Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer
Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:3–4
The Lord’s prayer begins with direct address, “Our Father,” suggesting that anyone can come directly to God without the services of a priest or mediator. While Christians recognize that Christ is the mediator — our “bridge over troubled waters” reconciling the world to God the Father — Christ’s mediation is not needed because God is inaccessible. Jesus’s prayer suggests that God stands ready to hear anyone who calls upon Him. The mediation was required to get people to pray, not to get God to listen and to respond.
There has been a long standing tradition that priests were necessary agents for people to get through to God, since only they had access to God and the Holy of Holies. Yet, over and against the priestly tradition which restricted access to God, is the witness of numerous psalms that everyone could have spontaneous access to God in praise and prayer. Typically, the psalmist would say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, all that is within me, Bless His holy name.” The petitioner prayed directly, suggesting that the mediator came not to make it easier for God to receive his people, but to make it easier for his people to address him, recognizing that direct address was already possible. Jesus would have all God’s children be as free as the psalmists to pray directly, “Our Father who art in heaven.”
There is meaning in the particular combination of the words in the Lord’s prayer. We pray “Our Father . . . ,” using the first person plural possessive pronoun “our.” As we know from our high school English teachers, every pronoun should have a clear antecedent (so also in Hebrew, in contrast to Aramaic where the pronouns can be anticipatory). Identifying the antecedent is always important. For example, the nativity story in Matthew includes the command “. . . and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.” Contrary to a casual reading, the pronouns “he” and “his” in the second half of the quotation refer to God, YHWH by name. It is the name contained in the name of Jesus, which is in Hebrew the composite name YHWH-Shuah, meaning “YHWH [is] savior.” The infant’s name was to be “YHWH [is] savior” because YHWH, will save “his (YHWH’s) people from their sin.”
Were the pronoun ‘he’ in this quotation referring to Jesus, it would mean that Jesus would save his fellow Judeans, Bethlehemites or Nazarites/Nazarenes. But when the antecedent of “he” is recognized as being YHWH, the text means that all people in creation can be saved. Whether the messianic mission was to be understood as restricted and ethnocentric or unrestricted and universal hinged on the identification of the intended antecedent of the pronouns in the quotation.
Similarly, the pronouns in the Lord’s prayer need careful attention. The question to be addressed is, “When Jesus said “Our Father, what antecedent did Jesus intend for the “our”? Did he have himself and just his twelve disciples in mind? Did he intend the Jews, Judeans, and Levites, or all of the survivors of the twelve tribe kingdom of Israel?
If Jesus messianic mission was universal, as suggested by the meaning of his name (“[Yahweh] will save his [Yahweh’s] people”), the antecedent is not likely to be just the Messiah and his disciples, nor Israel and the tribes of Judah and Levi. Since God is the Savior of all, he is surely recognized as the Father of all. Consequently, when one prays, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” the pronoun includes the whole human family — the many faces and races that make up the church universal and society in general. The prayer commences with a quiet affirmation of profound universalism.
When I thoughtfully pray the Lord’s prayer — more than just reciting it as a ritual, without thinking — and say the first word “Our . . .,” I pause with emotion because the pronoun “our” includes me, even though I am not of the seed of Abraham, nor am I from a tribes of Israel and Judah. I am not a native of Bethlehem or Nazareth, but I am an just an American of mixed ethnic origin. But the Creator is, nonetheless, my Father! As much as he is the Father of any one else. I am included in his family. I am included in the “our” as much as you and they. The first pronoun makes for a refreshing pause.
Folks who pray, “Our Father,” cannot be possessive, for the “our” embraces the whole family on earth. Some may be tempted to make the antecedent one’s race, denomination, culture or theological sub-culture. But all must ask, “What did Jesus indend by using the pronoun “our”?
