Prayer: Our Father In Heaven
“Our Father in heaven, holy be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day 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 evil.”
– Matthew 6:9-13
It was very common in the first century that people would ask a rabbi, “teach us to pray” and the rabbi would just begin praying. The prayer would be a way of showing the people how that rabbi saw things. One rabbi might say that what matters more than anything is how you treat the poor. One rabbi might say intellectual rigour is the primary thing, because if you’re not thinking right, everything else will fall apart. Another rabbi might simply say joy, dancing, feasting and celebrating the goodness of creation.
So, in answer to the question, “rabbi teach us to pray“, the rabbi would respond by then praying and essentially showing the people ‘this is how I see things‘. So when Jesus says to his disciples ‘this is how you should pray‘, that was a very standard first-century response and Jesus shares how he saw things.
This prayer, commonly known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer” is a great example of how to pray from the man himself – Jesus.
Father Of Us
Jesus starts by saying ‘Our Father’. In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, this literally is ‘Father of us’.
In the first century, to speak of a father wasn’t just about a biological relationship; the father was the person who ran the household and in Jewish tradition, it was understood to be God’s house.
“The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” – Psalm 24:1-3, NIV
“The land is mine and you reside in it as a stranger.” – Leviticus 25:23, NIV
“I have no need of a bull from your stall or goats from your pens for every animal of the forest is mine and the cattle on a thousand hills are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you for the world is mine and everything that is in it.” (the poet, speaking on behalf of God) – Psalm 50:9-12
For a Jewish rabbi to speak of the Father of us is to speak of the one who owns and controls this larger household we know to be the world. It’s a communal phrase and the idea of talking about a house would be talking about the running of this house in a particular way. In some ways, you could say it’s almost like Jesus says, begin your prayer by addressing the one who owns, cares for, runs and sustains the house.
Think about your own running of a household. Those of you who are responsible for this will know it’s a really important job. It’s about food, debt, fairness, equality, compassion, generosity and discipline. It’s about running a house in a sustained way in which everybody has enough.
The whole first five books of the Bible, again and again, ask the question: How is the house run? Who is in a delicate situation, who is most vulnerable?, who is in the most desperate shape?, who has plenty that can share with those who don’t have enough? Who’s getting lost?, who’s getting stepped on? These are the issues we read about.
In Jesus’ day, it isn’t just about who runs the household – it’s even more basic than that. There’s this great line in the prophet Isaiah and Jesus and the people would have been familiar with this passage:
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labour?’” – Isaiah 45:9-10, ESV
The prophet is saying that the one who runs the house is the one who built the house; the one who brought it into existence. So this life that you and I have, in this house, it flows from something and flows from somewhere. It flows from someone.
It’s a gift that we receive. When you took your first breath, that’s a gift. The breath you just took is a gift. You are the recipient of this extraordinary gift of life itself.
When a first century Jewish rabbi says ‘Father of us‘, he’s talking about you and I living with a sense of gratitude. Living with an understanding that this world that we call home has meaning and how we conduct ourselves, how we tread in the house, how we treat others in the house, how we take care of ourselves and each other is so important.
Undergirding this entire first line is a reality not confined by what our narrow understanding of reality is. It’s not confined to our limited comprehension of what you and I know to be this world and our existence in it. This is so incredibly important. Imagine if I were to tell you this is the best it’s ever going to be for your life. There’s no more improvement from here on in. What if I said to you, your best days are behind you.
What if I told you that’s only the start. There are no solutions. Things are going to get much worse. Imagine if I kept insisting on all these things.
That would just kill me. I’m sure for you, as well, something within your soul just dries up. It’s like cutting off oxygen. That’s because we’re all hard-wired for hope. It’s easy to get so worn down that you can’t imagine a better life. So defeated and fatigued you can’t even conceive of a better world.
Yet this prayer begins, ‘Father who runs the household who is in heaven‘. ‘Heaven’ is a very Jewish first-century way of speaking of a realm, a place, an ideal, where things are as they could and should be. So the prayer begins with this affirmation of hope. This place, earth, could become better and could get closer to the ideal. This prayer does not give up on potentials and possibilities but affirms them.
The story is far from over. Don’t dare make judgments about something that is still going on. Don’t dare give up on a world that is far from finished.
There is a world that we live in that’s unfinished and we long for it to be better and closer to the ideal.
Holy Be Your Name
‘Name’, in the ancient world, was completely bound up in identity, essence and reputation, as in the book of Proverbs, “A good name is more desirable than great riches. to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” – Proverbs 22:1
One’s character, their true self, is tied up and reflected in their name. Essentially, it’s saying something is at stake here. This connects back to the idea of the world as a house. There is a goodness in creation and this takes us all the way back to Genesis. There is a goodness underneath everything, in that how the house is run is deeply and completely connected with the name of the One who’s in charge of the house. Reputation and character are instantly reflected in the running of the house.
