The Lord's Prayer (Our Father) Explained
Introduction To The Our Father
"This, then, is how you should pray:
" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.[
We find two versions of the 'Our Father' in the New Testament, a shorter one in Luke's Gospel and a longer one, the one we normally use, in Matthew's Gospel. The version in Luke's Gospel goes like this:
He said to them, "When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.[
When Jesus prays 'Our Father' he is not making a statement about whether or not God is male or female — we know that God is neither man nor woman — Jesus is saying something more profound about our relationship to God. He is saying that we are not slaves or servants, whose role is only to obey their master for little reward.
Our relationship to God is one of a son to his Father. Also, in New Testament times, the son inherited from his father, so when Jesus invites us to call ourselves sons of God, this means that we can all see ourselves as heirs to God's kingdom. This does not mean that we have to see God as literally male, or that we should worry if we just happened to be born female and so have no hope of ever being anyone's 'son'! It just means that our relationship to God is like that of a son to his father and so all of us, male and female, are in line for the throne.
The 'Our Father' is similar to various Jewish prayers of New Testament times. It fits in with a kind of prayer known as a tephillah qezarah, a short prayer which was supposed to be recited in moments of trouble or danger. Here is an example: "Perform your will in heaven and bestow satisfaction on earth upon those who revere you, and do that which is good in your sight. Blessed are you who hears prayer." The 'Our Father' is also very like a Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, a prayer prayed in the synagogue after the sermon.
The Didache is a very early Christian set of teachings ('Didache' simply means 'teaching'). It was written in the first century AD and has a version of the Our Father which it commands Christians to say three times a day. This fits in with Jewish liturgical practice — Jews were also urged to say a prayer, the eighteen benedictions, three times a day. A condensed or abbreviated version was also available which was of comparable length to the Our Father. The version of the Our Father in the Didache also had a doxology tagged onto the end: 'For thine is the power and glory for ever'. After each of the eighteen benedictions, the Jews would say a doxology (doxa is the Greek word for 'glory', a doxology is a prayer glorifying God). This tradition of adding the doxology onto the 'Our Father was carried on into Christian liturgy, and these prayerful additions became so closely associated with the Lord's Prayer that they are often taken to be part of the prayer itself. This is why some denominations add 'for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever' onto the end of the Our Father, even though it is not part of the original prayer that we are given by Jesus in the Gospels.
The Seven Petitions of The Our Father
The 'Our Father' has traditionally been divided up into the introduction - "Our Father, who art in heaven," and then seven petitions. Since at least the time of Augustine in the fourth century, the Our Father has been used as a way of teaching people about prayer.
The shorter version of the Our Father in St Luke's Gospel does not have "Our Father, who art in heaven", but simply begins with the word "Father". Some scholars wonder whether the original prayer of Jesus was simply, "Father", especially as the words, "Our Father in heaven," could be found in other Jewish prayers, and so it was likely that Jesus' prayer would be changed to something more familiar. But no one really knows — perhaps Jesus prayed the Our Father twice and used different words each time.
The Our Father was originally spoken in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. Aramaic was probably Jesus's mother tongue. The word Jesus used for 'father' was originally an Aramaic word, abba. The word abba means 'papa' or 'dad'. When we say the Our Father we are speaking to God in a very intimate way, not as a distant figure but as a close and comfortable member of the family. It is this rather shocking intimacy that Jesus is wanting to get across to his disciples when he teaches them this prayer.
When we pray the words Our Father we are saying that God is not just 'my' father, but everyone's. We cannot exclude anyone from God's loving care, we cannot label some 'in' and others 'out'. God is the father of all.
Who art in heaven...
Where is heaven? We often think of heaven as being 'up there' somewhere vaguely in the sky. But heaven is not really a place 'out there'. Heaven is where God is, where his love and peace hold sway. We have heaven in our hearts, in our communities. Wherever there is love and goodness there is a little slice of heaven. When we say "Our Father who art in heaven'" we are not banishing God to the outer corners of the sky; far from it! We are acknowledging his presence, his immanence in our world, our lives, our loves, our hearts. Wherever goodness and kindness and love are flourishing we can see heaven and touch the dwelling place of God. Nor does this mean that God is only to be found in the midst of our happiness and joy: he is constantly at work in even our darkest moments, supporting and transforming, giving life and peace. As St Paul says:
"For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince nothing that exists, nothing still to come not any power, or height or depth, or any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-3 9)
First Petition: Hallowed Be Thy Name
In the Old Testament God's name stood for God himself. Sometimes referring to God as 'his name' was a roundabout way of mentioning him without having to say his name out loud. The name of God was thought to be too holy to mention and he was often known in Hebrew as simply ha-shem 'the name'. So when we pray that God's name will be made holy we are praying that God himself will be given the reverence and honour due to him. Giving reverence to God also means acknowledging his place as ruler of the world.
