Exploring “The Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father”
Quite often we are at a loss for words when we want to pray. We know that we want to say something to God, but we aren’t sure what words to use in order to tell God what it is we would like to express. Jesus’ disciples may have been in that situation when they asked him to teach them to pray. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ response to his disciples’ request was teaching them the Our Father (Luke 11:1-4).
The two most popular names for this prayer are the Lord’s Prayer and the Our Father. Some prefer to call it the Our Father because those are the words which the prayer begins with. Others like to call it the Lord’s Prayer because it was the prayer which the Lord Jesus Christ taught his disciples.
The prayer opens with the words Our Father, who art in heaven, which is an address to God. This address would have had a powerful impact on Jewish and Gentile people who heard it. Although first century Jews and Gentiles would be familiar with the term Father to describe God, they would have understood it in different contexts. For Judaism, the term Father was one of many metaphors used to describe God’s relationship to the created order. For the Classical Pagan religions to which the Gentiles belonged, the term Father was not used to describe a relationship between the creator with his creation, but rather the ruler over the subjects whom he ruled. The Greek god Zeus was often given the title of, Father of Gods and men, yet no one in the Ancient World would have thought that Zeus was the creator of humanity.
By stating that God the Father is in heaven, Jesus is making a point that God is not accessible in only certain places. One does not need to go to a special location to pray to God. Rather, one can pray (and should pray) to God no matter where he or she finds his or herself. In the twenty first century, the notion of being able to pray to God from any location sounds obvious. Yet to the early Christians, this idea of God being accessible anywhere was revolutionary.
After the address to God the Father, the prayer continues with the words hallowed be thy name. If the phrase who art in heaven pointed out the accessibility of God to his children, the phrase hallowed be thy name points out that even though God is accessible to us, we should not trivialize that reality when we pray. This is because when we pray, we are doing something holy. The word holy has several meanings, but the definition which applies to the Our Father is that of being in the presence of God. All too often, we find ourselves distracted when praying. It is easy to speed through our prayer time because we feel the concerns of the world pressing upon us.
The words hallowed be thy name are a good reminder for us to slow down when we pray. If we truly believe that we are in God’s presence when we pray, it would be a good idea to take this fact seriously when we are praying.
Some of the most subtle words in the prayer are thy kingdom come. This phrase is one which we might be tempted to skip over if praying in a hurry. Yet it would do us well to slow down and examine its meaning.
In Jesus’ time there was an expectation that the coming of the Messiah would inaugurate this Kingdom of God. Many assumed that this kingdom would be a restoration of the kingdom of Israel. And while much of Jesus’ ministry was devoted to proclaiming the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ understanding of what this kingdom would be was quite different from the vision which many had hoped for. Rather than being a mere political entity, the Kingdom of God would extend throughout the whole world.
There are two dimensions to the Kingdom of God which almost seem paradoxical. On one hand, the Kingdom of God is something which we participate in both here and now. As Baptised Christians, all of us are part of this Kingdom. On the other hand the Kingdom of God has not yet reached its fullness.
As Christians we live in a world which definitely belongs to God. It is, however, a world in which sin is present. By virtue of our Baptism, we are called to be participants in God’s kingdom. This does not mean passive observance. Rather, it means working to make God’s world a better place.
This striving to make our world a better place is fundamental to who we are as Christians. It is not an “add on” but a core aspect of our faith. We engage in ministry in the wider world because this is something God asks of us.
The next phrase, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, gives us an indication of what the coming of the Kingdom of God will mean for the wider world. When we pray the Our Father, we are not merely asking God to make the world a little bit better than it already is. Rather, we are asking God to remake the world as it should be. There is a danger in assuming that we will know the exact date when God will complete this task. This is something only known to God.
I find the idea of God continuing to act a very comforting thought. There are some people who understand God as one who set the universe into motion 13.8 billion years ago and then left the created order alone. But if we are to take the Our Father seriously, we need to recognise that God is still active in the universe.
As we wander further into the prayer, we encounter the words give us this day our daily bread. The word give reminds us of God’s generosity. All that we have is a gift from God. This, of course, means that the lives that we live and the means to sustain them are a result of God’s benevolence.
By praying the Our Father, we are admitting that we recognize our total dependence on God. All too often we hear of the self-made person who obtained everything that he or she has through his or her own efforts. While it is important to recognize hard work and determination, it is just as important to recognize that our talents are gifts which God has given us. This theme of our dependence on God is an important one to remember when we encounter those in need. For those God has blessed richly, there is an obligation to share that bounty with those less fortunate.
The word us provides a reminder that we are not praying to God merely for our individual benefit. As Christians we make a point of not only praying for ourselves as individuals but for others as well.
The words this day remind us to concentrate on the here and now. We are praying for today’s bread, not tomorrow’s or next week’s. It is easy to be apprehensive about the future. Life can be uncertain at times and we seek a sense of security. But when we pray the Our Father, we are reminded that God is inviting us to put our trust in God and that God will find a way to provide for us in the here and now.
