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The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn


Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 8: The Lord’s Prayer


From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 6:5-15.
For the parallel passage see Luke 11:1-4.
To follow up the theme look at Matthew 18:21-35; 26:36-46.

Jesus, immediately after warning his hearers not to "heap up empty phrases," goes on to give them a prayer that has been muttered as empty phrases more times than anyone can count. Evidently men still need to learn about prayer.

We have already looked at Jesus' caution against ostentatious prayers. We took up this passage ahead of its proper order because it said so much about the topic of chapter 5, "Light and Secrecy." Now as we come to the same sentences in their regular sequence, we can concentrate on the Lord's Prayer.

 The Motives of Prayer

In approaching the Lord's Prayer notice again what Jesus says about the reasons for praying, especially the wrong reasons. In addition to the one wrong motive that we have already noticed

-- to "be seen by men" -- Jesus describes a second. The motive for prayer is not to provide God with information that he lacks. Critics of prayer often remark that they see no value in prayer, because if there is a powerful, personal God, he knows already what we tell him in prayer. Those who say that do not usually realize that Jesus said most of it first. But Jesus drew a different conclusion.

After rejecting these false motives for prayer, Jesus does not go on to say why men should pray. Perhaps he felt that if people do not know the reasons for prayer, there is no use telling them. Perhaps he saw that good reasons cannot be stated so neatly and glibly as bad reasons. His hearers are left to decide for themselves why anyone should pray. They are not left without any clues. They have all of Jesus' life and teaching as a help. They have especially the accounts about his own praying -- most notably that night of prayer reported in Matthew 26:36-46.

Jesus' prayer was often solitary prayer, and he recommends praying "in secret." In this "other-directed" culture of ours, solitude is often frightening. People like to do everything in groups. Jesus points to the value -- yes, the necessity -- of the solitary approach to God. But he sees the need of both solitude and community. The pronouns of the Lord's Prayer are our, us, we -- not my, me, I. This prayer is for the community of disciples, united by the same Spirit.

 Simple Profundity

Compare the differing contexts of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew and Luke. In both cases Jesus is giving a prayer to the community of disciples. They memorized it and passed it on to the church.

The differing translations of Jesus' Aramaic into Greek and the liturgical uses of the prayer in the church led to the two Greek versions. The variations sometimes help clarify the meaning. The likenesses show the essential fidelity of both versions to Jesus' original teaching, the exact Aramaic words of which we cannot know.

Few prayers are shorter or use simpler language than the Lord's Prayer. The whole prayer can be read aloud in seconds. In Matthew's record (as translated in the Revised Standard Version) about three out of four words are monosyllables -- an achievement few modern stylists can rival.

Yet the simplicity may be deceptive. The understanding of the prayer involves all of Jesus' message and the depths of our own spirits. The words carry a weight of meaning from the whole gospel. We see this when we examine the petitions.

Our Father Who Art in Heaven

Augustine says that the opening words are already the answer to the prayer, for we can ask nothing greater than to approach the Lord of the universe as Father. There is still something breathtaking in the idea. Think of the universe of modern physics and astronomy, a universe of uncounted galaxies and mysterious cosmic rays, a universe of distances measured in light years. Then address the creator, "Our Father."

Many a modern man looks at this universe in bewilderment, convinced that it has nothing to do with human hopes and that he means nothing to it. That word, nothing, has become one of the basic words of contemporary philosophy and literature. In his famous short story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," Ernest Hemingway made a parody of the Lord's Prayer, built on the Spanish word nada, meaning nothingness: "Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name..."

Against that experience of nothingness, known in ancient times as in modern, Christ bids us come to God the Father. The word father occurs seventeen times in the Sermon on the Mount. Further, it has the intimate meaning given it by Jesus' whole ministry. Hence Paul, though in Judaism he had learned to call God Father, felt that because of Christ he could approach the Father in the spirit of an adopted son, not of a slave (Romans 8:15-17).

Nevertheless it is a God of majesty with whom we have this intimate relation. His name is to be hallowed. That is, he is to be approached in his holiness. The tremendous reverence of the Old Testament here enters into the heritage of the Christian.

For thus says the high and lofty One
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
"I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
Isaiah 57:15

This is the God whom we approach as Father, whose name we hallow. To "repeat the Lord's Prayer" irreverently is to contradict its very words.

