In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray. He counsels not to babble on, mindlessly thinking the mere multiplication of words will gain a divine hearing. Then he gives the disciples a model for prayer that I will take a few moments to reflect on with you today. Here’s the traditional English translation of St. Matthew’s version of this prayer we all know by heart,
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
In many respects, this prayer Jesus teaches is a highly compressed summary of the Psalter (the 150 psalms). A Scripture professor of mine in grad school once called it the “peasant’s Psalter.” He said that Jesus’ primary audience was the am ha’aretz, the uneducated “people of the land,” and because they would not have had the luxury of being able to learn the Hebrew Psalter by heart He gave them a beautifully compressed synthesis. St. Augustine made the same point this way:
Run through all the words of the holy prayers [in Scripture], and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.
And not only does the Lord’s Prayer contain the summary of the whole Old Testament’s teaching on prayer, but it also organizes the “right order” of prayer. St. Thomas Aquinas says,
The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers. In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them.
What order is that, you ask? Well, I’ll offer a few thoughts on these seven perfectly proportioned petitions.
“Let it be done to me according to your word.” — Luke 1:38
As Fr. Tom Hopko said in a talk on prayer, “We cannot forget that prayer is not in the first place about me — my feelings, my benefits, my needs — but about God. God’s glory, God’s will, God’s work. Prayer is about God, starts with God, ends with God; and that’s the point.”
The Our Father’s first three petitions (hallowed be, kingdom come, will be done) are actually three ways of saying the same thing: God, “do your thing.” They call us to embrace the way Mesiter Eckhart succinctly defined prayer, “Prayer is nothing other than letting God be God; saying, ‘Thy, not my will be done.'” In other words, the first three petitions are a threefold unqualified consent for God to do as He wills with us. I say “with us” because God’s way of “doing” always invites the cooperation of His free creatures. But, as Fr. Tom said, it is God who is the operator, the do-er, and we who are the co-operators by means of our ora et labora, “prayer and work.”
Note further that these three petitions do not simply offer an unqualified consent to the will of some “generic” heavenly Deity. Rather, they consent to a heavenly God who is Father. And not just “any” father, but precisely as Jesus reveals Him to be Father. For Jesus consent to the heavenly Father requires absolutely no qualification — no “Thy will be done, as long as You…” — because God is a Father who already loves humanity (cf John 16:27) and wills only good and never ill (see also Matthew 6:25-34; 7:9-11). One need not bargain with the Father of Jesus, but only turn to Him in trusting, surrendering, consenting prayer.
[As an aside it’s important to just mention that the willing of humanity’s good by the Father of Jesus includes the cross and resurrection. In theological speak, God’s provident care is a paschal mystery.]
“Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” — Psalm 81:10
As I write, I imagine the those praying this prayer to be like baby birds in a nest begging for food with beaks wide open. What an extraordinary image of trust in the natural order! Those of us who pray in the supernatural order should imitate these baby birds and open ourselves up with supreme vulnerability to God, with absolute trust that He will respond to our petitions, and respond with only good things. God always has the ultimate good of us beggars in mind. Thomas Merton’s famous prayer (here) unfolds this wide open trust beautifully with these concluding words,
…Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The final four petitions (give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us) beautifully unfold the first three petitions’ unqualified consent to God “doing His thing.” In them, Jesus bids us ask His Father to feed us, forgive us and free us from all that leads us to final harm, i.e. all things a child would naturally seek from a loving, powerful and provident father. In fact, it’s clear that the whole logic of the prayer flows from the first words, “Our Father.” The rest is commentary.
“With the measure you use, it will be measured to you” — Matthew 7:2
Note, though, that there is one glaring exception to the character of the Our Father as an extended consent to God’s provident will. After we ask the Father to forgive us our sin-debts (or “trespasses” as we say in English), we make this astounding aside — “…as we also have forgiven our debtors” (or “as we forgive those who trespass against us”). In other words, Jesus gives a prayer that contains only one promise of human action — what we will do — that conditions the reception of the divine gift: we must forgive if we are to be forgiven. And just in case we missed the novelty and radical character of this brief insertion, Jesus ends this prayer not with “For the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory…,” but with,
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
So next time you feel tempted to breeze through the Our Father, be careful to be attentive to what you say to the heavenly Father. He’s listening…