Isaiah 61:1-4 & Matthew 6:5-13

The Prayer of Jesus – a map for the road?

a reflection by Dan Spragg

Two weeks ago, I talked about the Lord’s Prayer and how recently this had been re-ignited for me, some life had been injected back into these familiar ancient words. I explained a tension that I often have, between the old familiar traditions and repetitions that we engage with in worship and prayer, and the desire for the sense of life that often more spontaneous less planned expressions of worship and prayer give us. I refuse to give in to believing that we need one or the other. I do firmly believe that we can have both our traditions and comfortable patterns, and more spontaneous expressions co-existing as complimentary. And perhaps not even as complimentary, perhaps they can even enhance one another. The key is located in having what I called, ‘scaffolding and substance.’ It would be too simple to say that our traditions provide the scaffolding while spontaneity provides the substance. There is meaning, substance, and life to be found in both our traditions and in our new expressions. The danger that both our traditions and our spontaneity have of course is that they simply become meaningless words, disconnected from our lives. Empty spaces where we simply go through the motions or to draw attention to ourselves. 2000 years ago, Jesus seemed to know that this was a tendency. ‘Don’t draw attention to yourselves,’ he said, ‘don’t babble on with meaningless words,’ he said. ‘When you pray, pray like this…’

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he was engaging in a common practice of Rabbi. In teaching their disciples to pray, the Rabbi would teach them what was most important to them. The Lord’s Prayer as we know it, is often called the ‘prayer of Jesus.’ This is perfect, it says to us, this is Jesus’ prayer, or perhaps in other words, this is what Jesus most desired, what he intended for his work, or what he held as most valuable. You can after all tell quite a lot from what people pray. It wouldn’t be too much to assume Jesus’ prayer was not really intended to become simply words that we recite regularly, but something in which captured Jesus’ way of seeing the world, and in teaching it he sought to pass this ‘way’ on to his students. If we still seek to be students of Jesus today, which I believe is instrumental in keeping our faith from stagnating – both in an individual sense and as a community together, what did Jesus mean by what he said? It was this that captured my attention recently and I’d like to try and share a little detail of what this prayer contains that can give it no end of substance and meaning for us. I am in debt to a few people for this new learning, in particular, Mike Breen and the section on the Lord’s Prayer in his book, Building a Discipleship Culture,[1] a podcast sermon by Rob Bell, 66 Words,[2] and Rev Eric Fistler and Rev Robb McCoy from the Pulpit Fiction Podcast.[3]

What my attention was drawn to recently was the way in which this prayer is structured, ultimately around six petitions or phrases. 1. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed, or holy be your name.” 2. “Your kingdom come.” 3. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 4. “Give us this day our daily bread.” 5. “And forgive us our debts, (sometimes ‘sins’ or ‘trespasses’) as we also have forgiven our debtors.” 6. “And do not bring us to the time of trial (sometimes temptation), but rescue us from the evil one.” All of these can be condensed down into six words: Father, Kingdom, Will, Bread, Debts, Trials. One interpretation is that the prayer is a working out of the first line. ‘Hallowed’ be your name… “The petitions that follow flesh out what this means. When God’s name is hallowed and God’s kingdom comes, there is daily bread for all, forgiveness is practiced, and God delivers the faithful from the time of trial.”[4] Others see it in two halves that work together to form the picture. The first half is about God and what God does, the second half is how we live in response to God’s invitation to live in God’s way, as we see Jesus showing us.[5] And another way is that each line in and of itself is so potent that it doesn’t matter where you start in the prayer it will speak to your life every time. It’s actually quite a fun one to try. Next time you pray try it out. Just pick any of the six phrases and pray around that as your focus point. For example, “your will be done” has the tendency to open a can of worms on any number of situations and events that we encounter every day! My attention has been captured most by the six key words, that are then held together in the two halves. What is God up to? And, what are we to do in response?

