People in the ancient world were very careful about how they approached their gods. In fact, it might be better to say that one of the fundamentals of ancient religion is the belief that there is a proper way to worship a god. Conversely, there must be an improper way to worship a god. In order to ensure one worshiped a god properly, the ancients developed rituals and teaching mechanisms.
The most common form of divine worship in antiquity was animal sacrifice. The second most common was prayer. Even in the Hebrew Bible, sacrifice was the predominant way Israelites (and later, Jews) worshiped God. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible regulate the worship of God through prayer. This does
not mean that people did not pray. Of course there are numerous examples in the Bible of people worshiping God through prayer. However, as one scholar has noted, "Jews prayed at the temple, but they did not pray in the temple." This means the emergence of prayer as a central act of worship was a fundamental paradigm shift in the Judaism that followed the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. On the other hand, the emerging Christian movement had already begun such a shift through its acknowledgement of Jesus' death as a sacrifice (see 1 Corinthians 5:7).
As prayer apart from sacrifice emerged as one of the central components of religious activity in Judaism and Christianity, it became increasingly necessary to define what constituted the proper worship of God through prayer. This meant developing teaching mechanisms that 1) demonstrated the proper way to pray and 2) carried with them some sort of religious authority. The Lord's Prayer is one answer to both these needs. First, its placement in the gospels of Matthew and Luke demonstrates that it is a teaching moment. Second, both gospels confer on this prayer the authority of the Lord.
In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord's Prayer is set within a larger teaching context, the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29). The implied audience of this sermon has been hotly debated by scholars. Some scholars, following the implied audience in 5:1, argue that the sermon is intended for disciples (or insiders in the Christian movement) and that this prayer should be understood as a model of Christian religious activity.
Other scholars, following the implied audience in 7:28, argue that the sermon and the prayer were intended for any person seeking to be properly religious, and that its association with Jesus should not automatically make it a Christian prayer. To be honest, there is nothing specifically Christian about the Lord's Prayer. The only reason a modern Jew would not pray the prayer has more to do with its historic identification with Christianity than with its particular content. Unfortunately, this does not settle the question of the true implied audience of the sermon. This is because the Lord's Prayer appears to have been composed independently of the context of the Sermon on the Mount.
This insight is confirmed by the placement of the Lord's Prayer in the gospel of Luke. One would expect that if the Lord's Prayer was originally part of the Sermon on the Mount, it would appear in Luke's corollary of that sermon, the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-7:1). Yet it does not. Quite the contrary, the Lukan version of the Lord's Prayer is found in a teaching context reserved specifically for disciples (11:1). Limiting this prayer to Jesus' disciples is one of the ways the gospel of Luke demonstrates to us that this prayer was becoming important to Christian self-identity and ritual practice.
Another early Christian text in which one finds the Lord's Prayer is the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, usually called the Didache (or Teaching) by scholars. In the Didache the author writes, "And do not pray as the wicked [do]; pray instead this way, as the Lord directed in his gospel." Here the Lord's Prayer is seen as the model Christians should follow in prayer. It is given greater authority than in the gospels by the insertion of the words "as the Lord directed in his gospel." Scholars disagree as to how to interpret this phrase. Some understand the reference to "his gospel" to mean a written gospel like Matthew or Luke. Others argue that the reference should be understood in the Pauline sense as the preached tradition associated with Jesus (see Romans 10:8,17 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). At any rate, the author of the Didache clearly understands this prayer to be an obligatory teaching from the Lord. What all these writings have in common, and what is most important to our understanding, is that the Lord's Prayer was an essential part of the early Christian understanding of how God seeks to be worshiped.
THE LORD'S PRAYER is still an important part of Christianity's teaching and sense of self-identification. In most traditions, the Lord's Prayer is an integral part of the worship service. It is the one prayer that is almost universally taught to children, and it is the one prayer a person can be sure that any congregation can recite in unison. Yet, despite its unquestioned popularity, very few Christians ever really reflect on the theology or meaning of the prayer. In this examination, I'll highlight the Lord's Prayer as it appears in Matthew 6:9-13 because this is the version of the prayer with which most Christians are familiar.
