This is a series of four talks given by Bishop John Baker, one time Bishop of Salisbury, in Space in the City in Winchester in 2004. We are most grateful for Bishop John’s permission to reproduce this very significant series on the Lord’s Prayer.
To write about the Lord’s Prayer is an awesome responsibility, for here is something so simple that anyone can make it their own, yet so profound as to be inexhaustible.
Our subject for this first part is simply the opening four words: Our Father in heaven. But before we turn to them perhaps some general background information may be helpful.
First, it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus normally spoke and taught in Aramaic. Aramaic in his day, with regional variations, was the common language of the Semitic peoples in the Near and Middle East. The Gospels have preserved memories of some of the Aramaic words Jesus used: talitha qum, ‘little girl, get up’, when he healed Jairus’s daughter; ephphatha, ‘be opened’, when he enabled the deaf mute to speak. But the most famous example is, of course, abba, ‘father’.
The whole of the Lord’s Prayer goes naturally into Aramaic; and it is written below in that tongue:
yithqaddásh shemákh / tethé malkuthákh
lahmán d~limhár habh lán yoma dhen
ush~bhoq lán hobhain k~dhish~bháqnan l~hayyabhain
w~la tha~elinnan l~nisyon
It is striking how short the Prayer is. It’s short enough in English, but in Aramaic it is only 19 words! It is also in verse, with short rhythmic phrases and internal rhymes. Quite a lot of Jesus’s teaching is in poetic form for the obvious reason that this makes it easier to remember.
Let’s take a look now at the context in which the Prayer appears in the Gospels. It comes in Matthew and in Luke. We’ll take Matthew first, where the Prayer is part of Jesus’s teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (chapter 6, verses 5-14). The passage is:
Whenever you pray, you’re not to be like the hypocrites! For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners, so that everyone can see them. Truly I tell you, that’s all the reward they will get. But you, when you pray, go into your storeroom and shut the door, and pray in hiding to your father; and your father, who sees what is hidden will reward you. And in your prayer don’t blather on like the heathen, for they think they will be heard because they use a lot of words. Don’t be like them, for your father knows what you need before you ask him. So pray like this: “Our Father in the heavens, may your name be revered as holy, your kingdom come, your will come to pass, as in heaven, so also on earth. Give us today our food for the coming day; and release us from our debts as we release those in debt to us. And do not allow us to be persecuted but rescue us from the Evil One.”
The translation, for which I take responsibility, was, I admit, a bit colloquial, but I wanted to bring out one or two points which will concern us as we go along.
Jesus is teaching the crowds. The background to what he has to say is the normal Jewish practice of praying three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening. In Jerusalem, at the time of the afternoon sacrifice in the Temple, about 3 p.m., trumpets were sounded from the roof of the Temple to call people to prayer, rather like the muezzin calling from the minaret of a mosque. Jesus seems to suggest that some of the more pious might contrive to be out in the street when the trumpet sounded, so that they could ostentatiously raise their hands in prayer in full sight of everyone. No, he says, you shut yourself in the storeroom where no one would ever think you would be praying!
The other thing to avoid, he says, is the sort of prayer used by pagans, which goes on and on. The word in Greek, echoes an Aramaic phrase, amar battalatha, meaning ‘idle talk’. Perhaps that was the phrase Jesus used, who knows? Anyway, I thought my rendering ‘blather’ got it rather nicely! But the important point is that pagans were particularly bothered about getting right name by which to address God when they prayed, and they would start by stringing together a whole series of mystic names and titles. Then you would be sure of getting the attention of the god or goddess you were after. And this, of course, gives special point to the way Jesus starts his prayer: just ‘Our Father in heaven’, or, in Luke, as we shall see, simply ‘Father.’ That is enough.
Let’s now turn to Luke (chapter 11, verses 1-4). Here the picture is rather different:
It so happened that, while he was somewhere praying, when he stopped, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “Whenever you pray, say, ‘Father, may your name be reverenced as holy, your kingdom come. Give us day by day food for the coming day; and forgive us our sins, for we too release everyone who is in debt to us. And do not allow us to be persecuted.’”
The first thing we notice is, of course, that Luke’s version of the Prayer is only two-thirds the length of Matthew’s. The petition for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven is left out, as are the closing words, ‘rescue us from the Evil One’. Neither form has the words with which we traditionally end: ‘for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Amen’. They were a later addition, at first in many different forms. Matthew’s longer version of the Prayer is itself plainly an expansion for use in worship. It is more sonorous; the clauses are beautifully balanced in sets of three; the abrupt ending of Luke is rounded off nicely by adding ‘rescue us from the Evil One.’ When we also notice that everything in Luke is also in Matthew, but that Luke has no extras of his own, it is reasonable to assume that Luke is nearer to people’s recollections of what Jesus actually said. It is highly unlikely that anyone would cut out bits of Jesus’s special prayer, but they might well have elaborated it.
The second point to notice is that, whereas Matthew makes the Prayer part of Jesus’s general teaching to the crowds, for Luke it is a special prayer for use by Jesus’s disciples. Particular religious groups in Judaism used to have their own forms of prayer. From Luke we gather that the followers of John the Baptist did the same. So why not Jesus? It becomes even more likely when we consider, as we shall do, that the Prayer is in fact a summary of the central points of Jesus’s teaching. By using it his close followers would have that teaching engraved on their minds and hearts.
One last general point. In many places the Early Church did make a practice of saying the Prayer three times a day, in line with Jewish custom. But we also know that there was far more than this to the prayer life of Jesus himself He was often away all night on the hills praying. And the Church too had long hours of prayer. What Jesus did in the Prayer was to give both his disciples and people in general a simple, memorable prayer which could shape and define for us a right relationship to God. And that starts straight away with the opening word.