Our Father. The word ‘father’ here is implying a parent relationship. Jesus had quite a close relationship with God who he understood as his heavenly father. And, in that culture one of the main roles of the father was to manage the household. If this is what Jesus meant here then it opens up a good amount of meaning. God, our parent (not just mine, but ours) God, our parent who is responsible for managing the household to which we belong. For a household to be managed well this would mean that it is all ordered and functioning well and all who are in it are taken care of. That is the biblical understanding of justice. The right ordering of things. If one’s house was in order, it would gain a good reputation which is why it says, ‘holy be your name.’ One’s name is one’s reputation. In this prayer, we desire that God’s reputation in the world be seen as holy. May the house be a house of justice so that all can see the reputation of God as just, kind, loving; and as the parent of us all who works to ensure all is well. Next is ‘kingdom’ which is ultimately in the time of Jesus, a dangerously political statement! If you live in a land that has a King, and you talk of a different Kingdom coming, it is generally taken as treason. Well, we know the rest of the story! More generally the word ‘kingdom’ implies the land where God is in charge – we might understand that in our day as the reality of God, or the way of God in the world; where the evidence of God’s love and grace is. Indeed, may God’s love and grace come in real and concrete ways. Next is ‘will’ which is about the bending of or the ordering of things to the way of God. To pray, your will be done, is simply to say God, may what you want, happen. May all things be impacted, be persuaded towards the way of God, here, as it is in God’s reality. The second half of the prayer begins with ‘bread.’ Quite literally this is about bread. There are estimations that the taxation rate imposed by the Romans was as high as 90% Give us today our daily bread, we’re hungry! This also goes beyond bread to all that we need for our living each day. It has echoes of Proverbs 30:8-9, ‘give me neither poverty nor riches but only daily bread… too much and I might forget that you are Lord, too little and I may resort to stealing from my neighbours.’ This really does acknowledge our daily connection to material needs and how much of a concern these can be. But also, how these can cause us to be distracted from participating in God’s ordering of the world. Bread is about what we need for each day. ‘Debts’ This is about the past which is interesting.  Debts or sins or trespasses, all of them… What is it that we are holding on to from the past that is stopping us from living fully in today? Being free from Debt, or from sin, or from a trespass against us is about living as freely and lightly as possible. There certainly was a financial aspect to this, but it is also about relating to one another. If we have debt of any kind then we are tied to a decision or action from the past, which is always a dead weight holding us back. That could be financial, or it could be a relational debt. Let us be free from this, and let us not be the reason that others feel weighed down, unable to be free. The final word is ‘trial.’ I do prefer ‘trial’ as opposed to ‘temptation.’ This isn’t so much that God leads us into temptation – which is the Pope’s issue!  More recent bible translations have been using ‘trial’ because it is a better translation of the original word and meaning. This is actually implying that we face forwards to the future so we ask that we do not get into situations, or do things that mean we fall out of step with the way the household should be ordered. This is a petition asking for guidance, asking for our radar to be operating, our senses to be alert to things which would lead us into situations and behaviours where we step off the path so to speak. There is a sense that this is a petition for protection – “save us from the time of trial” in this we ask that God protect us, that we may not have to endure suffering as we set about living in the ways of God.

Now that is a whole lot of stuff. There’s probably a sermon waiting for each one of those. I think what Jesus was doing as he taught his disciples his prayer, which includes us, is he was seeking to teach a view of God and how the world could be viewed as we get about living and working within it. God our parent is the one who is in charge of ordering the household – it’s God’s responsibility to manage and to lead us all into the right ordering of things, into Justice. And in this we will see God’s name, God’s reputation as holy. God has a particular reality in mind as the ordering of the house occurs. It is that place where all is well, where everything is as it should be! (in other words, Heaven or the Kingdom). Then, may where we are be bent towards living in this way. Martin Luther King Jr said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it is bent towards justice.” This is the longing that is captured in this line – it is that our longing is for justice to fall. This is who God is and what God is about. So, therefore as we live, God give us enough for today. Not too much because that tends to be when others miss out. And not too little, for then we will suffer and fall into methods of survival. And help us let go of yesterday. With God, we are found free, forgiven. Let us be free with ourselves and with others. And as we step forward and face what is coming next, keep us from suffering as we seek to live out God’s way. God be our protector. Jesus says, this is my prayer, my desire, my intention in my work. Jesus says, this is how I see the world working – God, and what God is about, and us as we get about living with God. This is what’s most important, Jesus said.

To locate ourselves in the Lord’s Prayer is to find ourselves with a purpose and a home base to go out from. To locate ourselves in the Lord’s Prayer is to know what we are caught up in as we proclaim to have faith in God. By locating ourselves, who we are and what we do in the prayer of Jesus is to find ourselves supported by a scaffolding that speaks of a much larger story at play, and surrounded by purpose and meaning whatever day it is, whatever we face, whatever we seek to do. This prayer really is about who we are as human beings living the ‘with God’ life. It is about our growth and development living in the household of God and for that household to be a growing reality in our lives, and for more and more people to find themselves in that household where we are all liked and loved children of God, who has all responsibility for this house, and the growth and flourishing of this house in the world. A house where all are provided for, all are made free from that which wants to hold them back and all are protected from that which wants to do harm. This prayer is a vision of the world as God intends – may it be our vision too, may this be for us a meaningful reference point, a map with endless substance as we seek to live out the way of God’s justice just as Jesus did.

[1] Mike Breen, Building a Discipleship Culture, 3dm Publishing, 2017.

[2] Found here – https://robbell.podbean.com/e/jesus-h-christ-part-2-66-words/

[3] See – https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/proper12c

[4] See Elisabeth Johnson at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1724

[5] Rob Bell brings this point out especially.