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The Lord's Prayer

by Leonard Doohan

What an extraordinary example of prayer Jesus is! In fact, he seems to love to spend time in prayer. Matthew tells us that Jesus often went off on his own to pray (Mt 14:23) and encouraged the disciples to do so, too (Mt 6:6-8). Jesus prays to God as his Father (Mt 11:25; 26:39, 42) and urges the disciples to do so as well (Mt 6:9; 7:11), assuring them that confident prayer to the Father will receive a response (Mt 7:7-8).

Mark presents Jesus as a person of deep prayer who participates in the rituals of his day (Mk 1:9, 21; 6:2). He creates times and space for prayer (Mk 1:35; 6:46) and moves simply into prayer before important community meals (Mk 6:41; 8:7). When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem he insists that the temple be restored to its central purpose as a place of prayer (Mk 11:17). In Mark—s Gospel, the time Jesus spends in Jerusalem is filled with personal struggle, confrontation and suffering, but it is also permeated with prayers of thanksgiving and praise (Mk 14:23, 26). In Gethsemane Jesus prays alone, with insistence and resignation, as he prayerfully accepts his Father—s will (Mk 14:32-42).

Luke presents Jesus as a person of prayer (Lk 5:16; 10:21-22; 22:32, 41-45) who uses his ministry to arouse prayerful attitudes in others (Lk 5:25-26; 7:16; 13:13). Luke tells us that Jesus spent time in prayer before every important step in his ministry (Lk 3:21; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:41), and that he taught his disciples to pray at critical times in their lives (Lk 6:28; 10:2; 21:36). On two occasions Jesus takes the disciples apart from the crowds to give them special teaching on prayer. The first time he teaches them to pray, reminds them to persevere in their prayer and tells them always to have confidence that the Father will listen to their prayer (Lk 11:1-13). The second time, he again stresses the need for persistence in prayer (Lk 18:1-8).

For John, prayer is union with God. Jesus glorifies the Father (Jn 17:1-5), thanks the Father (Jn 11:41-42) and urges others to make their worship more authentic (Jn 4:23-24). When some ask for simple requests in prayer, Jesus moves them to a deeper level of union with God (Jn 6:51-56). During the Last Supper, Jesus gives his greatest teaching on prayer as he allows the disciples to listen in on his own great priestly or apostolic prayer to his Father (Jn 17:1-26). This beautiful prayer is in three parts: Jesus prays to his Father (17:1-5), he prays for the perseverance of his disciples (17:6-19), and he prays for future believers and their unity in his name (17:20-26).

Prayer permeates every facet of Jesus— life, shows his deep longing for union with the Father and exemplifies his human dependence on God for all of life—s needs. Prayer is something personal, yet it overflows to the community—s life and needs.

Teacher of Prayer

The Gospels contain many examples of Jesus as a teacher of prayer. Nevertheless, one prayer more than any other has always been of the utmost importance to Christian communities of every generation—the Lord—s Prayer.

This wonderful prayer comes to us in two versions, one from Luke and the other from Matthew. However, sections of the prayer or sentiments of the prayer can also be found in Mark (14:36-38) and in John (12:27-28; 17:11, 26).

By the time the Gospels were written down, around 75-85 A.D., the Lord—s Prayer was already in a fixed form and used consistently in the Church both for private prayer and in the liturgy.

The prayer is a marvelous synthesis of Jesus— attitudes toward his own prayer as well as a synthesis of his major teachings. The structure and content of both versions is basically the same and may reflect Jesus— own instructions on prayer.

In Luke—s Gospel, the disciples have seen how important prayer is to Jesus. When they find him in prayer, they approach him with the request, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). The result is the Our Father. Both the context and the shorter version of the prayer in Luke—s Gospel are probably more historically accurate than Matthew—s longer edited version.

The prayer emphasizes the glory and Fatherhood of God, hope for the messianic kingdom and its benefits, and sorrow and forgiveness. Up to this point only Jesus had used the title "Father" for God; now he tells the disciples that they, too, can use this intimate and familiar term. It establishes a new—and in some ways shocking—relationship with God. When we pray we can do so as God—s own children whom he loves dearly.

The disciple, looking to God as Father, addresses two petitions, both in the passive voice, suggesting that the disciple acknowledges that the Father sanctifies his own name and spreads his own kingdom, and the disciple passively observes this. Jesus— words thus become a warning to us in our prayer that our contributions amount to very little (Lk 17:10).

The whole prayer is in the plural throughout, reminding us of the community dimensions of our prayer. The disciple prays for bread, forgiveness and protection from evil. The only part of the prayer that gives responsibility to the disciple is mutual forgiveness: "Father... forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us" (Lk 11:4).

Matthew—s version of the Lord—s Prayer is found in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus, speaking about the radical demands of discipleship, gives three good works that need to be part of the disciple—s life: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

Jesus stresses that our prayer needs quiet simplicity, humility and awareness of our emptiness before God (Mt 6:5-14). Prayer must be a total gift of self to God, as a needy child before a father. Jesus then gives the Lord—s Prayer as an example of authentic prayer. It is longer than Luke—s version, is divided into seven petitions, has a more Jewish flavor to it and seems more of a liturgical elaboration than a private prayer.