To hallow is older English for 'to make holy', so in modern English instead of saying 'hallowed be your name', we would say 'May your name be made holy'. The Our Father' is such a well loved and often-used prayer, that to change its wording to bring it up-to-date with the norms of modern English would involve changing the words that many hold very dear. This is why the Our Father' is still full of older English: 'thee', 'thou' and 'art'.
Second Petition: Thy Kingdom Come
Throughout the Old and the New Testaments there is a great longing for the time when God will rule the world in full glory and power. The kingdom of God will be ruled by justice and love. There will be no more sadness, no poverty or loneliness.
The petitions of the Our Father all assume that, when we pray, we do somehow effect what is happening and that our prayers will actually bring about the things we pray for. The problem is that sometimes God s answer to our prayers may not be exactly what we expect ...
A man on a boat suddenly realised that his boat was sinking. He prayed that God would save him — he was sure that God would save him, so he just sat down and waited. After a while he saw a huge ocean liner on the horizon. The ship hailed him on the radio and asked if he was OK. "Oh yes" he said, "I'm fine." Then a helicopter flew overhead and hailed him on the radio, asking if he needed assistance as they could see that his ship was in difficulties, "Oh no, thank you" he replied, "I'm fine." Then a fishing boat came by, and seeing that his ship was beginning to sink offered to come alongside and take him on board. "No, no," said the man, "I'll be perfectly all right" Then his ship went down and the man drowned. When he got to heaven he was very upset and said to God, "You told me that if I believed in you and prayed for something then I would get it. I prayed and believed that you would save me, but you left me to drown!" God replied to the man, "I tried very hard to save you, but you wouldn't let me. I sent an ocean liner, a helicopter and a fishing boat to save you, but you sent them all packing. What did you expect?"
Third Petition: Thy Will Be Done On Earth As In Heaven
It is often very hard to honestly pray for God's will to be done. Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane is an illustration of how difficult it can be to do the will of God. God's will may not always be our will. Often when we pray, we pray for what we want, or for what we think we want. What we want for ourselves may not always be the best thing in the long run — for ourselves or for others. God's will may well be different from ours. It is very difficult to let go and pray for God's will to be done. His will may well involve loss and grief for us in the short term. It is very hard to trust God with the people and the things that we hold most dear.
The original Greek text of this verse of the Our Father is slightly ambiguous. It can either read "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" or "thy will be done both in heaven and on earth". The traditional reading assumes that God is in complete control in heaven, and the earth just needs to knuckle under and follow suit. The alternative reading seems to say that God isn't in complete control of heaven — or else why pray for God's will to be done on earth and in heaven?
Praying for God's kingdom to come may make unexpected demands on us. God may well choose to use us as instruments of his kingdom-building. He may choose to use our hands and hearts to bring the kingdom of heaven about on earth. God can use anyone to answer prayer. He can even use the person who is doing the praying. So when I pray, "Thy kingdom come", I am inviting God to use me as an instrument, to use me to help bring about that kingdom, where everyone will live in the joy of God's love.
Fourth Petition: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
This simple petition is a prayer asking for the daily necessities of life, for the food for the day ahead. When Jesus taught this prayer, he probably meant something very simple — that we should ask for the basic necessities of life from God. Even if we work for our daily bread, as most people do, it still comes to us as a gift from God. It is good to foster a healthy dependence on God. Asking for our daily bread reminds us not to store up and amass wealth, what we need for tomorrow, or next year, but to live simply, trusting that he really will supply us with all our needs. Of course this doesn't mean that we pray our prayer and then sit back and relax, waiting for God to deliver everything to our door! But it does mean that we can trust him to see that our basic needs are met.
Give us today our daily bread is praying not just for ourselves. It is not just saying "give me today my daily bread", but praying also that others will receive their daily share as well. Praying this prayer may well involve us in action — we may be the ones God chooses to answer this prayer. All Christians are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to the poor. We are all called to play our part in distributing the earth's goods in such a way that everyone can have their 'daily bread'.
The test of the quality of our prayer is not so much how we feel when we are praying but the quality of our lives. It is tempting to judge our prayer by how we feel when we pray. We do this automatically. When prayer is smooth and easy and there have been few distractions, then we feel close to God. On another day, however, when it has gone badly and has been interrupted with distractions, then we have not felt the presence of God at all. It is a mistake to judge our prayer by how we felt while we prayed. The best test of the quality of our prayer is to look at our conduct outside prayer.