There are some who think that the word “father” is a term of cuddly familiarity. I first met this interpretation during my college days, for I had a classmate who paraphrased “Father” with “Daddy.” He prayed “Dear Daddy.” I have checked out his interpretation over and over again and I find no evidence to support it. In Hebrew “father” was not a sentimental term. As in Hebrew, so also in Aramaic, Syriac and other Semitic languages, “father” is a word designating a biological relationship or, like our word “pope,” it was a noun of honor and authority, and a synonym for “king.”
Calling God “Father” is not a buddy-buddy relationship, but a recognition of the authority of the Creator and an expression of honor. It has a parallel of sorts in the culture of Saudi Arabia as presented recently in a television documentary . Saudi citizens can appeal directly and personally to the king. But the Saudi monarch is the king and sovereign lord, his word is final. Earth’s citizens can have a similar relationship with their Creator, who acknowledges and answers people who pray “Our Father . . . .”
“Our Father which art in heaven” is in the Old English (KJV), but the phrase is now rendered “who art in heaven.” However, neither relative pronoun (“who” or “which”) is really adequate for the Father. “Which” is the impersonal pronoun, used for things, but God is more than thing. So the English update changed “which art in heaven” to “who art in heaven.” But even the personal “who,” used with reference to the Deity, is just an anthropomorphism (a word which speaks of God in terms of human forms). But there is more to God than that which is personal, i.e., person-like or human-like.
One of the first lessons in Hebrew is the recognition that Semitic languages do not have a neuter. If, in Hebrew, it had been the desire of the Creator to reveal the Divine Self using neither masculine or feminine language, “he” could not have done it. In Hebrew everything has to be either masculine/male or feminine/female. Such are the limitations of language, and every language controls theology. The limits of human language are inadequate for the infinite God who supercedes the limits of our reason as well as our languages.
When praying “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . ,” with the anthropomorphism and the personal pronoun, one may easily think of God as being some great male, as did a songwriter wrote decades ago with the popular song He, making God some super male, though not Superman. We need to be careful lest we create an unreal verbal masculine idol, or in reaction to male chauvinism, make a gynomorphic idol in its stead. We cannot get hung up on pronouns and think the switch from “which” to “who” gives us assurance that the Creator can be addressed easily in human terms. Beyond the limits of our language and logic stands the infinite and eternal “Father who art in heaven.”
“Who art in heaven”
But where is heaven? Back in the 1970’s a chapel speaker told of a conversation (no doubt apocryphal) between Soviet and American astronauts. A Soviet astronaut allegedly reported that had been to heaven but he did not find God there. But as all astronauts know, the sky is not heaven. While it is true that “heaven” can in certain contexts mean “sky” (the endless space place), when Christians refer to heaven as the abode of God, we are not talking about place. We have to use place language to talk about non-place (like Jesus’ saying, “I go to make a place for you”). Christians acknowledge that “God is a spirit and those who worship him must worship him as spirit and truth.” In death we give up the visible corruptible and put on that which is incorruptible, taking on a spiritual “body.” Heaven is where God is. It is not the place where astronauts go.
The eternal Creator cannot be confined to the creation anymore than a sculptor can live within his statues. The abode of the boundless God is outside the known creation bound by space and time. That is why Christians claim the promise of being the “children of God.” Christian hope in resurrection moves beyond space-time cognition. The children of God share in a timeless and space-less spiritual reality. When praying silently or audibly, “Our father who art in heaven,” the prayer proceeds without the need of phone or fiber optics. In prayer sound waves are optional. The “Our Father” is direct communication from within creation to the Divine who is outside of creation.
However, a lesson can be drawn from our current understanding of “heaven” being the “sky” (as in Hebrew, which has only one word meaning “heaven” or “sky”). The idea that God was in heaven was simply meant that God was remote and inaccessible. But “heaven” (meaning “the sky”) is not really remote. Rather, the sky begins just above the surface of the earth. (An airplane is in the sky once its wheels lose contact with the earth.) The sky is all around us; the heavens surrounds us. This knowledge is helpful for our recognizing that “Our Father, which art in heaven” really surrounds us. The Father is neither inaccessible nor remote, but ever so close — as close as the air we breathe and sky we fly in.
