Friday, September 23, 2011

Our Father in heaven - the Lord's Prayer

"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. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed 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 forgive our debtors.

And do not lead us into temptation,

But deliver us from the evil one.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

- Matthew 6:7-15

We have been reading through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel. We began with The Beatitudes (Part 1), and then to You are the salt of the earth - You are the light of the world, Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift, You have heard that it was said to those of old . . . , and Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught about the spiritual disciplines -- and against hypocrisy. We don't practice any form of spiritual discipline: alms-giving, prayer or fasting, for show -- but rather for Our Father who is in the secret place, and who sees in secret. Most powerfully, He taught about prayer: that we go into our inner chamber, in secret, and close the door. There, we are to "pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly." See Your Father who sees in secret, who is in the secret place.

"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." My study bible points out that the key word here is vain. It's not an instruction against any repetition, but rather against babbling, something that isn't sincere and from the heart. God doesn't "hear" us because of many words or much speaking. Repetition of sincere prayer is not what Jesus is counseling against here! Rather, He is leading us, as He continually is through the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, into a deeper, fuller, and more intimate relationship to Our Father. There is always a place for sincere prayer, and prayer without ceasing.

"For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him." This is a continuation of the teaching against vain repetitions. God doesn't hear because of many words. God already knows. Rather God wants our sincere attention and devotion and dialogue, a place of the heart where we meet in the heart, and we "lift our hearts" to Him. Our Father already knows us better than we know ourselves.

"In this manner, therefore, pray: . . . " My study bible points out here that Jesus is instructing us just how to use repetitions. It says, "When we pray, we do not lecture God or make demands, but we are (1) humble (go into your room), (2) personal and intimate with Him (pray to your Father), and (3) sincere (do not use vain repetitions). It is not repetition per se but vain repetition which Jesus condemns. Christian worship, with familiar psalms, hymns, prayers and readings from the Scriptures, brings God the praise 'in spirit and truth' which He seeks." Jesus gives us His prayer to teach us how to pray. It is what we call The Lord's Prayer.

"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name." Jesus includes us in His Sonship. Although He is Son by nature, we are all children of God by the grace of adoption. The emphasis, again, is on the personal nature of this Fatherhood to us, the intimacy of its nature. My study bible notes, "The emphasis in Scripture is not on a universal Fatherhood of God through creation, but on a saving and personal relationship with Him who is our Father by adoption through the Spirit." The Father's name is holy, sacred: we enter into relationship in the "secret place" with a sacred kingdom, one that is holy. God's "name" is like that of a house, such as Herod's or Caesar's. But this is a different sort of a kingdom that has its own rules and laws in which we participate and in whose house we are children by adoption; it is a holy kingdom.

"Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We pray for this holy, heavenly kingdom to be manifest on earth, "as it is in heaven." We pray that this will might be done through us, who are children of adoption by grace in this house.

"Give us this day our daily bread." The translation of the word that gives us "daily" is misleading. The original word in Greek is one that seems to have been coined specifically for this prayer, this Scripture. It is not found in other literature of the period. It means "above the essence" or "supersubstantial" in the Greek. As my study bible puts it, it's not just "bread for this day, taken for sustenance of life," but "bread for the eternal day of the Kingdom of God, for sustenance of our immortal life." It is a picture of the Eucharist, and of all that "feeds us" for membership in this Kingdom. It is, says my study bible, "the Bread of Life which will triumph over the death brought about by sin."

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." This is an important conditional statement, one of many Jesus will make about our own interdependence, in a sense -- about the reciprocal nature of our choices. We ask God to forgive us, but our forgiveness is conditional upon our own choices for forgiveness. My study bible says that "by using the plural, Jesus directs each of us to pray for the Father's forgiveness of all, and for all of us to forgive one another." These "debts" are spiritual debts, in the sense that when we sin we "owe" restitution. And what is forgiveness? In the Greek, this word is a letting go, a releasing. It implies a freedom: we live in freedom, we allow others to do so as well. We seek, instead, the will of God in our acts and our conduct in the world -- not a "worldly" sense of retribution, determined by others.

"And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." Even though we often hear the prayer as "deliver us from evil," in the Greek, it suggests "the evil one" -- meaning the devil. In this sense, we are ask to be spared temptations we can't handle, that come from "the evil one." The root of this word for evil is pain. It implies toil and misery - the things that accompany the evil we may experience in life, even when it comes in forms that make it hard for us to recognize, tempting.

"For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen." Again, there is an emphasis on just whose kingdom we wish to be a part of, to help to bring into this world, and the One to whom we are praying. It is a reinforcement of the idea that we wish to be a part of this divine Kingdom, in sonship by adoption and intimacy, to live our lives a part of this house with its laws of love, and help to secure it in the world.

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Again, the emphasis on a mutual forgiveness. This is so important that Jesus emphasizes it twice. But He uses a different word here from "debt." Here the emphasis is on transgression, a false step, a lapse: literally, a "falling away." It's interesting that both words debt and trespass imply sin, but neither are the word conventionally used for "sin." Debt implies an owing; here, trespass implies what could be non-deliberate, done without awareness. So there are two types of forgiveness going on here: one is a debt that may really be owed in some spiritual sense, something that was done hurtfully. The other might have resulted in a trespass, a wrong step, a slip-up, but was not necessarily done deliberately - but something that causes separation. In both cases, we are to "let go," to "release." And it is conditional again: we realize forgiveness as we seek to practice it.

This powerful prayer has been with us for 2,000 years, and remains with us as The Lord's Prayer. When we pray, let us consider what we pray, and remember that it's not the volume of words that we use that makes us heard and understood, but rather the fact of the intimate coming to God, to Our Father, that is essential. Awhile ago I posted about a young man whom I was lucky to see ordained, and his preaching that it really doesn't matter what words we use when we come to God, but that we pray, that we talk to God. God our Father wants our hearts close to Him, and where the Father is, so is the Son and the Spirit. We are united in love, and it is this love that deepens through prayer, and effectively then in us so that we may live out that kingdom in this world in relation to neighbor. I don't see how the two could be separate. Let us consider today the "forgiveness" of letting go, of giving up all debts or trespasses to Our Father for His guidance in how to conduct our lives, and move forward into this kingdom that is ours by grace of adoption. Father Niko, the newly-ordained priest, said "God is peace." And so Jesus' words teach us what it is to have His peace, to live His peace. For this we pray when we ask to be a part of that Kingdom in reconciliation to Our Father.