Teach Us to Pray

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL
Luke 11:1-13

Jesus’s disciples ask him, “Teach us to pray. And Jesus responds to them with words that sound somewhat familiar, and also a little off. I’m going to read it again from Luke, but from a translation that is a little closer to the version we use each week, from the New Revised Standard Version. “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

The Lord’s Prayer. We pray it together every Sunday. We’re going to sing it together in just a few minutes. The version that we use on Sunday mornings is not the version that most of us grew up with. If you grew up in a Methodist church, you probably grew up with an older version that included the phrase, “forgive us our trespasses.” And you may have noticed that if you go to a Baptist church you have to say “forgive us our debts.” If you worship with Episcopalians, you have to say “forever and ever.” And if you go to mass with Catholics, you’d better be sure to stop before “for thine is the glory” or you will find yourself singing a solo. The version that we use in worship on Sundays was translated by an ecumenical group called the English Language Liturgical Consultation in 1988. The United Methodist Church has been encouraging congregations to use it since 1989.

The Lord’s Prayer is nearly universal. Christians all of over the world use it as a part of their worship. And we all seem to say it a little differently. There are two different versions of it in the bible. Matthew records it in the sixth chapter, as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke records it here in the eleventh chapter, still recognizable as the same prayer, but a little bit different. But neither Matthew’s version nor Luke’s version is the one that we use in church. We get our version from another early Christian text called the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

It may also surprise you to know that even if we only look at Matthew, or even if we only look at Luke, there are still differences in how the Lord’s Prayer is recorded. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek, but none of the original manuscripts have survived. Instead we have copies of copies and fragments from centuries after the gospels were written. And even if we go back to our very earliest copies of the New Testament, they don’t agree with each other, and sometimes they have some pretty major differences. If you look in your own English bibles at this passage, you’ll find some evidence of those differences, because different translators have decided to trust different early Greek sources when making their translations. Most of the best, earliest sources have something close to the version I just read for you. Some sources have a version that has probably been edited by scribes to align more closely to the version found in Matthew. Some early versions even contain a line you’ve probably never heard in the Lord’s Prayer before: “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.”

To put it directly, even from the very earliest times, there were a lot of slightly different versions of the Lord’s Prayer circulating around, so it might be best for us not to get too worked up over something as trivial as the difference between debts, trespasses, and sins. Instead, let’s take a closer look at the version we have in front of us, a little bit simpler, more direct version of the prayer than the one we learned in Sunday school.

“Father,” it begins. Just “Father,” no “who art in heaven.” “Father.” What does it mean to address God as “Father”? In the Ancient world, father had quite a different meaning than it does for most of us today. The father, or pater familias, was the oldest and highest-ranking male in any given family. If we were living in ancient Palestine today, I would not be the father in my family, it would be my dad. And as long as he was alive, he would literally own everyone else in the family—my mom, me, Melissa, Karthik, Kaylah, Kiahla. If I had any brothers or unmarried sisters, he would own them too, and any children they might have. In addition, he would own any slaves that might be in our household. Whatever the pater familias said was the law. If he wanted to, he could sell me, or anyone else in the family, into slavery. He would decide what we did with our lives. He would decide whom we married, where we worked, and even whether our children would live or die. I like my dad, but I have to admit, I’m glad times have changed. I wouldn’t really want my dad making those kinds of decisions for me, and I certainly wouldn’t want the responsibility of making those kinds of decisions for the family once he was gone.

Because you see, the father did not just have the power over the family, the father also had responsibility for the family. The father had to provide the economic means and opportunities. The father had to arrange for suitable marriage partners. The father had to promote the family’s interests in the community and uphold the honor of the family.

To call God our father is to give full power and responsibility for our lives into God’s hands. It is to release our own desires and to do with our lives those things that are pleasing to God. It is to trust that God does have a plan for us and that God’s plan is better than our plans.

And calling God father also means that we take on the responsibility of children of God. We recognize that our actions, whether good or bad, reflect on God. If we feed the poor, clothe the hungry, heal the sick, then that reflects on God, because we are God’s children. And if we hoard our possessions, if we are consumed with greed, if we hurt our neighbors or are indifferent to the needs in the world, then that also reflects on God. It’s been said that “the greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door, and deny him by their lifestyle.” Calling God our father doesn’t just mean trusting God to provide for us, it also means living in a way that brings honor to God.

“Hallowed be you name.”  It cracks me up that even in most of our modern translations of the Lord’s Prayer, we still say “hallowed.” Sometimes we even use the Elizabethan pronunciation, hallow-ed. Does anyone actually know what hallowed means? I think in my entire 43 years of life the only times I have ever heard the word hallowed is in the Lord’s prayer or in the phrase, “the hallowed halls.” I’m not exactly sure what it means, but I know it sounds pretentious.

The world in Greek, ἁγιασθήτω, is actually much more straightforward—it means to make something holy. Father, may your name be made holy, may it be sanctified, may it be set apart. It acknowledges that God is different than the rest of the world. God is unique. God is the creator of the universe, not just a part of it. And as such, God is holy. The hallowing of God’s name means that we, as God’s creations, lift God up, set God apart, as the source of our very being.

But it is also a call to God, a request that God reveal Godself as holy. That is to say that the hallowing of God’s name means that God will reveal God’s own uniqueness to humanity. God will reveal Godself to be God, the one and only God, the creator of the universe.

