SCRIPTURE: When we pray as Jesus taught us, do we know what we are asking for?

Matthew 6:9-15

For most Christians, it is the most familiar passage of scripture, the one part that nearly all of us have memorized – Matthew 6:9-15, commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father,” or “The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us.” Despite our familiarity, despite the fact that this prayer is said in Churches every Sunday, despite the fact that it is prayer in small groups, prayer meetings, in the morning when we rise and at night as we lay down to go to sleep – despite all this, I would hazard to guess that the vast majority don’t realize what we are really saying. Taking this prayer apart line by line, paying close attention to Jesus’ words here, reveals just how deep this revolution is that Jesus is stirring up.

We start at the very beginning, “Our Father.” The first emphasis is on the “our,” the plural possessive. The first word in the prayer reveals first of all the communal nature of the prayer, that we come to God as a people, in a group, with others. This is no individual, between “me” and God prayer. Jesus’ “our” places us alongside everyone else in our relationship to God, making our faith about “us,” not about “me.”

And the title Jesus chooses here for God is literally “Abba,” closer in many ways to “Dad” or “Daddy” then “Father.” What it denotes is a level of intimacy and closeness to God, but it is an intimacy that is still rooted in authority—the relationship is child to parent, not sister to sister or brother or brother. Such a relationship implies God’s claim on us, and our accountability to God, albeit a God who is intimately involved in and aware of his/her responsibility to us as well.

Moreover, perhaps the most important thing about the emphasis on “Our Father” is not the relationship it defines between us and God, but rather the relationship it defines between us and other people, between me and all of these other human beings I come into contact with everyday. Approaching God as “Our Father” implies that all of us, every human being, that we are brothers and sister to one another, family; and therefore, each human being also has a claim on us and we a claim on them. Despite the forces of society and culture and creed that endeavor to separate and divide us, we are, under this Parent God, brothers and sisters to one another, responsible for each other, a reconstituted family. This is especially true for those of us who claim discipleship to Jesus, membership in the Church, but also to all people everywhere, by virtue of God’s “parenting” of them too. The implications that such an insight—that we are truly brothers and sisters, one family—in terms of our lifestyles, our political participation, our economic decision-making, and more are astounding. If we are truly brothers and sisters, then imagine how much we must change in how we see those whom our country is killing in wars or those who are in economic distress because of our nation’s policies? The implications of being “one family under God” are far-reaching and incredibly critical of the status quo.

In verse 10, we read: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In many ways, the notion of “kingdom” is anachronistic in our world. The time of nations ruled by monarchies is pretty much over. So we need to get behind the reality of what the word kingdom is all about. Kingdom refers to a political reality in the world; a kingdom is a people or place over which another has authority or reign. In praying this prayer, after acknowledging God’s intimacy to us as “Father” and our relationship to one another as family, we then acknowledge our hope and longing for God’s authority over this world, this reality here and now, as God rules in that other reality we call “heaven.” But if we are calling for God’s rule here on earth now, then we are also tacitly acknowledging the illegitimacy of any other “kingdom” or rule on earth. At the very least, we are implying that the kingdoms of this world (the authorities, the political system, the governments) are NOT equivalent to God’s kingdom and that we long for them to be replaced by God’s kingdom. Again, the implications for us and for our way of being in the world—not just as individuals or as the church but as states and nations—are revolutionary. Our prayer pledges us to God’s kingdom, not whatever nation we live in or have citizenship in. We are saying, in fact, that we are citizens of the kingdom of God FIRST, not of the United States, or England, or Brazil, or China—that our first loyalty is to God’s kingdom, indeed to God, not to our political leaders or systems or nation. And most poignantly, we are praying that God’s will be done—not the will of our country or elected officials, not our national interest or self-interest be done. Praying that God’s will be done implies that we already are aware how little of God’s will is done, and so we must pray for it, invite it, yearn for it and be about the business of making it happen here, now, for the benefit of our entire, reconstituted family, the human family.

