Another way to Read the Lord’s Prayer
- Another way to Read the Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer isn’t just a timeless prayer; it’s also a timely one.
What’s that supposed to mean? Well, a timeless prayer is a prayer that can be used as a kind of model, a prayer for everyone, and in fact a prayer that is appropriate for any situation. The Lord’s Prayer is definitely that.
But there’s another aspect to the Lord’s Prayer that is worth considering. It’s also a timely prayer, by which I mean that it is fit for a particular occasion. It is the kind of prayer that addresses the moment. Or, to put it another way, there’s a beautiful and productive ambiguity in the phrase “the Lord’s Prayer.” Is this prayer “the Lord’s” because it’s the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray? Or, alternatively, is it “the Lord’s” because it’s the kind of prayer Jesus prayed?
Why not both?
The Prayer Jesus Taught Us to Pray
Most treatments of the Lord’s Prayer begin by approaching it as a timeless prayer, as a model to be studied and emulated in one’s own personal practice and worship, as the way Jesus instructed his disciples to pray. Jesus’ own words encourage that approach: “pray then like this” (Matt. 6:9). As Jesus answers the question posed by his disciples—how then should we pray?—he actually prays a model prayer. He doesn’t give them rules or principles (“start with adoration, then confession,…”); no, he drops to his knees and prays. He answers their question about prayer with a prayer.
That is significant. His answer implies that what follows is a kind of model or rubric. It is the sum of all prayers. In all our prayers we pray this way. When Jesus prays his answer he thereby gives his disciples a path to follow, a form to repeat, a pattern upon which they can iterate and create. The Lord’s Prayer is a cross-generational and always relevant guide for God’s people as they approach God with praise and petition. It is a timeless prayer, and exploring the timeless character of this prayer has provided God’s people with countless fruitful perspectives on the nature of Christian prayer.
A Prayer that Jesus Prayed
There is, however, another implication to this observation. The fact that Jesus answered his disciples by actually praying provides for us another layer of theological and pastoral reflection on the Lord’s prayer. This is the kind of prayer that Jesus prayed. It’s “the Lord’s” because he in fact prayed it. He prayed it first; he prayed it best; he prayed it sincerely and reverently.
This observation lets us meditate on the Lord’s Prayer from a different angle. This prayer is not just the kind of prayer that our Lord taught, but rather the kind of prayer our Lord prayed. It is not just a timeless prayer; it is also a timely one. This prayer is not just fit for all seasons, it is also one fit for this present moment, this period of Jesus’ own life and work. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive, but they are different, nonetheless. The former emphasis focuses on the way in which we are to pray the prayer, but the latter emphasizes how the prayer fits Jesus’ own need, his own work, and the way in which the person and work of Jesus is embodied in this particular prayer.
The King’s Petitions
In this series of posts, then, we will be taking a different approach to the six petitions that constitute the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than considering them along the personal and ecclesiological angle–“what are Christians praying for when they petition God to ‘give us this day our daily bread?'”–we will be considering them from a Christological and historical angle: what was Jesus praying for when he petitioned God for bread, and how did God answer that prayer? What about “thy Kingdom come?” And yes, of course: could Jesus authentically pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors?”
The answers to those questions will have a twofold benefit. On the one hand, they will actually help us to pray better prayers–in understanding how Jesus prayed, we will grow in prayer. But there is an even more important benefit: in hearing Jesus’ own prayers we will better appreciate the heart, mind, and will of our Lord. We get to witness how the Son speaks to His own Father, and the love he has for his many sisters and brothers.