“Your kingdom come.” Kingdom probably isn’t the best word. For one thing, most of us are not very familiar with kingdoms in our everyday lives; we live in a republic. Furthermore, when we think of a kingdom, we typically imagine a man with a crown in a medieval European castle surrounded by knights in shining armor and ladies in long brocade dresses—a scene that was unlike anything anyone in Jesus’s time could have possibly imagined.

It makes a little more sense to talk about the reign of God, or even of the Empire of God. The political system that would have been familiar to Jesus’s first audience was the Roman Empire, and the Greek word that we translate as kingdom is the same word that would have been used to talk about the empire. Thus, when we talk about God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire, we are talking about it in direct relation and in opposition to the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus.

May God’s Empire come. Jesus preached a lot about the coming of the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t talking about something that happens after we die. His message was always, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” “God’s reign is very near to you.” Jesus was talking about a new world order. He was talking about a sort of revolution, in which the Empire of God was breaking into the ordered world and would supplant the power of the Empire of Caesar. In a sense, Jesus’s followers had a choice; they could choose what their reality was. They could either live in the world around that everyone could see and taste and hear, the world of the Roman Empire. Or they could live in a different reality, a more true reality, a reality that recognized the ultimate sovereignty of God; they could live as citizen’s of God’s Empire.

Living in God’s Empire meant living by a different set of rules. It meant following God’s laws first, over and above any other laws. And when God’s laws disagreed with the Roman laws, it meant breaking those secular laws, even at the risk of torture or death.

In God’s Empire, the poor and the weak are blessed and the rich and the powerful are brought down low. In God’s Empire, a person’s worth is not measured in the abundance of their possessions. In God’s Empire, citizens humble themselves in service instead of seeking after fame, wealth, or glory. In God’s Empire, justice reigns, not just justice for those who can afford it, but justice for the last and the lost and the least.

God’s Empire is still breaking into our world. And we can choose to be a part of it. We can choose to reject the materialism and the greed and the racism and the bigotry and the violence around us, and to live by a different law: the law of love. Dear God, may your Kingdom come.

“Give us each day our daily bread.” We ask God to provide for our basic needs. Give us each day the food that we need for that day. We don’t ask for extra. We don’t ask for a surplus, for extravagance. It’s not give me today the champagne and caviar and prime rib that I want, give me enough food today so that I’ll never have to worry about food again. No, it is give us each day the bread we need for today. Not just for me. Not just for my family alone. Give us, all of us, the food that we need for today. That is enough.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We are human beings. We make mistakes. We fall short of what God wants for us. Using the word sin can confuse the matter sometimes. We usually reserve the word sin for only things that we think are really, really bad. What sin really means is to miss the mark. That’s all, to miss the mark. We were trying to do one thing, or we should have done one thing, but we didn’t quite make it. We missed the mark. And if that is what sin is, then my friends, all of us are sinning all of the time. It is only in very rare and very brief moments that we live completely into the perfection that God intends for us, and even then we usually spoil it by becoming overly proud of ourselves.

We need God’s forgiveness. We need God to help us get over our shortcomings so that we can try again. We need God to release us from the debilitating guilt that can so often keep us from doing anything good at all. We need God’s forgiveness. And amazingly, God is willing to forgive us.

But Jesus suggests a sort of a bargain for us. We owe an incredible amount to God, we are in need of so much forgiveness. And yet when we ask, God forgives us. So, Jesus suggests to us, when you’re asking God for forgiveness, and when God grants it, why don’t you do your best to do the same for people who need forgiveness from you.

Forgiving is hard. When we get hurt by someone, it’s really difficult to work up the grace to forgive them. I think that we tend to think that if we forgive, then we are denying that the wrong ever occurred. We have to pretend like we never got hurt or like we are not still hurting. But that isn’t what forgiveness is. Forgiveness acknowledges the hurt, it acknowledges the offense, but it has the grace to say, “I am not going to let this hurt destroy us. Yes, I was hurt. Yes, there may even be consequences for that hurt. But I am not going to keep punishing you or myself over it again and again. We’re moving forward from here.” That is the nature of forgiveness, a forgiveness that does not wipe away or erase, but a forgiveness that heals. We have been forgiven. Let us also forgive.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” Don’t test us unnecessarily. Don’t overburden us with things that we simply will not be able to bear. If we must face temptation, then help us to overcome it. In other words, don’t abandon us when things get tough. Walk with us all the way. Help us to follow the right path and not to get lost along the way. Do not bring us to the time of trial.

The Lord’s Prayer sets out Jesus’s program for our prayer lives. Certainly, it is a rote prayer that we can recite together, and that is a wonderfully valuable thing to do. But it is more than that. Jesus’s prayer gives direction to all of our prayers. In our prayers we should praise God. We should acknowledge God as unique and holy, as our only God, and we should live our lives as children of God. We should call upon God to bring forth the divine kingdom in our world, and we should commit ourselves to living as citizen’s of God’s kingdom. We should ask God for the things that we need and trust that God will provide everything that we need, if not always everything that we want. We should ask God for forgiveness, and having received it, we should have the grace to extend that forgiveness to others. And we should ask God to walk with us, to carry us through the hard times, to help us to face any challenges that might come our way. This is the prayer that Jesus has taught us. May God give us strength to pray it with all our hearts, whenever we pray.  Amen.