Then we pray that God gives us “our daily bread.” This verse conjures up for us the story of the Exodus, of the Israelites recently freed from Egypt finding the manna in the wilderness. We remember the prescriptions about the manna: Take only what you and your family need for TODAY. And those who took more than they needed for one day found it turned wormy and rotten. This is again a radical understanding of what type of security we ask God for. We do not pray for perceived needs or needs that we may have a week from now or a year from now or for that time after we retire in 20, 30, 40 years. Our security is in our God who takes care of us for today. And if we take only what we need for today, we find, like the early Israelites wandering in the desert, that there is ENOUGH for everybody; No one is hungry, no one dies of starvation, everyone gets what they need when each of us only take what we need for today. This is a radically contrary ethic, one that believes there is enough as long as some of us don’t take too much; and that the reason we find that there isn’t enough is because some in our world are taking more than they could ever need. In essence, when we take more than we need for today, we are stealing from others and contributing to a system where some have way too much and others die because they cannot even get what they need for today. Praying for daily bread is an indictment of an entire system predicated on manufacturing “needs” and encouraging us to get as much as we can as quick as we can before someone else takes it from us. An ethic based on God’s provision of daily bread where there is enough for everyone would be a drastic change in the way our society works now.

This section, which is at the center and the heart of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (both thematically and structurally), ends with two reminders about forgiveness—first in verse 12 and then again in 14 and 15. Jesus seems to be telling us just how central forgiveness should be to humanity. This emphasis on forgiveness should give us pause, especially because Jesus intimates that our own forgiveness is dependent on our willingness to practice forgiveness toward others. This is no simple “please forgive me God” and we find ourselves forgiven. It is, in fact, a quid pro quo: God will forgive us ONLY if we forgive others. And again the reality of what we are praying should strike us to the heart. Whether as individuals or churches or communities or nations, we can only be assured that our own mistakes are forgiven if we forgive the mistakes of another. It is an ethic of reconciliation based on reciprocity, rooted in the basic reality that our relationships to other human beings are reflective of our relationship to God.

So when we pray this prayer, do we really have any understanding of what it is that we are praying? And if we do, do our lives give testimony to what it is that we are really praying here? If the millions of Christians who prayed the “Our Father” every day really did understand and believe this prayer, our world and our relationship would look radically different I think.

-John

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Posted on 04/14/2008, in SCRIPTURE STUDY and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “It is, in fact, a quid pro quo: God will forgive us ONLY if we forgive others.”

    I can definitely see how it can be read that way – “and forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.”

    However, it can also be read as a statement that we’ve already forgiven or intend to forgive our debtors – in other words, “God, forgive us our debts similarly to how we’re forgiving our debtors.” Looked at this way, we’re not trying to acknowledge awareness of a bargain with God, but awareness of our own wrongdoings and our desire to be forgiven for them at the same time that we state that we’ve forgiven others.

    That’s how I’ve always personally “heard” those lines.

  2. Thanks Paul. Maybe the problem is with the “quid pro quo” language, which wasn’t the best choice. The idea I’m trying to get across is that Jesus taught us a prayer that ties our asking for forgiveness from God to our willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. Jesus’ assumption may be that we’ll forgive because we are forgiven, but our practice isn’t a “done deal.” So when faced with the choice to forgive or not, the prayer is a reminder that we have to forgive because we belong to a God who forgives. You’re right in that rather than a “bargain” with God, its a de facto statement about how our relationships with each other need to mirror God’s relationship to us.

  3. John, what a beautiful exegesis of the Lord’s prayer. There are some real insights into your reading of that text. I’m especially struck by your point about the “give us TODAY our daily bread” and of course your connection to the daily provision of manna in the desert. So, do you think that this applies to everything material — that is items beyond simply food? If so, to what degree can we judge what exactly we need for the day and not fall past the line of material gluttony? Moreover, is there space in God’s kingdom for saving or should we all take to heart the words of Jesus to his disciples before sending them out to preach the nearness of the kingdom: “Take nothing with you besides your cloak and staff.” I apologize for the big questions, but I’m curious to see what you think. I love the message.

    Daniel W.

  4. Thanks Daniel. These are good questions and sorry for taking so long to respond. I do think that it applies to all things material, and some thing immaterial as well I suppose. I also think that those very people who ask the questions you ask, “How much is enough? What do I really need?” are already ahead of the curve. There probably is no one-size-fits-all measuring stick. Henri Nouwen talks about the Christian life being about “downward mobility” rather than “upward mobility,” a real contrast to what our culture encourages. I think it is in the asking of those questions and struggling to fall in line with the witness of Christ that we start to find some answers for ourselves — sometimes partial, sometimes transient — but answers that move us more deeply into the life of Christ rather than the life our culture encourages us to.

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