The Lord’s Prayer: Radical or Redundant

Paula Northwood August 19, 2018

Scripture Luke 11:1–4

Some of you will remember the Art Linkletter’s House Party segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” During one show, a little boy named Kyle was asked by Art, “So Kyle, what do you want to be when you grow up?” And Kyle said, without hesitation, “I want to be a bus driver or a pilot.” Art asked him: “Well, what are you going to say if you’re a pilot and you’re flying, and all four engines suddenly go out?” Without missing a beat, Kyle lowered his head and said, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” Good answer.

Because the language of the prayer is so formal and kids have no context for the prayer, this is what some kids hear: Our Father in heaven, Hello, what be thy name? (Some kids think God’s name is “Art as in heaven” or “Harold be thy name.”) Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, give us this day our jelly bread. And forgive us our trash baskets and we forgive those who put trash in our baskets. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us some email. For mine is the kingdom, the flower and the jewelry forever. Amen.

We have been using a variety of renditions of the Lord’s Prayer this summer. You may have found it interesting, inspiring or even annoying. We will likely go back to the traditional version, but I would love to hear from you which version inspired you. We know that when we do something over and over, we have a tendency to go on autopilot. I know that when I drive to church, sometimes I don’t remember the details of getting here. It is good to take a closer look at some of the things we do by rote so that we don’t make them redundant, but instead remember their true meaning.

This is a prayer that Jesus supposedly taught to his disciples when they asked him how they should pray. I wonder, if Jesus were to return today to find that his followers have been saying the same prayer for 2,000 years, what his reaction would be? Would he slap his forehead and say, “Oy vey! This was a sample prayer—not the only prayer”? Or would Jesus be amazed and maybe overjoyed that every Sunday for 2,000 years, millions of Christians have been reciting something attributed to him? We will never know. But here we are with a prayer that has meant a great deal to us.

In Luke, we have the shortest version of the prayer. It is taught in response to a request to teach the disciples to pray as John the Baptist had taught his disciples. There is no mention of how or what words John taught his followers to pray. In Matthew, the context is different: The Lord’s Prayer comes after the Beatitudes and part of the teachings that we call the Sermon on the Mount. The prayer is followed by admonitions, advice, words of comfort and common sense taught to the disciples and, presumably, to the crowd that gathered with them on the hillside. In both scripture texts, the prayer ends abruptly for our ears. The ending, which is called the doxology, was added later and reflected in some of the early sources of Matthew, but not at all in Luke.

If you’ve ever worshiped in another church, you will know that there are at least three variations within Protestant circles. You might hear trespasses or sins instead of debtors, which is what we use. I think it’s interesting to note that the Lord’s Prayer is not recorded in any form in the writings of Paul, whose letters were written prior to the gospels, nor is it found in the gospels of Mark (written earlier than the other gospels) or John (written later).

Despite the biblical differences and variations, the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the one thing Christians hold in common, the one thing that unites us in our varied and distinct theologies and rituals and practices. Not all Christians believe in or recite the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds; we don’t agree on theological interpretations or translations of the Bible, we don’t share a worldview or perspective on how faith is to be expressed and lived, but we do pray the Lord’s Prayer.

This prayer puts us in a relationship with our neighbors in this sanctuary and with our neighbors in those other churches and denominations around the world. In Matthew and Luke, we understand that the world is not as it should be, that power holds the throne and that there is a need for a prayer to help us keep the perspective of a child of God.

I want to make a case that the prayer was radical in its context, in hope that it will infuse some new understanding for our use today. Let’s examine the prayer phrase by phrase.

Our Father, who art in heaven: God-as-father has come to seem old-fashioned—patriarchal in the worst sense—and many have rejected it. But when Jesus said it, it was new and must have startled people. Gods, including the God of Judaism, were often portrayed as powerful, punishing, mighty in battle and in control of nature. But Jesus calls God a new name: “Abba,” which means something like “Papa,” and one scholar suggests the even more childlike “Dada.” This is a deeply intimate image, although I realize that for those with deeply troubled relationships with that parent, it may not be a reassuring image. It’s meant, though, to suggest God as loving parent who understands and meets our truest needs. It is personifying God in a tender way. I grew up hearing a lot of prayer start with “Almighty God in Heaven.” The first time I heard someone begin a prayer with “Tender, loving God,” I wept. This intimacy is radical in a Jewish context, where using the name of God was so sacred it was rarely pronounced. It is a shift from the head to the heart. This is a good segue to the next phrase.