That word was abba – with the accent on the last syllable, please! One constantly hears a half-truth about this word, namely that it is a child’s affectionate address to its father (true) and the equivalent of ‘Daddy’ or even ‘Dada’ (untrue). The facts are that the word is an affectionate form of address but on used by grown-up members of the family as well as children, and one carrying also overtones of respect. ‘Honour your father and your mother’ is one of the Ten Commandments; and Jewish culture was perhaps the other way round from ours on this matter. Instead of allowing their children a childish form of address which they then might or might not unlearn in favour of a more formal term later, they taught them from the start to use the form everyone used all through life, but which was one of endearment as well as respect. So we don’t really have a word in English equivalent to abba.
abba was also used as a noun, like our word ‘father’. There is a story about a Galilean holy man called Hanina, who had a reputation as a rainmaker. One day, during a drought, some children surrounded him, and began chanting, ‘abba abba, give us rain!’ And Hanina prayed, ‘Master of the Universe, send rain for the sake of these who cannot tell the abba who gives rain from the abba who cannot!’ Hanina lived after the time of Jesus, so may have been influenced by stories about him. But one difference is important. Hanina refers to God as an abba but when he prays, he does not address God as abba, but with a traditional form, ‘Master of the Universe’. Jesus, so far as we know, was entirely original in praying to God as abba.
Another breakthrough was the fact that this word is not a sacred one, not taken from the traditional language of Scripture or synagogue, prayer or worship. It is a word from the everyday. And that stresses that prayer itself is not to be something for which you have to gear yourself up into sacred or spiritual mode. It is natural, ordinary, like talking to your own father.
This point is reinforced in Luke where the word is not adorned with devotional trappings. Matthew’s ‘in the heavens’ is there to make sure that we don’t forget that it is God we are talking to.
The other change in Matthew is also significant. Luke’s version is emphatically a prayer of the individual to his or her God. The ‘Our Father’ of Matthew changes it into something corporate. This reflects the spirituality of the Old Testament. In Isaiah, for instance, the community cries to God, ‘Doubtless thou art our father.’ ‘My father’ does occur, but only in the mouth of the anointed king, to whom God says, ‘You are my son.’ In Psalm 89 God says of the king, ‘He will cry to me, “You are my father”’. All this is bound up with ideas of sacred kingship, which were important in Israel when they had kings, and later were transferred to the hoped for Messiah. The New Testament faith in Jesus as Messiah therefore quite naturally sees in such words a prophecy of him. But the ordinary Jew never addressed God as his or her personal father. In this respect too the Prayer is revolutionary.
If we ask how Jesus came to use this way of speaking to God, there are various possible answers. One might be that he did feel himself called to be the Messiah for whom Israel had waited so long. Some passages in the Gospels back that up, though others suggest differently. What is quite clear is that Jesus himself, for whatever reason, believed that his own relationship with God was that of a son to a father. This is a thread running through all the Gospels, and in St John it becomes the dominant theme, with many, many sayings of Jesus on the subject. So it is no surprise that his own model prayer should begin by boldly affirming this basic conviction.
What is surprising is that he opens this relationship to all who are prepared to follow him. He did not regard it as exclusive to himself. Indeed, he taught that it is this relationship which opens the doors to the Kingdom: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you become like little children again, you will never get into the Kingdom of heaven’. The earliest Church seized on this with joy, so much so that even Greek-speaking Christians used the word abba as their form of address to God. St Paul says that ‘when we cry abba, father, it is the Spirit joining with our own spirit to testify that we are children of God’. But a word of warning! If we accept that gift with joy and gratitude, we need also to remember what it may involve. There was another time, we are told, when Jesus prayed, ‘abba, father’, but that was in Gethsemane. The Prayer cannot be prayed unless we also accept those other words of Jesus, ‘If anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me’. And when we use the Matthew form of the Prayer. ‘Our Father’, as we do most of the time, it ought to remind us that as a community, as a fellowship, we are committed to this vocation of cross-bearing as the essential heart of the truest way of human living.
A thought about the words ‘in heaven’. Yes, believers did think then of heaven as ‘up there’, a vast and glorious world radiant with the divine presence. But that did not make God remote or detached. On the contrary, he knew and was concerned for everything that went on, and that made him both awesome and very real. The ‘Father’ still had his eye and hand on every created being.
For them that was not just a spiritual or poetic picture but a factual one. For us, knowing what we do about the universe, it works only on the poetic level. Is there anything we can say about the factual reality of where God is and his closeness to us? What do we mean by ‘in heaven’?
Science can tell us so much about the wonderful way the universe works, how life emerges and evolves, the micro-worlds of quantum theory or of the human genes, the unimaginable immensity of Space-Time. Its power to explain grows at a thrilling rate. But, as many scientists and philosophers agree, even today, there is one question of a different kind which is outside its scope; and that is the question, ‘Why does anything exist at all?’ Hold a flower in your hand. We can describe how it came to be within the system of our world, and that is marvellous enough. But the biggest miracle is simply that it is, it and the whole bang shoot. Being awake to that miracle is the seed of all we mean by spirituality.
Faith says, quite logically, that there must be a Source of Being and Life. What that Source is like in itself will be a mystery beyond our imagination, but it must exist, and it is one of the things we mean by the word ‘God’. As the Source of Being and Life it sustains all Space-Time and everything within that moment by moment. How, we cannot say, because the power which can do that must be a force of a kind different from anything we know. But it is there, in you, in me, in everything, ‘closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet’. If ‘heaven’ is the name for its dwelling-place, then heaven is everywhere. ‘God is. God is here. God is now’.
What the Prayer proclaims, from the very start, is that if we want to enter into a relationship with this unknowable God, the best picture to use, the best wavelength to tune into, is this word abba, father. Sad experience may, it is true, make the word emotionally difficult or even impossible for some to use, but with our minds we can learn what Jesus meant by it, and take that as the key to understanding. All true prayer is a love affair in which we enter that world where mystery and understanding meet. We need both the intimacy and the awe, the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘in heaven’.
