The Lord’s Prayer is about liberation
Jonathan Rowe, 24 July 2022
Genesis 18: 20–32; Colossians 2: 6–15; Luke 11: 1–13
‘Teach us to pray.’ ‘We’ve seen you pray, Jesus – teach us how it’s done.’
Much of what we learn in life, including the Christian life, is learned by observing others and then joining in: seeing, then doing. We have a go at praying, giving, serving, loving; perhaps tentatively, and then more confidently. A bit like riding a bike, sometimes we fall off; but we get back on and try again. And so, we learn.
The disciples were followers of Jesus. Their desire was not primarily to learn more about prayer but to learn how to pray, to follow Jesus more faithfully. The Lord’s Prayer certainly assumes things about God, but it is not a theological treatise. It is a prayer to be prayed. And then prayed again. A ‘lifelong act of bending our lives towards God in the way that God has offered’ [Willimon & Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, p. 22], a means of living more fully.
The very first word of the prayer is significant: Father. Ah, you say, we pray ‘Our Father’. Well, many European languages today start the Lord’s Prayer with the word ‘Father’ and, like them, both in Aramaic and in Greek, the first word of the prayer is ‘Father’.
(I should perhaps mention something else in parentheses: sometimes our experience of fathers has not been positive, and that clearly will affect how we understand praying to God as ‘Father’. It’s useful to note, I think important to note, that both Jews and Christians have always considered God as beyond gender. So when the Bible speaks of ‘Father’, it’s important to think about what that reveals – not necessarily our own experiences of father.)
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to his Father, Jesus invites them to view themselves as his siblings, sharing a parent. And when we pray to God as Father, we stand where Jesus stands: we put ourselves quite literally in Jesus’ place. Rowan Williams puts it like this: ‘Jesus speaks to God for us, but we speak to God in him’ [Being Christian, p. 62]. As we pray, Jesus speaks to the Father; and as we learn more about Jesus, our prayers increasingly align with what Jesus prays.
That’s one of the reasons why we use the Lord’s Prayer today, because we, too, need to learn how to pray (it’s not only the children – I, too, perhaps many of us, need to learn how to pray), to align our prayers with the prayers of Jesus.
By addressing God as Father we don’t only place ourselves alongside Jesus, we are reminded of a particular story about God and the world. It’s a story about liberation. When Moses challenged Pharaoh in Egypt, he declared, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first son’ (Exodus 4: 22). So, whenever Israel calls God ‘Father’, its people are holding onto freedom. The word speaks not only of familial intimacy, but of hope.
That’s why Isaiah, when all seemed lost, clung on to the fatherhood of God. On the basis that ‘You, O Lord, are our Father’ (Isaiah 63: 16), Isaiah pleads, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64: 1). When will evil end and a new Exodus come? The first word of the Lord’s Prayer, Father, says, ‘Let it be now’.
That’s the thought that continues through the next two lines. The hope of the Old Testament prophets was that God would be recognised as God. Making God known had been the intended vocation of the people of Israel. They were to be a priestly people, mediating the knowledge of God amongst the nations (see Exodus 19: 6).
When ancient Israel failed in that mission, the prophets announced that God would intervene. Ezekiel, for example, announcing God’s renewal of Israel, declares on God’s behalf, ‘I shall sanctify my great name’ (36: 23).
‘Hallowed by your name’: it’s a plea for Ezekiel’s prophecy to be realised: for the dry bones to be revivified, for the healing of the nations. In other words, for God’s kingdom to come. For the rule of God in heaven also to be made manifest, to be made real, on earth where people dwell. It’s a prayer that the liberation which God has promised come now.
I wonder whether we might imagine the first few lines of the Lord’s Prayer as, say, a demonstration. I don’t know if anyone’s demonstrating these days. Before Covid, people used to demonstrate in the centre of London, didn’t they? And they used to go down the Mall or Whitehall, and they used to chant: What do we want? And the answer in the Lord’s Prayer is: ‘Liberation!’ When do we want it? ‘Now!’
But this liberation contains a challenge, for God’s ways are not the ways of people. We see that in the life of Jesus, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ. So, the second part of the Lord’s Prayer moves from asking that God’s liberation comes now to asking for help in living the liberated life.
‘Give us each day our daily bread.’ It’s a request to have enough for today, and then sufficient for tomorrow. Underlying this prayer – the premise, if you like – is that God provides. It’s an assumption with some important ramifications.
On the one hand, it means that we shouldn’t hoard things, accumulating what we don’t need, ‘just in case’. When we do that we reveal that we think life depends upon our own efforts, and it often leads (I think we’ve perhaps seen this) to avarice rather than a contented reliance upon God’s abundance.
On the other hand, ‘Give us today our daily bread’ recognises there’s a communal, social dimension to having enough. Lots of people are involved in the production of bread. And once produced, issues of justice surround its distribution.
I don’t know about you, but perhaps the most daunting part of the Lord’s Prayer is, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us’. The fifth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa thought that behind this part of the prayer there was the idea of a parent teaching a child: ‘Watch me; now try it’. God says, ‘You have seen what forgiveness looks like in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; now have a go yourselves’.
Forgiveness, I think, is in quite short supply in today’s world. It doesn’t mean trying to forget, or saying that something doesn’t matter. It means resituating the situation, the evil, in the context of God’s forgiveness. One consequence is that we are freed: we are liberated at the moment that we let go of our desire for retribution.
Perhaps the most daunting part of the Lord’s Prayer is, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us’ … Forgiveness means resituating the evil in the context of God’s forgiveness.
The final petition is, ‘Do not bring us to the time to trial’. Jesus knew that he would have to endure the cross, but he prayed that his disciples would not be sucked into the vortex of evil. We pray that we do not find ourselves in a place where there is no escape.
So the Lord’s Prayer is about liberation. It’s a prayer that God’s liberation be experienced now; and it’s a prayer that once God’s liberation has been experienced, he will help Christian disciples live the liberated life.
Now, how the Church prays informs how it lives. And how it lives reveals – or sometimes doesn’t reveal – God’s liberating love to the world. Which leads to the question, how are we to pray the Lord’s Prayer? Here are some practical tips from Christians down the ages.
Many have used each line in the Lord’s Prayer as a sort of heading to structure their own petitions. Using the Lord’s Prayer like that encourages us to become less self-referential: we can’t avoid recognising God as Father or asking, ‘Thy kingdom come’.
Others use the Lord’s Prayer like the Orthodox Christians use the ‘Jesus Prayer’, breathing in and out slowly with each line, repeating the prayer over and over again. It’s a way of experiencing refreshing calm and a means of re-orientating our busy or stressful lives – a form of Christian meditation.
Another way is to take each line as a ‘prayer for the day’. So on Sunday, for example, ‘Our Father’; on Monday, ‘Hallowed be thy name’, and so on. One can use the clause for the day as a sort of private retreat, stepping into it at any moment to pray for those that we meet or what we’re doing.
Whether we choose to pray the Lord’s Prayer in that or any other way, from the very first followers of Jesus onwards, the Lord’s Prayer has been foundational to Christian piety. Some thought it was as central to Christian faith as baptism or the Eucharist.
As pilgrims on a journey, let us learn from Jesus and, when we pray, say ‘Father …’.