“Hallowed by thy name.”
It is unfortunate that, except for Halloween, “hallowed” has dropped out of our language. “Hallowed be thy name” simply means “let thy name be sanctified” or “ let thy name be kept holy.” But before God’s name can be kept holy, his name must first of all be known.
I do not think that it is necessary for the church to follow the synagogue when it comes to prohibitions on using the name of God. Perhaps as early as the first century B.C., the holy name of God ceased to be spoken in Judaism, lest in saying the name it be profaned and blasphemy occur; and to this day it will not be verbalized by a pious Jew. (The piety may even be extended to the noun God as well as the name YHWH, so that God will appear in print as G-d.)
Jewish reverence for the name is one expression of piety, but there are other options for hallowing the name. Another option is to get the name known. The holy name is widely used in compound personal names, as noted above when reflecting on the verse “You shall call his name YHWH-Shua (anglicized as “Jesus”). Jesus’ name and the name within his name, YHWH, are names that need to be known. Deuteronomy 6.13 command Israelites to swear in the name of YHWH. This was not a call for profanity but for piety, not a call for “cussing” but for devotion.
“On earth as it is in heaven”
The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” should be repeated after the three synonymous statements:
Hallowed be thy name on earth as it is in heaven,
thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Few of us will have difficulty with the idea that God’s name is hallowed, that his will is done in heaven, and his kingdom has come in heaven. Yet, there is a subculture within the Christian church, based on biblical and extra-biblical apocalyptic texts, which challenges the affirmation of the supremacy of God’s name, God’s will and God’s kingdom being absolute in heaven. Some assert that God struggles for power in heaven, as though the battle over evil has not been finished. Others believe the cosmic struggle continues and, though they know how it is going to end, it is not finished yet —as though God still has his hands full with the demonic and the Satanic in heaven amd on earth.
When the Lord’s prayer is repeated, the affirmation is made without reservation that God’s heaven is fully under control — there his name is hallowed, his will is done, and his kingdom has come.
“Thy kingdom come”
I am not comfortable when praying, “Thy kingdom come.” I have been reared in a democracy. Given my individualism, my independence, and my being a Baptist, I like my freedom. When I pray, “Thy kingdom come,” I feel my freedom threatened. I do nott know if I really want a king or want to live in a kingdom. I want to have my say on what is going on, and if I can help it, I want to have the final say. When I honestly pray, “Thy kingdom come,” I wrestle with whether or not I am ready to surrender my independence to live in the kingdom of God.
On the other hand, a part of me wants God’s kingdom to come on earth. I like living on earth. I am not ready to die and enter (hopefully) the kingdom of heaven. So for self interests I want God’s kingdom to come on earth. I cannot trust our world leaders who may bring everything to nuclear oblivion in their serving the idols of capitalism or nationalism or religious fundamentalism and imperialism. Nor am I ready to abandoned this earth to the devil. This is God’s good earth, let him reign!
“Give us this day our daily bread
The prayer continues, “give us this day our bread for tomorrow” (following the readings in the tradition). The request seems so simple from the perspective of our culture, where our freezers are filled for the season and our pantries stocked for the year. But in Jesus’ cultural context it was a request for a lot. The minimum request would have been, “give us our next meal.” But here they are praying for the day and the morrow.
“Forgive us our debts”
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” There is a fiction about forgiveness which states that you cannot forgive unless you forget. (Some folks think this fiction is in Scripture.) Forgiving is not an act that involves insignificant actions which can be easily erased from our memory. Rather, forgiveness deals with those horrendous experiences which can never be forgotten. Yet, even though we remember them, we forgive.
Two things are to be remembered: the act which requires forgiveness and the fact that we have forgiven. When these two elements become fixed in our memory we can then have the assurance that we will also be forgiven for what we have done. We do not have to forget to forgive. I hope, the slogan within the Jewish community, “We shall never forget!” remains true—that the world never forgets the Holocaust. Though we never forget, I pray, they will forgive.
