it shape you like it did those early disciples who heard it from Jesus himself.
(We talked a little bit extra in Youth about other things the Lord’s Prayer might say about the whole practice of Praying but we’re going to come back to those at another time.)