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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What does the Lord's Prayer mean?

As David has just pointed out, there is a post about an error in the Lord’s Prayer at New Epistles. I commented on that “error” there, but I think that the issue warrants a posting here.

The problem arises out of our understanding of
Οὕτως οὖν προσεύχεσθε ὑμεῖς (Matt. 6:9a)

“After this manner therefore pray ye:” (KJV)
“Therefore, you should pray like this:” (HSCB)
“This, then, is how you should pray:” (NIV)
“Pray like this:” (NLT)
The usual interpretation is a fairly literal one, as though Jesus had said:
“Pray these words:”
The Greek doesn’t say that. The meaning is more accurately:
“Make your prayers go like this:”
In other words, the Lord's Prayer is really a template of how to pray.

Repeat the words and it becomes meaningless ritual. Pray according to the template and you can be sincere and real.

Praying using Jesus’ words as a template gives us the following way to form our prayers:
1) Acknowledge who God is.
2) Pray for His work on earth.
3) Ask for what you need.
4) Ask for forgiveness.
5) Ask for a way to deal with temptation and opposition.
The order is crucial, and it’s the part we get wrong all the time.

How often do we open our prayers with requests to deal with our immediate situation, with pleas for forgiveness to deal with our feelings of sinfulness, with requests to rain down fire and brimstone on our enemies. (OK, that’s a little over the top, but you get the idea.)

When we do so, we easily lose track of just who God is.

If we started every prayer putting God’s majesty and His agenda first, we might just get a better perspective on life.

As for the “error”, the fact that we throw in a doxology, which has early roots, is moot if the Lord’s Prayer is a template. To wring our hands over whether it is an error or not is to succumb to the same kind of literalist thinking that leads us to ritualistically repeat Jesus’ words. The very kind of thinking which prevents us from learning how to form all our prayers the way Jesus commanded us.


At Tue Sep 23, 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Esteban Vázquez said...

Repeat the words and it becomes meaningless ritual. Pray according to the template and you can be sincere and real.

I'm sorry, Richard, but this is pure and unfettered nonsense. I will rather trust the sanctified experience of Liturgy of the overwhelming majority of the Christian Church throughout the ages than its myopic rejection by a tiny, reactionary and recent minority.

At Tue Sep 23, 12:56:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Good post, Rich. (And welcome back!)

How do you like Richmond Lattimore's translation? He makes the clause, "Pray thus, then:"

Seems he's doing what you are with "Make your prayers go like this:"

And his "thus, then" (Οὕτως οὖν) echoes the two earlier anti-templates:

"as the hypocrites" (ὥσπερ οἱ ὑποκριταὶ)

"as the pagans" (ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί)

(for which Willis Barnstone has "like the actors" / "like the gentiles")

Of course, we could speculate all day about the original Aramaic, the later Greek ending, and whether any language group, then or now, has a right to its rites.

At Tue Sep 23, 12:59:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...


Do you think the Corinthians (if Paul had sent them a copy of Matthew's translation) would have recited this prayer verbatim? I do. But wouldn't they have smiled knowing they were also οἱ ἐθνικοί?

At Tue Sep 23, 01:23:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Esteban, you might like to compare the total number of Baptist, Pentecostal and "New Church" believers worldwide with the total number of practising Orthodox believers before proclaiming the former group "a tiny ... minority". They are not all that "recent" as they have been around for nearly 500 years, with forebears before that. As for them being "reactionary", they indeed want to take the church back to its first century roots as seen in NT Corinth (see Kurk's comment) and get away from the accretions of later centuries.

I write this by the way as a member of a liturgical church.

At Tue Sep 23, 01:44:00 PM, Blogger Esteban Vázquez said...

Kurk> Very probably!

Peter> I'm well aware of the existence and numbers of these groups you mention, and of their placement in a timeline of Church history, and they are still conform a recent and tiny minority when compared, again, to the experience of the overwhelming majority of the Christian Church throughout the ages. Also, I'm far from certain that they have returned to anything like the Church's first-century bearings.

At Tue Sep 23, 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, Esteban, I would not want to claim that most have properly returned to the first century bearings. Indeed most of them probably recite the Lord's Prayer anyway although no more liturgy - although I would not expect that the Corinthians ever did this.

But I still dispute your "tiny minority" claim. I suspect that if we compare the number of non-liturgical Christians alive now, certainly many hundreds of millions, with the total number of genuinely practising Orthodox Christians who have ever lived there would not be a huge disparity. I accept that on both sides such counts are in practice almost impossible because of massive over-reporting of church affiliation and attendance.

At Tue Sep 23, 04:44:00 PM, Blogger David Ker said...

That pesky houtos. It caused quite a lot of trouble in John 3:16 through the ages as well.

Thanks for throwing in a little devotional stuff too. I like Jesus' model prayer. In other places he warns us off long prayers, meaningless repetition and effusive public display. A short sweet prayer modeled on this as you've suggested can be really effective.

At Tue Sep 23, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Esteban Vázquez said...

Peter, not only "Orthodox Christians" in the modern sense of the word, but also Roman Catholics in this same sense, and even Anglicans such as yourself and the churches of the continental Reformation, which unlike the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians, most certainly used (and use) written liturgies. And then there's the use of such liturgies in the first millennium of Christian history.