“Lead us not into testing”
A reading of II Maccabees 7:1–42 is required before the proper interpretation of Matthew 6:13 becomes apparent. Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, (175–164 b.c.) decided to make Hellenism the culture of his kingdom. As a consequence all elements of the Judaic culture in his empire had to be destroyed. II Maccabees 7:1–42 tells of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers and their mother who were “arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh.” All of the tortured family members died after their affirmation that “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for His laws.” Antiochus Epiphanes had tempted everyone in that family to transgress the Jewish dietary laws. If they yielded to the temptation the torture would be terminated, otherwise they would die for disobeying an imperial edict. For Antiochus Epiphanes this Jewish family failed his test and deserved to die; but for the pious people in the Jewish community this faithful family passed the test when they died as martyrs. Understandably many persecuted Jews after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes—who were not ready for martyrdom would have prayed,
“Oh God, lead us not into such temptation;
let us not be so tested.
Deliver us from every evil Epiphanes!”
The problematic word in Matt 6:13 is the Greek noun meaning “test, trial, temptation.” It was used to translate the Aramaic and Hebrew nouns nissa̵yo̵n and missa̵h, which are derivatives from the verbs na̵sa̵h and nissa̵h “to test, to try, to tempt”— verbs which could have positive as well as negative overtones. In Psalm 26:2, for example, the psalmist prayed with confident expectation, “Test me, LORD, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” The psalmist, like a sportsman hoping for a gold metal, look forward to being tried and tested.
There are a number of verses in the Torah and Epistles which speak of God’s testing his people, including: Genesis 22:1
Now it came to pass after these things that God tested
and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”
There he made a statute and an ordinance for them.
And there he tested him.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you.
And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day,
that I may test them whether they will walk in My law or not.”
And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear;
for God has come to test you,
and that his fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.”
Blessed is the man who endures trial,
for when he has been approved he will receive the crown of life
which God has promised to those who love him.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”;
for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one.
At first glance it appears that James 1:12–13 contradicts the verses above from the Torah. But the words “with evil” in the closing line of James 1:13 does double duty. It modifies the phrase which precedes it (“for God cannot be tempted with evil”) as well as the phrase which follows it (“he himself tempts no one [with evil])”
Once II Maccabees 7:1–42 is in focus the request, “Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from evil,” in Matthew 6:13 is much easier to understand. There is no underlying suggestion that God would ever entice a person to do what was evil; but there is a definite recognition that evil rulers can place devout and pious people between a “rock” and a “hard place.” The “rock” would be the guilt that followed anyone who—given the choice of saintly martyrdom or living as an infidel —ends up as a life-long infidel. The “hard place” would be the tortuous path leading to a martyr’s grave.
The petition in Matt 6:13 may well have been a part of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Moreover, the Greek word peirasmón “trial, test, temptation,” appears in Jesus’ repeated advice to the disciples who were with him in Gethsemane that night: “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation” (peirasmón) (Matt 26:41; Mark 14:38; Luke 33:40, 46). Assuming that Jesus spoke to his disciples in Hebrew, the verb “you enter” can be translated back into Hebrew as tb'w. When this word—without vowels—was first translated into Greek it was mistakenly read as an active verb tabo'û “you enter.” But it was really the passive verb (tuba'û) “you will be brought.” Thus, the puzzling phrase “that you enter not into temptation” actually meant “that you not be brought to trial.”
The very night in which Jesus was betrayed (Matt 26:47–50; Mark 14:66–72) Peter—in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest—faced an informal trial and was tested by maidens and bystanders who accused him of being “with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But Peter “began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’” Three times Peter was tempted and tested to tell the truth, but he failed the test every time. One can only speculate when Peter remembered to pray as Jesus taught him, “Lead me not into trials/testings, but deliver me from evil.”