Jesus had found a quiet space and time to pray, and, when he finished, the disciples asked him to teach them to pray, just as John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray. So Jesus, said, “Pray like this: Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come…”
“Our” – Right away, he taught them to pray as community. It was not “my father,” or “my God,” but “Our Father.” Jesus told us to pray not as individuals but as community, just as God is community, Father, Son and Holy Spirit all in one.
“Our Father” – If you look at this passage, it is a lot about fathers, really, or the father image that we associate with God. The first thing Jesus said to do was to call God “Father.” Later he told a story about a father who did not want to wake up his household when a neighbor came knocking in the middle of the night. Then he talked about how a father would not be cruel to a child who needed something, that not even an evil father would give bad things to his children. This image of a good father was important to Jesus as he taught about prayer.
Our images of father are sometimes distorted by experiences of fathers who are not nurturing, or not caring, or not even present in our lives. Surely there were fathers like that in Jesus time too.
But Jesus knew a father that was not like other fathers. God, “Abba,” in the Aramaic that he probably spoke, implied a close relationship, usually the one between God and God’s people. God as Father is nurturing, compassionate and caring, as well as creative, strong and eternal (kind of like both father and mother in one!). Even an earthly father in Jesus’ time was seen as the head of the household, the one who made sure the children observed religious rites, and the one who nurtured and protected the whole household. The father was honored, as was the mother, and was due to be respected and obeyed. This may not have been lived out in reality, even then, but it was the ideal of fatherhood. Jesus meant “Father” as an intimate relationship as of a child to a loving and nurturing parent.
“Hallowed” – Then Jesus described this relationship with God more – “hallowed by your name.” To hallow is to bless. God blesses us, but we bless God by honoring and obeying God. Knowing the name of someone in ancient times meant to know them fully, their character, their identity. So to hallow God’s name was a high and mighty act of worship. Said in the plural, we hope that all will come to know and honor God as we do. Even if we pray this prayer by ourselves, we still say it in the plural, so we are reminded that we are a part of the community even if we are not together. And that brings us comfort.
“Your kingdom come” recognizes God’s presence in heaven and in earth, a kingdom already forming among those who follow God, but that will come in full one day in the future. The first part of the prayer is spent acknowledging who God is in relationship to the gathered community. And this is a very important lesson for us to learn. First, we start with acknowledging who God is to us.
Then, the next parts of the prayer are petitions, requests. The version in Luke is shorter than the version in Matthew, and there are just three petitions.
“Daily bread” – The first petition is a very practical one, asking for bread for each day. Luke makes it clear that the bread is provided each day by God. Just as manna appeared in the wilderness each morning for the Israelites, so we are to ask God to provide what we need in order to survive. Bread was the essential food of the rich and the poor in ancient times. In today’s world, when so many cannot eat gluten, perhaps it would better to say we are praying for daily food. This puts us in the position of those 70 who were sent out that Taylor preached about a few weeks ago. Jesus sent them out with nothing, expecting them to find what they needed through the kindness of others. Few of us know what it means to be hungry, to have no food. So to pray for daily bread does not have the meaning to us that it would to someone who does not know where they will find their next meal. To pray for daily bread puts us in a vulnerable position before God, and pushes us to recognize our weaknesses and our dependence upon God.
Let’s look now at the third and final petition in Luke’s version, that of not bringing us (again, notice the plural) to trial. Trial, of course, makes us think of courts, and being brought to trial might mean we are on trial for doing something wrong, or that we have been sued or are suing someone else. But trial can also mean an ordeal, or a time of temptation, as we say in our version of The Lord’s Prayer – “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (This comes from Matthew’s version.) Early Christians were at somewhat more risk than we are today, and may have seen “trial” on a daily basis as they struggled to worship in a way that was not readily accepted in their land. Some Christians who declared their faith loudly were even martyred for it. “Trial’ may mean something different for us today. Yet none of its meanings denote something good or pleasant. The time of trial would always be something we would want to avoid.