Our Father in heaven. This part of the prayer is called the invocation. Its purpose is to identify the god to whom the prayer is addressed. In this case, God is identified as "Father." This manner of addressing God by calling upon God without using God's name is peculiar to Judaism. As one might guess, it finds its root in the Decalogue command to avoid the wrongful use of God's name (Exodus 20:7). There are other prayers in antiquity in which a god is identified as a parental figure, and generally they attempt to express a common theme, found in prayers such as Cleanthes' famous hymn to Zeus: "Since we were born of you and we alone share in the likeness of deity, of all things that live and creep upon the earth."
The metaphor of God as "father" expresses the belief that God is the originator of all life, and that all existence is properly understood as a divine gift. Furthermore, as "father" God sustains existence and seeks to nourish it toward maturity, as a father would a child. This understanding of God highlights two important theological points: 1) that as originator and sustainer of all that exists God transcends it, and 2) that God has initiated and maintains a relationship between God's self and all life. This first point is further emphasized by the addition of the phrase "in heaven" in the invocation. The second point is emphasized by the inclusion of the pronoun "our."
The possessive pronoun "our" places God and all life, but principally human life, in a clear relationship. As a component of God's creation, human beings stand in a subordinate relationship to God. This in itself is no new insight. Moreover, it is not unusual to highlight humanity's continued dependence upon God. Still, as the subordinate member in the parent-child analogy, humanity finds itself in a special position of relationship to God and the rest of known creation.
Unlike other members of God's creation (as far as we know), human beings have the ability to self-reflect - not only to know, but also to know that one knows. When the human being addresses God in prayer, she does so with the knowledge that she can know herself as intimately as she knows God. Yet the use of this possessive pronoun in the Lord's Prayer indicates that the human being who prays does not pray on behalf of him- or herself alone. This invocation does not highlight the distinctiveness of one human being; rather it highlights the distinctiveness of humanity's relation to God.
However, there has been a problem in the way Christians have understood or interpreted the prayer. As the church used the prayer, it became a vehicle for distinguishing between insiders and outsiders, Christians and non-Christians. In contrast to the intent of the Lord's Prayer, Christians have attempted to redefine "our" to mean "Christian." This understanding creates a situation of special privileges for some. It implies that Christians have a relationship to God that no other being on earth has. Yet this understanding of special privileges not only goes against the intent of the Lord's Prayer, it goes against the description of God in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:45-48). Likewise, the apostle Paul maintains that God is impartial in dealings with human beings (Romans 2:11). In short, when we pray the Lord's Prayer we are praying not only on behalf of ourselves but of all human beings. It is an overt recognition that we stand in an inextricable relationship to God and each other. In other words, we should not begin to ask God for anything we are not willing to ask on behalf of all human beings.
Hallowed be your name. The first petition requests that God's name be made holy. This is the first of three petitions that seek to address the "needs" of God.
On the one hand, this petition can refer to the final reestablishment of God's holiness on earth. Another way of expressing this idea is found in the biblical idea of the "day of the Lord" (see Isaiah 13:6-14:1 and Joel 1:15-2:12). This would make it an instance of the Jewish divine passive - when the passive voice is used it indicates that God is doing the acting. In other words, the reestablishment of God's holiness on earth is a realization that injustice in the world is such that only the intervention of God can correct it. It is a request that God act in a decisive manner in creation.
On the other hand, one could understand the petition to be an instance of what scholars call the Greek "aorist" verb tense of prayer. The subject of the activity would then shift from God to the person praying the prayer. This idea is in line with the Jewish belief that it is humanity's responsibility to sanctify God's name. This is similar to a statement made in the Sermon on the Mount, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
Yet these possibilities need not be mutually exclusive. This petition could recognize that human beings have a responsibility to sanctify God's name while at the same time recognizing that the profaning of God's name has reached such a point that it is beyond mere human capacity to correct it. At some point God must intervene. What this petition says is twofold. First, it says that human beings are responsible for recognizing the presence of injustice in the world, and they must endeavor to do whatever they can not to contribute to its growth (as well as positively act on behalf of justice). Second, it says that the existence of injustice in the world is already so bad that ultimately only God can balance the scales of justice.
Your kingdom come. The second petition is related to the first. God's authority is envisioned as exercised within God's kingdom. In this manner the prayer can recognize that God is creator and sustainer of the universe, while at the same time acknowledging that God's power is not universally evident.
To most, the concept of a kingdom is outmoded. In an age of liberal democracies, the idea of God's kingdom carries with it ideas of hierarchy and oppression. But in the first century C.E., people could not conceive of a society other than a monarchy. One of the prevalent ideas about the Jewish messiah, for example, was that he would be a king.
