Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Lord's Prayer
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 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
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
Next: Biblical Journey Out of Darkness (by Virginia Smith)