Jesus’s disciples came to him with this seemingly simple request. This is what religious leaders do - they give guidance to their followers. The disciples wanted to be the same as the followers of the other rabbis and teachers who were around at the time. They needed something to identify them as distinctively followers of Jesus. They can hardly have expected what they received though.
Jesus gave them a brief prayer which we know as the Lord’s prayer. It has become part of our everyday experience of being a Christian. It’s the prayer we say when nothing else comes to mind, when we’re under stress, when we’re in deep anxiety about a loved one. When there is no other prayer we can remember this is the prayer we turn to. It is the prayer we say at every act of worship in church. It’s the prayer we say every time we say our prayers. It is just a part of our life. We can say it without thinking.
There are two versions of the Lord’s prayer. The more familiar is in Matthew’s gospel (6.9-13) where it forms part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew the prayer is not given in response to a question from the disciples but as part of Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on religious observance - prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Less familiar, and somewhat briefer, is Luke’s version (11.2-4). Below is Matthew’s prayer with the words of Luke’s prayer in italic and in [square brackets] where it differs significantly.
Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today [each day] our daily bread. And forgive us our debts [sins], as we have forgiven those who are [for we ourselves forgive each one who is] in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the Evil One.
Although Luke’s version is briefer than Matthew’s we can easily see that the general gist of the two prayers is the same. The two prayers obviously have the same origin but it is impossible to say with certainty which, if either, is closer to the original words of Jesus - and, indeed, they may be two versions of the prayer that Jesus used on separate occasions.
But Luke and Matthew set the prayer in rather different contexts. Luke records the disciples asking to be taught to pray and follows up the teaching with the parable of the man who goes to his friend at night requesting bread for a friend who has visited unexpectedly. He then contrasts the way that we might need to be pestered to do the right thing with God who provides what we need as we ask, Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. God does not need pestering because he loves us. In the same way that we know to give our children good things so God gives us the good things we need.
Matthew, on the other hand, sets the prayer in the middle of his teaching on religious observance. Jesus has already spoken of the need to give alms in secret. Almsgiving is not about being seen to be generous and winning human approval but is about our duty to God arising out of our faith. God will reward us for our works of charity. Similarly prayer should be done in secret. Prayer is between God and believer; it is not something to be shown off in public. Jesus goes on to talk about fasting in secret in the same vein.
Why the different contexts? What different lessons should we draw from these two presentations of the Lord’s prayer? Luke’s focus, I think, is on the importance of recognising that God provides what they need for those he loves. The prayer emphasises our dependence on God. The prayer is simple in Luke because the requests are simple - and very basic. Luke’s Lord’s prayer has us asking for our most fundamental needs - God’s kingdom, daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from the test - in the knowledge that God answers prayer. God gives us what we need for life - physical, emotional and spiritual. This prayer tells us to ask only for what we need, and, perhaps by implication, not to ask for what we want that is more than we need.
Matthew’s version feels a little more formal, less direct. It’s more like the prayers we say in church than the prayers we might say through the day. And the context certainly sets it within our religious duty. Prayer is something we should do, and take seriously. It should be done in private and using these words. In the context this version is as much about our relationship with God as it is about our needs.
Where Luke focusses on what we ask for and the way in which we can expect our prayers to be answered Matthew focusses on our duty to God and the correctness of our relationship with God. We do not carry out our religious duties to impress other people but in order to approach God correctly. Carrying out these duties in private has the added advantage of meaning that we can come before God as we truly are. Whenever we are with other people we put on a front, we try to be seen as we would like to be seen. We have no need to do that when we are alone with God - he knows who we truly are already; we can’t fool him, even if we can fool our friends and neighbours. But, as in the Lukan version, this all means that we can, and should, ask for what we need rather than what we would like, or what we want.
So what does the prayer itself say?
It begins with an affirmation of God’s holiness. We establish right at the beginning the nature of our relationship with God. He is holy, other, different from us. By implication it is only because he allows it that we are able to approach him in prayer. This is immediately followed by a prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom. Probably when Jesus taught this to his disciples he had in mind the end time, but it is difficult for us to pray for that in the way that Jesus and the first Christians would have. When we pray these words we will be asking for God’s presence to be made real and apparent in the world, so it becomes a prayer for our own role in doing that. And that’s not untrue to Jesus’s thought. He believed in a kingdom that was already present as well (or alongside) the kingdom that was to come. Matthew follows this up with the words, your will be done. These words seem to add to the sense of what we must do to make the kingdom a present reality.
Now the prayer changes to asking God to do things for us. We ask him to provide our daily bread. Daily bread, I am sure, is a metaphor for all of our physical (and probably emotional and, perhaps, spiritual) needs. But it is a prayer for the basic requirements for human life not a prayer for wealth or power or possessions.
The next phrase of the prayer is a request for the most fundamental of our spiritual needs - forgiveness - but with a condition: that we forgive others. This need for us to forgive in order to be forgiven is spelled out very clearly in Matthew’s gospel, Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either. The unforgiving must remain themselves unforgiven. Forgiveness lies at the very heart of our spiritual life. None of us is worthy, of our own merit, to stand in the presence of God; to stand before God we need to be forgiven, and we cannot be forgiven if we still hold others’ sins against them.
The final petition prays for protection from the test, or time of trial. This petition arises from the expectation of a time of testing which will be heralded by the end time. While never entirely losing that meaning we will probably pray this and mean that we want to be spared being tested beyond what we can endure. Matthew adds but save us from the Evil One, which carries much the same sense and adds emphasis to the request.
If we are to take the prayer seriously, and we want to because of its origin from Jesus, we should use this prayer as the template for all our prayers. But, we shall also use the prayer as it is, daily, in our prayers and in our corporate worship. If we do that, not only will it teach us how to pray but it will also shape our faith. As we say it its meaning will be woven into our perception of God and the world. It will define the way we think about everything. The Lord’s prayer is, in its simplicity, a work of genius; it enriches our life of faith in more ways than we can begin to imagine.
Scripture quotations are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible, © 1985, Darton, Longman & Todd and Doubleday & Company, Inc.