The Lord’s Prayer falls into two main sections. After the opening appeal to God as Father, we have in Luke two, in Matthew three general petitions. After them come three particular requests – for food for forgiveness, and for preservation from evil.
In this part we have to wrestle with the general petitions, and they are not as straightforward as we too readily imagine. In Luke’s version they read, ‘May your Name be hallowed, your Kingdom come’, in Matthew (to quote the traditional form) ‘Hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.
These are not original to Jesus. What he has done is to shorten the requests found in an Aramaic prayer called the Kaddish, which comes from well before his time, and which he would have heard regularly as the closing prayer of the synagogue service. The word kaddish means ‘holy’, and in the earliest form we have the prayer went like this:
Exalted and hallowed be his great Name
in the world which he created according to his will.
May he let his Kingdom rule
in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime
of the whole house of Israel
speedily and soon. Amen.
The similarity is obvious. The kaddish, though just a little wordier, also prays for the hallowing of God’s Name, and the swift coming of his Kingdom.
I think we can fairly assume that Jesus intended these echoes of the kaddish to be picked up, and was perfectly happy for his followers to use that phrasing if they wanted to. What he is doing is pinpointing the key thoughts essential to prayer. He is giving them a model, not a formula; and this is why the local church to which Matthew belonged felt free to expand Jesus’s words just a little. Not too much – Jesus had warned them about that – but enough to help them to focus and attend to the meaning.
We need to bear this in mind more than we do. The Prayer is far too often the lazy, unthinking resort of Christians called upon to offer a conventional acknowledgment to the Deity on occasions when it seems only decent to do so. We still expect, say, 20% of any reasonable cross-section of people to be able to remember it (though personally I doubt that), and so it is used as the bit where everyone can join in at a civic or memorial service. But even those of us for whom Christian faith is a serious part of life find it jolly hard to say it through without our attention wandering. In church no service is the real thing without it, but it isn’t often the bit that grabs us. But if we do want to use it as a model, not as a formula, we need to know what it is talking about.
Which brings us neatly to the first of the clauses, ‘Hallowed be thy Name’. Anyone who has ever taken a class of small children will know the commonsense interpretation they put on this archaic and incomprehensible phrase: ‘It means you’re supposed to say “Hallo!” to God’. Explanations don’t help much either: ‘God’s Name is holy, and we want people to treat it as holy’. But what does ‘holy’ mean? For most people in our society exactly nothing.
Holiness, in the Bible, is in essence something that belongs uniquely to God, something that sets him apart from all other beings, and which it is death for them to infringe. Those whom God calls and sets apart to lead worship and to act as intermediaries between God and ordinary people have to take immense precautions, if they are not to die. Hence the laws of ritual, and of ceremonial purity. Observing these laws was called ‘hallowing’ or ‘sanctifying’ oneself, and those who did so, like the priests, acquired a sort of secondary holiness from God, as did such things as the Temple and all its equipment.
But how could anyone be said to sanctify or hallow God’s Name, which must surely be intrinsically holy? No, mere humans could not make God’s name holy, but they could very easily desecrate or blaspheme it. In the early days of Israel’s history their God did have a proper name, just as you or I do. But in time it became an unbreakable law in Israel that the Name should never be spoken, precisely because of the risk of desecrating it by misuse. You remember that the Third Commandment is against misusing God’s name, for instance in magic spells or by swearing a false oath.
But the prophets bring a larger dimension to all this. Now it is the nation’s sins, especially the worship of other gods, which desecrates the divine Name, and only God’s punishment can re- sanctify it. Isaiah says that it is only by executing justice that God asserts his holiness. But Israel’s destruction brings another problem: God’s Name is brought into contempt, because other nations conclude that he must be too weak to help his people. So, in Ezekiel, God says he will sanctify his Name by bringing the nation back from exile, not because they deserve it but because his own reputation is at stake. The world will acknowledge God’s name as holy when they see evidence of his supreme power.
We need to keep in mind that all this is against the background of what St Paul called ‘gods many and lords many’. Every nation had its own gods and also international gods whose worship was widespread, such as Jupiter, ‘father of gods and men’, or the Egyptian goddess Isis. The God of Israel was in competition with many rivals, and looking after the honour of his Name was essential to staying in business. By Jesus’s time the Jews were fiercely loyal to their God, whom they believed to be the only real God in the universe. The rest were either demons or phantasms. But they still felt it imperative that God should act to defend the honour of his Name, to show that he really was the ‘Holy One’. Why should the philosophers get away with claiming that there was no God? Why should the heathen mock at the true God as a powerless phantom of Israel’s imagination? We see traces of this kind of debate in the New Testament in the book of Acts, where Paul makes his speech to the Areopagus in chapter 17.
So the prayer, ‘may your Name be hallowed’ or ‘sanctified’ means two things. First, and obviously, ‘may those who bear or represent your Name do it honour by the kind of lives they live’. But secondly, it means ‘may the course of this world be so ordered that all people everywhere may find it possible to believe in the true God and to honour him’. In other words, ‘hallowed be thy Name’ in fact overlaps largely with ‘thy Kingdom come’ and ‘thy Will be done’, that is, may your goodness rule both in the hearts of individuals and in the world at large, so that people may recognise and worship your righteousness and love.
In his brief model prayer, then, Jesus gives first place to this plea for God to take charge of the affairs of this world. Nothing very surprising about that, you may say. Don’t we all do exactly the same? What are the intercessions on Sunday morning if not a plea for God to put things right? Yes, but Jesus’s angle on this and ours are not quite the same.