Meanwhile, I will have to borrow your "massive over-reporting of church affiliation" line next time I'm talking about this infuriating phenomenon! :-)

At Tue Sep 23, 05:45:00 PM, Blogger iYRe said...

Actually, I think its preferable to think of this prayer as "content" - that is, "what to pray about".

The disciples obviously knew how to pray, they would have been doing it since children. They just wanted to know the kinds of things their teacher wanted them to pray about... that God's will be done, that they are delivered from evil, that their needs are met, and that they are able to life lives reflecting what they have been taught.

Tom Wright wrote an excellent little book on it.

At Tue Sep 23, 07:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Most interesting to have this post on the Lord's Prayer, Rich. I've been mulling over a post on the same prayer, but from a different angle, for a few months. Maybe I'll finally get around to it.

At Wed Sep 24, 05:02:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

The Better Life Bible ( renders The Lord's Prayer this way, with Jesus' introduction:

"Here’s my suggestion for a prayer that covers the basics,

Help us, God,
to give you the respect you deserve,
to follow your advice for a better life,
to obtain food and shelter,
to overlook the faults of others as you overlook ours,
and to overcome our self-centeredness."

At Wed Sep 24, 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Sorry I didn't get right back on this.

Esteban seems to have read my post as suggesting that we stop reciting the Lord's Prayer. I didn't intend that at all. I actually think that there are good reasons to recite prayers in unison as a congregation. I may be in a church with its roots in pietism, but I grew up in the Anglican tradition, so I understand the value of ritual.

And I question the oft-made assertion that Baptists, Pentacostals, and "New Churches" are not ritualistic. Try changing the order of service some day and watch the reaction of the congregation. The ritual may not involve smells and bells, but it is most definitely there, and in many such churches it includes a recitation of Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer.

At Wed Sep 24, 01:07:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Rich, I don't think I claimed that any churches are not ritualistic. Probably all churches are ritualistic to some extent. And probably for the great majority this includes more or less often recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

My claim about Baptists, Pentacostals, and "New Churches" is that they are not liturgical, in the sense I assume intended by Esteban when he referred to "the sanctified experience of Liturgy". I took this as a reference to the Orthodox eucharistic liturgy, although Esteban later broadened it to include Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies. I accept that there is no hard and fast line between liturgical and non-liturgical churches, but there are some in which meetings are always dominated by the words of a formal and fixed liturgy and others in which such words play a small part or none at all.

At Wed Sep 24, 01:52:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

We're on the same page.

Since the discussion wandered into the widely accepted distinction between churches that are liturgical (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and maybe Lutheran) and non-liturgical (pretty much everything else), I thought it worth pointing out that until you get to Quakers, there is significant liturgy in any church regardless of its denominational affinities -- and then I cleverly forgot to say that those liturgies often do include a regular recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

At Wed Sep 24, 11:07:00 PM, OpenID sunestauromai said...

I shared similar thoughts ( Good post Rich.

At Fri Sep 26, 08:23:00 PM, Blogger David said...

What about Lk 11:2 "[Jesus] said to them,'When you all pray, say, "Father,..."'"

Matthew does look like he structured the saying to provide an example, but Luke provided a prayer for his disciples to pray during their prayers.

At Fri Sep 26, 10:37:00 PM, Blogger iYRe said...

Why would people who have been taught to pray all their lives need a structure? In fact I think you'll find the structure isnt unique, the content is.. Consider this:

Our Father: Exodus - I will rescue my children - God is the one who saves

Hallowed be: therefore be set apart as He is set apart

Thy Kingdom come, Will be done: The end has begun, be looking forward to the day heaven comes to earth and all is fulfilled.

Daily Bread: Ask for what you need to make it through to the end.

Forgive tresspasses: Ask for the power to Live the right kind of life, a life of forgivness, as you have been forgiven.

Do not test us: Ask for the power to over come sin and find us not guilty in the end.

For the Kingdom... is yours: Because all things belong to God, including our lives.

Thats a pretty radical prayer, a prayer for revolution. I cant begin to explain the depths that each of the lines of that prayer plumbs.
It is, to borrow Tom Wright's analogy, like putting on you dad's suit and imitating him. Every day we fit it better, and we become more like him, yet its always too big.

I dont think its a "structure" that needs to be followed - its guide for what a person of the Jesus revolution should be praying about in order for it to come to fruition in our lives.


At Sat Sep 27, 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I would expect only extreme literalists to insist that there is a real difference of meaning between the introductions to Matthew's and Luke's versions of the prayer.

At Sun Sep 28, 11:30:00 AM, Blogger David said...

Sorry, Peter, but I am not an "extreme literalist", but there is a world of difference between the context of the prayer found in Matthew and Luke. Also, why should one hold Matthew's presentation of the context and introduction of the prayer to be more authoritative than Luke's?

At Tue Sep 30, 06:42:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

David, I thought you were David Ker but apparently not, you are effectively anonymous. I really don't see the "world of difference" that you claim, just that Matthew has grouped together Jesus' teaching in a different way from Luke. I am not in any way suggesting that Matthew's presentation has priority over Luke's, only that they have basically the same meaning.


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