Our Father Who Art In Heaven
Was Jesus teaching us to pray personally to the Father or was there something much more important?
In a western culture that is increasingly secular humanist the words “our father who art in heaven” still ring with familiarity to a majority of people. These words are foundational. They are the beginning of the archetypal prayer for Christianity and as such it is not a surprise that iconoclasts chose to attack the Lord’s Prayer first in the humanist affront on Christianity in the public sphere. While all of this might be interesting it is not my primary point.
I want to talk about the plurality of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is offered in plurality as a prayer of many, a prayer of an assumed community. There is no ambiguity in the original Greek text of Matthew 6 which very clearly has the prayer being offered by many and never by one.
…I can honestly say that it had never occured to me...that this prayer is a communal prayer.
While this may seem obvious to some readers and while many may have had this epiphany long ago and wonder at what all the fuss is here, I can honestly say that it had never occurred to me until last night while I was praying that this prayer is a communal prayer.
Let us look to the context within which we find the prayer in Matthew. The prayer is presented as instruction and part of the Sermon on the Mount. Christ informs those listening to him in Matthew 6:5-8:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus scorns the publicity of prayer designed not so much for the Father as for those in the public square to see and hear the piety and righteousness of the one who prays. Essentially Jesus says that to avoid the temptation of praying for the sake of being heard by the community, go and pray alone in isolation. There is irony here because if there is any time to pray in plural to “our” Father it is when you are in the public square and others are listening. Jesus presents us with a great reversal…he says that when we pray in public we are often in prayer alone for ourselves with selfish motivations (note: public prayer is not inherently wrong…Jesus, as so often happens, is concerned with heart).
After solidly isolating the ostentatious prayer and the one who prays it as alone and outside of community, Jesus then provides the appropriate prayer to be said in isolation and away from the masses in Matthew 6:9-13:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
We immediately notice that this prayer is not “my father, give me today and forgive me my debts as I have forgiven and lead me not into temptation but deliver me…”; the prayer is solidly rooted in community and so therefore the one who prays, while alone, is never alone but has in fact joined themselves through the unity of the Holy Spirit to the community of faith throughout heaven and earth.
… There is no "I" in Jesus there is only "Us".
The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that there is no ‘I’ in Jesus, there is only ‘us’. The modern and post-modern western reader will struggle to accept this because we have lived through an age of “personal salvation” where the emphasis is selfishly on saving ourselves first and foremost. We are told Christ came for me, I, you…than the world. Our age is one of selfishness and self-centredness rooted in the individual ego that thinks first of itself and then, if there is time, of others.
With the Lord’s Prayer, Christ tells us we are never more alone than when we seek to stand before others and declare our righteousness before God through our public piety, and we are never more in community then when we seek our hidden spaces and lift voices up to OUR Father. The prayer becomes a prayer for US and not simply for me. It becomes strong inasmuch as it is one of many threads wound together to form an unbreakable rope lifted to heaven.
In praying the Lord’s Prayer we cannot pray only for ourselves…it is not possible. If we pray only for ourselves we may find it easy to hate others but it is not possible to hate the person you genuinely pray for…and so if we pray as we are instructed, for US, in community, we are making it harder for hostility to develop between ourselves those who are a part of US and OUR. In that sense the prayer reminds us of the those powerful verses in Ephesians 2:13-20 that say:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
More importantly when Christ gives us the Lord’s Prayer he is not saying “here is a prayer you can pray if you don’t know what to say” as if it were one of many. He says in Matthew 6:9 – “This, then, is how you should pray…” The Lord’s Prayer is the model for prayer and that model is solidly rooted in the community of faith. We are reminded through the prayer of Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13 when he says:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
We pray that God would deliver US because none of us is unique in our temptations but all are struggling with the problem of evil in the world. The Lord’s Prayer is a great equalizer because it will not allow any of us to elevate our struggles above our neighbour. It will not allow any of us to elevate our neighbour’s sin above our own. The prayer reminds us that we are all in this together.
Originally posted on Iceberg Tips.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2011 Christianity.ca.