In the Gospel as told by Mark, Luke and Matthew the main action begins when Jesus emerges from the desert to launch his preaching mission. What was his campaign slogan? ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ – the word ‘heaven’ being for a Jew of that day a reverent way of referring to God. Not, ‘Come on, everybody, let’s build the Kingdom of heaven!’ but the kingdom is upon you, or, as he said on another occasion, ‘it’s at the door!’
The Prayer is so familiar, so taken for granted, that we totally fail to see what a gulf there is between the spiritual world of Jesus and the first Christians and our own. Of course we are at one with them in wanting God’s will to prevail, for there to be no more September the 11ths, no more starving millions, no more AIDS, no more war, no more abused and murdered children. But in our heart of hearts don’t we believe that it’s no use leaving it to God to make these things happen? We have to do it ourselves. The prayer, ‘thy kingdom come’, really means ‘help us to make it come’.
But in Jesus’s book you prayed to God to bring in his Kingdom because that was something only he could do. The Kingdom was after all God’s! What is more, he expected it to arrive at any moment. The point of telling people to repent was to save them from being excluded when it did come. Jesus’s ethical teaching is not a blueprint for setting up the Kingdom but a picture of the only way to live if you want to be at home in it. ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you definitely won’t get into the Kingdom of heaven’.
Part of the trouble we have with this is that we can’t imagine what the coming of this Kingdom is supposed to be like. Is the scenario to be something out of Star Wars, angels with laser swords knocking out the forces of evil, and a magical new world where plague, famine and earthquake are all things of the past? Many people at that time did think of it in that way – the book of Revelation is an excellent example. But can we make sense of that in the light of our knowledge of the way the Universe actually works? And behind all of this is our deepest problem: do we actually believe at all in a God who does things?
This is unquestionably the biggest gulf fixed between many western Christians today and the world of the Bible and of Jesus. What is more, in all sorts of ways we rationalise our inability to live in his world, changing the faith that bears his name but pretending we are not. Take the question of God’s power. It is clearly fundamental to the Lord’s Prayer, which asks for the Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, and for God himself to rescue us from the power of evil.
But today I hear and read so many putting across a subtly perverted version of the Gospel, which says that God does not work through power but through powerlessness. The Gospel, we are told, shows that God is to be found in weakness, in the victim. This is dangerous precisely because it is so nearly true. St Paul did hear the voice of Jesus saying to him, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ but, if we are going to seize on the word ‘weakness’, we must not ignore the word ‘strength’. For Paul that strength had already been revealed in Jesus as the divine conqueror of death. It was that very real power which was perfected in weakness, when God-made-man chose to lay aside all power to die for our sake, and when his cosmic wisdom took the road that to human commonsense was folly. That is not at all the same thing as saying that we are to find God in weakness because we no longer believe in his power.
Why do so many have this problem? We know why: it is a combination of the evils all around us, natural and man-made, and our scientific culture, which claims that nothing can exist or happen except what can be explained in terms of this world. For many in our culture a good God is morally implausible and scientifically impossible. So believers fall back on a God who is really no more than a spiritual ideal based on Jesus, an image of suffering love effective only so far as it evokes some human response. And, if we are honest, this way out of the problem is attractive. For one thing no one can disprove it. For another, it does match important things in our spiritual experience – the ‘amazing grace’ of the story of the Cross and its power in our lives.
But, of course, the story doesn’t have this amazing grace unless we are convinced that it is true, that there is a God and he is like that. And the reason Christians have for 2000 years believed the story to be factually true is that it is not just a story about the Cross but about Cross-and-Resurrection. In a genuine human existence God overthrew the ultimate enemy, not just our ultimate enemy but that of the whole cosmos, namely death. Easter was the point at which the prayer ‘Thy kingdom come’ began to be answered, where we saw for the first time that there indisputably was a kingdom, a sovereignty of God. And in that experience of the kingdom we learned to pray ‘thy will be done’, because it was at last clear that God’s will was for our good, it was one of love. And it then becomes possible to pray for God’s name to be confessed as holy by the whole world, because the story of God really is ‘good news’, ‘Gospel’, for everyone.
In the New Testament we find another Aramaic prayer used in the early Church, including its Greek-speaking congregations. It is the two words, marana tha, meaning ‘Our Lord, come!’ This was no cry of desperation, pining for a divine reversal of the Cross. It was a cry of faith, possible only because Christians knew that their Lord was alive, and more than just alive in the old sense, living in a power that had broken the bonds of space and time, matter and energy. We too can utter that cry in faith. We do not know when and how God will answer any more than Jesus did – after all, God never does the same thing twice! But we know now that to his creative power all things are possible, and from Jesus we know that his will is always and only for our good.
So likewise the Lord’s own Prayer was now prayed in supreme confidence. The words spoken long before Holy Week and Easter now turned out to disclose their full meaning only after those unimaginable events had taken place. Christians knew that the kingdom would come, the name would be hallowed, because they had the earnest of that in the Easter testimony.
That is how we too should pray it. Not as a moralising prayer of the kind, ‘Please God, make me a good little girl’ (or boy, as the case may be). Not in downhearted depression: ‘Oh dear, Lord, the world is in a mess, please do something about it’. Even less, ‘Lord, just fix what’s wrong with the Church, and we’ll soon put the world to rights for you’! No, the Christian way of praying the Prayer is something more like this: ‘abba, Father, you have shown us in your Son that all power in and over heaven and earth is vested in your Love. As that Love has begun to reign, so hasten the day when it will transform the whole world, in your way and in your time, and evil and death shall be no more. We know such a task is beyond us, but it is not beyond you. We wait in trust, offering our hearts that you may reign in them; marana tha, our Lord, come!’ — but, as Jesus and our other Jewish friends say in the Kaddish: ‘Speedily and soon!’
As we begin this third article in the series it may help we recall the main ideas.
