I have a confession to make…
I enjoy meetings. In fact, I appreciate having a well-developed agenda. If time limits are specified for each topic on the agenda, even better! And truly great meetings are garnished with chocolate covered snacks and sprinkled with high tech presentations. But, beyond the frills and refinements, meetings have one major advantage over normal, everyday conversations. Most meetings have some form of organizational procedures or a code of conduct; the most formal meetings are governed by “rules of order”. Oh, the simplicity and orderliness (and donuts)! Nevertheless, while meetings can be an important component of our social interactions, our most meaningful personal connections are not formed in the conference room.
Conversations, unlike our structured agenda-driven gatherings, are generally organic. They are often unplanned, crop up in the midst of our day, and the snacks are often missing. The topics and course of conversation are typically unannounced, unorganized, and often messy. And sometimes, what is not said in the conversation is often more important than what is said. And the rules for conversations? The rules for most conversations are virtually non-existent.
And conversations have one tremendous advantage over meetings; conversations are often founded upon our shared stories and common experiences. The moments that we share together form a contextual background that is necessary for real, meaningful interactions. And those common experiences are exactly what make our conversations unorganized, messy and… meaningful.
What about prayer? Would you characterize the act of prayer as a conversation or a meeting? Sometimes, prayer may feel a bit like a formal meeting with God, complete with rules for initiating and concluding the encounter. For example, nearly all prayers are ended with the word, “Amen.” Is that a requirement? Is God left waiting for us to hang-up if we forget to say, “Amen”? *
Are there any rules regarding an agenda or suitable topics for our meeting with God? Several years ago, I visited Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. One of the oldest operating Christian monasteries in the world, St. Catherine’s dates back to the 6th century. Our group was led through the ancient compound by Father Justin, a native Texan who is now a permanent resident of St. Catherine’s. Within the walls of this monastery, Father Justin studies, prays, meditates, and one day, will die. He is an excellent scholar and graciously accommodated our many questions. At the conclusion of our visit, we asked if we could pray with him. His response surprised me. “No,” he answered kindly. Sensing that his response was puzzling to many in our group, he volunteered an explanation. He told us that he only spoke to God using the written prayers of those who had gone before him. To Father Justin, prayer was far too serious a task to use his own words, so he chose to borrow from those who went before him. While I understand the humility of his approach, I am not sure I agree. As messy and unorganized as it might be, I believe that prayer has far more in common with a conversation than a meeting.
As we discussed previously, there are many different forms of spoken and unspoken prayer recorded throughout the Bible. Most of these prayers are deeply connected to a much larger story involving an ongoing relationship with a God who listens, knows and cares. Given this, I have always been puzzled by what is probably the most popular prayer in history - The Lord’s Prayer. Jesus not only taught His disciples this prayer, but He also told them to, “Pray then in this way:” (Matthew 6:9)
What is Jesus saying with this instruction? How do we pray “this way?” Are we to use these exact words or is there something else about this prayer that we should replicate or model?
Most of us were fortunate enough to have learned some version of the Lord’s Prayer at an early age. We may have recited it during a worship service, around the dinner table, at a funeral or a wedding, or maybe it was in the locker room before a game. Think back to the last time you spoke the Lord’s Prayer in a communal gathering. Did you stop to wonder if you were supposed to use “debts,” “trespasses” or simply “sins” toward the end? Did you practice your Old English by using “thy,” “thine” or “unto?” Regardless of the words you learned, the Lord’s Prayer is familiar to most of us. Is it this familiarity that Jesus is referring to when He said, “Pray then this way”? Or, is there more to this prayer than its familiarity or frequency of use?
Let’s start by looking at the prayer itself, as it appears in Matthew 6.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
The first thing you might notice is that the traditional, familiar ending is missing. In fact, “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.” was not included in the best and oldest manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel. This familiar conclusion is also missing in the parallel version of the Lord’s Prayer recorded in Luke 11. Most scholars believe that this extended ending was added several centuries later to capture the way that the Lord’s Prayer was being recited in worship services. However, it was not part of the original version that Jesus taught.
Having this information helps us better understand the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught it. When we remove this traditional ending, we are left with seven requests or petitions. Seven is the number which represents wholeness or completeness throughout the Bible, from the seven-day week in Genesis 1 to the seven trumpets in Revelation. (Click here to read more about the use of numbers in the Bible.) The use of seven here is not a coincidence.
Second, have you ever prayed the Lord’s Prayer when you were alone? Notice anything strange? Even though you were by yourself, you probably did not begin,“My Father, who art in Heaven.” This prayer was written for community.
Lead us not.
From the very beginning, the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are connected. There is a fundamental difference between praying for “us” and “our,” instead of “me” and “mine.” Even in our private conversations with God, we are reminded that we are not traveling through life alone. Although we might not be gathered physically, when we pray “together,” our concerns are melded with the needs of those who share our story or our space. What I need or want might be reconsidered or recast in the light of what is best for us.
Third, The Lord’s Prayer has an important poetic quality. I do not mean poetic as in, “Roses are red, violets are blue.” In the ancient world, there was a literary device that helped highlight the central theme that an author was developing. This writing technique was called chiasmus and was based on the letter X (chi) in the Greek alphabet. In a chiasmus, the first (A) and last statements (A’) are related, then the second (B) and the second to last (B’), and so on. In the center of the “X” there is typically a turning point or statement critical to understanding the larger text. When we look at the Lord’s Prayer through the lens of the chiasmus, this is what we find:
A - Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
B - Your kingdom come.
C - Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
D - Give us this day our daily bread.
C’ - And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
B’ - And do not bring us to the time of trial,
A’ - but rescue us from the evil one.
