A little boy was saying his bedtime prayers and finished by saying very loudly, “AND GOD, PLEASE GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!” “Why did you say that so loudly?” his mother asked. “God’s not hard of hearing.” “I know,” he said. “But Grandma is.”
Whether he knew it or not, this little guy was onto something. God often uses other people to answer our prayers, in fact, I would say that that’s how it works most of the time. I’ll say more about that next week.
The Gospel text for this week contains Luke’s version of the prayer we know as The Lord’s Prayer. This prayer that Jesus gave his disciples is not only one of the great treasures of our faith, it’s also, in its way, a radical call to a discipleship. In this prayer we are asking God to empower us, guide us, and walk with us as we embrace a new way of life with new values and a new vision of what the world can be. It really is, in six simple lines, a kind of manifesto for life as a follower of Jesus.
Because this prayer is so important, not just historically, but also for the life and future of the church, I’m going to take us through it in two parts. This week we’ll go up through “Your kingdom come.” Next week we’ll start with “our daily bread.”
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” Now why would the disciple be asking this? The disciples almost surely already knew how to pray in general. They had probably all learned the various traditional Jewish prayers, and they had watched Jesus pray many times. So what, exactly is the disciple asking for? Well, there’s a clue in the phrase “as John taught his disciples.”
John the Baptizer had apparently taught his disciples a special prayer for their community. This prayer would have identified them as followers of John, and it would have contained key words or phrases that would have reminded them of John’s teachings. Now this disciple of Jesus is asking for a similar prayer to be used by the community of his followers, and Jesus responds by giving them what we’ve come to know as The Lord’s Prayer.
Because Jesus gives this prayer to his disciples as a kind of gift to the community of his followers, I’ve often thought that calling it The Disciples’ Prayer would make more sense, but we’ve known it as The Lord’s Prayer for so long that trying to rename it is probably a lost cause. Still, it’s worth remembering that this is a prayer that Jesus gave to his followers to be used as something that would identify and unite them, and at the same time remind them of what he had taught them.
There are a few different versions of the Lord’s prayer. That’s partly because it was originally transmitted and taught orally. As such, it would naturally be remembered slightly differently from community to community. This is probably why the version in the Gospel of Luke differs slightly from the version in the Gospel of Matthew, and both of them differ from the version in the Didache, the late first-century manual on how to do church. The most common version used today is based on the wording that first appeared in The Book of Common Prayer in 1549. That version, in turn, was based on William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew from 1526. That’s the only translation, by the way, where you’ll find “forgive us our trespasses” in Matthew 6:12 instead of “forgive us our debts.”
I could talk all day about difficulties and variations in translation and transmission of the prayer. It has even been a centerpiece of controversy a time or two in church history, but for now let’s use Luke’s version to take a deeper look at the meaning of this amazing prayer that Jesus has given to us.
“When you pray,” said Jesus—and the “you” is plural here—“when all y’all pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Prayer is simply a conversation with God. You start a conversation by getting the other person’s attention and you usually do that by saying their name or title. For example, my grandsons call me Pono. When I hear one of the say, “Pono,” I know they want to talk to me about something or ask me something or sometimes just come sit with me. It’s the same when we begin the Lord’s Prayer saying, “Father…” We’re letting God know we want to communicate something.
The word Father also conveys a relationship. “Father” acknowledges that we have a personal relationship with God. It’s supposed to help us feel like we’re sharing our hearts with a warm, nurturing, loving parent.
That’s the kind of relationship Jesus is encouraging us to have with God. But the Father image, or for that matter the Mother image doesn’t work for everybody. Some people have experienced abuse or conflict with their father or mother or both so parent imagery isn’t inviting for them. When that’s the case, it’s perfectly okay to address God in some other way.
Devout Jews will often address God as Hashem in their prayers. Hashem means “the name,” and addressing God as Hashem gives them a way to address God by name, sort of, without actually saying God’s name, which they believe is too holy to be spoken. In effect, Hashem becomes a name they call God in much the same way that Pono is the name my grandsons call me.
In her book Help. Thanks. Wow., Anne Lamott wrote, “Nothing could matter less than what we call [God]. I know some ironic believers who call God Howard, as in ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard by thy name.’ I called God Phil for a long time, after a Mexican bracelet maker promised to write ‘Phil 4:4-7’ on my bracelet, Philippians 4:4-7 being my favorite passage of Scripture, but got only as far as ‘Phil’ before having to dismantle his booth. Phil is a great name for God.
“Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard; to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in; to something unimaginably big, and not us. We could call this force Not Me, and Not Preachers Onstage with a Choir of 800. Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.’”
Anne Lamott’s advice to call on God with whatever name opens your heart and draws you closer to God might seem contradictory to what comes next in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be your name,” or to translate it directly from the Greek, “Let it be sacred, the name of you.” So are we treating God’s name as sacred if we call on God as Howard or Phil or Hashem? Well that depends entirely on your attitude when you use that name.
The Jewish people have always avoided saying the actual name of God, the name God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. One reason they avoid speaking God’s name is that it’s one way to ensure that they don’t break the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain. Taking God’s name in vain means a lot more than just saying God’s name at the wrong time or in the wrong way or saying “Oh my God” as an expletive. Taking God’s name in vain means using the name or authority of God in a way that draws ridicule. It can mean taking the authority of God upon yourself for purposes that have nothing to do with God’s reign or God’s desires. It can mean using God’s name or authority to further your own ideas or agenda, to buttress your own authority, orr simply using God’s name or authority for show.
Let it be sacred, Hashem. Let it be sacred, the name of you.
When we pray this, we are asking God to help and guide us and everyone else who “calls upon the name of the Lord.” It’s a way of saying, “Keep us honest, Hashem.”
The next petition in the prayer is maybe the most challenging if we really think about what we’re saying.
“Your kingdom come.” Or again, translating directly from Luke’s Greek text, “Let it come, the reign of you.”
I think sometimes that if we took this petition seriously our knees would buckle. When we pray this, we are volunteering to do whatever we can to make God’s reign a reality here and now. We are saying that we are not just in favor of radical changes in the way we do things—radical economic, political, religious and societal changes—we are saying that we will volunteer to make those changes as God guides us.
This is where the Lord’s Prayer is no longer merely a nice religious artifact or litany of devotion. This petition is where the Lord’s Prayer becomes subversive in the best possible way. And if anyone wants to suggest that Jesus is really praying about the establishment of God’s heavenly kingdom at the end of time, then I would suggest that they haven’t really read the gospels or understood the teaching of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t crucified because he talked about heaven; he was executed for proclaiming that the kin-dom of God was within reach.
“Your kingdom come” or “let your reign begin” also has to go hand-in-hand with “let your name be sacred.” We are praying for God’s vision to become a reality, not our own vision.
So… I’m leaving you with a lot to think about this week. How do you speak to God? How do you call upon God? What name or practice opens your heart to deep communication with the heart of Life and Love? How do you safeguard and respect the authority of God? How do you avoid abusing that authority and power? And most importantly, are you really ready and willing for God’s reign to begin here and now?
 I’m very grateful to Brian Stoffregen for this bit of history and other insights in his weekly Exegetical Notes.
2 thoughts on “Teach Us to Pray – Part 1”
Excellent exposition, Steve. Looking forward to Part 2!
Thank you, Mitch.