The Lord's Prayer

Preached on 29 July 2007
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
by David Kennedy

            May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always

            acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Lord, teach us to pray.

We have just heard some of Jesus' most expressive words on prayer, and in the hymn before the Gospel, we have echoed the words of his disciples,

Lord, teach us how to pray aright.

But prayer is not an easy issue for us. I would venture to suggest that most of us feel inadequate or even guilty when we think about prayer.  This is perhaps for two reasons: the first is a feeling that we do not pray enough, that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and even when we do sit down to pray, we encounter the wandering mind; in fact, saying my prayers seems to be an invitation to my particular mind to go on walkabout.  The other problem is perhaps a feeling that we are not very good at prayer; we struggle to find the words, and we are constantly having little internal debates in our minds: can God really hear me? Is he there at all? Are my prayers simply bouncing back off the ceiling?

I want us today to be encouraged.  To be sure, Jesus sometimes has hard and testing things to say to us in the Gospels.  But on prayer, I have a strong conviction that the last thing he wants for us are feelings of guilt or inadequacy.  And so I believe that the Gospel today is an illustration the great words of Matthew's Gospel:

I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.

 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Why do I say that?  In this morning's gospel, we hear St Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer, given in response to the disciples request, Lord, teach us to pray.  Luke's version is even more concise than the more familiar version in St. Matthew's Gospel:

            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.

It's interesting that in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus makes a distinction between the ‘hypocrites' and his disciples:

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues or on the street corners to be seen by others.  I tell you the truth, they have their reward.

He then says that we should not pray like the Gentiles, who ‘babble on', and ‘heap up empty phrases', and who think that they will be heard because of their many words.

So, do not be like the hypocrites, who make a public show of prayer: do not be like the Gentiles who babble on.

Rather, pray like this - and he gives us the Lord's Prayer, which is, of course, very short and succinct, and Luke's text is even shorter than Matthew's.

So, what's behind this approach?

I want to take, as my starting point, the research of a prominent Jewish scholar called Joseph Heinemann, who published his seminal work Prayer in the Talmud in 1964, a study of Jewish prayer traditions and texts, embracing the New Testament period.

Heinemann argues that in the Gospels, Jesus shows himself to be committed to the tradition of Jewish private prayer.  In first century Judaism, there were two main approaches to prayer: public prayer, the prayer of Temple and Synagogue, and private prayer.  Public prayer was formal, the language was Hebrew, the style was highly elaborate and deferential; the form: series of benedictions and other prayers led by a Prayer Leader.

In contrast, private prayer was informal, direct, uttered in the vernacular, in Jesus' case Aramaic, and a way of praying that all could use; it did not require, as it were, any professional expertise or training.

Heinemann argues that Jesus' teaching on prayer reflected this private tradition. Now it is certain that, as a law-abiding Jew, Jesus faithfully attended Temple and Synagogue - there was for him no division between the public and the private, the formal and the informal.  But I think that Heinemann is correct that he commended the private prayer tradition to his disciples because it had a dynamic sense of intimacy with God.

This can be illustrated by a comparison between the Lord's Prayer and an ancient Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, a prayer which is still used at Jewish funerals today: it goes like this:

Let us magnify and let us hallow the great name of God in the world which he created according to his will.

May he establish his kingdom in your life-time, and in your days, and in the life-time of all the family of Israel, speedily and without delay.     

We don't know which of the two prayers is older. We simply note the similarities: a petition for the hallowing of God's name, is followed by a petition for the coming of God's kingdom.  Both prayers are clearly from the same spirituality; the Kaddish certainly shows us that the Lord's Prayer is a very Jewish prayer.

But note the differences:

The Kaddish is uttered in the third person: ‘May he establish his kingdom....'

The Lord's Prayer is uttered in the second person: ‘Your kingdom come...'

The Kaddish uses long phrases.  The Lord's Prayer is exceedingly succinct.

And the Lord's Prayer begins with the title ‘Father'.

This suggests that, outside of what we call ‘Church', Jesus' spirituality was marked by a great sense of immediacy. In this context, God was not distant, nor did he have to be addressed indirectly, and in circumlocutory language, as was the tradition in the statutory prayers.

And ‘Father' as a title was highly distinctive; it is not a title given directly to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it is occasionally used as a metaphor. It is well known that the Aramaic colloquialism abba lies behind it.  Abba is not a childish form of address, like our word ‘Daddy'.  It is rather a familiar form of address; the point is that an adult could call his father ‘abba', using it as a term of endearment and intimacy.  The Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has shown that abba was not only used by Jesus, but by a number of what he calls ‘Jewish charismatics'.  But it was utterly distinctive in Jesus' prayers, so distinctive in fact, that this Aramaic term also became distinctive of the early Church.  So, St Paul writes in both Romans and Galatians that as sons and daughters of God, we cry out Abba, Father. Here this Aramaic word was carried over into the worship of Greek-speaking early Christian communities, so characteristic was it.   For this reason, I would argue that calling God Father is part of the birth-right of the Christian.

Moreover, the context in Luke's Gospel, suggests intimacy and directness. We pray because we have a good Father, who gives good gifts to his children.  Our asking is not a heavy pleading with, or anguished persuading or cajoling of a reluctant and tight-fisted despot, but the natural response to a loving God who cares for us.  Indeed, Luke uses a parental analogy: even we, evil as we are, know how to give good gifts to our children.  How much more, therefore, will our heavenly Father give his Spirit, his very life, to us, if we ask him.

Lord, teach us to pray.

So, when you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who make a public show of prayer.

Don't be like the Gentiles, who babble on.

Rather, use the Lord's Prayer as your model and inspiration. Keep it short, keep it direct.  Engage your heart, so that it can never be ‘empty words'.

Ask your Father, with all the tenderness and trust and intimacy that the name Abba encapsulates.

Pray that God's name may be hallowed.

Pray that his kingdom may come on earth.

Ask him for the necessities we need for life.

Ask him for forgiveness, and the grace to forgive.

Ask him for protection from, and deliverance from, evil.

And be regular in making those requests; not obsessive, not as a kind of superstitious mantra, but as an act of trust. And leave at that.

And you know, however weak and inadequate we feel, Jesus himself takes our poor, hesitant prayers, and perfects them by joining them to his own perfect and complete offering of prayer to the Father, which is why in the Christian tradition we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Our prayers really do make it!  And, as St Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit - the good gift the Father gives us when we ask him, himself prayer deep within us, with inarticulate groans of desire.

Lord, teach us to pray. It isn't burdensome or difficult, for the Lord says,

            I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.

            For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.