Your Kingdom Come
This word kingdom in the third line of this prayer is dangerous. This is such a political word, spoken at a time when the Jewish people had been conquered by the Romans, an absolutely dominant, military superpower.
The Romans were essentially ruling from afar through the Herodian dynasty, begun by Herod the Great and then divided in thirds upon his death. One son, Phillip, took a region to the east, and another, Archelaus, took Jerusalem and Judea but that didn’t go so well.
Herod’s third son, Antipas, then took over the Galilean region. Antipas was ruthless. He was violent and any threat to his kingdom meant you were going to get killed. In fact, at one point people did come to Jesus and tell him Antipas wanted to kill him. Antipas is the one who killed John the Baptist and this had already happened at this point. So when Jesus, a first century Jewish rabbi from Galilee, speaks of a kingdom, he’s doing so right under the nose of Herod Antipas, who was intent on building his own kingdom. People were literally being killed, left, right and centre, because they were a threat to his kingdom.
One way to think about ‘kingdom’ is that it’s about using power, force and violence in order to structure the world to your advantage. For many people, this would have been their common understanding of kingdom. So the first people to hear this prayer would have had this common conception of what kingdom was.
When Jesus uses this word ‘kingdom’, it would have had extraordinary power and energy to it. But when Jesus says ‘kingdom‘, he’s using the word in a different sense. He’s essentially insisting there’s another way to order the world. When Jesus speaks of another way of ordering the world, it’s very dangerous to talk this way.
On the Earth, As In Heaven
The desire in the prayer is that earth and heaven become the same place. The prayer is not about leaving earth, it’s about earth and heaven becoming more and more the same place. This isn’t about escape. This is not about some other place and some other time. This is not about what happens when you die. It’s about this world, here and now.
‘Will’ is another absolutely fascinating word. Jesus, when using of the word ‘will’, is essentially saying that the universe be bent in a particular direction.
“Let us realise the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, quoting Theodore Parker, 1853
The reason why ‘your will be done’ is so huge is that at the core of the prayer is participation. The prayer is I want to take part in a new ordering of the world. I want the house to be managed well, so participation is the engine of the whole thing. There is something to be done here, something for me to do, something for you to do, something for us to do together. And in this prayer, God is inviting us, waiting for us, calling on us. And there’s this ideal that earth and heaven would be more and more the same place.
This prayer has this undergirding conviction that every single one of us have some role to play in this earth becoming more and more united and merged with heaven. Do you see in his prayer, Jesus is talking about what it means to be human? I acknowledge there’s more to be human. I acknowledge there’s a better way to run this place. Please show me my role to play in it.
We offer up our lives, full of imagination and hope about what could be and our role and participation in what could be. We ask God please break open all that hardness within me and show me just a tiny little bit of what it would look like for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give Us Today Our Daily Bread
When Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, uses the word bread, remember the people would have been thinking about the word ‘bread’ and recalling stories in their history about bread. When the people are liberated from slavery, they are given bread to eat in the wilderness, called manna.
Jesus is reaching back into the history of his people and he’s inviting them to remember that when they were liberated from their slavery, they were provided for. His people’s history was about a new vision for what it means to be human. So, over and over again, they’re reminded ‘you were brought out of your slavery’. Now, go and help bring others out of theirs. It was always about a fair, just and equitable world.
At this time, many people were struggling to get enough bread. Taxation rates were estimated to be around 90%. People were having trouble feeding their kids. It was a topic at the front of everybody’s minds.
When the manna was provided, it was only enough for that day. There’s something in that lesson for the Jewish people then, and us today, about transcending your story.
When you’re stressed, when you feel the pressure, when the bills are piling up, pause and remember give me today this day’s bread .
We’re breathing, we’re alive, right now, which means that despite all of those times when we were stressed about our daily bread, we somehow got enough to get us through to today. Part of the prayer is remembering your own journey in the wilderness.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches but give me only daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I may become poor and steal and so dishonor the name of my God.” – Proverbs 30:8-9, NIV
A Universal Prayer For Humanity
The Lord’s prayer acknowledges how horrifically unjust and volatile life can be. Yet, it also insists that, despite all the struggles of life, you can be calm, centered, serene and that you can actually walk this path.
It’s a prayer for everybody who doesn’t have enough bread and assurance; you’re going to make it.
It’s a prayer for everybody who has too much bread and has become indifferent to the struggles of the world; you are here to take part in a proper ordering of the house. This is your invitation. This is your calling. There’s more to being human than just the accumulation of things.
This is a prayer for everybody. This is a prayer for all of us, reminding us what it means to be human, right here and right now. It’s an invitation to move beyond the narrow categories that easily distract us and to step into our shared calling; this gift, this invitation to be in Jesus!