The Prayer is both a prayer, to be said as it stands, and a pattern for prayer, a summary of the ingredients of true prayer. It is short as a reminder that what matters in prayer is not talking but meaning, giving your whole self in love to the reality behind the words.
In particular we do not need to begin by flattering God or heaping epithets upon him to show how profound is our theology. One word only, Jesus said, is needful, for our relationship with God should be a larger and deeper version of the ideal relationship to an earthly father, an amalgam of reverence and affectionate trust. So he taught his followers to do as he did, begin with the one word abba, the word used by old and young in Jewish family life to address their father.
We noted that the New Testament gives us two different versions of the Prayer: that in Luke, which is shorter, and mostly closer to what Jesus actually said; and that in Matthew, which has been gently rounded out, probably for congregational use. So it is Matthew who gives us our normal opening, ‘Our Father in heaven’, concerned to balance intimacy with a proper awe, and also perhaps having in mind a saying of Jesus which comes only in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven’.
In the second session we went on to consider the three general petitions which form the first part of the prayer: ‘hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. That again is Matthew’s version: Luke does not have the third clause about God’s will being done. Matthew may have been inspired to add it by Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane: ‘My Father, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but yours be done’. But there is no distortion here, for all three petitions cover much the same ground. ‘Hallowed be your Name’ is asking that the course of this world may be so ordered that all people may reverence God as holy and just and good, not curse him or dismiss him as irrelevant or disbelieve in him altogether.
We saw that the prayers for the hallowing of the Name and for the coming of the Kingdom echo the Jewish prayer, the kaddish, which Jesus knew well; and we went on from there to think a little about an important difference between the Jews of Jesus’s day and ourselves, namely that many of us are much less certain of God’s power or willingness to act in the history of his creation. Led by the Cross, we see God more easily in loving weakness. Jesus and his contemporaries were just as exercised about these things as we are, but they were certain that in the end God could and would act to make creation his perfect kingdom. What they did not think was that this was anything we human beings could do. Like the first creation it would be a divine miracle, a divine surprise. How or when we cannot tell. Our concern is simply to repent, to let God’s Spirit turn our lives around, so that in that day we can be at home in the Kingdom.
This was the background of Jesus’s own preaching. But our final thought was that the first Christians were able to pray this prayer with utter conviction, because the experience of Easter had showed them God’s ultimate power: that God could give us victory over death and transform all life in ways not bound by the laws of space and time, matter and energy. So their Eucharist became a foretaste of the feast in the Kingdom of God, their prayer not just for social and moral improvement but for the perfecting of all existence. And that is what the Prayer, his Prayer, ought still to mean for us.
For, you see, when we move on, as we do today, to the second half of the Prayer, what should hit us between the eyes is that these petitions accept that life in this creation is marred and imperfect, that that is built into the order of things, and that all our efforts are never going to overcome that completely. Evil is very real; and the three requests in this final section are not about eliminating evil and putting everything right, but about how to make the best of life while it is still here and things have not yet been put right. Human life in this world as it is can never be more than a holding operation, a bringing out of evil whatever good can be brought. Our forebears knew very well what scientific progress has made us forget, that we are exiles in a vale of tears and that our job this side of the grave is to suffer for the sake of right and love for as long as it takes before God’s final consummation of all things.
Bearing this in mind, let us now look at the words for today, ‘Give us today our daily bread’. There is a puzzle here in the original Greek which has intrigued scholars for at least 1700 years and it concerns the word translated as ‘daily’. What does it really mean? In all the Greek texts which have come down to us from the ancient world there is only one example of this word apart from those in the Lord’s Prayer and in writers referring to it, and that example doesn’t help!
To go through all the theories and conjectures about this would merely waste your time. All I can do is ask you to take my word for what seems the most likely answer to the problem. This is that the word is one coined by the first Christians on the basis of other more familiar words in Greek, which mean ‘coming’, as in the phrase ‘the coming day’; and that it was an attempt to render an Aramaic word, mahar, which means ‘future’, and which was probably the one in the version of the Prayer used by Aramaic-speaking Christians in those early days.
If this is sound, then a literal rendering of this petition (as found in Matthew) might be: ‘Our food for tomorrow give us today’. Luke would be the same, except that his version ends ‘give us day by day’. This would make sense in the Jewish setting, where each day runs from sunset to sunset. If Thursday were to begin at 5 p.m. this evening, you would need Thursday’s food now. ‘Give us today our food for the coming day’.
But should this not bring us up with a round turn? Who are the people who need to ask God to send them food for the next 24 hours? Not those of us with well-stocked fridge-freezers! No, this petition is strictly for the poor. And, according to Luke, was it not the poor and hungry that Jesus said were ‘blessed’? Had not the apostles left all and followed Jesus? Jesus himself had nowhere to lay his head, and was dependent on charity. And what about the ‘rich young man’ for whom Jesus felt such affection: ‘One thing you lack; go, sell all your possessions and come, follow me’. Is the Lord’s Prayer a prayer which can be truly prayed only by those who are stripped of all attachment to worldly props and securities, for the simple reason that they haven’t got any?
There are, I suggest, two ways of responding to that question, and both are important. The first is to recognise that all prayer, to be authentic, needs to be prayed in utter dependence on God. This is not just a spiritual exercise, an ‘as if’, by which I mean, approaching God ‘as if’ we were totally dependent on him, though (to be honest) we don’t think this is really true. But it is literally true in the most basic sense. We and every other creature, animate or inanimate, are totally and at every moment dependent on God for our very existence, because he is the Ground of our Being, as we were reflecting in the first of these talks on the Prayer. It is wholly reasonable, therefore, indeed the only reasonable attitude, to express that by asking him for the most basic needs of our life; and not seeking a guarantee of these for the indefinite future, but one day at a time.
