Prayer is at the heart of every religion. So it made sense that the disciples asked their spiritual leader, Jesus, to teach them how to pray.
Whole books have been written on the subject. How should you sit? What should you say? With what disposition should you come? It gets complicated.
But Jesus was always the master of taking complex ideas and cleverly spinning them into something so short and simple, they beguiled the listener. His stories of farmers, vineyards, merchants, sons, fathers, and all the other homespun stuff of life opened up the minds of those who listened to some of the deepest realities of the spiritual world.
So when the disciples asked him how to pray, he responded with something so short a child could learn it, yet so deep it could be pondered for thousands of years without plumbing its depth.
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 do not bring us to the time of trial
but rescue us from the evil one.Matthew 6:9-13 (NRSCVE)
Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed Be Your Name
You could address God any number of ways. The Bible describes him as a king and creator. These are true, but more fundamentally, Jesus wanted his followers to call God “Father.”
There is nothing like the word “father” to get across both the nearness and distance of God. God is to be respected. He is to be obeyed but not like a tyrant.
And in case anyone might misunderstand his meaning (due to having rotten fathers of their own, no doubt), Jesus’ most famous parable is the story of the Prodigal Son which describes a father with God’s heart. God is a dad who lets his son go off and squander his money while waiting patiently and anxiously for him to return. Talk about the story of humanity in a nutshell.
More importantly to me, though, is the fact that God is all the great things he is – creator, God of gods, king, omnipotent, omniscient – while at the same time being a father. Nothing and no one is outside of his caring hands that move and guide our lives. The Psalmist can say, maybe with this thought in mind, that goodness and mercy will chase him like a hound on the scent all the days of his life.
God is his father. How could it be otherwise?
Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done on Earth
I lump these together because in a way they mean the same thing. For God’s will to be done on earth, he must reign as king in the heart of every individual. To say, “God’s will be done,” is to exclude everyone else’s will.
Not necessarily, of course. We can follow God with a willing heart. Then it is God’s will and our will that is being done, but it matters to us only in so much as it is his will and not merely our own.
The follower of Christ is humble enough to know that they do not know what is best for themselves or the world. We see dimly. We understand only in bits and pieces. So we ask not that God does what we want, but rather that God does what he wants until heaven and earth become indistinguishable from each other.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
The request seems simple enough. In a sense, it is simple. We are not monks sitting on top of poles for hours on end with no need of sustenance. We have needs. We all find ourselves in a pinch every now and then. We all need to put food on the table.
It may seem like an insignificant thing to ask for. Maybe we should beg for world peace instead of asking for something so pedestrian as bread. But God is a father. He cares about the needs of his children, however small they may be.
It’s not like he has too many things on his plate that are more important like plotting out international relations or deciding where the next earthquake should be.
Asking for our daily bread in prayer also forces us to make the connection between the food on our table and the God who gave it to us. It makes us grateful for the little things that really add up to become very big things.
Forgive Us Our Debts
Yes, you have debts. You owe God everything you have and are. You owe him a holy life, dutifully following him through the good times and the bad.
To ask God for forgiveness means we understand we have something that needs forgiving. This was the problem with the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They were blind to their sin and didn’t know it. They were immensely sinful and hid it even from themselves behind their false piety.
The Lord’s Prayer assumes you have something to seek forgiveness for. It’s just a matter of figuring out what it is. But it also assumes God is going to forgive you. Notice it is not a question. “God, would you please forgive me?” No, it’s almost a command. “Forgive us, God.”
How can we be so brazen? Because God wants us to be. He is always the father waiting for his prodigal children to come home. He wants us to step into the confessional and be honest about our sins with Christ and the priest because he wants to forgive us as soon as possible.
As We Also Have Forgiven Our Debtors
Ah, and there’s the rub. Can’t ask for mercy if you aren’t willing to show it yourself. In there is the whole motivation for the Christian life. You have been forgiven, now forgive. You have been loved, now love. You have been shown mercy, now show mercy. You were once a stranger and God gave you a home. Show kindness to the stranger among you.
Miss that connection and you miss everything. Jesus says as much. Following this passage, he immediately throws in the warning that if you will not forgive others, God will not forgive you.
And do Not Bring Us to the Time of Trial
Commentators think the “time of trial” Jesus speaks of is the end times – a time when evil will flourish in the world and Christians will be sorely persecuted.
As my friend said to me when I was helping him move and carrying four boxes down three flights of stairs, “Don’t be a hero.” Don’t suffer for suffering’s sake. God will bring pain your way to help you grow, but it is not for you to decide when, where and how that happens.
We need deliverance from the Evil One, which means having a healthy respect for how evil he really is and how weak we really are.
Keep us from falling into sin and spare us from trials that would tempt us away from you, O Lord! As your Son prayed, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.
The Perfect Prayer
The Lord’s prayer brings us back to a profound peace in the father. It reminds us of our mission in life. It brings us back to the fountain that quenches our physical and spiritual thirst. It mends our hearts and mends our relationships with God and one another. And it guards us from the perils of the devil.
Can we pray other prayers? Of course we can, and we should. Yet every other prayer seems to be a variation on this main theme. We pray the Rosary because God wills we resort to his mother. We pray the Psalms because we wish to say over and over again, “Hallowed be your name.” We go to the confessional to confess to God our need for forgiveness. We come to Mass begging for our daily bread.
The Lord’s Prayer is not a nice poem or a trite bedtime prayer. It is the blueprint for our relationship with God. It is short enough for some of the most mentally handicapped among us to remember and deep enough that the most brilliant minds could get lost in it.
The disciples asked Jesus how they should pray. Jesus gave them a door to God himself.
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