The first three petitions are in the passive voice and, as in Luke, deal with God—s actions in the world: sanctifying the divine name, spreading the kingdom and effecting God—s will in the world. The remaining four petitions deal with God—s care of the Church. The disciples pledge to do only one thing: to be reconciled among themselves.

Matthew—s longer version is also found in one of the Church—s early writings called the Didache (8:2), and some of the later manuscripts of Matthew also share with the Didache in adding the final prayer of praise, "For thine is the kingdom...."

The Lord—s Prayer gives us profound insight into Jesus— own prayer. He has taken forms of prayer used in his own day in Jewish practice, adapted them and given them deeper meaning. This prayer focuses on the essential human attitudes toward God, and on the basic petitions of life. The Lord—s Prayer was used in the early Christian instruction of catechumens and of the recently baptized. It was called "a catechism of prayer," and "the summary of the gospel."

Example of Authentic Prayer

The Lord—s Prayer sums up the characteristics of Christian prayer. It is presented to —Our Father,— thus stressing the communal dimensions of all people who stand in prayer before God. It is directed to God with a familiarity and confidence not seen in other religions, as it calls disciples to speak to God as a child speaks to a father. Recognizing God as Father leads to the loving attitude of one who prays in faith and inspires believers with confidence. The God to whom we pray treats us as a loving father deals with his children.

This unique approach to God is linked with the recognition of the absolute sovereignty of God and our own creatureliness before the awesome God. Every dimension of world need and personal need follows from the understanding of our relationship to God who is at once the sovereign Lord and yet wants to be treated as our Father.

The Lord—s Prayer is special insofar as it teaches us that we must also live dedicated to that for which we pray. While it is a formula for prayer—when you pray, say this prayer—it is also a list of attitudes that constitute a prayerful life. Here we see a link between the celebration of prayer and the celebration of life. There is no escapism from reality into prayer, nor is there a seeking of a magical solution in prayer for our own problems. Jesus teaches us a prayer that—when recited with devotion—brings us closer to the God who loves us. However, Jesus also teaches us that if we want to dedicate ourselves to prayerful life then we should recognize the Fatherhood of God, sanctify God—s name in all we do, spread God—s kingdom, do God—s will, acknowledge our daily dependence on God for what we need, forgive others, flee temptation, and with God—s grace be kept from all evil. The Our Father is both a prayer formula and a description of attitudes that lead to a prayerful life. There is interplay between the prayer that we express and the life we live, indicating the close link between the two for the authenticity of each.

As we have seen, the first three requests are expressed in the passive voice, which generally indicates that God is the subject: —Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done— (Mt 6:9-10). So, the disciple humbly acknowledges that God alone has the power to make these requests happen. However, remaining mindful of these three requests helps disciples to keep their lives focused on essentials. Living constantly in the presence of God, putting the needs of the kingdom over all else and yearning for nothing more than to follow the will of God in all we do: These three attitudes bring us close to the heart of authentic Christianity.

The four subsequent requests are prayers of petition to the Father. —Give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our debts...lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil— (Mt 6:11-13). These are basic hopes we have for every day in our lives, and also as we have seen aspects of our life as disciples that we work on each day.

The word daily is an unusual word that really means —tomorrow.— Of course, if one is receiving bread every today or every tomorrow it is the same in the end; it is daily. However, by using the word that means —tomorrow— the prayer gives a focus on the future and hope. This part of the Lord—s Prayer can also be read as four petitions for every tomorrow, and especially the great tomorrow of the end of the world. The prayer becomes a request for final nourishment from God in the afterlife, final forgiveness at the end of life, protection from the final temptations of life at the end and deliverance from eternal evil.

Both Luke and Matthew make an interesting comment on the request for forgiveness when they add, —for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.— This focus on reconciliation touches the heart of authentic prayer, and Jesus had insisted that it be viewed as a precondition for prayer. —So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift— (Mt 5:23-24). At the end of the teaching of the Lord—s Prayer, Jesus is even more blunt when he says, —...if you forgive...your heavenly Father will also forgive you...if you do not forgive...neither will your Father forgive your transgressions— (Mt 6:14-15). Things cannot get clearer than that. Reconciliation is necessary for prayer to be taken seriously and to be effective.

Jesus— example is a wonderful training in prayer—recognize the Fatherhood of God, develop the whole of life with awareness of the absolute awesomeness of God, see all of life, its daily needs and its future hopes as realized in God and be the reconciled people Jesus died to establish. Pray for these hopes and live these attitudes and you will learn both how to pray and how to live.

Leonard Doohan is professor emeritus of religious studies at Gonzaga University and former dean of the graduate school. He has authored many articles and books, including commentaries on the four Gospels and Acts. With his wife, Helen, he has written Prayer in the New Testament. He has written two previous articles for Scripture from Scratch.

Next: Biblical Journey Out of Darkness (by Virginia Smith)


Praying With Scripture

Read these passages that talk about the Fatherhood of God. Does thinking of God in this intimate way help you to feel that God is particularly interested in you? Mt 5:45, 48; Mt 6:6; Mt 7:9; Mt 18:10; Mk 14:36; Lk 6:36; Lk 11:2; Lk 12:30; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6.



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