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“Pray then like this”: Understanding the Lord’s Prayer

12 April, 2008

This past semester I gave a lecture on the Lord’s Prayer for the Jesus of Nazareth course at Aberdeen; my launching point was a passing treatment by E.P. Sanders that was not good at all — it was really brief and frankly dismissive of the text itself. For Sanders, the Lord’s Prayer represents Jesus at his ‘best’, which means that this is a universally admired and acceptable prayer which is not divisive or controversial –not like all the other stuff Jesus says and does! But that’s not nearly the whole story, and so my lecture was an attempt to approach the Lord’s Prayer from its own setting in Matthew and focusing especially on the carefully chosen wording of the prayer and its meaning in light of the rest of the Gospel account.

I’m putting this up here (in 2 parts) because I think it may be helpful addition to the materials for anyone doing a Bible study or Sunday school on the Lord’s Prayer. I will give two qualifications, though: 1) my language is directed to British religious studies college sophomores, so the language needs to be re-engineered appropriately for any new setting; and 2) this is a religious studies lecture, so the students weren’t necessarily Christians — most of them were, and at any rate I am, and since it’s my lecture I’m obviously coming at things from there. But if this is used in a church setting, then you could get into biblical application for faith and life which wasn’t appropriate for my context (I hope to treat some of that in a follow-up here).

[Jesus taught his disciples,] Pray then like this: 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, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matt 6:9-13).

Context of the Lord’s Prayer

Intro to biblical context-Matthew and the OT

First, it is important for understanding the Lord’s Prayer to realise that it is thoroughly rooted in its context in Matthew, against the backdrop of the Old Testament. Sanders affirms that ‘much of Jesus’ teaching…is summed up in…the Lord’s Prayer’. He also makes the comment that this prayer is a kind of universal prayer that isn’t as specific or narrowly focused as a lot of Jesus’ other teaching and claims-‘it is a prayer that can be prayed by anyone at any time’. ‘The Jesus of this prayer is the Jesus who has been and is universally admired.’ This has some truth to it, but I think we’ll see as we look at this prayer that it is very much rooted in Matthew’s record of this Jesus and this Jesus’ teaching as a whole, including all the less ‘universally admired’ aspects. We’ll talk about this more in relation to the character of the prayer and at the end of the class.

Intended audience

It is further important to recognise that Jesus’ teaching about prayer, like the whole so-called ‘Sermon on the Mount’ of which this discourse is a part, is not addressed so much to humans universally or even only to the Jews, or to the crowds generally, who have come out from the surrounding region to see and hear Jesus the healer and teacher (see 5:1). Jesus is directing his teaching here to his disciples in particular, to those who have come out from among the crowds and Jews and all humanity to follow him and learn from him. Among other things, this means that he isn’t speaking here in figures and parables, as he usually does with the crowds, but he’s teaching plainly and clearly (see 13:11-13; cf. Mark 4:10-12, 33-34).

Flow of the teaching

Finally, by way of introduction, it is important that Jesus’ instruction to his disciples about prayer is part of a broader teaching about how to live (and how not to live) before others and before God as Jesus’ disciples, and thus as children of their heavenly Father. In this section of ch. 6, Jesus gives instructions about giving to the needy (vv. 2-4), about praying (vv. 5-15), and about fasting (vv. 16-18). Each of these is contrasted with the character and actions of the ‘hypocrites’ when they do these things (vv. 2, 5, 16). The hypocrites ‘practice their righteousness before others in order to be seen by them’, but the admiration of the people they fool is the only ‘reward’ they get from such false righteousness (v. 1). They have no reward from the heavenly Father, because they seek praise and respect for themselves for the good works they do, not for God, but for a show (vv. 1-2, 5, 7, 16). In contrast, according to Jesus, true disciples – true children of God – live before others and before their Father by seeking him and pleasing him. They don’t practice their righteousness for the purpose of being seen by others, but they do what they do for reasons that have nothing to do with being seen and putting themselves on display. Their motivation for what they say and do is to please and serve their Father who sees and rewards ‘in secret’ (vv. 3-4, 6, 18).

Character of the Lord’s Prayer

The main thing I want to get across about the character of the Lord’s Prayer itself as Matthew records it, is that it is intended to be paradigmatic. In other words, Jesus is teaching his disciples to ‘pray like this’ (v. 9); they are to pray in this kind of way, about the kind of things that the Lord’s Prayer talks about. What he’s not giving them is a magic formula or incantation to recite when they want to harness the help of the gods; this is what Jesus criticises about the ‘Gentiles’ in v. 7, who ‘heap up empty phrases’ and think that repetition is what secures them a hearing (likely an allusion to 1 Kings 18:26-29). The Lord’s Prayer is recorded by Luke (11:2-4), but in a shorter form, and it occurs nowhere else in this or that particular form in the rest of the New Testament. So it’s not an amulet designed for rote recitation. Rather, according to Jesus, the children of this God trust that ‘their Father knows what they need before they ask him’ (v. 8), and will provide all things for their good (cf. 5:45; 6:25ff.). They don’t need to inform him of their needs, and they don’t need to twist his arm into taking care of them.

What the Lord’s Prayer is, then, is a paradigm for what the character and content of the disciples’ regular prayers should be. It is a brief summary or thematic overview which teaches the disciples what prayer directed to God their heavenly Father should be about, and what their attitude in prayer should be. Because Matthew is here presenting us with a compact paradigm of true prayer according to Jesus, we are allowed to flesh out the meaning of the various parts of the prayer by looking at the various themes as they come up in Matthew as a whole. In fact, we are invited by the evangelist to discover how these summary statements are to be unpacked and understood in light of the gospel account as a whole. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna do today.

The last thing I want to say about the character of the Lord’s Prayer is that, though it is an overview and summary of the character and content of true prayer, because it is paradigmatic in this way, it is in its very words a noteworthy prayer in this respect. This is probably part of what Sanders is getting at when he says it can be prayed anytime. It is brief yet powerful, elegant yet to the point. As a paradigm prayer, it also makes a very good prayer on its own terms-at least the church has traditionally thought so, since from about the 3rd c. it has been used throughout the world in communal Christian worship…

Coming up: The invocation, ‘Our Father in heaven’, and an introduction to exploring the six petitions with study questions. Stay tuned.

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