Somewhere before Matthew and Luke was most likely a text that was the source of their common threads, but we'll never see it. So extrapolating from these two storytellers as to what may/must have been said requires more than a literalist view of the two texts' recounting this often repeated prayer (for which most of us seem to have defaulted to Matthew). But the question I have pondered so many times is not “what exactly did Jesus say” but rather, “what was his intent in this teaching?” So despite not having an imprimatur of any religious organization, I am finally going to take a crack at what this itinerant country preacher may have intended for his audience to understand about prayer.
In order to attempt this we first need to understand two things about the speaker, Yeshua of Nazareth, whose name we Anglicized as Jesus. First of all, while there is no evidence that he was formally trained as a Rabbi, Jesus clearly had a good handle on the sacred texts, quoting frequently and selectively from them to make his points. He is, from most of what we can extrapolate from all of these stories, at all times very intentional and consistent about his message, his context and his intent.
Jesus declared himself a “jubilee” messenger – referring to the Deuteronomic rule (Deut. 15:1-11) that every seventh of the seven year periods (that is, every 50th year) is to be a Jubilee year, marked by forgiving all debts, freeing all prisoners, caring for the poor, the widows and the children – using a reference to the same from the book of Isaiah (Is. 61:1-2). However, true to his philosophy, Jesus intentionally left out the last phrase of the passage dealing with vengeance. Jesus was very intentional. He never refers to the wrath or vengeance of God, but rather only refers to the healing, loving and forgiving nature of God. He used scriptures and events to teach a specific message, and that message is the second part of our understanding his contextual framework.
Jesus’ message through all of his teaching was a revolutionary understanding of God, the nature of God, and the nature of “God’s kingdom.” Kingdoms were plentiful in ancient times, and mapped out a domain of influence for each king. Jesus used this metaphor as a way of describing his theological foundation: God was not elsewhere – apart from us, ruling over us – but rather was very real and present, in and among all of us. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he would say, “as you are in me and I am in them and they in me.” He had a unitive theology; that all things were one and united by the same loving force, like one big family. We are inseparable from God but likewise God is inseparable from us. In an age where Gods were thought to reside on a mountain or in the center of the temple, Jesus taught that God not only belonged to all but was resident in all. So let’s see if we can see his understanding of the scripture and his theology evident in this prayer.
Right from the outset, he changes the game, calling God, “father” (implying the one big family). Matthew’s text even adds the descriptor, “our” (like all of ours, not just some of us). And some translations refer to the idea that he used the word “abba,” the familiar form of father: “daddy.” This was not the El Shaddai of old, nor was it the king who lorded over us like some benevolent master. It was intentionally familiar, familial and personal. And least we get all bound up by the masculinist term of father/daddy (as opposed to mother), let’s look at the role of parents in Judea at that time. Parents were fairly equal, though different, long ago. There was clear understanding that both mother and father were necessary and equally important. Fathers typically taught the trades and mothers taught the values of life. Both were essential. So why father then? Because father’s role was to teach purpose – how and what to do to be a contributor in life. And to be certain a father was not absent – off at work – as in modern times. Dads were always present, in the home, working at the house and very present. A father was meant to be purposeful, helpful and always present.
But what then are we to make of the reference to heaven? Doesn’t that connote the sky kingdom and the sky god? Not if you take a further look at how Jesus defines heaven. Heaven is not out there, not some future destination. Heaven is right here, right now. Heaven is among us and. He even goes so far as to say that it is “within you” (Lk. 17:20-21). So this daddy, this teacher, was a very present member of the community, of the family and of life in the present moment. Jesus’ intent was to demystify the concept of God; to make God real and present and palpable.
“Holy (sacred, blessed) is your name.” If we now understand God to be within the very life we are living, Jesus is calling that sacred. Life is sacred and holy. But remember that, as a Jew, Jesus learned that one could not say/speak the name of God, not because of its specialness, but because once anything was named it became separated – by name – from anything that was not that thing. Speaking the name of God would be suggesting that God was some thing, some entity, apart from other things, and certainly apart from us. That is the most sacred aspect of God; that God, being a very real and present aspect of everything, was inseparable from anything – that God was everything and everywhere. That is what holy and blessed really means.