There is no need to add, I am sure, that the meaning of the word translated ‘bread’ is not restricted to bread as such but covers other food; and in the Prayer it undoubtedly stands for all the things we need to make life possible – but basic things, not needless luxuries. In the passage in the Gospels where Jesus teaches us not to be anxious about tomorrow, he mentions food, drink and clothing as the things our heavenly Father knows that we need. We might add shelter. We have no right to extend the list obscenely to include exotic foods, needlessly multiplied clothes and fashion accessories, hi-tech gadgets, lavish holidays, or £100,000 cars. And as we belong to the 1/10 of the world which uses 9/10 of the world’s energy resources, is not our glib use of the Prayer simply a blasphemy?
For how can we pray the prayer which Jesus specifically intended to be prayable by the poor, if we forget the hundreds of thousands of the poor in this affluent country, and the hundreds of millions of them worldwide, for whom this prayer for 24 hours survival will be the limit of their horizon and a cry not of trust but of desperation? This is part of what I mean by saying that this second half of the Prayer is a recognition that the Kingdom has not yet come, and that our life is still one of battle on behalf of God and his creatures against the all too powerful forces of evil. And part of that battle is, in the memorable words of the Christian Aid slogan, ‘living simply so that others may simply live’. It is giving wisely and till it actually hurts. It is doing what we can to ensure that the eyes and hearts of those who shape policy are never allowed to be closed to the overriding demand of justice for the poorest, for fair terms of trade, for an end to that exploitation of the environment – the basic source of life which God created for us – which threatens the very existence of all creatures, including ourselves. How can we pray to God to give us more when we waste and destroy what he has given us already? I am not thinking of genuine needs or simple pleasures through which love is expressed and all are bound in the bundle of life together. But most of us have some needless self-indulgences, and all of us ought in some degree to impose on ourselves small hardships – our ancestors called it ‘fasting’ – which would give our thoughts and prayers some empathy with the poor; and without denying ourselves the indulgences and lovingly accepting the discipline, I doubt whether we can sincerely pray the Prayer at all.
But there is at least one further, important dimension to this petition for bread. We have noticed the tension in the Prayer between these two elements of the future Kingdom and life as it is, embattled against evil. And this particular clause we have been pondering gives on to both aspects, not just on to the battle. This is why the translation of this petition which I myself prefer goes like this: ‘Give us today the food of the coming day’. That ‘coming day’ may very properly be thought of as the next 24 hours; but ‘the coming day’ may equally justifiably in biblical terms be that day for which all creation longs, the great Day with a capital D, the Day of the Lord.
In the Judaism of Jesus’s own time, and in his own teaching as reported in the Gospels, one of the constant symbols of that day and of the Kingdom is feasting. And if we truly long for the Kingdom to come, our most passionate prayer will be to sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Peter and Paul, James and John, Swithun and Wesley and Elisabeth Fry and Josephine Butler and Mother Teresa and Uncle John XXIII and all, at that table where all will celebrate the end of evil and want and the eternal triumph of justice and love. We shall not be able to pray, ‘Give us today the food of the coming day’ without a yearning thought for that special ‘coming Day’, and a hope ‘to be of that number, when the saints go marching in’. Knowing as we do that the first Christians saw in the Risen Christ the first fruits of the harvest of the dead, and that therefore the general Resurrection was bound to come ‘speedily and soon’, how could they possibly have limited these words to the food needed to sustain life for one more day on earth?
And from this double perspective has come a central and treasured part of Christian faith and life. I mean, of course, the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In those far-off first days of the Church the occasions on which Christians obeyed the Lord’s command to eat and drink in remembrance of him were also ordinary shared meals at which hungry people took their daily food – as, indeed, I am quite sure the Lord always intended. And those Eucharists were quite consciously regarded as foretastes of the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, where the Risen Lord was present, as he would be on that great and unending Day. It was in this belief that St Jerome suggested that perhaps our mystery Greek word should really be translated by the Latin supersubstantialis, ‘supersubstantial’, meaning ‘something more than just the substance of bread’; and that the petition was really to be granted a taste of the Bread of Heaven in the Eucharist.
I do not believe Jerome was right on the question of rendering this particular petition in the Prayer. But I am sure he was on to something very important nevertheless, and something which tragically the Church has lost sight of completely. After all, the whole thrust of our fundamental faith in the Incarnation of God in Jesus is that the ordinary physical realities of flesh and blood can be the medium of our encounters with God. And the same goes for all the ordinary solid realities of life. Water is not just for washing but for cleansing the soul. Food is not just for feeding on the sources of earthly life but on the divine life. In this way the whole of existence is transformed, the frontiers of evil are pushed back, and the world reclaimed for God.
But we have lost the plot. What is the Eucharist now? A ritual in which we take a sip of wine and a tiny morsel or wafer of bread. It is in every way unlike an ordinary meal, and so it does not carry the spirit of fellowship which marks normal eating together. Instead of the meaning coming naturally we have to keep telling ourselves what it is all supposed to be about. The Sacrament needs to come back into the world of daily bread. It needs to be reinstated as simply something that a family or friends do when they eat and drink together, to be a domestic celebration like those of Judaism from which it originally came. Yes, there should be times when the whole congregation meet for the Eucharist, and those will not be exactly like an ordinary meal. But they will feel right because the words of the Prayer, ‘Give us today the bread of the coming day’ will have done what they were always meant to do: reunite the secular and the sacred in our hearts.
We have left ourselves quite a lot to cover in this fourth part, but when Our Lord gave his disciples this pattern prayer I don’t suppose breaking it up into four neat chunks was at the forefront of his thinking.
And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
It used to be ‘trespasses’, didn’t it? – and still is on public and ecumenical occasions. But what does it matter, so long as everyone knows we are talking about wrongdoing? Well, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that.
