And when you pray do not be like the play-actors, for they love to pray standing up in synagogues or town-square corners to be seen by people. Amen I tell you, they have received their wage. But when you pray, go into your storeroom, shut the door, and pray to your father in the secret place; and your father who sees in the secret place will pay you back. And if you are praying, don’t go mumbling on like the Gentiles who think they will be heard for the quantity of their words. Don’t be like them, for your father in heaven knows what you need before you ask him; so pray like this:
Our Father in Heaven
May your name be held in holiness;
May your Rule arrive;
May your will be done,
On the earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today the bread that we need
And release us from our debts
As we also have released our debtors.
And do not bring us into tough testing
But rescue us from the Evil One.
(For if forgive people their faults, your father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive people, neither will your father in heaven forgive your faults.)
This famous passage is much ignored by churches. In many assemblies and particularly at so-called prayer meetings, people are encouraged to play -act, in degrees of fervour and pious eloquence. Jesus was concerned that there should be no competition nor demonstration of spiritual accomplishment. After all, the father already knows the need of the children. Nor can prayer be any kind of pressure on God; Simultaneous prayer by millions of people is utterly without effect for God cannot be badgered into action. In the face of Jesus’ teaching the practice and theology of prayer needs change.
The person who prays in secret is met by the God who sees in secret. This trust is the invisible heart of faith where both partners enjoy in advance the full arrival of the Rule of God, when they will be able to talk face to face. Even now this can happen, but only in secret. It fuels the joint commitment of both God and his children to God’s Rule on the earth.
The prayer that follows is a model, although it was doubtless, even in Matthew’s time, used in communal and personal prayer, as precious quotation of Jesus’ own words. There is of course no proof that these are indeed the words of Jesus, and it is sufficiently similar to some synagogue prayers for some to argue that it is a Christian synagogue prayer. But its cohesion and concision, along with its emphasis on the simplicities of God’s rule, make it at least possible that it comes from Jesus; in my judgement, probable.
The prayer has two requests for God’s welfare, and four for the welfare of human beings.
Our father in heaven:
Jesus seems to have addressed God with the Aramaic word Abba, which is an affectionate term for father.Is there a distinction between the simple ‘father’ and the inclusive ‘our father?’ Paul in his letters uses both although he emphasises that God is the father of our Lord Jesus Messiah. He also uses the Aramaic word itself, which may be an indication that it was understood and used as Jesus’ own address to God. Matthew may have understood the ‘our’ as indicating the shared relationship of the believing community to God; but as the community is open to all, so is the word ‘our’, which is therefore offered to all people. God is not just my father, nor father only of believers, but the creator/ father of all, who hopes to be trusted by all his children,
Christian scholars have tended to emphasise the intimacy of the father/ child relationship, but the word father also recognises difference and distance. The child is here on earth and the father is ‘in heaven’, the latter not being a place but the dimension of the universe in which God’s will is perfectly done. When Jesus in Gethsemane appeals to his father, he is speaking from a place where the doing of God’s will depends on his obedience.
The content of the name ‘father’ is left undefined. Could it just as easily be ‘mother’? My answer is negative, as regards this prayer. Father and Mother are different people with different qualities and Jesus used ‘father’ because of the patriarchal tradition of his people, which gave the word an edge of authority. Should we, out of our contemporary culture, in our own prayers, call God ‘mother’? Yes, certainly, because it adds to and balances the word ‘father’. Jesus’ father is the creator God whose mysterious impartiality sends rain on the just and the unjust, but who is also concerned for the fall of a sparrow. To call God, Mother, would add an element of passionate engagement with labour and birthing, as well as a fierce protectiveness of her children.
May your name be held in holiness:
For Jewish people, including Jesus, the name of God, Yahweh, was too holy to be spoken. Where it occurred in the scripture the vowels of the word Adonai, Lord, were added to the original consonants, to remind readers that they should say, The Lord. Probably this rule was strictly kept by all. But references to God were used in swearing, in casual curses, in false piety, – indeed in all the ways that the name of God is abused today. Jesus was especially angered by use of God’s name to condemn sinners and certain social groups. As the name indicates character, God’s name should cherished in ‘holiness’ which is another way of referring to God’s character of goodness, justice, compassion, faithfulness and wisdom.
The rabbinical story of Simeón Ben Shetach is relevant. His disciples bought him a donkey to help with his teaching journeys. When they combed it, prior to presenting it to him, an expensive jewel fell from its mane, doubtless left from some expensive package it had been carrying. They were delighted to be able to give this bounty also to their master. But he refused the jewel and told them to give it back to the donkey’s former owner. When they did so, the man was astonished and shouted, “Blessed be the God of Simeón Ben Shetach!”
The rabbis called this ‘Kiddush Hashem’ , that is, hallowing the name (of God). Jesus hoped that people would see the good actions of his disciples, and glorify the father in heaven.
The shouting of ‘Alahu Akbar’ (God is great) when blowing people up, is a way of dishonouring the name.
