Perhaps the most oft-recited prayer in all of Christendom, the Lord’s Prayer concretizes how the followers of Jesus of Nazareth are to relate to God and to one another in Christian discipleship. The Lord’s Prayer takes pride of place in the Christian’s life. Its words form the beginnings of every Christian child’s faith formation and is often among the first literary pieces committed to memory, long before we even develop the consciousness and maturity to fully grasp the complexity and richness of its meaning. It is recited in private prayer, during the liturgy of the hours and the Mass, and marks many milestones of our public life – from baptisms, to weddings, to funerals. The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps one of Scripture’s most studied texts, yet, despite its ubiquity or possibly because of it, it is also among the least understood and most neglected. Though many pray it every day, we take its words for granted and do not take to heart the profound message of hope and salvation that is present in the text.
In order to remedy the dilution of meaning that comes as a result of our inattentiveness and presumption, a profound reflection on the Lord’s Prayer and its implications for contemporary Christian discipleship can be useful in rediscovering the radicality of its message. In doing so, we can mine its rich spirituality while developing a socially conscious understanding of this text and its import for our world today. This analysis will challenge us to reexamine our assumptions about the nature of Christian discipleship, our understanding of prayer and its implications for social action, and our relationship with God and with our neighbors. This reading of the Lord’s Prayer, will allow us to develop a pedagogy of relationship, reconciliation, and social responsibility and will encourage our active participation in bringing about the Kingdom. By reframing our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer and by analyzing it as a paradigm of biblical spirituality, we will realize that this short text is not merely a beautiful prayer but rather a distillation of the central principles that have long inspired people in search of the Divine.
A Prayer of Relationship
The first element of biblical spirituality that a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer will reveal is the intimate relationship with the Divine that we are called to as beloved children of God. In her Way of Perfection, Teresa of Ávila exhorts her sisters to pay particular attention to the first words of the Lord’s Prayer, which she felt encapsulated all one needs to know about prayer, whether vocal or contemplative (Teresa of Ávila, 1566/1980). For Teresa, the declaration of “Our Father” is a precious gift from God and “a reward so large that it would easily fill the intellect and thus occupy the will in such a way one would be unable to speak a word” (Teresa of Ávila, 1566/1980, p. 137). The Lord’s Prayer can be an entryway into the parts of biblical spirituality in which we rediscover and comprehend our status as beloved children of God. And as the first line reveals, it is a relationship with the Creator that reveals and necessitates a relationship with one another. Our voice in the prayer, written in first-person plural, eschews the solitary and inward-facing “Jesus and me” spirituality in favor of a communal, outward facing spirituality that embraces the other. This is a radical understanding of our relationship with God that brings us to deeper relationship with all of our brother and sisters. It brings us back to the root – the radix – of our life, which is rooted in the love of the Creator of us and everything else in the world. In reciting this prayer, we acknowledge and bring before God, our Father, all of our brothers and sisters without exception or division. When we pray for our daily bread, it is not only for my daily bread or for my family’s daily bread, but rather for all of our daily bread so that no one may go hungry or be victims of the injustice and oppression which characterize our world today. When we ask for the forgiveness of our sins, it is not only my sins to be forgiven, but also those who may not be aware of their sins. We bring before God all of those who pray and those who don’t pray, those who believe and those who don’t believe. We trust that God’s mercy and loving affection knows no bounds.
These concepts – of our relationship with God as children to their parent and our relationship with one another as brothers and sisters – have their origins in Hebrew Scriptures, for example in Exodus 4:22, where God calls Israel “my son, my firstborn,” and Isaiah 64:7, where God is compared to a father and a potter while we are called the work of his hands. This realization can help tie our present condition within the long arc of salvation history, imbuing it with the richness of the story of the Jewish people and the discovery of the Divine in their lives. However, within the Christian context, the Lord’s Prayer moves beyond the allegorical and enters into the intimate realm of enfleshed, familial relationships. The birth of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the Word, reveals this. The word used to describe God in the Lord’s Prayer is the Aramaic “abba”, a term of endearment usually used within the context of family. For Jesus, our relationship with the Divine is similar to the intimate, loving, and individual relationship between a child and his or her father (McNicol, 2004). This understanding was viewed with great significance by the early Church, who retained the use of “abba” to signify “the spirit of adoption” that has been won for the followers of Christ (Romans 8:15; McNicol, 2004). We can see that the Lord’s Prayer provides us with an image of God that underscores the centrality of familial relationships in biblical spirituality. Furthermore, the familial relationship we have with the Divine is shared with one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
A Prayer of Reconciliation
The understanding of our intimate relationship that results from our shared status as children of God can bring us to the second element of biblical spirituality that the Lord’s Prayer can elucidate for us: reconciliation. An analysis of the call for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer can foster a discussion and reflection on the role reconciliation has played throughout Scripture and its implications in our increasingly violent and polemic world. While our current liturgical usage of this prayer employs words that connote the pardon of sins as both the object and verb (“forgive us our trespasses”), Matthew and Luke offer different translations that can be interpreted in a variety of ways and which can enrich our reflection and offer contemporary audiences a revitalized praxis. Both the Matthean and Lucan versions use the Greek word for “forgive” (Gavin, 2013), but use different words to describe the object of forgiveness. In Luke’s version of the prayer, the evangelist uses the word tas hamartias, or “sins”. Matthew on the other hand uses a word with decidedly more economic connotations: ta opheilemata, which can be translated as “debt” or “sins” (Ringe, 1985, p. 77). Our understanding of this passage as relating strictly to the forgiveness of sins is further complicated by the double-entendre used by Luke in the second part of the petition: “for we ourselves also forgave each one who is in debt to us” (Gavin, 2013, p. 127). While the early audiences of the Lord’s Prayer may have understood this passage’s significance as the forgiveness of sins, transgressions, or debts (Ringe, 1985), a review of the original texts will render its financial and ethical overtones hard to ignore for contemporary audiences, especially given the political and economic message that pervades Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. Regardless of the original intentions of the authors and the understanding of their original audiences, a reflection on this petition as forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of debts can have a tremendous impact on our understanding of reconciliation and restoration as key themes of biblical spirituality.