Hallowed be thy name: Jews used the letters YHWH to represent “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” This stands for God’s answer to Moses when he asked who God was. God replied, “I am that I am.” I am Being Itself. I am the holiness of existence. Even though Jesus is encouraging a prayer to an intimate, personal God, he included the need to honor the sacred, ineffable, mysterious name of God. We hold in paradox the personal and untamable God.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven: Jesus was always talking about the kingdom of God. To understand this phrase, we need to remember that at the time, the most accessible image of power was a king. So when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he evoked the dependency of all humanity on the God of love. But Jesus also made it clear that we are intimately involved in and responsible for this kingdom. “The kingdom of God is among you,” he told people. In other versions, Jesus says the kingdom is within you. The kingdom of God on earth is sacred power entrusted to and acting in us. Again, this is a radical shift from God’s realm confined to the sky in heaven and shifting it to everywhere, including within us.

Give us this day our daily bread: That’s Matthew’s version. Luke says, “Give us each day our daily bread.” One might think that “this day” asks us to let go of anxiety about getting what we need today, as in “give us what we need today; tomorrow we’ll pray for tomorrow.” But it turns out the word Jesus used for “daily bread” means “bread for the morrow.” So it seems Jesus expresses his deep trust that our lives will be sustained on a daily basis by God. We are like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, when manna turned up every morning and dissolved by evening, but kept turning up faithfully, new every morning. God provided. We might also remember that the Roman Empire was keeping the masses happy with free bread and circuses and other forms of entertainment. Jesus is saying we trust that our bread, our sustenance, comes from God, not the empire.

And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors: Luke’s version is: forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone who is indebted to us. Clearly we’re not dealing here with material or financial debts. The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark.” Missing the mark happens when we put ourselves first in ways that separate us from each other. Trespasses, as many Protestants say, suggest how sins great and small violate our relationships. I’ve heard people joke at Plymouth that we don’t sin or, at least, don’t talk about it. But joking aside, we understand that we do sin when we experience a violation of our connection with each other. Jesus taught more about forgiveness than almost anything else. In the gospel of Matthew, as soon as he finishes the prayer he says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus is saying to have a healthy life, spiritually or emotionally, involves forgiveness. Rather than carrying grudges and the burden of blame, put them down. We are forgiven, which frees us to forgive others.

And lead us not into temptation: This is where Luke ends the prayer. But Matthew continues, but deliver us from evil. Some recall Jesus’ temptations during his 40 days in the wilderness. But would Jesus suggest we shouldn’t have to face temptations? His time of temptation prepared him for ministry. Others think this is a request that God would not “test” us. In the epistle of James, we read “When tempted, no one should say. ‘God is tempting me.’” (James 1:13) We don’t believe that God tempts us, but we know evil on some level exists. How are we to understand this temptation and evil?

Like the first-century Christians, it is the very nature of the oppressive systems we live in, work for, are enriched and protected by and whose material abundance we conspicuously consume that becomes our temptation. We are so entrenched that we can no longer see it. Likewise, we become blinded to the evil which surrounds us. It’s like white privilege. If you are white, you don’t see your privilege without some serious examination. When it comes to the world we live in, theologian Harvey Cox has said, “We don’t just live in the Empire, the Empire lives in us.” We are like fish; we don’t see the ocean we are swimming in. We find it challenging to see and know the truth.

In our scriptures, Moses stood against Pharaoh and Jesus stood against Rome, so the church stands against every empire that displaces the power of love with the love of power. This little band of followers of Jesus could not take up arms against Rome, but they could provide an alternative kingdom that reordered religious life outside the Temple, meeting in secret and joyful noncompliance with the principalities and the powers. They lived as beloved communities of defiance who recited the prayer that Jesus taught them because it reminded them of who they were and what they needed to do. That’s radical!

It can be comforting to recite the Lord’s Prayer like a mantra. But can the Lord’s Prayer, once again, inspire this community to be a beloved community of resistance? “Lord, teach us to pray.” Such a simple request. The disciples had seen Jesus in action and realized how often he was alone in prayer. He was what we call a contemplative. They saw that Jesus himself was changed by what he experienced in prayer. He was different, more compassionate, loving, wise, courageous, because he prayed. And we can be, too. May it be so. Amen.

Compilation of the Lord’s Prayer versions used in summer 2018.