The basic message here is one that Our Lord repeated again and again in his teaching: you cannot expect God to forgive you, unless you are prepared to forgive others. Which is only fair. Or is it? When I come to God to ask his forgiveness, I am truly penitent, really sorry. But so-and-so isn’t sorry a bit for what he/she did to me. How can I forgive them?
This is a very common difficulty, and the Gospel writers were as aware of it as we are. There is Jesus’s straightforward statement in Matthew: ‘If you forgive people their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive yours. But if you do not forgive other people, nor will your Father forgive your transgressions’. And later in Matthew we have Simon Peter’s question to Jesus, ‘How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ and Jesus’s uncompromising reply, ‘Not seven, seventy times seven!’ But in Luke the same tradition takes a rather different form. Jesus says, ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him; and if seven times in the day he sins against you, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent”, you shall forgive him’.
But these contrasting sayings are, I believe, dealing with different concerns. On the one hand, there is our own inner disposition, the state of our own soul. On the other, there is the question of a broken or damaged relationship with someone else, and the problem of repairing it. As regards the first, Jesus is telling us not to store up resentment, bitterness, anger, hate, a sense of injustice, not to nourish inside our feeling of victimhood, but, however hard and painful it may be, to put these things away, and to love the offender, to wish and pray for their true good. Remember Jesus’s words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, for in that way you will be children of your Father in heaven.’ This can be appallingly difficult – here at home the death of Myra Hindley has reminded us of that, and there are tragic millions all over the world who have dear ones murdered or raped or carried into slavery every day. But even there forgiveness can miraculously flower. We shouldn’t use these extreme cases as a cop-out, but rather as a warning to ourselves not to be obsessed with relatively minor injuries. We must not lug around the baggage of unforgiven hurts – or thought-to-be hurts. Nor must we presume on time to heal us, but must cleanse our souls today. Blessed are those who at death can say, ‘I have nothing to forgive’, not because they have led a charmed life, but because they have long put away all grievance, however justified. When St Vincent de Paul was dying, the priest kept urging him to say that he forgave any (and they were not a few) who had harmed him; but the only words those around the bed could make out were, ‘No one ever...no one ever’. The way to that happy state is day by day to follow Jesus’s words in St Mark: ‘when you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, let it go’.
The other sayings are concerned with mending relationships, and here the situation is different. The offender, Jesus says, has to be made aware of what he/she has done, that someone has been hurt. And unless they acknowledge this, and say ‘Sorry’, and offer reparation and amendment (whether the injured party takes them up on that or not) genuine reconciliation is impossible. But making the offender aware needs to be done in a loving spirit and with openness to their side of the story, and that, I would say, cannot be done unless we have already forgiven them in our heart. Forgiveness cannot take full effect until there is repentance, but it can be there, waiting its chance.
So far we have taken this particular petition in the Prayer in its conventional English wording, but in fact that isn’t quite what the Gospels say. Literally translated Matthew’s version goes: ‘And cancel for us our debts, as we too have cancelled them for our debtors.’ Luke has it slightly differently: ‘And cancel for us our sins, for we too are cancelling [them] for everyone in debt to us’. There is a slight difference of emphasis here: in Matthew we do not come to God in prayer until we have released those who have injured us, whereas in Luke we forgive in our hearts as we stand praying. The old Prayer Book echoes Matthew, when it says that we should come to communion only if we are in love and charity with our neighbours, and authorises the priest to refuse the Sacrament to us if he knows we are not.
But both Matthew and Luke reflect the use in Aramaic of the word hobha, ‘debt’, to refer to sins, so we can fairly assume that this was the word Jesus himself used. There are several words in the New Testament for sin or wrongdoing, all drawing on different images or metaphors. What is the picture here? The basic idea is taken from the law: if someone injures us, they are in debt to us, and we can bring an action in the courts for reparation. If we have injured God, in the sense of frustrating or distorting his good purposes for his world, then he too could legally demand reparation from us. In the Old Testament prophets there are several instances of God pictured as pleading his case against Israel in the court of creation, the heavens and the earth. But what possible reparation can we make? How can we even calculate it? Jesus follows this thought up in his parable of the two servants: the one owed his master 10,000 talents (about 100 million pounds), the other owed his fellow servant 100 denarii (say, a couple of hundred pounds). Well, you know the story: the master is God, we are the servants. What God could justly demand from us is more than we could ever even begin to pay, and infinitely more than we could require from others. Our only hope is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and ask for the debt to be cancelled. But if we do that, then we must cancel what we could justly demand from a fellow sinner.
The debts from which we ask to be released are, as I said, our debts to God; but perhaps we find this a bit exaggerated. After all what have we done to upset God which is so terrible? We don’t know; and it is precisely that which is the measure of our blindness. We are supposed to be citizens of the Kingdom, but we have no idea what that really demands of us. When once in a while we attend to Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, we simply say, ‘But that’s ridiculous, no one could live like that’. Well, there is one law of the Kingdom left to us which we can manage, and which indeed we must, and that is to ask God’s mercy for our failures and to extend that same mercy to others.
We must move on to the last petition, and this really does put the cat among the pious pigeons. Lead us not into temptation. How many sermons down the centuries have squirmed their way through this one! Surely God is not going to submit us to pressure to do wrong? Perhaps it should be, ‘Let us not be led’ or ‘Keep us from giving in to temptation’.
First, the word translated ‘temptation’, peirasmos. Literally it means ‘testing’ – ‘trial’, if you like, as we talk about putting a new car through its ‘trials’. Temptation, in the sense of moral temptation to do something wrong, is of course a trial; but not, all trials are temptations. Temptation works in various ways: perhaps through stress or suffering, mental or physical, which will stop if we give in; or through the prospect of that; or through the promise of some longed for pleasure which it is misery to do without. Temptations to violence, for instance, may offer to gratify our hate or anger or a means to achieve some goal of greed or power or cruelty. Or they may simply suggest a way of escape from intolerable treatment. Trials operate in the same basic way, but there need not be a moral element. The person who drops out of an endurance test, or the soldier with a breakdown from shellshock, or the carer who just can’t manage any more, are not doing anything wrong.