Our study of the Lord’s Prayer can then allow us to examine the themes of reconciliation and restoration that run throughout the rest of Scripture. The Lord’s Prayer petitions God for the forgiveness of our sins; however, unlike the stipulations for pardon, purity, and restitution outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Leviticus 4-6 or Numbers 14, 15:22-31 and others, the forgiveness of our sins can now be seen in relationship to our act of forgiveness of the sins of others. In fact, Matthew places God’s forgiveness of sins after and dependent on the act of one’s forgiveness of others: “And forgive us our debts, as we too forgave (have forgiven) our debtors” (Gavin, 2013, p. 127). This is a radical reimagining of the economy of salvation because it places the responsibility of forgiveness first on the part of the sinner. It is only after the active initiative of the sinner that God then extends the Divine mercy. The Lord’s Prayer calls the sinner as a co- or even primary determinant of their own forgiveness enacted through mercy and compassion for others.
From an economic perspective, the forgiveness of debts and the liberation from fiscal and political oppression petitioned in the Lord’s Prayer recalls the promise of salvation present in Isaiah 61. This passage, quoted by Jesus of Nazareth in Luke 4:18-19, proclaims the good news of God’s Kingdom and the liberation and restitution assured to the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners. This places the Lord’s Prayer within the context of the biblical Jubilee, wherein the Kingdom called forth in the Gospel text, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) recalls the “year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Although the petition for daily bread present in both the Matthean and Lucan versions of the prayer do not have any direct parallels with the passage from Isaiah, the sustenance and provenance of God is in keeping with the larger tradition of Jubilee as understood as part of the reign of God and the proclamation of “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; Leviticus 25; Ringe, 1985). Thus, we can reframe our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer as “prayer for God’s reign [that] includes a petition for an ‘economy’ characterized by forgiveness, and a statement of one’s determination to participate in that economy as one who is both forgiver and forgiven” (Ringe, 1985, p. 79).
For contemporary audiences, a reading of the Lord’s Prayer that is rooted in the Jewish Jubilee tradition may prove to be unpalatable, especially for those whose privilege and wealth renders them susceptible to social, political, or economic ramifications. According to Ringe, the people who would “lose out” on the restitution of justice and the proclamation of the good news are those who have profiteered from the “patterns of indebtedness that characterize business as usual” (1985, p. 79); in other words, those who presently enjoy benefits from the status quo, from the inequity that characterizes the current state of the world, and the systems of injustice that oppress the poor and the marginalized. This realization is echoed in the many passages of economic and political reversals that promise restoration for the poor throughout Scripture, such as Luke 1:51-53 and 1 Samuel 2:4-9. Our role then, as spiritual and pastoral caregivers, will require us to contextualize the debt-forgiveness called for by the Lord’s Prayer within the broader vision of the Kingdom of God. The restoration that is manifested in the forgiveness of debts is not a repudiation of the rich or punishment of those who presently occupy positions of power and prestige. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the wealth enjoyed by the materially rich and the politically powerful have come at the expense of the poor and the oppressed. Thus debt forgiveness will purchase for all the prize of reconciliation. In doing so, the forgiveness of debt petitioned by the Lord’s Prayer promises the renewal of our humanity – poor and rich, weak and powerful, oppressed and oppressor – and the reclamation of our status as beloved children of God.
A Prayer of Social Responsibility
The third concept that can result from our reflection on the Lord’s Prayer as a paradigm of biblical spirituality is social responsibility. If the prayer reveals our relationship with the Divine (our status as beloved children of God) and the effects that the in-breaking of the Kingdom can have “on earth as it is in heaven” (restitution, reconciliation, and restoration), then our awareness of these gifts will necessitate a particular response from us as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. A profound reflection on the Lord’s Prayer will reveal the central role of community and social responsibility that is woven through the history of the Jewish people and the new vision of society that is proposed in the Christian movement.
