July 28, 2013
How many of you know the Lord’s Prayer?
There is the traditional language and cadence that we use in the Episcopal Church, which is so very familiar: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
And there is the contemporary language: “Our Father in heaven, holy be your name.”
There is controversy over some fine points: Are we forgiven “sins” or “debts”?
And how does the prayer end? “Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil”?
Or “The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever”?
There are a number of versions of this prayer used by Protestants and Catholics in contemporary services and in more traditional worship. The important thing is that we pray.
But what are we praying? What are we praying for? And where did this prayer come from, what does it mean, how are we to use it?
It is clear that prayer is important to Jesus. We hear of him praying, we hear of him calling his followers to prayer, and we hear the lessons he offers about prayer.
In Luke’s gospel alone, Jesus is at prayer at his baptism; before choosing his 12 disciples; before the first prediction of his passion, at the Transfiguration. Prayer seems to be important to Jesus.
And prayer was clearly important to Luke – after all, he collected and presented several stories attributed to Jesus right here in a rather small section of his gospel.
Presumably, then, prayer will also be important to us.
Let’s take a closer look.
What we read today begins with “Jesus was praying.” And when he was finished, one of the disciples asked him to teach them to pray “as John had taught his disciples.”
We learn a couple of things in this.
One, that prayer is something one learns, something that can be taught. There goes the excuse of “But I don’t know how to pray!”
And we also learn that there are forms of prayer that teachers pass on. It was usual in Jesus’ time, and still is today, for teachers to instruct their disciples in how to pray and give them a formula.
This is essentially what the disciples were asking for. Rabbis, teachers, taught their students, their followers, their disciples, how to do things. In this case, it was John who had taught his disciples how to pray, and the disciples of Jesus asked for the same thing. They asked to be taught. So Jesus told them, “When you pray, say this.”
Here we get to a potential stumbling block in understanding what we traditionally call “The Lord’s Prayer.” It wasn’t his prayer, was it? It isn’t what he prayed. It was his response to a disciple’s request to be given a formula for praying, to be given some instruction, a method. How often have we introduced this prayer in worship, saying, “And now, as our savior taught us, we are bold to say”?
So, is it the Lord’s Prayer?
Well, yes. And no. He didn’t teach us his prayer, but a way to pray, and what to pray for. He gave it to his disciples as a way to formulate prayer.
There is another point about this prayer that is sometimes missed: This is a community prayer, not a private prayer. It is a prayer that first praises God, and then makes three petitions for the ones praying. The language of “us,” “we,” assumes that the community shares the longing for final coming of the kingdom.
This puts a bit of an eschatological thrust on the prayer. The people who formed the early church believed with all their hearts and hoped that Jesus was coming back to lift them out of oppression, any day. They expected that the kingdom would be established in their lifetime, and that they would live with God. Hence, the community prayed in the way that Jesus instructed them.
Another point: The “daily bread” piece in Luke more accurately reads “day by day give us,” or “continue giving us,” or “each day give us.” It seems that Luke wasn’t looking to a glorified bread in an eventual kingdom, but sustenance for the day, food for those who were encouraged to take up the cross daily, and who were expected to travel on missionary journeys with only what is needed for the day.
It is as much a request as it is a demand.
In Luke, the one praying asks for God’s forgiveness of sins – not debts – while promising to forgive others their debts. This may be a reflection of Luke’s concern that possessions not get in the way of community relationships. It may also be a reminder that God is the only one able to forgive sins, and that we are always in debt one to another.
Ultimately, the importance of the Lord’s Prayer is not only that Jesus gave it to his disciples, but that it was picked up by early Christian worshippers and incorporated into their understanding of how God shall be praised and what is right to ask for. And it is especially important that it has been handed down through generations to bind our community together.
How does Jesus teach his disciples to pray? Boldly. Courageously. Expectantly.
Praise God. Place your needs before God. This prayer begins in boldness. It is a prayer of great courage, both praising God and placing demands upon God’s goodness, God’s justice. It is the prayer of community.
We hear a lot these days about Jesus as “personal savior,” and it is common to hear the question “Have you been saved?”
But that would have been a foreign notion to the Jewish community, and out of character with Jesus’ teachings. It is all about community, not you and me individually.
Pray in boldness, my friends. Stand strong. Lift your head. Raise your voice. Never mistake that our God is a strong God, ready to hear us. And pray together, for the community. That is what Jesus taught.
— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell has been teaching religious studies at Park University, Parkville, Mo., for 13 years, following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.