But all trials are testing something. Jesus at the Last Supper says to his friends, ‘You are those who have stayed with me in my trials’. What kind of thing might he have had in mind? Very likely the disbelief of the leaders of his nation; the prejudice that saw in him an agent of the devil; the fact that his own family thought he was mad; the wandering without a home of his own; the plots against his life; the sheer physical hardship and weariness. He must have been tempted many times to doubt, to give up; and when, in the words of the hymn, ‘the last and fiercest strife is nigh’, we know that he did pray for the test to be lifted from him.
It is the Gethsemane story, at least in Luke’s version, which may give us a clue to our clause in the Lord’s Prayer, for there we are told that Jesus twice warned Peter, James and John to ‘stay awake and pray not to come into temptation’ or ‘testing’. This is the phrase in the prayer seen from the other side. The Prayer says, ‘Bring us not into trial or testing’; the disciples are to pray ‘May we not come into trial or test’. The thought behind each is the same. Nothing in the world happens without God’s consent. If severe tests befall us, this may not be something God actively wants, but it may be something he cannot avert, either because of human freedom to do evil or because Nature cannot in this case be overridden. But whatever happens depends ultimately on the sustaining power of the Creator to enable it to happen. So, if we ask not to come to the test, we are in fact asking that within the limits of what is right or possible God will guide us away from severe trials or such trials from us. In this we follow Jesus in Gethsemane, where he prayed, ‘abba, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not my will but thine be done’. If it is not possible or not right, then we must rely on God to support us in the test, and to bring from it some new good.
In the New Testament one trial very much in people’s minds was the persecution which might lead one to deny the faith. In the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower in St Luke’s Gospel the seed fallen on rocky ground is compared to those who ‘for a moment believe’ but then, in time of trial or testing, rebel or defect. So too in the First Letter of Peter persecution is described as a ‘fiery trial or test’. How many Christians in our lifetime have had to endure that test!
Praying this petition ought also to remind us of the folly of over-confidence in spiritual things, of exposing ourselves to situations in which we may easily fall away from what is pure, true, noble and of good report, or simply let everyone down by taking on challenges beyond our strength. There are times when we have to face tests in justified fear and trembling, trusting blindly in God. But we need not seek such tests, and we can rightly ask to be spared them.
In Luke this petition was the end of the Prayer, but Matthew adds one more clause: ‘but rescue us from the Evil One’. The final words may mean either ‘evil’ or ‘the Evil One’, meaning the Devil; we can’t be sure, but I personally think a reference to the Devil is more likely. The Prayer is utterly realistic. It is for use in an imperfect world by imperfect people. Jesus never made everything depend on perfection. The Kingdom of God can be advanced and the Devil’s frontier be driven back by people who don’t ask for security or comfort, and who are prepared to nullify evil and build community through forgiveness. But the going can be rough, and the forces of evil will do all they can to exploit that. So these last two clauses really mean, ‘If it may be, keep us from trials, but if you can’t, then don’t let Satan use them to take us over’.
It is true that a lot of people nowadays find it hard to take the idea of a Devil seriously. In the Church the experience of exorcists suggests that malign, hostile powers do exist; but those most versed in that ministry are the first to warn us not to see devils round every corner. What I would say is this. Ordinary wickedness, however dreadful, is a perversion of good. When people do wrong, they usually try to justify it, to come up with a reason. Cruel, selfish, even loathsome as others may find that, they are not doing wrong for its own sake. There is, to their warped vision, a positive end in view. By contrast, pure evil is wholly negative, destructive. In Faust Mephistopheles says, ‘I am the spirit that denies’. Karl Barth saw evil as ‘anti-being’, the force whose only capability is to pull down the temple of creation on its own head. But because of this it has an inherent drive to reinforce and exploit what is malevolent or destructive in creatures, especially ourselves. Indeed, without creatures to manipulate it would be impotent.
Evil is terrifyingly strong, but it is a force, not a person, for to be a person means to be self-aware, and to have thoughts and loves, however distorted. An excellent article in the Times put it this way: true evil has no connections; it has lost all the links and relationships that give meaning and value to existence. That is why ultimately it remains a mystery to us, and why any attempt to enter into its secret must be fatal. We must leave it to God, and confront it only in the power of Christ.
So the Prayer ends where it must, acknowledging that our tiny lives are lived within the cosmic conflict between life and death, good and evil, and asking God – as Scripture puts it – to help us always to ‘choose life’.
In conclusion, let me try to sum up our pilgrimage through the Prayer in a rendering of it which is somewhere between a translation and a paraphrase, and which I have written as an aid to praying it with at least some deepening of awareness:
may the whole world acclaim your holiness,
in all creation may your kingdom come.
Give us today the bread of the coming day,
and forgive us the debt we owe you through our sins,
as we forgive those in debt to us.
If it may be, keep us from trials,
but always rescue us from the power of evil.
For by your power the kingdom of glory
is and shall be yours,
now in this world and in the world to come.
It takes ten minutes to learn to say the Lord’s Prayer; ten lifetimes to pray it. Bishop John provides an excellent start to that process. You may like to do some further reading. C F Evans, The Lord’s Prayer, SCM 1997 is an excellent small book on the original meaning of the Prayer. T Wright, The Lord and his Prayer, SPCK 1996 talks about its implications now.
This page was originally created for the Kingdom Living web-site, by Graham Guest and Derek Hiscocks. We are grateful for their permission to reproduce it here, as well as to Bishop John Baker, whose material this is, for his continuing permission to publish it.
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