The words daily bread help us to focus on what we need rather than what we want. Notice that the request is for bread, not a three course meal. When we are asking God for our daily bread, we are asking for God to give sustenance, rather than luxury. This is a concept which is often forgotten in our twenty first century context. All too often we treat our wants as needs.
I don’t know about you, but I have always found this next phrase fascinating. The words forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, are words we have probably prayed thousands of times throughout our lives. Yet the word trespass stands out from the rest of the phrase.
Many modern translation of the Our Father use the word sin instead of trespass. This a very logical choice in that the word sin is one that we are familiar with. One of the questions I am often asked is why the word trespass is used in the Our Father instead of the word Sin. After all, when most of hear the word trespass, we often equate it with entering private property without permission.
The reason for the word choice is that the use of the word trespass, in the English language, has changed over time. The word trespass comes from the Old French word trespas, which means a transgression of the law.
With this older meaning in mind, we can understand why William Tyndale used the word trespass in his translation of Matthew’s Gospel. And because of the popularity of Tyndale’s translation, it was natural that the 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer would use it.
But regardless of whether we use the words sin or trespass, this phrase has an important meaning for us today. These words should remind us that our need for forgiveness is ongoing. Just as we need food in our daily life, we also need to be forgiven.
Asking for forgiveness is difficult at times. We hate admitting our shortcomings. And yet, when we pray the Our Father, we are asking God’s help in doing this. And while this might seem straightforward enough, we also are asking God to help us to forgive those who sin against us!
We need to remember that forgiveness is a two way street. It would be a double standard to expect to receive forgiveness for what we have done to others, but not extend the same to those who have wronged us.
Often we think of temptation in terms of performing an action that one may enjoy immediately or in the short term but will probably later regret for various reasons. When temptation is thought about this way, it is obvious that we live in a world in which we are faced with temptation on a daily basis.
So when we pray the Our Father and say the words lead us not into temptation, we might wonder why we are asking God to do this. Surely God knows that we don’t need additional temptation in our everyday lives. He isn’t going to lead us to temptation.
What we have to remember is that the word temptation had a much wider meaning during Jesus’ lifetime. When Jesus’ disciples prayed these words, they would have understood this petition as one asking God to assist them during the trials they would face in their lives.
All of us at one time or another has something which tries us so greatly that we almost reach the breaking point. During these times we realize that we are not the ones in control. Realizing that one is not in control can be a scary thought. It means that we find ourselves forced to admit that there is something greater than ourselves. It is at times such as these when we need God the most.
Perhaps Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46) provides us with a model of what we should be asking for when we ask God to lead us not into temptation. When he was praying in the Garden, Jesus asked God the father to not have to go through the experience of being tried and crucified. But he also admitted that he would face the horrors of Good Friday if God the Father wanted him to.
Just like Jesus, we might hope that we can avoid having to face a certain trial. And it is quite possible we might find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have to face that specific trial. If, however, we find ourselves in a situation in which we can’t avoid said trial, we would do well to remember that when we pray the Our Father, we are asking God to be with us and to strengthen us when we face those seemingly impossible situations.
In life we encounter a paradox. We live in a universe in which we see great goodness. We experience this goodness from the things we love in the created order and the people who bring great joy to our lives. But there is the flipside. We also experience evil from the same created order and from people who hurt us. As Christians, we believe this paradox is a result of two factors. The first is the positive affirmation that God created a good universe. The second is that we live in a fallen universe in which evil occurs.
What does it mean to live in a fallen universe? For starters, fallen does not mean that something is intrinsically evil. When we hear of some Christian groups claiming that our universe is evil, they are missing the point. We need to remember that God’s created order is fundamentally good. What the term fallen implies, is that something or someone falls short of what or who it is supposed to be. With this in mind, we are able to construe how a good universe can have evil manifest in it.
So when we pray the words, deliver us from evil, we are praying for two things. Firstly, we are praying that God will save us from evil which we are currently experiencing or will be experiencing in the future. Secondly, we are asking God to provide healing to what is causing the evil we are experiencing so it doesn’t occur again.
Let us assume someone is being robbed at gunpoint and is silently praying the Our Father. The one silently praying the words of the Our Father is essentially asking for an end to the robbery and to be able to leave the scene of the crime unharmed. This person is praying for an immediate action, the safe end to a robbery.
Yet, there is a second application of the prayer to this robbery scenario. We can also interpret the words deliver us from evil, to be a request for the person committing the robbery to turn his or her life around. To seek forgiveness for this action of evil which is being committed and to amend his or her life so that such evil actions won’t be committed again.
I think it is safe to say that by asking God to deliver us from evil, we are asking God to not only treat the symptoms of evil, but the sources as well.
Come back next month to check the next instalment of the Our Father “Anglican Nuts and Bolts.”