“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.[b]
3 Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]
“Teach us to pray” the disciples asked. When a question is asked with such few words it leaves much about which we might speculate. Did the disciples not know how to pray? Wasn’t prayer at the heart of Jewish life then as now? Did they want to know a different way of prayer that was special to John? Or were they looking for a sign that they were truly disciples of Jesus by having a special prayer, a secret code for their group so to speak?
We cannot know the answers to these questions, but if we look at the prayer that Jesus taught in the light of his own practice of prayer, and in light of the role this prayer has come to assume in Christian practice, we can, like the disciples, learn to pray.
Because prayer is central to our collective worship we might easily think that to pray means to repeat aloud words written by someone else. But there are many ways to pray, even in worship. A few weeks ago I spoke about the role of silence in the life of faith. In some communities, notably the Quakers, prayer is often a time of prolonged silence, waiting for the Spirit to speak through anyone of the assembly. In some traditions prayer is prescribed by a book, in others prayer is spontaneous, at times even ecstatic.
The English word prayer derives from the Latin word meaning to ask or to beg. While it has come to be associated almost exclusively with communication with God, in Medieval English the word was used to describe any request one person might make of another. One would pray to one’s spouse while eating a meal to pass the salt or pray to the king to grant clemency for a convicted criminal.
And so in English language usage when we pray to God our inclination is to think of requests. In our liturgy we speak of prayers of invocation, asking God to be present for our worship; prayers of intercession, where we ask God to intervene in the world most often to heal the sick or comfort the ill; prayers of petition, when we ask God to bring peace to the world, or house the homeless, feed the hungry or clothe the naked.
I think we know that all prayers are not requests, nonetheless that is where our thinking tends to go. Someone once said that prayer is us talking to God and meditation is God answering. In fact both us talking and us listening are important parts of prayer.
There are several Hebrew words that we translate as prayer. One of them, daven, interestingly, simply means to move our lips. It suggests that all speech is prayer, or perhaps that all speech should be prayer.
Another Hebrew word, tefilah, which we translate as prayer, has two meanings. The first is self-evaluation or self-reflection. It suggests that prayer is a time to look at who we are and how we are and to ask if the answer to those questions when honestly given reflects our aspirations for what it means to be children of God. Jesus often said that the Commonwealth of God was near at hand and I think this self examining aspect of prayer points us to the ways in which we can participate in bringing that Commonwealth into being in our time and place.
The second meaning of tefilah flows out of the first. It is the idea of attachment, which suggests that through the process of self-evaluation we align ourselves with God’s desire for us and thus we bring ourselves into closer relationship with God.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray it would have been contrary to all expectation if they were seeking the correct formula for making effective petitions to God so that God would answer their requests. The gospels tell us numerous times about Jesus going to a private place to pray. Today’s passage begins by telling us that Jesus was praying apparently on his own. Most famously perhaps, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his execution. There he committed himself to following God’s will, in other words to aligning who he was with what God desired for him. Jesus’ practice of prayer seems to have focused on self-reflection and bringing himself closer to God, not on getting God to do as he, Jesus, asked.
Thus the prayer that Jesus taught the disciples, the prayer that, with some variation, has come down to us as the Lord’s Prayer is not simply a petition or series of requests to God. It is first of all a discipline, something to be done regularly and repeatedly. Prayer requires practice. It is a way to train us to be aware of and present to God at all times.
If Jewish practice is constant prayer then Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question -“When you pray, say…” – assumes that these words will be on their lips over and over again.
In all of our prayers in this morning’s service we have been introduced to variations or commentaries on the word’s of the Lord’s Prayer that demonstrate the richness of its meaning. In some ways the Prayer is a formula or outline of the basics of our faith that we should always keep in mind as we try to live into the Commonwealth of God. Let me offer a few comments on how I hear it today, recognizing that its meaning is kaleidoscopic not singular.
When we say “Our Father who is in heaven,” we are not painting the same image that Michelangelo created on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of a white bearded old man floating on a cloud. “Father” was a normal way of addressing God in Jesus’ day, but the meaning is closer to Creator than parent in this context where God is situated in Heaven, above this earthly realm. It reminds us of God’s role in bringing us and all that exists into being.
Hallowing God’s name is likely a reference to the Jewish understanding that the name of God was so powerful and special that it was to be spoken only once a year on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest in the innermost sanctum of the temple. The cumulative impact of these opening lines is to remind us of God’s transcendence, that God is beyond our capacity to understand or to know.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In this line I hear echoes of Jesus’ frequent assertion that the “kingdom of God” or as I think it is better translated “the commonwealth of God” is near at hand. This is not a petition asking that God bring this about, rather it is asking that we be supported and enable to enact God’s will in the here and now so that the Commonwealth of God will come into being.
When we ask God for daily bread the word ‘daily’ is if anything more important than the word bread. The latter we need to sustain life and so it is vital to our survival, but the word daily reminds us that we can trust God to take care of us over time, we don’t need to hoard up vast reserves of bread, which will only go moldy in any case. This petition is as much about developing our ability to trust God’s goodness as it is about filling our bellies.
Our modern world is so full of food that we can easily lose sight of our dependence on God, but the developing world is full of people who each day give thanks for a few scraps of bread, rice or cassava and have no choice but to trust that tomorrow’s bread will come from somewhere. It would be a mistake to say that they are blessed by their hunger, but their poverty makes it easier for them to develop the trust in God that this line seeks to develop in all of us.
The lines about forgiveness seem hardly to need comment. As with all of this prayer, however, their familiarity can lead us to gloss over them, not to take the time with the idea of forgiveness that is required. The prayer reminds us that we need both to forgive and to seek forgiveness. Some commentators suggest that we can experience this petition in a new way if we personalize it. We can ask “forgive me my sins or my trespasses”. We might even add in the name of the person or persons whom we have harmed. “Forgive me my sins against my brother or sister” or add in the specifics of how we have hurt them, “forgive me for speaking to my children in anger this morning.”
The entire Lord’s Prayer can in a similar way be personalized so that we follow its outline in our prayer, but fill in details that are specific to us so that its meaning is deeper and has more impact. The next line in the prayer asks God to save us from temptation or evil, so here we can add specific requests about the things that pull us away from God’s desire for us or the evils that threaten us with harm. The God we trust to put bread on our table, we remind ourselves now, can also be trusted to support us in facing our weaknesses or withstanding the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune flings at us.
Finally we say, “thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.” With these words we are reminded that God is the Creator of all things and is greater than anything that we can imagine. Yet through this prayer that Jesus taught us, we aspire to bring our lives into alignment with what this transcendent God longs for. Prayer is a practice through which we participate in bringing the Commonwealth of God into being here and now. What greater joy could we have than that?
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