We can recover the radical implications of the Lord’s Prayer in our daily lives, that the Lord’s Prayer “is revolutionary, because it presumes and proclaims the radical vision of justice that is the core of Israel’s biblical tradition” (2014, p. 29). For instance, the petition for daily bread allows us to form a relational, rather than unilateral, understanding of the activity of God in our lives (Brown, 2000). If the image of God as “our Father” can shape our understanding of how we are to relate to the Divine as well as to our brothers and sisters, with whom become one body, one flesh through our adoption in Christ. The communal voice of the prayer and it’s use of “our” and “us” underscores the Christian commitment to community, wherein we “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). When viewed in the context of the Sermon on the Mount and the eight paradoxical blessings found in Matthew’s Gospel (of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake), a discussion of our daily bread can be used to help reveal the disparity between our own comforts and excesses and the deprivation experienced by so many of our brothers and sisters, especially the poor, the oppressed, the alien, and the other.
We can reflect on following questions:
- What does it mean for us to petition God for daily bread when our own daily needs are met?
- What does it mean when so many others do not receive their daily bread?
- How often to do we think of others when we pray for our daily bread?
- What can we do to provide for others’ daily bread?
The concrete, material aspects of our daily bread and the acknowledgement of inequity and offenses that presently characterize human relationships underscore the concepts of justice and social responsibility that run throughout Scripture. “The Lord’s Prayer confronts us with the image of a family… If all who recite the Lord’s Prayer were to grasp this truth, how would they live with a globalization that strips one member of the family naked so that another might be overdressed?” (Dube Shomanah, 1997, p. 444) In addition to harkening back to the tradition of Jubilee and the interconnectedness of the human family, the petition for daily bread then is an explicit acknowledgement that justice and sustenance, especially of the poor, is in keeping with God’s will and that the present state of the world falls short of that vision. Thus, through the lens of social action and social justice, we can recognize that the Lord’s Prayer brings us to a realization of the plight of our brothers and sisters who, because of systemic injustice and inequity, go without their daily bread. It is a call for repentance for our trespasses and our complicity in the systems of injustice that oppress them and challenges us to action in order to assist in their deliverance from evil.
By focusing on the Lord’s Prayer as the pedagogical tool that it is, we will be able to recover some of the radicality that often gets lost when the prayer is removed from its literary, historical context and enshrined in a liturgical ivory tower. A profound reflection on the Lord’s Prayer can reveal its relationship to the broader canon of sacred Scripture and to the long history of the people of God while allowing us to reframe its content, which is often diluted by an uncritical, sentimental piety. By analyzing the Lord’s Prayer as an example of first century Jewish prayer and poetry, we can connect it to the prophetic literature of Hebrew Scriptures, which promise deliverance from evil and restitution of our status as children of God. By reflecting on it as a Christian text, we can better understand our vocation as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth and the responsibilities we have as heralds of the Good News. This will have tremendous implications for our daily lives, wherein we can discover our call to become agents of social change and transformation. We will no longer be passive, inattentive receptors of the Divine, but rather the active collaborators and co-creators of the Kingdom of God that Christian discipleship calls us to be.
Brown, M. J. (2000). ‘Panem Nostrum: The Problem of Petition and the Lord’s Prayer. Journal Of Religion, 80(4), 595-614. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=3769560&site=eds-live&scope=site
Brown, M. J. (2014). The Lure of a Proposition: The Erotic Nature of the Lord’s Prayer as a Contradiction to Coercive Power. Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible & Theology, 68(1), 28-38. doi:10.1177/0020964313508912
Brown, R. E. (1997). An introduction to the New Testament. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Dube Shomanah, M. (1997). Praying the Lord’s Prayer in a global economic era. The Ecumenical Review, (4), 439-446. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.20150885&site=eds-live&scope=site
Dugdale, K. (2012). Understanding the Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm for Prayer. Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal Of Christian Thought & Practice, 19(3), 30-37. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=84012519&site=eds-live&scope=site
Gavin, J. (2013). Becoming an Exemplar for God: Three Early Interpretations of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer. Logos: A Journal Of Catholic Thought And Culture, (3), 126-146. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edspmu&AN=edspmu.S1533791X13300066&site=eds-live&scope=site
Koopman, N. (2007). The Lord’s Prayer: An agenda for Christian living. Journal of Reformed Theology, 1(1), 4-5. doi: 10.1163/156973107X182604
Martin, M. W. (2015). The Poetry of the Lord’s Prayer: A Study in Poetic Device. Journal Of Biblical Literature, 134(2), 347-372. doi:10.15699/jbl.1342.2015.2804
McNicol, A. J. (2004). The Lord’s Prayer. Christian Studies Journal, 205, 5-21. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=16861332&site=eds-live&scope=site
Ringe, S. H. (1985). Jesus, liberation, and the biblical jubilee: Images for ethics and Christology. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Teresa of Ávila (1980). The way of perfection (K. Kavanaugh, OCD & O. Rodriqguez, OCD, Trans.). Washington, DC: ICS Publications. (Original work published 1566).