In the Roman Empire the emperor exercised power through the mechanism of the legions. This was (ironically) called Pax Romana - peace sustained by force. The Lord's Prayer does not conceive of God's power in such a manner. Instead of force, God's power is based on another idea utilized by Roman emperors, that of auctoritas (authority). Augustus said that he ruled the empire by means of his great auctoritas. Authority, in the Roman sense, meant an innate quality possessed by someone that made his or her views and opinions worthy of belief and obedience. In this case, the use of the expression God's "kingdom" means human acknowledgement that God is worthy of obedience. This is not obedience based on force; rather it is obedience based on the willful acquiescence of one being to another.
In essence, this petition asks God to cease tolerating the reign of injustice in creation and establish a true reign of peace. In this manner, the coming of the kingdom is unlike the vision found in Revelation (the complete destruction of creation). God's kingdom comes through annexation, not annihilation. It is the realization that the ultimate power in the universe is love, not force.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This third petition is also an outgrowth of the first. It recognizes that human beings have an active role to play in the destruction of evil. This is highlighted by the phrase "on earth," which is an indirect reference to the idea of human rebellion against God's will. Many scholars have made a connection between this petition and the episode in Gethsemane where Jesus subsumes his own will to God's will (Matthew 26:36-42). Submitting to God's will means becoming part of God's kingdom. It is a request on behalf of one's self and others that humanity acknowledges its need to recognize the rightful authority of God and God's purposes in creation. With this petition the prayer completes its requests on behalf of God's needs.
Give us this day our daily bread. Now begin the prayer's requests on behalf of human beings. In this petition bread is understood symbolically as all those things necessary for human existence. This understanding of bread communicates a lot more to us than just the idea that God gives us bread. In fact, it undermines such a simple notion.
Bread is the culmination of a process begun by God through the gift of wheat. Both God and human beings must be involved intimately in the creation of bread. In antiquity, wheat was seen as a gracious gift of the deity. Yet wheat is not bread. This initial gracious act of God must be met by the activity of human beings, who farm the land, harvest the wheat, mill it, and bake the bread. In other words, the creation of bread is a complex process involving both divine and human cooperation. (Even in the first century C.E., most people did not bake their own bread.) Thus, embedded in this petition is an ethic which recognizes that for human need to be met, humanity must not only depend upon God's cooperation but must also depend upon the cooperation of other human beings. This is why the bread is identified as "our bread."
The request for bread is a request that 1) God continue to be gracious to humanity through the gift of wheat and favorable weather, and 2) that God see to it that human beings cooperate with each other and share what is produced. As one scholar has said, "Only if [God] gives can the people give, and only if [God] motivates their hearts will they give." In short, this petition asks us to remember that we have an obligation to see to it that all human beings have their basic needs met.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. This petition envisions sin as a complex set of mutual obligations, which it calls "debts" - an idea coming from the worlds of law and commerce. The request for forgiveness here is related to the parable of the unforgiving servant in the gospel (Matthew 18:23-35). As in the parable, sin is understood as a huge debt to others (and to God) that cannot be repaid.
This petition, then, amounts to a request for divine mercy. Such an appeal for mercy was only considered legally appropriate when no other recourse was available. It is akin to the idea of throwing one's self on the mercy of the court. Likewise, an economic appeal for mercy - bankruptcy - was only appropriate when all resources had been exhausted. This appeal, however, can only be enacted if the second part is also enacted - the cancellation of all debts owed to the individual. Otherwise, a new situation of injustice is created.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. The continued existence of evil lures human beings into evil deeds. This is the very definition of temptation. God leads humanity into temptation by allowing evil to exist. It is present in the human condition, and it is partly the result of unfulfilled human obligations and partly the result of God's not having completed the work of salvation. Only God can do what those to whom we are indebted cannot or will not do. Thus this petition is a request that God eradicate temptation and evil simultaneously by rectifying the injustice that exists in the world.
The theology of the Lord's Prayer teaches us that we have an obligation to work together with God to abolish evil and meet basic human needs. In this activity we bring about God's kingdom through our voluntary submission to God will. In essence, it is a program for action based upon a social understanding of all existence. n
Michael Joseph Brown, author of What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), was assistant professor of New Testament at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University when this article appeared.
Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in the resource Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474 or www.sojo.net).