By: Ernest O. Hauser
“After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”
So does Christ, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, introduce the Lord’s Prayer. Ever since, it has been the joy and comfort of successive generations, as well as a cornerstone of Christian worship and instruction. Both Protestants and Catholics regard it with deep reverence. Given us by the Lord himself, it is a perfect model of how to pray. No prayer is more beautiful; none is more comprehensive; none Links the heart more intimately with God.
The New Testament contains two versions of the prayer. Matthew gives us the longer text, comprising seven separate petitions, and his version has been used in Christian liturgy from the beginning. According to Luke’s version, Christ improvised the prayer in answer to a request from one of his disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.” The traditional Hebrew formulas they had repeated since childhood no longer Satisfied these men of the New Covenant. And though the Lord’s Prayer uses many Hebrew elements, Jesus–with the sure touch of inspiration–poured new wine into old bottles.
For what he taught is a revolutionary prayer. Its brevity, its warmth, its candor set it apart from the “vain repetitions” of heathen prayers. No wonder, then, that early Christians seized eagerly on it. Within a century after Christ’s death, it was a basic feature of the Christian service, and all Christians were expected to recite it three times a day. The prayer is so wondrously composed, so subtly balanced, that it takes on more depth and meaning the more we think about it.
Our Father . . .A mood is set with the first two words. Stepping into God’s presence with a collected mind, detached from the disturbances of the day, we address him with the term–Abba in Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue–which Christ himself had on his lips, and which perhaps is best translated as “Papa.” There is no trace of the awe with which a fearful people might approach its sovereign lord. We count on God’s benevolence. Between supplicant and Listener a relationship of trust is established. We have come as children, to discuss family matters. By authorizing us to approach God in this way, Christ gives us the benefit of his own intimate relationship with the Father.
. . .which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Still, God is in his heaven–all-powerful, all-knowing, surveying his creation from a lofty height. Our thoughts must rise to him. And so we now pray that his very name, and thus his sacred person, be ever hallowed (kept holy) by all men. This plea, springing from a profound religious need, ushers in the next two petitions.
Thy kingdom come. All of man’s hope is concentrated here. God’s kingdom is the central theme of the New Testament, and of our prayer. We join the earliest Christians in their expectation of that everlasting state of sinless bliss, when, in Paul’s celebrated words, we shall no longer see the Lord “through a glass, darkly,” but “face to face.” And yet, the forces of redemption are already stirring. For did not Jesus compare the kingdom to a grain of mustard seed which will become a tree? By asking God to plant in us a small seed of his kingdom here and now, we consciously identify ourselves with that prime, hidden force that will become the whole. “Behold, the kingdom
of God is within you.” Our petition becomes a firm commitment that turns us into participants in the Lord’s grand design.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. This third petition rounds out our quest for exaltation of the soul. Because we cannot know God’s will, and may have to suffer as it manifests itself, a pledge of patience and forbearance is implied. We also come to grips with the true meaning of prayer. It is not so much to obtain specific
favors that we pray–“for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him”–as to integrate our human longings, indeed the whole direction of our lives, with the unfathomable will of God.
Give us this day our daily bread. In our first three pleas, we have fixed a steady gaze on heaven. Now we shift to petitions that deal with our material and spiritual well-being. What could be more natural than to ask God, who gave us life, to help maintain it by providing our daily bread? Bread was the staple of the Jewish diet in Christ’s time. The poor and the oppressed, among whom Jesus lived, expected little else for sustenance. It thus became the symbol of survival.
We pray for bread, wrote Martin Luther, “so God may grant us food and drink, clothes, house and home, and a healthy body; that he let grow the grain and the fruit of the field…and that our labor turn out well.” Even though God may well provide these blessings without our asking, the great reformer added, he wants us to acknowledge that they come from him–a sign of his parental care.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. At first sight, our fifth petition presents itself as a straight bargain. We beg God to forgive us our debts (Luke has “our sins”; the Book of Common Prayer, “our trespasses”) as we forgive our debtors. In teaching us this prayer, Jesus rightly presumed that no man can go through life
without committing sins, or without hurting others. So, in debt to both conscience and God, we now confess these sins and ask for his compassion.
Still, how can we expect to be forgiven if, with regard to our debtors, we insist on a pound of flesh? Here, then, the Lord’s Prayer holds a civic message. It makes it our moral duty to keep the peace; to settle things harmoniously and gladly between ourselves and our neighbors. The golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us is thus raised to a new dimension. Our prayer makes it part of our overall account with God.
And lead us not into temptation, . . .Alas, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” In asking God to lead us not into temptation, we avow that our flesh is prone to it. Poised between good and evil, we turn to our Father for support. We would rather not be put to the test.
. . .but deliver us from evil: . . .In almost the same breath, and with the same anxiety, we utter this more sweeping supplication. Most Bible students feel that “evil” here stands for “the evil one”: Satan. Others see in it the impersonal, destructive force that threatens to deprive us of salvation. The difference does not affect the deeper meaning of the last petition. Asking the Lord to rid humanity of “evil,” exploding all around us in a Pandemonium of violence and crime, is one of the most timely pleas we can send up. Thus, our final vision of a luminous world, a world unclouded by temptation, sin and evil, links up with our earlier plea–“Thy kingdom come.” Our prayer has come full circle.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. In Matthew’s Gospel, the prayer ends with this chant of praise and glory. Scholars agree that this is an addition to the Gospel text, and many Christians leave it out. Still, there is documentary evidence that it was used in the Church as early as the second century. It is a jubilant acknowledgment of our encounter with the Highest. The physical and spiritual refreshment that is the first result of praying resounds in these final words.
Amen. The Lord has heard us. So be it! Some 20 seconds have been required to say the 66 words of the prayer. During that time, most of us have not noticed that one little word–the word “I”–has never been
mentioned. Nothing indicates more clearly the spirit in which we have prayed. There is no room here for egoism. It is as members of the brotherhood of man that we have faced the Creator; and what we ask for
ourselves, we ask also for others.
Is the Lord’s Prayer, then, the best of prayers? Christ never meant to impose it on the world as an exclusive formula, supplanting such intensely human gestures of the heart as prayers of thanksgiving and grace; prayers for friends in trouble, for recovery from illness, for a safe journey, for justice, freedom and peace. Still, the Lord’s Prayer is the only prayer that Jesus taught, and divine inspiration gives it a status all its own. As a means of devotion, it covers all our major needs–of the soul and of the body. It is a prayer for all
seasons, and it is not surprising that millions of believers recite it regularly. Not a minute passes but that the Lord’s Prayer, somewhere, is rising to heaven. Thus, all of Christendom lauds the Creator.
When You Pray . . .
Many people, from Jesus’ day to ours, have offered sound teaching about how to pray. But advice can only go so far and then you have to solo. If you’ve been wondering how to get your prayers off the ground,
here is a quick checklist that should help you out.
A prayer should be:
1. Personal – about something you have a direct interest in.
2. Specific – with a clear object or goal in mind.
3. Trusting – that God hears you and is concerned for you.
4. Truthful – representing your real thoughts and feelings.
5. Persistent – demonstrating a resolve to wait for something you’ve
asked for and a willingness to ask again.
6. Believing – that God will answer you and is already acting on your
(The original source of the above material is unknown.)
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