The Lord’s Prayer holds a special place for many Christians throughout the history of the church. It was, after all, the prayer that the Lord himself taught his disciples to pray, but what exactly made this prayer special? Some Christians have felt that the use of “our father” to address God made this prayer more personal and intimate than usual, but this suggestion, popularised by Dr. Joachim Jeremias in 1962, was actually unfounded. Jews frequently addressed God as “father” and even “my father” (we have many examples from prayers of that period), so while the language may endear the prayer to some Christians, it certainly was not the reason this prayer was different from other prayers.
Yet others point to the precedence of God’s kingdom before personal needs, or the selection of items included in the prayer, but none of these explanations seem particularly compelling given that these items were certainly not unique amongst Jewish prayers of the day. One such prayer that dates back to possibly as far as 150BCE is known as the Eighteen Benedictions. In the extant versions of this prayer (excerpted below), we find that it contains much of what is also found in the Lord’s Prayer.
P3 – You are holy and revered is your name …
B14 – Upon Jerusalem your city, return in compassion and build her soon in our days …
P16 – May it be your will, Lord our God, to dwell in ZIon …
P9 – Bless to us, Lord our God, this year to our benefit with all kinds of produce …
P6 – Forgive us our Father for we have sinned against you …
P8 – Heal us, our God, from heaviness of our heart and grief and remove sighing from us …
(Pxx refers to the Palestinian Geniza. Bxx refers to the Babylonian version.)
It is not difficult to see the common themes shared with the Lord’s Prayer and if so, they were certainly not unique to the Lord’s Prayer in any way. So what was the point of the Lord’s Prayer if not the presumed intimacy with God, nor the specific contents of the prayer? Perhaps the answer is a lot more mundane than many of us imagine, and more obvious.
Unlike the Eighteen Benedictions, which was a pretty wordy and lengthy prayer punctuated by many liturgical blessings, the Lord’s Prayer was incredibly brief and simple by comparison – occupying a scant four-verses in Matthew’s version and three in Luke’s. In fact, it was so short that it sounded unimpressive – and that, perhaps, was what made it unique – it’s brevity. This brevity, one would argue, was intentional, given Jesus’ preface to the prayer (Matt 6:5-8):-
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.
Jesus’ points for the prayer that followed was:-
- not to emulate the flowery prayers of the religious establishment
- not to pray to impress
- not to pray in public
- not to be repetitive
- not to over-elaborate for God already knows our needs
- that these things have no traction with God
In Luke’s preface, we see a similar context where Jesus’ disciples wanted a distinctive prayer that would set them aside as his disciples (Luke 11:1):-
Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”
It wasn’t as if Jesus had not been praying with his disciples. He had. What triggered the request was the desire to have a distinctive prayer that would identify them – a prayer that served a public identification purpose. Luke follows the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus teaching on how much more willing God, who was unlike ordinary people, was to answer His children’s prayers (Luke 11:13):-
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
Interestingly, the scope of the request is narrowed down to the Holy Spirit here.
It is unsurprising, then, that the Lord’s Prayer took the form it did. It wasn’t novel, nor impressive with flowery language. It was brief, to the point and devoid of liturgical repetitiveness. It also reflected an attitude of complete dependence on God to answer the prayer, as opposed to reliance on the human element of prayer. I must say that growing up as a Christian, it was very rare to hear anyone teach that our prayers should be brief, private, and to the point. Rather, we have lionised “prayer warriors” who specialised in praying a lot. The quantity of prayer, whether it be measured in the length of time or the number of people involved, is assumed to have great impact on the efficacy of the prayer, at least around the parts where I come from. At the very least, they seem very impressive to Christians.
This stands in stark contrast to the ostensible purpose of the Lord’s Prayer. More than that, we place the “power of prayer” in the hands of the supplicant (the person praying). It is almost as if the supplicant could move the hand of God by his/her sheer will and determination, and is perhaps what gives rise to sayings such as “there is power in prayer.” With the Lord’s Prayer, the power rests squarely on God and not in the supplicant. There is no power, as such, in prayer. I can totally understand the appeal of the “power” thinking since it gives us an illusion of control in what is otherwise total surrender to the will of God.
At this point, there will, no doubt, be those who will cite Luke 18 with the parable of the unjust judge. My answer is that most people seem to fail to recognize irony in the narrative. Much like Luke 11:13, the point of the parable is that God is NOT like the unjust judge who would need such harassing. He is NOT like that sleepy neighbour who was reluctant to get out of bed, and as a consequence, He does NOT need us to attempt to wear Him down with lengthy prayers. Rather, He is a God who sees our desperation and responds accordingly, to His will.
I think this points to some hermeneutical mistakes that are commonly made when treating the subject of prayer in the gospels. Contemporary Christian culture seems to value long, repetitive prayers, preferably made by a lot of Christians in impressive manners. Our practice of prayer seems more engineered to inspire a sense of confidence in the supplicants rather than to follow the biblical model. Success with a certain form of prayer (eg. overnight prayer meetings, prayer mountains, etc.) invariably generates a following of those who are convinced of using that form. Form, rather than essence, appears to be our fixation when it comes to prayer.
We also seem to view God as a reluctant or sleepy neighbour who needs to be roused from bed by our incessant petitions. Lastly, our theology of prayer places the “power” in our hands – in our ability to move this reluctant God, thus making heroes out of “prayer warriors”. This stands in contrast to what Jesus taught about prayer – that God was attentive to our needs, and is far more willing than any earthly counterpart to hear our prayers. For that reason, we need to keep our verbal prayers brief, and to the point. God is unimpressed with our liturgical prowess, or how long we can organise a prayer chain. If anything, God responds to our heart, and perhaps to the kind of relationship we have with Him.
Praying without ceasing (1Thess 5:17) has a lot more to do with an attitude of trusting God always, than with methods and rites.