Fifth Petition: Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us
The word 'trespasses' has come down to us from the very earliest English translations of the New Testament. As early as 1380 it was used in Wycliffe's translation of the Lord's prayer. It is more difficult for us to grasp the full meaning of what it means to 'trespass' against someone, because the word has changed its meaning since 1380. Nowadays we tend to use the word 'trespass' to mean walking over someone else's land without their permission. Originally, though, the word had a sense of infringing not only land, but the rights and dignity of another. To trespass against someone was to injure them or do them an injustice.
When we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, what are we saying? Are we really saying that God should only forgive our sins so long as we forgive the sins done to us by other people? What about all those we just find it impossible to forgive? If we cannot forgive someone, does that mean that God will not forgive us? This seems to be what this petition of the "Our Father does say, and as if to underline the point, Jesus says directly after the "Our Father, "If you forgive others 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." (Matthew 6:14-15)
There was a report some time ago from the United States about a group of people called "Murder Victims families for Reconciliation". Many of the members of the group had had their loved ones brutally murdered and had gone through the court cases convicting the murderers. They had been advised that if they could punish the murderer to the fullest extent of the law then they would feel better. Many of these families pursued the harshest sentence, but then felt let down and cheated when they didn't feel any better. Whilst not trying to play down the extent of their grief and loss, they discovered that revenge didn't help them — in fact their hatred and desire for revenge only deepened the violence and damage which had already been done. Healing and peace only came with reconciliation and forgiveness. When Jesus taught this prayer he saw clearly that those who cannot learn to let go of their hates and resentments will be eaten away by them and will have no peace. It is not until we can let go of hatred and a desire for revenge that we will be open to the healing forgiving touch of God.
Although it can be very difficult to forgive others, sometimes it is even harder to forgive ourselves. How many of us are struggling with terrible burdens of guilt and shame, tormenting ourselves with how bad we really are? It is sometimes all too easy to hurt those we love, to make mistakes, to say too much, to say too little, to not have noticed, to not have said goodbye. "I drove too fast, I didn't see the other car, I shouldn't have let him go out that late, I wish I had noticed how bad he looked and had taken him to the hospital right away..." And on and on and on, the world is full of people painfully trying to come to terms with their part in what has happened. But however much we may want to, we cannot turn back the clock. Instead we are just left with our own painful memories, replaying the past again and again in our minds, wishing that somehow we could go back and change the way it was. But in the end, what we really need is to forgive ourselves, to let ourselves be healed.
Sixth Petition: Lead Us Not Into Temptation
The original Greek sentence which is usually rendered in English as 'lead us not into temptation' is difficult to translate. The Greek lead us' cannot be translated by a single English word because the sentence means both 'do not allow us to enter into temptation', and 'do not let us yield to temptation'. If we bear both these meanings in mind when we pray this petition, then we can get the general gist of what it means.
When we are tempted, we are always tempted by something which appears to us to be a good thing. We are not tempted by badness, but we may be tempted to do something bad in order to get something good out of it. For example, if Joey wants to have a new stereo, there is nothing wrong with that; wanting a stereo is a perfectly reasonable desire. But if he goes about mugging old people in the street to get his stereo, then clearly there is something wrong. His desire for the stereo is a good thing, but he has succumbed to the temptation to mug old people rather than to try to save up the money himself. At the heart of our temptations are good things, but the problem is that often we may become obsessed with having that one good thing and ignore all the bad consequences that would follow if we tried to get it.
Seventh Petition: Deliver Us From Evil
The word 'deliver' in Greek is a very urgent and dramatic one: it suggests being snatched away from a place of danger. When we ask God to deliver us from evil, the image is of a very desperate plea for an SAS - type rescue mission to save us.
The world is full of suffering and pain. It is also full of people succumbing to temptation and making choices which inflict pain and suffering on others. When we ask to be spared temptation, we are asking that we might not contribute to the misery in the world. When we ask to be delivered from evil, we are asking not to be on the receiving end of it.
When we pray the "Our Father in the Mass, the priest picks up the theme of the last line and talks about what it means. He says, "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day, in your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our saviour, Jesus Christ." Being delivered from evil is about being delivered from any sort of harm and distress. We are asking to be saved from whatever it is that troubles us, or causes us distress and pain. We believe in a God of resurrection and life. Our hope lies in the fact that, however bad a mess we make of everything at least we know that God can put it right again. We believe in a God of resurrection, a God of healing and peace who can transform our world and make it whole again.
A dialogue with Our Father