A rabbi would normally teach his disciples how to pray, and prompted by a question, Jesus sets out to examine this subject with his disciples. John taught his disciples when it came to prayer. John's disciples had a distinctive prayer. Certainly, the early church treated the prayer as belonging exclusively to believers in Jesus.
The prayer as a whole tells us we stand in a very vulnerable place. We stand in the middle of a human world where God's will is not the most automatic thing that people do, where crisis face us, when uncertainty is all around about tomorrow and where evil is powerfully at work.
To stand with dignity and freedom in a world like that, we need to know that God is Our Father/Mother in charge. We need to know that whatever happens to us God is God. With that confidence, we're actually free. We know that there is a relationship that nothing can break. This anchors us in this difficult world.
So the Lord's Prayer is a prayer that is utterly serious about the dangers of the world.
It's also a prayer that requires that our lives change. It requires that we become different sorts of people, but it acknowledges that that will only happen when we learn how to depend freely and lovingly on the God, whose made himself our parent.
When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we are praying for everyone: Give all of us what we need for life, the dignity and the hope. Keep all of us from being plunged into crisis we can't handle. Save all of us from the destructive power of evil.
Every single bit of the Lord's Prayer is radical. What it's praying for is the most revolutionary change you can imagine in the world we live in, to a situation where all the hungry are fed, to a situation where forgiveness is the most important component of all our relationships. That's not like the world we experience.
Jesus knew how to compose prayers and stories that that you could remember. And if you put the Lord's Prayer back into Jesus' own language of Aramaic, the rhythm and the rhyme of the words come through very clearly.
The form is liturgical, a form of words to be repeated from memory in public and private worship. So it's meant to be transmitted, it's meant to be passed on, learned and taught. And it’s a prayer that recognizes that our lives are fragile and at risk. But from that prayer we can get a model, an inspiration for other prayers we say. Most of it we will find in the Old Testament or in Jewish prayers.
It begins by addressing the head of the family of humanity. This is the prayer of God's family. This is the prayer which you address to God in the most intimate of terms, which would have been shocking in Jesus' time. And Jesus' own life is the measure of that. He's completely dependent on God, and yet he's as free as anybody could be imagined to be. Free to take risks, to face suffering and death because God is there, And so as soon as you've said the first words Our Father you've said: I've been given a share in Jesus' relationship with God. I don't have to work out my relationship with God from scratch. I don't have to climb a long long ladder up to heaven, I've been invited into this family relationship. It is s a bold and intimate way to address the Creator of the world.
"Hallowed be thy name" means: understand what you're talking about when you're talking about God, this is serious. In the Old Testament's the name of God is something very holy/hallowed. The name of God is God's word, God's presence. Which is why we have to watch our language.
The idea of the Kingdom coming was very near the centre of Jesus' teaching. The Kingdom is a state of affairs when God is in charge. The Kingdom comes in unexpected ways; it grows secretly. It comes through in quirky little moments when people do extraordinary things, take extraordinary risks. And Jesus' parables again tell us about people who give up everything because they catch a glimpse of the Kingdom. So that's what we're praying for.
"Thy will be done" of course is like "Thy kingdom come". It's Hebrew poetry, the parallel between the first and the second bit of the phrase. We have a kind of tone deafness about God's will; we have to learn to sing in tune with all of this. Here on earth, among us human beings, God’s will is often not done, and so we pray that we may be brought into tune, that we may not be the only ones singing flat in the great choir of the universe.
"Give us this day our daily bread", is because the word that's used in the Greek for day is very, very strange one that you hardly find anywhere else, but means daily. Some people in the early church understood it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow. In Greek it is literally “Bread give” in. St Francis believed that our daily provision is promised by God
"Forgive us our trespasses" is in some ways the hardest bit of the Lord's Prayer to pray, because it tells us straight away that to pray is also to be willing to change. And it takes a lot of nerve to come before God and say forgive me because I have forgiven someone else. It's saying that it's through God's forgiveness of us that we learn how to forgive. It reminds us that our own ability to forgive comes from the fact that we're aware of God's forgiveness of us and that unless that really sinks in then we shan't be able to forgive. So it's a bit of a vicious circle of I don't forgive I can't be forgiven. If I can't hear the word of forgiveness and really let it change me, then I shan't be able, I shan't be free to forgive, so this is quite a sobering prayer about forgiveness. All prayer has to acknowledge our need of forgiveness and our need to forgive. The words “debt" and "sin" were interchangeable at the time.
Jesus’ teaching often turns back to the idea that a great time of trial is coming. A time when we shall find out what we're really capable of, just as we often say you don't know what someone's made of until they're under pressure. We're coming towards a time when you really have to decide how much God matters to you; you really have to put your life on the line.
And Jesus says to us, don't assume you know the answer to that sort of question. Don't assume you know how much you're capable of. Pray that when the time of trial comes, when things get really difficult, you will have the resource to meet it. The words "lead us not into temptation" don't quite capture all of that because temptation for us tends to mean just a sort of impulse to do sinful things.
Gethsemane was such a test for Jesus and this type of test could easily overwhelm us, since such tests are promised, "do not bring us to the time of trial, of being led into a situation of evil where we end up being abandoned by God. Keep us safe from the evil one's snare. And that is a good prayer to pray, because for each one of us there are times of crisis when we discover what we're made of and sometimes it's not very pleasant and we realise we're not up to it. So again, it's connected with "deliver us from evil". Set us free from all those things, the fears, the sins, the selfish habits that keep us prisoner and that make us unable to face crisis. It probably originally meant save us from the Evil One. Because the time of crisis is when the Devil, the enemy of humanity, can come in and manipulate us and intensify, reinforce all that's most inhuman in us. The power of evil coming in to make the most of our weakness and our fear, makes sense. And we can still quite rightly pray to be delivered from that.
The parable of the midnight guest reinforces that we should keep praying keep knocking because God is better than a good friend or neighbour. If a midnight guest can get what he wants from a reluctant friend, imagine what we can get from a gracious God.
God is reliable. He keeps his promises. imagine what God will do for you when you ask something of him, so ask for his friendship and it is ours for eternity, seek him and we will find him, knock on his door and we will be welcomed into his presence.
(With thanks to Rowan Williams)