Teach Us To Pray

We have what may be the earliest form of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” in our Gospel reading for today. Certainly it’s the shorter of the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer we have in the New Testament. The longer one is in Matthew and it’s hard to believe that Luke would have shortened the one in Matthew (if he knew it at all). Easier to understand how Matthew might have added a few things, perhaps by way of explanation, to Luke’s account of Jesus’ prayer.

Bible readers are often surprised that none of the biblical versions of this great prayer correspond exactly to the one we use every Sunday, and which most of us memorized as children. The prayer has developed, with constant repetition, over the centuries, into the form we are familiar with today. There’s even a more contemporary translation in Rite Two of the Eucharist which, sadly, very few of our churches use, even though it’s probably closer to the original than what we say every Sunday.

In any case, the fact that there are two version of this famous prayer should make it clear to us that the Gospels are not  word-for-word transcriptions of what Jesus may have said, but rather recollections and remembrances, passed down through years and finally written down forty or fifty years after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful prayer that has its origins with Jesus, so let’s take a look at the two versions as they actually appear in the Bible.

Luke’s version begins in the simplest way possible: “Father!” We know from other accounts in the Gospels that this was Jesus’ favorite way of addressing God. It came from the Aramaic “Abba” which, as you probably know, was an intimate way of addressing one’s father, more like our term “Daddy” than  anything else. Matthew renders this, “Our Father in heaven.” He wants us to know that God was not just Jesus’ father, but “our” Father as well. And then he gives us the best definition of heaven I know of: heaven is where God is, and where God is, there is heaven!

Both Luke and Matthew follow that title of address with this phrase: “hallowed be your name.” That means that God’s very name is to be considered holy and it certainly was by the Jews. In their tradition God had revealed his real name to them through Moses at the burning bush. “I AM Who I AM” it is sometimes translated, and the Hebrew letters are YHWH (which we pronounce as Yahweh.) That name was so holy to the Jews that they wouldn’t even pronounce it out loud. When they read the Scriptures and came across the name Yahweh, they would substitute the word “Adonai” which means “Lord,”

Every time you see the word “LORD” written with all capital letters in the Old Testament and the Psalms, know that behind that is the Hebrew word “Yahweh” which the Jews would not even speak out loud because of its holiness. Only once a year, inside the Holy of Holies, was the High Priest allowed to call God by this actual name. That’s what it means in the Ten Commandments to say “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Jews certainly didn’t then…and don’t today!

Luke goes on to say, in the prayer, “your kingdom come.” That was the ancient Jewish hope that God would finally come back to them, establish the kingdom, once and for all, and set the world to rights. Matthew makes that clear when he adds, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians don’t just hope for a disembodied eternity spent on some cloud playing a harp but, after a period of rest in Paradise after death, that God will one day judge the living and the dead and usher in a new heaven and a new earth where we will live in happiness and health, in justice and in peace — A time and place where God’s will will truly be done “on earth” as it is (now) “in heaven!”

With all this emphasis on the future, the next line in both Luke and Matthew’s version focuses on the present: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That reminds us that we are dependent on God for everything in this life, including the very food we eat. But the sense of this prayer is that we should just ask God for “bread enough for today”, daily bread, and not worry about storing things up for tomorrow. God will provide — Jesus seems to be saying — so let’s not be greedy about it!

The prayer then moves on to our need for forgiveness. Luke says “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Matthew says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew’s version may actually be closer to Jesus here. He tells parables about debtors who were forgiven their debts and how grateful they were. The Jews were overtaxed and overcharged by their Roman oppressors in Jesus’ day and many of them lived under the burden of crushing financial debt. Either way, Jesus makes it clear that we are only to expect forgiveness if we ourselves forgive. “Forgive us…AS we forgive others.” It’s a two-way street!

Luke concludes the prayer “And lead us not into temptation” and Matthews adds: “but deliver us from the evil one.” Not just deliver us from evil, but deliver us from the Evil One! Matthew knows where true evil comes from and he prays for deliverance from that one – from Satan…the Adversary…the Evil One!

Now, neither Matthew nor Luke actually included the familiar closing doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. That was added by some scribe in some of the ancient manuscripts so it’s been around for a long time. I’m glad somebody added it because it’s wonderful…and a fit way to end a marvelous prayer: “for yours is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

I have, on my Android phone, a screensaver from NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). And, streaming onto my phone everyday are the most recent photos from the Hubbell telescope or other observatories. Photos of the Milky Way or other galaxies, photos of stars being born or dying in a blaze of glory, sometimes pictures of our beautiful planet earth, taken from thousands of miles away. Every time I look at a new picture, these words come to mind, “For thine is the kingdom…and the power…and the glory…for ever and ever. Amen!”

So, I actually agree with many saints and scholars across the centuries that the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most perfect prayer ever written. We acknowledge our intimate relationship with God;  we remember how Holy God’s very name is; we yearn for that Last, Great Day when God will judge the living and the dead and establish the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven; we remember that God is the source of everything we need in this life, even our daily bread; we ask for forgiveness and remind ourselves of the commandment to forgive others ourselves; we pray not to be tempted beyond our power to resist, but rather to be delivered from the Source of all evil…the Evil One! And we conclude with a hymn of praise to the Creator of all that is: “For Thine is the kingdom…and the power…and the glory…for ever and ever. Amen.” Never has a prayer said so much with so few words!


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