May your Rule arrive
The rule or reign of God is an expression derived from the existence of kings in the ancient Near East. They had absolute power, and there was an expectation they would use it to establish justice in their territory. The Rule of God is implicit in the account in Genesis 1, where God makes human beings in his likeness and instructs them to rule the earth, just as Kings had statues made in their image to advertise their rule throughout their kingdom. The story of David and the kings of Israel is told by writers who believed the king was charged with making real the Rule of God in Israel, and could be criticised if he didn’t. The prophets announced to kings and people the demands of God’s Rule, but later came to speak of that Rule in the future tense, as a promise and a threat, as God’s assertion of his right in the ‘age to come’
There are endless variations in the use of God’s Rule, not least by Jesus, who announced that it was imminent, arriving in his ministry. He accepted that it would come by persuasion rather than force. The followers of Jesus took up the request for the arrival of God’s Rule, acknowledging that it had not fully arrived in Jesus’ ministry, while hoping that it might in their lifetime. We use it today in the faith that God is working to perfect creation, by his persuasive love which asks for our cooperation in his task.
May your will be done
On the earth as it is in heaven
It has always seems to me that this is not really a separate request, but rather an explanation of the previous one. Doubtless there were people even in Jesus’ audience, but more in the assembly for which Matthew was writing, who didn’t know the Hebrew Scriptures, and therefore needed an explanation of what was meant by God’s Rule. This is provided here, either by Jesus, or more likely by Matthew. Heaven is the dimension of the universe in which God’s will is always done.
Give us today the bread that we need
The Greek which I have translated ‘that we need’ is epiousios, which only occurs here in written sources. It could mean, ‘for tomorrow’, ‘for each day’, even the KJV’s ‘daily.’ The are arguments for all of these, but I think my version is the best.
The bread is shared bread; it is ours, meaning humanity. And although it means ‘food’ it is bread for which we pray rather than pâté de fois gras. We are praying food for all humanity. We may think that we earn it, grow it, manufacture it, but this prayer reminds us that in truth we are all given it. As Paul asks, what do we have that we are not given? Many churches now have a food ministry of some sort, providing nourishment for people who can no longer afford to buy it. This is a blessing to all, givers and receivers.
Release us from our debts,
As we also have released our debtors
Release from debts is part of Jesus’ teaching; he tells the parable of the slave whose master releases him from a debt but who then takes one of his own debtors to court. Of course the language of debt is a metaphor for any sort of debt, but it is also a stubborn material reality, especially in a society in which unpayable debt might mean being reduced to slavery. Luke tells us that Jesus used the biblical Jubilee Law, one aspect of which was release from debt; and describes in The Acts the first believing community as committed to economic as well as spiritual commonality.
This suggests that Jesus’ prayer may be more materialist than the church has traditionally interpreted it. Of course it points to forgiveness of wrongs, but at root asks for a shared generosity in which God and his children imitate each other by release of debtors. Actual debt as well as wrongs done will be cancelled and God is asked to show such great generosity towards his children. Thomas Merton, monk and theologian, called this “living in a climate of grace.” It is a miracle, the transformation of human life, indicated in this prayer by so brief a phrase.
And do not bring us into tough testing
The translation ‘into temptation’ may have been good in Elizabethan English when the word still retained connotations of ‘testing’ but is wrong now when the word suggests invitations to sin. The Greek is ‘peirasmos’ which can mean, ‘test, ordeal, stress.’ Some of the first Christians believed in a coming ordeal before the arrival of God’s Rule. If Jesus shared that belief, this will be a prayer to be spared the worst of that event. I think it’s more likely that he was referring to more usual but still terrible events, such as the breaking of fellowship with more Orthodox Jews, or the heavy hand of Roman governance. He knew extreme testing in the events of his arrest and execution, so he knew that such events may arise, but he wanted his followers to ask God, as he would ask, to be spared suffering. Jesus was not superman, able to meet anything with confidence. He wanted disciples to admit their frailty. This is one of the requests in the prayer that convince me it comes from Jesus.
But rescue us from the Evil One
Testing, as in the story of Job or that of Jesus’ testing, comes from the Evil One, who is sceptical of all goodness and seeks to undermine it. In times of violence and suffering the Evil One is always near. We do not need to believe in a personal devil, only to admit that in our experience evil is personal. We do not, as Paul teaches, wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Greed, Power, Wealth, Capitalism, War, Famine, Lies, Warped Religion, the old powers still ride across a scorched landscape; and we need rescue by the one ultimate power that defeats them, that of the child of God hung on the execution stake; only that love can rescue. When we take refuge with the father of the crucified, we know that we enter the invincible rescue of his resurrection.
These comments on this astonishing prayer are very inadequate, but may be sufficient to indicate that I think it one of the most precious gifts of the Gospels. In the church where I minister at present we say it as we start to worship. In a time and place where church as we have understood it is breaking down, a partnership of those who say this prayer daily may help in maintaining faith and creating new forms of belonging.
It is of course, trinitarian. The first two/ three requests are directed to the Father. The next four witness to the shared life of believers in the Holy Spirit. And where is the Son? The whole prayer is the prayer of the Son, in whom as children of God, we too can pray it. The trinity is not a mere dogma but rather the living of this prayer, as Jesus lived it; as we may do.
I love your ‘play-actors’ instead of ‘hypocrites’. One of your many inspired translations or adaptations. Very find elucidation of the Prayer. Thank you.
Thanks. It is central to my faith.