Praying: the Lord’s prayer

jesus-teaching-mount1 He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:  Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread 4 and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.” 5  The disciples realize that the right relationship to the Father (and to Jesus) is sought in prayer. Jesus, like John the Baptist, must have a distinctive insight into prayer flowing from his mission. In response to the disciples’ question, he reveals the Lord’s Prayer.

Comparison of the two forms of the Lord’s Prayer reveals that the structure and content are basically the same, reflecting the original instruction of Jesus. They were shaped by different community traditions at a very early stage. Matthew’s text, an adaptation for liturgical use, has been used in worship down to our day; the briefer text of Luke, though less familiar, is probably closer to the original phrasing of Jesus. Both begin with Jesus’ distinctive address for God, “Father” (Hebrew: abbā – see note below on v.2), and pray first for the glorification of God’s name on earth and the full establishment of his kingdom. Then they turn to the disciples’ needs: God’s continual protection day by day and his sustaining support in the face of the “final test” at the end of time. In slightly different wording, both formulas relate God’s forgiveness of us to our forgiveness of others.

Hallowed means ‘made holy’, ‘reverenced’. The name in antiquity stood for far more than it does with us. It summed up a person’s whole character, all that was known or revealed about him. The prayer concerns more than the way people take the name of God upon their lips (though this is included). It refers to all that God is and has revealed of himself and asks for a proper attitude in the light of this – and the realization that we are people that “taken on” the name of God, thus there is something also revealed about us.

The petition “Hallowed be your name” is not an appeal to God to sanctify himself, but rather that God act in his people so that his name would not be profaned by them. Ezekiel 36 provides a clear conceptual background, where God’s condemnation of Israel’s profaning to onoma mou to hagion (“my holy name”; v. 22, LXX) is followed by this promise: “I will sanctify my great name [hagiasō to onoma mou to mega], which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord … when through you I display my holiness before their eyes” (v. 23). The petition for God’s name to be hallowed can be seen as a call to fulfill his own promises.

This call for God to act is more explicitly noted in the petition concerning the arrival of God’s kingdom, “your kingdom come.” The petition looks for the bringing in of the kingdom that was the constant subject of Jesus’ teaching. There is a sense in which it is realized here and now, in the hearts and lives of people who subject themselves to God and accept his way for them (cf. Luke 11:20; 17:20). But in another sense it will not come until God’s will is perfectly done throughout the world (cf. Matthew, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) – and that days lies in the future (cf. Luke 19:11). This petition presupposes this tension and points forward to the fulfillment of God’s salvation program, which is inaugurated by Jesus himself.

The phrase “daily bread” – at least the “daily” part – presents a unique problem for the translators (see the note on v.3 below). That being as it may, whatever Aramaic or other original there may have been, Luke’s “daily” is generally accepted by the Christian churches throughout the ages and Luke’s own language tells us that we are to pray “each day” – today, tomorrow and the day after.

The phrase “your kingdom come” (v.2) certainly gives the whole prayer a future look, though in this verse there is perhaps a backward look to the manna of the wilderness as a symbolic model (Exod 16:4). Manna is the morrow’s bread, the bread of the coming day, the bread of the kingdom, now urgently longed for. This understanding, already found in some circles in the early Church, has the advantage of linking this petition with those that precede and follow it in the prayer, thus giving it all its eschatological sense. It also confirms possible eucharistic associations of the prayer, apparent in its context in the Didache (where a form of the prayer also appears), where the eschatological perception of the Christian meal is emphasized (Did. 9–10).  And none of the above says that the petition is not also a plain request for food and the everyday things that are necessary.

In the OT the appeal to divine forgiveness is often grounded in God’s own previous acts of kindness (cf. Num. 14:19: “Pardon, then, the wickedness of this people in keeping with your great kindness, even as you have forgiven them from Egypt until now.”). The appeal to divine forgiveness is not foreign to OT liturgical traditions (cf. Exod. 32:32; 34:9; 1 Kings 8:33–34, 46–53; Ps. 19:12; 25:11; 32:1; 65:3; 78:38; 79:9). Now we are given this as our prayer: “forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.”  Here the correspondence between human and divine forgiveness is not emphasized in ways that it is in this Gospel (cf. 6:37–38; 23:34).

In our liturgies we follow the Matthean form “as we forgive others” (6:12). This raises the idea that we are to understand that God will forgive us only to the extent that we forgive others. This should give us pause. Is a human action, the forgiveness of others, the ground of divine forgiveness? Perhaps a limitation on what God will do for us?  The whole of the NT makes clear that divine forgiveness springs from the grace of God and not from any human action or merit. The Lucan form offers an understanding that moves from the lesser to the greater: since even sinful people like us forgive, we can confidently appeal to a merciful God. The question is will we appeal to God for forgiveness?  As many spiritual writiers have noted, an unforgiving heart is not in a condition that can accept forgiveness.


Notes

Luke 11:1 John taught his disciples: Luke describes some of the details of John’s ministry: he preached (3:18) and himself fasted (7:33) – as did his disciples (5:33) in addition to prayer.

Luke 11:2 Father: pater – Largely as a result of the work of Joachim Jeremias, the idea has become established that behind the term “father” lies the Aramaic abba and that this word, allegedly not found in Jewish addressing of God in prayer, expresses a peculiarly intimate, simple and even childlike relationship with God. Many biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias emphasize this and that Jesus both experienced and encouraged his followers to share this relationship. While the latter would be accurate, the view of the uniqueness of Jesus’ use of abbā has been severely challenged by more recent scholars (Vermes and Barr) who affirm that abbā was used of God in Jewish prayer and speech and carried no unique associations with child language. There are scholars who support and insist on the Jeremias’ position.

your kingdom come: in place of this petition, some early church Fathers record: “May your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us,” a petition that may reflect the use of the “Our Father” in a baptismal liturgy.

Luke 11:3 daily bread: the rare Greek word epiousios (daily) occurs in the New Testament only here and in Matthew 6:11. The translation of creates special problems because the word occurs only in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthean and Lucan versions) and because its attestation in Greek literature is doubtful and its derivation uncertain. The ancient translations and the interpretations of the Church Fathers differ. According to Origen (De Orat. 27, 7) this term was coined by the evangelists.  Its meanings have included the following: (a) necessary for existence, (b) for the current day, for today, (c) for the following day (based on St Jerome’s report of such an interpretation in an Aramaic version), (d) for the future days, and (e) the time of salvation.  The latter would conform better to the eschatological tone of the whole prayer. So understood, the petition would be for a speedy coming of the kingdom (today), which is often portrayed in both the Old Testament and the New under the image of a feast (Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11; 22:10; Luke 13:29; 14:15-24).

Sources

  • R. Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995)
  • Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997)
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970
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