The Lord's Prayer

Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,
    Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
    On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
    As we forgive our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
    But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Matthew 6:9-13

The Lord's Prayer is perhaps the most commonly used prayer in all of Christianity. It is a staple of church service, and many attach it to their own personal prayers.

Yet how many of us, outside of a church confirmation class, contemplate both the message and the meaning of the Lord's Prayer? Who among us considers its structure, and what teachings it holds for everyone?

Upon close inspection, we see that the Lord's Prayer is quite a bit more than something merely to be recited verbatim. It is a powerful summation of Jesus' essential teachings. It is in every respect the essence of Christian faith.

Prayer Is Serious

In the opening verses of Matthew 6, Jesus counsels His disciples to be deliberate and careful in prayer.

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

"Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

Piety and prayer are to be done humbly, not proudly. Prayer is not a show, it is not performance art, but a personal communion with God. Prayer turns our attentions inside ourselves, not to the outside world--indeed, Jesus tells us to shut out the outside world when we pray ("shut the door") and focus entirely on God's presence within us.

Moreover, prayer is not about making specific supplications to the Lord. God already knows our needs, and has already decided how He will meet our needs. God knows our needs before we know our needs.

Prayer is thus not ritualistic, but contemplative. Prayer is not about our words, but rather our thoughts and our feelings.

Prayer may fairly be considered a form of meditation; it is in our moments of prayer that we reflect upon and consider our "needs", hopefully gaining greater insight into what is truly needed and what is merely desired (for the two are rarely the same).

Upon this teaching, Jesus instructed His disciples on the method of reflection that is best for us to use--the Lord's Prayer.

When we pray the Lord's Prayer--or any prayer--it is therefore imperative we give every word in every line our fullest attention. We must let each word and each line turn our attention towards God. 

When we pray the Lord's Prayer in this manner, we find a distinct structure and organizational logic arises, with each line serving a distinct purpose within the overall objective of achieving greater communion with God:

Our Father who art in heaven,
    Hallowed be thy name.

The Lord's Prayer begins with a simple call to worship. We call out to God The Father, seeking Him and His Kingdom, which is Heaven. We remind ourselves that God is the essence of holiness, the source of all that is good and righteous. We remind ourselves also that we are making supplication to God, who is infinitely greater than we can possibly imagine. We remind ourselves of the awe and reverence that are essential to any contemplation of the Almighty.

When we pray, we are reaching out to God, our Almighty Father, the center of our universe, the essence of all holiness.

Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
    On earth as it is in heaven.

In all that we do, we are called to serve God. The good path for any man's life necessarily entails seeking out and doing God's will, not merely our own. All that God has wrought in Heaven we should seek to see accomplished here on earth.

In all things, God is in charge, not us. All that takes place in the world, all that happens in our daily lives, comes from God. Whether we are afflicted or comforted serves His purposes and none other. The works of our hearts and our minds pale into insignificance against His might--it is a foolish man indeed who claims his good fortune to be anything but a blessing from God.

When we pray, we remind ourselves of this basic reality, and that we do best when we focus on God's will and not our own.

Give us this day our daily bread;

All things come from God. The roof over our head, the clothes we wear, the food we eat are all blessings of the Lord. Just as God fed the Israelites with manna every morning, and quails every evening, after the Exodus from Egypt, so too does God feed us now, today and every day. God feeds us, clothes, shelters us, cares for us.

God may not shower us with riches, but He will provide all that we need for today.

When we pray, remembering this daily demonstration of God's love for us reminds us that God is constant, and constantly where we need Him to be--even if we ourselves are not where we need to be.

And forgive us our debts,
    As we forgive our debtors;

Every man needs forgiveness; every man falls short of spiritual perfection. We are human; we are flawed and imperfect beings. We make mistakes; we sin. This is the essence of human nature.

Fundamental to God's Word is that we are forgiven. So long as we turn away from sin and turn our attention towards God, He will receive us and wash away the stain of our sins. This promise is repeated throughout the Bible, as when God visits Solomon after the consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 7:13-14):

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Yet to be forgiven, we must also forgive. When we sin, we hurt not just ourselves, but those around us. In like manner, we are harmed by the sins of others. Therefore, to receive God's forgiveness for our sins, it is imperative we forgive those around us for their sins, as Jesus drives home emphatically in Matthew 18:23-35:

"Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents;and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii;and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers,till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."

Forgiveness must flow in both directions or not at all; if we are to be forgiven, we must likewise forgive.

When we pray, we both seek and offer forgiveness, as we are called to do.

And lead us not into temptation,
    But deliver us from evil.

As we all desire good things in our lives and good consequences, it follows that we desire to make good choices. Whether we choose to go to the right or the left, we want the path to be a good one. For this, we are dependent on God's guidance, as we are reminded in Isaiah 48:17:

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go.

As God is the author of the world, only He can show which route will send us into temptation and sin, and which route will lead us away from such evil.

When we pray, we are asking above all for God to guide us, and to show us which choices are the good choices to make.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever. Amen. 

No matter how one prays, prayer must be brought to an end. We close out prayer by circling back to the beginning, where we acknowledge God's supreme power and majesty. Such closure has long been considered an essential element of good communications in all formats and venues--and we do well to remember that prayer is communication with God.

It is worth noting that many modern translations of the Bible omit this line from the Lord's Prayer. I choose to retain it--it is how I first learned the Lord's Prayer, and it is my belief that such a closure is simply good form.

We began the prayer with God the Father, author of all the universe, and thus we close the prayer with God, author of all the universe.

Not Empty Phrases

It bears repeating that prayer is never to be "empty phrases". As Jesus pointed out, anyone can utter flowery phrases. Faith is not required for empty, flowery, phrases; faith is required for the prayerful mindset, and it is that prayerful mindset which Jesus counsels us to adopt.

Yet while the Lord's Prayer is a heartfelt practice of faith, it is also a sublime reiteration of what we choose to believe. We are reminded to put God first and foremost, to trust in His mercy every day, to love our neighbors--and forgive our neighbors--even as we love ourselves and seek forgiveness for ourselves, and to seek God's guidance in all that we do. In simple, straightforward, unadorned terms, all these principles--each of which Jesus taught throughout His ministry on Earth--are presented in the Lord's Prayer.

The Lord's Prayer is thus not just a prayer, but a succinct restatement of the two Great Commandments taught by Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

Reciting the Lord's Prayer is both the opportunity to deepen one's faith, and to further reflect on the particulars of that faith. Reciting the Lord's Prayer reinforces in our minds the love and the forgiveness that are the core of Jesus' message throughout the Gospels. 

If any one snippet of verse can be said to encapsulate all that it means to be a follower of Jesus, that snippet of verse would be the Lord's Prayer.

More Than Words

By teaching His disciples the Lord's Prayer, Jesus raised prayer from a mere mouthing of ritualistic words and phrases into a deeper spiritual communion with God. In the Lord's Prayer, He taught his disciples not just how to pray a single prayer, but how to approach all prayer. The Lord's Prayer gives us guidance for all the other prayers we might be motivated to make in response to the various triumphs and tribulations we encounter throughout our lives. Through the Lord's Prayer, Jesus shows that prayer--like all communications--is more than words. Prayer is thoughts and feelings. Just as our daily communications are at the strongest and most persuasive when we speak honestly and from the heart, so too is our prayer.

By teaching His disciples the Lord's Prayer, Jesus also gave them a tool to carry within them His most essential teachings. Without fanfare, He gave them in a few lines of prayer the core of what it is to follow Him. This teaching, like all His teachings, was Jesus' gift to His disciples, and to all the world.

It truly is the Lord's Prayer.

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