Now notice that the middle petition is the only one that requires something of the prayers, those who pray. “Forgive us our sins,” we are to ask God, but it goes on: “For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” The most debated words of the Lord’s Prayer are the ones we translate as “debt” and “debtors” and other denominations translate as “trespasses” and “trespassers.” But the Semitic word can mean both a monetary debt and a moral trespass, or sin. Luke keeps both meanings with the way he phrased the statement. This part of the prayer, notes scholar Sharon Ringe, resembles a Jubilee prayer. The Jubilee, you may remember, was a time of forgiveness of debts, described in Leviticus 25, that was to occur for 7 weeks, every 7 years. Work on farms would cease, and all debts would be released, and land that had to be let go because of debts would be returned to the original owners. As far as the annals of history show, no Jubilees were ever really observed. But the Word of God called for this very generous kind of forgiving to occur on a regular basis, as a way to put everyone on an even keel. God calls us to be forgiving, just as God forgives us. God calls us, just as he called the prophets and Jesus, “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). In God’s world, all debts are cancelled, earthly laws do not apply, and all things are made new through the love that God gave to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians are called to live differently than the rest of the world in that they forgive, they love, they live and pray and work as community. This seems to speak very clearly to us in a world that is punctuated these days by loud and angry voices calling for division and oppression of people who may be “different” than us. God’s world does not see differences, but loves and includes all, and forgives all. No one ever said living such a life would be easy. Living an easy and comfortable life may be the fiction that America has written for her citizens. But it is not the reality of life, nor the one to which God calls us. The very God who, in Christ, experienced all of life, including joys and sorrows, suffering and death, calls us to be the light in the darkness, the calm amidst the storm, the peacemakers in the middle of the angry debate, the ones who forgive when everyone else is accusing.
And so we pray together, often, as Jesus has taught us. Jesus illustrated his points about prayer with the parable and the sayings that follow the prayer in Luke’s telling. The parable of the neighbor going to his friend’s house for bread to feed an unexpected visitor in the middle of the night has most often been used to say we should be persistent in prayer. But remember that the prayer we just learned is plural, so if we are persistent in prayer, it is for the community, and not for ourselves. It is like the telemarketers that fill our mailboxes and voice mail over and over again, some of them for very good causes like the Food Bank and MADD. They persist, perhaps for very good causes, but they annoy us. And sometimes we give in because they persist.
But the word that is translated as “persistence” is really stronger than that. It is better translated as “shamelessness.” The man who kept knocking was shameless in his persistence to be hospitable to the visitor. He risked his own reputation with other neighbors and friendship with the one neighbor in order to provide for the traveler, his guest. Surely we should be just as shameless in pursuing food, shelter, and justice for those in need in our world today.
“Ask, and it will be given; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened,” Jesus said, and that seems so clear, so easy, so giving. But the three come together. We are to ask, to search, to knock. There is work involved in praying for others. But when we persist, shamelessly, we will receive, we will find, and the door will open. Yet note that it is still plural. We are not told to ask, search, and knock just for ourselves, but for the community. Jesus has already defined community for us with the story of the Good Samaritan explaining that everyone who helps others is the neighbor, and all of those in need are our neighbors. So we ask, search, and knock for the sake of others, especially those in need.
In a wonderful book about the Lord’s Prayer, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas made some statements that call us to rethink who we are as a Christian community. They said, “Do not pray this prayer if you do not want to be odd!” (p.15). They said, “We don’t choose this prayer, it chooses us” (p. 16). “In teaching us to pray,” they say, “Jesus is making us more truthful, more faithful. Jesus is making us his disciples. In praying, our lives are bent away from their natural inclinations [and] toward God. We are becoming the very holiness, obedience, forgiveness for which we pray” (Willimon & Hauerwas, p. 110).
These wonderful theologians quote another inspirational theologian, Karl Barth, who actively oppose Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany and in the world in the 1930’s, because of his religious beliefs. Karl Barth said about praying together: “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” (W & H, p. 109)
And the authors shared the story of a prison camp in World War II, where the prisoners had been beaten and subjected to a long march and a long speech by the camp commandant before being returned to dark barracks and told to be quiet. But very soon a soft voice in one of the barracks began reciting The Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven…). Some of the prisoners next to him joined in, and then prisoners in the next barracks heard them and joined in, until the whole camp was reciting the words, growing louder and louder, and ending with the benediction added in the early church, “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever,” and ending with a strong, defiant, thunderous “Amen,” said the authors. “And then,” they said, “the camp was silent, but not before the tables had been turned, the prisoners had thrown off their chains, and a new world had been sighted, signaled, stated.”
So Jesus taught the disciples how to pray a prayer that we still pray today. The words are not just old words, or trite words. There is power in the words, and there is power in our praying them together. “Prayed in its usual place in the liturgy, toward the end of Sunday worship, aloud, as one great doxological shout of praise,” say Willimon and Hauerwas, “the Lord’s Prayer becomes the summary, the crescendo of the church’s worship” (W & H, p. 11). In teaching us to pray, Christ called us to be a community that looks beyond ourselves – to honor God as Creator of all, to ask and search for food and shelter and whatever the needs for every single human being, and to love and forgive, just as we are loved and forgiven by God. This oh so familiar prayer is actually hard, it is a tall order. It asks a lot of us. But surely, we can do what it asks together, “because we are a community, a covenant people.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.