What do we find at the center-point of the chiasmus? “Give us this day our daily bread.” I don’t know about you, but this seems a little strange and perhaps even out of place. Of the seven petitions we make in the Lord’s Prayer, only this one, right in the center, seems to deal with physical “stuff.” Everything else is spiritual in nature. Why would something as mundane as lunch be placed in such a critical position in the prayer that Jesus told us to model?
The chiasmus itself might help us answer that question. There is another important element to the Lord’s Prayer which the chiasmus reveals. The Lord’s Prayer “moves.” These are not seven random concerns or requests we are asking of God. There is a physical, spatial, and spiritual movement here. Notice where the prayer starts: “Our Father, in heaven…” We begin by asking God, Who dwells in heaven, that His authority be honored and set apart as holy. We start the prayer facing heaven.
Then, in the second petition, we immediately start moving toward the earth. We ask that God’s Kingdom, His reign and rule, descend from Heaven to be present in our world and in our reality. When we see the injustice, hypocrisy and immorality filling our world, we don’t want God to simply observe from heaven. We want God, and His just rule, to be present in the midst of our world.
In the third petition, we ask that God’s will be done here, among His people on the earth, in the same way that it is being done in Heaven. We don’t want to wait until we arrive in heaven at some future date to experience God’s best for our lives. In essence, we want God to bring heaven here, today.
Then, in the fourth request, right in the center of the chiasmus, at the height of the Lord’s Prayer, we take a break to ask for lunch… Let’s skip this one for a moment.
In the fifth request, we ask to be forgiven…in the same way we have forgiven others. Yikes! This prayer is not only moving from heaven to earth, but is now getting very personal. We have moved the prayer right into our homes, our businesses, our families, our friendships, our relationships with our enemies, and into our hearts.
After asking for forgiveness, we plead with God not lead us into times of trial or testing. These battles are fought in our outward actions and our inward intentions. There is little more personal and distinctive of our identity than the process of discerning what is right, and then displaying the moral fortitude to follow through on that decision. In many ways, how we face tests and trials in our lives reveals who we really are.
Finally, in the seventh petition, we ask to be rescued from the evil one. Where is the evil one typically located in our mind’s eye? While I know that this might not be a physical reality, the answer is “under the earth.” It is the “underworld” after all.
We start with the holiness of God in heaven and end with our need for deliverance from the evil one. The Lord’s Prayer moves between extremes, above the earth to under it. Now what about that middle? Let’s go back to the 4th petition. How does a request for daily bread fit this spiritual journey?
The mystery contained in the request to “Give us this day our daily bread” is deeper than we might suspect. One of the Greek words used in this sentence has baffled scholars and theologians for nearly two millennia. The Greek word epiousion, traditionally translated “daily,” is only used twice in all of Greek literature, here in Matthew and in the parallel verse in Luke. Consequently, there are no other sources that can give us some contextual clues about what this word might mean. The word itself appears to be composed of two parts, epi- and ousia. By putting their separate definitions together, we might propose that epiousion means something like “what is necessary for life.” Therefore, we are not asking about the frequency of the bread we need. Instead, we are looking for a type of bread that we cannot live without. And, since everything else in the Lord’s Prayer is spiritual in nature, is there special life-preserving, life-giving bread that we should be asking for? After all, throughout his ministry, Jesus often used bread as a symbol for something much bigger than the outer shell of a sandwich.
• • •
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after fasting for forty days, He tells Satan, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” (Matthew 4:4)
In John 6, Jesus tells His disciples:
“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33) This bread of God comes from heaven to earth. Sounds familiar!
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51)
Finally, there is one very important use of bread that is connected to what Jesus is saying in John 6, and has been part of Christian worship from the very beginning.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matthew 26:26)
• • •
What if Jesus Himself is the Bread that came down from heaven and is necessary for life? Perhaps Jesus is the connection between God’s Kingdom being present on the earth, and our need for forgiveness and deliverance. If Jesus is the Bread of Life, the epiousian that comes from heaven to save His people, then the Lord’s Prayer is the story of God’s campaign to have a real, living, ongoing conversation with us.
When I first noticed that there was a movement from heaven to earth in the Lord’s Prayer, I wondered if it worked in the opposition direction. Look at what happens when we follow the seven petitions of this prayer in reverse over. How does the story of humanity start back in Genesis? The evil one shows up in the Garden of Eden and tempts the first humans on the planet. Adam and Eve decide to follow the temptation of the evil one and sin against God, and each other. This broken relationship with God can only be restored through forgiveness. Adam and Eve need to be forgiven by God, and they need to forgive each other. The price of this forgiveness comes in the form of the Bread of Life, sent from heaven. Jesus offered His life, His body, for our forgiveness and to reunite us with God. Once we are restored to God, what happens in our lives? From Luke 20:21:
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Through Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Kingdom has come! Here and now. We are set free to do God’s will in our world, today, just as it is being done in heaven. And, through this entire story, God’s name is made holy.
So, back to our original question, why do we pray this way? Because, the Lord’s Prayer is not an agenda for a meeting with God; the Lord’s Prayer is our life-defining story.
When we pray this way, we remember how God sees us.
When we pray this way, we remember that God saved us.
When we pray this way, we remember that God is still with us.
When we pray this way, we remember that our story is never over.
* Contrary to popular opinion, “Amen” doesn’t actually mean, “over and out.” “Amen” is derived from the Hebrew root word meaning to confirm, to believe, to be faithful or strongly agree. Amen is a statement of a firm connection and a strong bond. Amen is not the ending to a prayer, but the reminder of a continuing relationship.