What would you do if you knew you were soon going to die? When a number of people aboard the Titanic knew that soon they would perish in the icy waters of the North Atlantic they could think of nothing better to do than to gather together and say the Lord’s Prayer. It was a wise choice. The band might play on (as we are famously told that they did), but wisdom dictated that a mortal soul soon to meet its Maker would turn his heart to God in the words once given by the Saviour.
Like most of His teaching, Jesus gave this teaching on prayer in response to need and request. He was praying in a certain place, and His disciples overheard Him. This was scarcely difficult, since in that day (unlike our own) prayer was offered aloud, even when one was in a public place. One could pray quietly enough not to be heard, as Hannah once did (see 1 Samuel 1: 10-13), but this was unusual. Praying, like reading, was then an audible activity. His disciples were impressed with the quality of His prayer, and wanted to pray like Him. They therefore asked Him to teach them to pray, even as John the Baptizer taught his disciples (Luke 11:1).
In response the Master gave them not a lecture or a collection of spiritual principles to put into effect, but a model prayer. By praying this prayer, they could at length learn what all prayer should be. It was concise enough to be immediately committed to memory and stored in their heart for meditation. It was not just a model, however. It was an actual prayer, meant to be prayed, for Jesus did not just say, “Pray like this” [Greek ουτως/ outos] in Matthew 6:9, but in Luke 9:2 He also said, “When you pray, say” [Greek λεγετε/ legete]. And the Church ever after obeyed Him, using this prayer along with all their other prayers.
The Lord’s Prayer is present in the New Testament in two different forms: a longer one in Matthew 6:9-13 and a shorter one in Luke 11:2-4. (Some manuscripts, however, have a longer Lukan version which corresponds more completely to Matthew’s version. Given the liturgical habits of the time in which Matthew’s longer version was always used liturgically, later scribes copying Luke’s text were tempted to regard the shorter Lukan version as incomplete and to correct it by inserting the omitted phrases. Thus though manuscripts like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have the shorter version, other manuscripts like Alexandrinus and Ephraimi have the longer one. There can be little doubt, however, that the shorter version is the original one that Luke wrote, for if Luke’s original version conformed to Matthew’s version, it is difficult to imagine why a scribe would edit it so severely.) Which version went back to Jesus Himself (or whether Matthew’s and Luke’s are both translations of an earlier common version, as I suspect) is debated by scholars. Probably because Matthew’s version is fuller and longer, it soon became the one preferred by the Church at large, so that when the author of the Didache (written probably around 100 A.D.) bids his readers to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, it is Matthew’s version he offers (chapter 8). For this reason (and owing to the impossibility of getting behind the text to an earlier oral version, if such existed) we will work from the Matthew version here in the weeks to come.
Before our in-depth examination of the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase in the weeks to come, we will note that our Lord intended to offer a prayer that was noticeably different in spirit from the prayers offered by the Pharisees—the rival models then on the Palestinian market. The fault of the Pharisees was that they loved to pray in order to impress their hearers with their tremendous show of piety. That was why they made sure that when the prescribed hours for prayer came they were in a public a place as possible, such as on street corners. They would multiply words and go on for a great length of time,
heaping up phrase upon phrase. This our Lord condemned as worthy only of the benighted pagan Gentiles, who thought that their gods could somehow be impressed and swayed by verbal pyrotechnics and fancy rhetoric.
It was a comedic bit of satire: picture this, He was saying in effect: a Gentile prays a prolix and dramatic prayer and his pagan god sits back and says, “Wow, what a prayer! Now I sure will grant what he asked for!” Any Jew would recognize the notion that a god could be bowled over by rhetoric unworthy of a true God. But that, our Lord says, is effectively what the Pharisees were doing by insisting on praying at such great length and by heaping up phrases. They were thus scarcely better than the pagans!
In contrast, the Lord bids His disciples to be simple and direct in their approach to God. They do not need to go on at length, as if they were giving the Most High information that He needed before He could grant their requests. Indeed, God knew what they needed before the prayer even began! Better to pray simply, as children talk to their fathers, confident in the love of God.
Next: “Our Father who art in heaven”.