A Template Prayer

The last phrase of the Lord’s prayer, as most of us repeat it, doesn’t exist– at least in the earliest manuscripts of Matthew.  It’s a doxology that has been added and similar to the way we traditionally use debts or trespasses we tend to include it. It reminds me that some insignificant scribe at a desk in a medevil library got carried away with his devotion to God when he added that line. It’s a shout out of God’s greatness.  Maybe we need to take a page from the copyist and proclaim for our selves For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen” 

9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I launched this short series with the July Newsletter. It’s a discussion about the first 8 verses of this 6th Chapter of Matthew.  This next section that I’ve worked on for today is much better known. Our Catholic friends call it the Our Father, most Protestants refer to it as The Lord’s Prayer.  I see it as a template prayer provided by Jesus for his followers. After expressing a preference for praying privately and the value of brevity in the first verses of the chapter Jesus reminds his followers of a truly wonderful notion — that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” You might conclude from that that praying really isn’t necessary. But were that the case Jesus wouldn’t have shared this template for prayer. “Pray…this way:” is what he said.

Before we wade into the meat of the prayer there are a couple of things that could become distractions that we need to deal with first. There are words at the conclusion of the prayer which we don’t include when we recite the prayer as a group. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. It’s a note of clarification about the reason for forgiving others where they have violated our boundaries. It’s fair warning that forgiveness of others is a big thing. And then you might wonder what happened to the part of the prayer that we often recite that goes: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, Amen.”  Well there’s an argument about whether those words are part of the original text or was added by a highly motivated and enthusiastic copyists. We’ll touch on it again.

Jesus begins by telling us that we should address our prayer: “Our Father”. Jesus includes us as siblings in his own family of origin. When you pray “Our Father” you might want to realize just how all inclusive is that phrase. Jesus includes  you and you, by saying “Our” not only include yourself but every other human soul who joins in such a prayer. A literal translation of the Greek text reads “You, Father of us…” I know I often begin a public prayer addressing God as “Loving God”. Seeing the words of Matthew 6 in this way might cause me to change my ways. And, by the way, the translation of the text is usually translated in a why that places God in a very remote other place, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” That clearer comes from a flat earth perspective which since John Glenn even the most literal minded has had to admit no longer works. I prefer a simpler, more literal, translation that instead of some special place ‘up there’ sees heaven as all that the sky covers. So “Let your name be hallowed in all creation.”

Former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams says that when people grasp God’s name as holy, as something that inspires awe and reverence, they no longer trivialize it by making God a tool for their purposes, to “put other people down, or as a sort of magic to make themselves feel safe”. He says: “Understand what you’re talking about when you’re talking about God, this is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, more wonderful and frightening than we can imagine.”

Then we are to petition God that “Thy kingdom come.” This petition has its parallel in the Jewish prayer, ‘May he establish his Kingdom during your life and during your days.’ The request for God’s kingdom to come is commonly interpreted at the most literal level as a reference to the belief that a Messiah figure would bring about a kingdom of God. Jesus spoke frequently of God’s kingdom evidently assuming that this was a concept so familiar that it didn’t require definition. This petition looks to the perfect establishment of God’s rule in the world, an act of God resulting in the restoration of creation as God intended. When we pray such a petition the issue at hand isn’t simply waiting on the striking of midnight when all our carriages become pumkins and our horses become rats in an end of time scenario nor is it waiting on God to act.  It is an expression of our willingness to be used of God, asking God to act through us.

And the next line gets to it directly “Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.” John Ortberg says of this phrase: “Many people think our job is to get my afterlife destination taken care of, then tread water till we all get ejected and God comes back and torches this place. But Jesus never told anybody—neither his disciples nor us—to pray, ‘Get me out of here so I can go up there.’ The request that “thy will be done on earth” is an invitation for us to join God the work of restoring creation.

God,  “Give us this day our daily bread.” As you might expect this isn’t as straight forward as it sounds. The Greek word ἐπι-ούσιος which has been commonly translated as ‘daily’ only occurs in Luke and Matthew’s versions of the Lord’s Prayer, and nowhere else in any other extant Greek texts in all of ancient Greek literature.  A literal interpretation of this unique word is ‘super-essential’. We are praying for what we can’t live without. It signifies what is necessary for life, and  every good thing sufficient for subsistence. We sing “break thou the Bread of Life, Lord unto me. In John 6:48 ff Jesus tells those gathered around him “I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And Jesus made certain that the connection back to the manna in the wilderness not be missed. Recall that in the Exodus story it was all about the children of Israel learning to trust God. They were instructed not to store manna, except before the Sabbath. That every day God would provide just enough for that day. It runs so counter to our way of wanting to store thing away for the proverbial rainy day. But to do so is to question God’s promise, God’s provision. So the daily bread is what we need to survive and it comes daily – when we ask.

John Wycliffe, in 1395, produced the first English translation of the Bible. He translated the Greek word oph-ei-letais as dettis. As a result those of the Reformed Tradition; Presbyterians, Congregationalist, tend to say “debts” when they say the Lord’s prayer.  William Tyndale in his 1526 translation chose the word treaspases. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists and Quakers, for that matter, tend follow Tyndale and employ use the word “trespasses” when they repeat from memory the phrase which in print goes: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. It’s interesting when people gather for a graveside service and the Lord’s Prayer is used. I guess it could be seen as a form of speaking in tongues. The text speaks of being owed and owers – which sounds more like debts. However trespasses has a much broader application. So on the heels of asking for what we need to survive Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer continues with a petition for debts to be forgiven in the same way as people have forgiven those who have debts against them. You recall that Luke’s version speaks of sins rather than debts. Asking for forgiveness from God was a staple of Jewish prayers. Whether debts or sins, the reference is to failures to use opportunities for doing good. You might remember that in the parable of the sheep and the goats the grounds for condemnation are not wrongdoing in the ordinary sense but failure to do right, missing opportunities for showing love to others. But again we can easily miss the main thrust of this petition. The verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer show Jesus teaching his followers that the forgiveness of our sin/debt (by God) is contingent on how we forgive others.

In James chapter 1 we read “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” So, what’s going on here when we are told to pray: “And lead us not into temptation.” One plausible way to see this petition is noting that it follows the request for daily bread. The Temptation is to get caught up in the pursuit of things material.

But deliver us from evil” There is a lot of controversy over what this means. Some speak of evil in general or referring to the evil one, a personal devil. In no known Aramaic source is the devil referred to as “The evil one.” A literal view of the Greek text suggests a phrase closer to “rescue us from the wicked.” Instead of generalizing or personalizing evil, simply acknowledging that wickedness exists makes a great deal of sense. The recent suicide bombings at Ataturk Airport and the mass murder in Orlando or Afganistan are stark reminders that it is from the actions of the wicked that we pray for rescue.

There is a well known Quaker story of a young man who picks up a rock and throws it at a bird and actually kills the bird. He discovers that it was a mother bird with a nest of baby birds. He wrestles with what to do and ultimately kills the hatchlings, sparing them from starving to death. Later he quotes Proverbs 12:10 making the pronouncement that the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. It brings the words of the template prayer into rather clear relief.

The last phrase of the Lord’s prayer, as most of us repeat it, doesn’t exist– at least in the earliest manuscripts of Matthew.  It’s a doxology that has been added and similar to the way we traditionally use debts or trespasses we tend to include it. It reminds me that some insignificant scribe at a desk in a medevil library got carried away with his devotion to God when he added that line. It’s a shout out of God’s greatness.  Maybe we need to take a page from the copyist and proclaim for our selves For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen”

 

 

 

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