“Thy kingdom come.” Then Jesus returns back to his core theological construct: The kingdom ishere, there and everywhere, and that life-intent that is God is already in action in every element of all creation (on earth and heaven). It seems obvious at this point that Jesus simply means “god is here, among us, already, right now.” Enough said! But here comes the one-two punch!
The first hit refers back to a scriptural reference. Jesus reminds his followers not to take more than enough. The reference to “daily bread” comes from the story of manna in the desert. The Israelites were wandering in the desert and supplies were low, so the story goes. In answer to their hunger and prayers, their God provides something bread-like that appears in the morning like dew. But it came with a rule: take only enough for one day. If anyone took more than a day’s supply, it rotted and would become toxic to them. The hoarders actually died. God’s rule of abundance is that “enough” is all you need. So Jesus’ reference to that story is a reminder (not a request) to the pray-er (not the one prayed to) that we only need “enough.”
And right on the heels of that is the knock-out punch about how forgiveness works. It seems to be a bit of a tricky turn of the phrase, but the pivotal word is “as” – “forgive us as we forgive others.” For most of my life I heard that phrase as a meritocracy: when I forgive enough others, I get to be forgiven, or if I forgive others I will be forgiven. But that was never a part of Jesus’ teaching. Or I thought it may have been some hold-over of the eye-for-an-eye morality of the Greeks in the area. But in fact, just the opposite was Jesus’ message: that you are already, and always forgiven. The nature of this loving God, that is love and life itself, is that you will always be forgiven – even before you think to ask for forgiveness. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son? The passage reads that, before the son was able to even ask his father for forgiveness, “while he was still a long way off” his father saw him, had compassion for him and “ran out to embrace him and kiss him.” God’s forgiveness is not dependent on our having done it first. But knowing Jesus’ understanding of the presence of God, god’s forgiveness is part and parcel with our forgiveness. God-in-us forgives us through each other – it’s how God is made manifest. It is seeing the God in the other as we forgive them or they forgive us. That is God’s love visibly in action!
And in conclusion… Jesus ends his prayer instruction with the oddest phrase of them all, “lead us not into temptation” or in other translations “deliver us from the test.” Jesus taught that the purpose of prayer was that it altered the pray-er (your father already knows what is in your heart). So what might he have meant with the reference to temptation. I have a couple of theories that may explain this one. First of all, the time he spent in the desert before starting his ministry is still fresh in Jesus’ mind. He clearly felt led into his path of teaching and healing. Could he have felt led into that time that tested his spirit and was hoping that others might not have to endure the same?
Many exegetes note how fond Jesus was of the Psalms, and certainly the Psalms are a part of every Shabbat service. The Psalms are rife with references of being put to the test and of being tempted (mostly by wealth and power). The Psalmist seemed to wrestle with his own temptation and the fear that God might turn away because of his weakness or, worse yet, that God would put him to the test! That being the case, Jesus might have been drawing on a common theme from worship.
Now Matthew may have a different take on the prayer and adds the element of evil (or in some translations “the evil one”). But that does not fit with the teachings and philosophy of Jesus. It may well be an editorial comment either added because Matthew wanted to appeal to the cultural norms of the people to whom he was writing. Or it may have been added by a later editor as part of the doctrine of the church of the time (a practice that happened with all sacred texts throughout time).
But more in keeping with my hypothesis that Jesus felt that the prayer was more about how one prayed (more to alter the pray-er than to bend the divine ear) he may have included that line as a last piece of training. “Master, teach us how to pray,” may not have been answered by this teacher with a rote formula. More likely he may have said something to the effect of, “It’s not what you say but who and how you are when you say it! Remember, God is already in you, and in me. God has already given you all you need. God has already forgiven before you could even recall the sin. And this God, would never, ever lead you astray!” Amen.