God's Kingdom -- and Daily Bread

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." The phrases are both petitions and expressions of trust. They call on God, who alone can establish his kingdom. And they call on the praying person to conform to the will of God.

The heart of the prayer, "Thy kingdom come," is the heart (as we have seen) of Jesus' whole message. He bids his disciples pray for that work of God, already beginning but not yet complete. (Recall chapter 2 above.)

Although the kingdom is a gift of God, its practical significance for us is clear in the petition, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." The citizens of God's heavenly kingdom are called to live by God's will on earth. That, we may say, should be the normal expectation of any religious commitment. But here, set in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, it is a call to daring life. We have already read of purity of heart and mercy, of persecution for righteousness' sake, of men lighting the world for God's glory, of love for enemies. All this is the will of God. For this we pray whenever we join Christ in his prayer.

"Give us this day our daily bread." Immediately the prayer turns from the exalted and the strenuous to the commonplace. What is so common as daily bread? Here in the midst of language about the holiness of God and the wonder of his kingdom is the prayer for bread -- one of man's ordinary needs. Believers in some highly "spiritual" religions are ashamed to pray for material things. But the Bible does not despise the material. It assumes that personality is psychosomatic, that God provides for all of life. To pray for bread -- for oneself and the world -- is as basic to the Christian as to pray, "Hallowed be thy name."

When the disciples first learned this prayer, they did not know that the day was coming when their Lord would offer them bread, saying, "This is my body." In Christian faith it is as natural to pray for bread as to use this same commonplace bread in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Forgive Us Our Debts

Luke says sins (trespasses in the older translations) where Matthew says debts. The difference is unfortunate for the common worship of Christians, since denominations vary in their usage. But the meaning is not difficult. Both words probably come from the same original Aramaic word. The exact meaning is determined less by the specific word than by the entire message of Jesus.

For what do Christians seek forgiveness? For the wrongs they have done and for the anger, lust, and pride that prompted the wrongs. They ask forgiveness for every failure of love, for their own unreadiness to forgive.

Anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount up to this point will not he surprised by the prayer for forgiveness. Once again we see that the New Covenant is a covenant of grace (chapter 6). We meet its terms not by perfect compliance with God's will, but by accepting in faith his forgiveness.

This faith will prompt us to forgive. In Matthew's account, the prayer is followed by the foreboding words of verses 14-15. (See also Matthew 18:21-35.) The idea is not that God is only as generous as we are. The gospel often refutes that idea. But if we refuse to forgive, we lack the faith that can accept forgiveness.

Deliver Us from Evil

"Lead us not into temptation." This is the one petition of the Lord's Prayer that causes confusion because of its wording. The New English Bible translates, "Do not bring us to the test." Either translation is justifiable, and both raise frequent questions. Does a good God deliberately tempt us? If he wants to test us, should we pray that he not do so?

Here, as in some other sayings of Jesus, we can get help from the scholars who translate the Greek back into the probable Aramaic words of Jesus. Then the sentence means this: "Do not allow us to be led into temptation." Or it may mean: "Do not let us be tested beyond our capacity to endure." That is, God is not the tempter; but he has put us into a world of temptations.

In this world we may prayerfully seek to avoid temptations. But what is more important, we pray that we shall not yield to them, that God will deliver us from the evils into which we might be tempted.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 helps us to understand the issue: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

Life is full of temptations. Many men, meeting temptations in faith and prayer, have found God delivering them.

Thine Is the Glory

Christians often conclude the Lord's Prayer with the words: "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen."

This final doxology or paean of praise does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. By the second century, we know, Christians were using it widely. It echoes earlier themes in the prayer: it hallows God's name and it ascribes to him lordship in his kingdom. Probably Jesus did not include these words; the early church added them, in accord with the general liturgical practice of ending public prayers with an expression of praise.

Amen simply means truly, verily, or may it certainly be so.

When Christians pray this prayer with a genuine Amen, they glorify God. Dr. E. F. Scott in his book, The Lord's Prayer, says that, while the church has often drawn up creeds to define loyalty, Christ gave his followers a prayer rather than a creed. Often Christians, separated by doctrines and ecclesiastical authorities, have been able to unite in this prayer.

That is appropriate, since the prayer comes from Christ himself.

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