Commentary on Matthew 6:9-13
The Lord’s Prayer has a central place in Christian worship.
The plural “our” is used throughout, so that those giving voice to the prayer acknowledge both the presence of God and their connection to a wider praying community. The first three petitions focus the worshipers’ attention on God. The remaining petitions turn to “our” needs, asking God to help all of “us.”
Our Father in Heaven
Week 1 begins with the address, “Our Father in heaven.” Prayer is not so much language about God as it is speaking to God. To pray is to risk speaking to a God who is unseen and yet real. To pray is to recognize that God is different from us. God is “in heaven” above, whereas the praying person is on earth below. God is “another” and we are not God. Yet Jesus invites us to call upon God as Father. Theologically, we do so because God, as Father, has created us and given us life. Through Jesus the Son, we are redeemed as children of God. Through the Spirit, God evokes the faith that enables us to recognize him as Father (Romans 8:15), trusting that he will give good things to his children (Matthew 7:11).
Next, the first petition is that God’s name might be holy. The focus remains on God’s identity and action. According to Ezekiel 36:23-33, God would make his name holy by gathering people together, cleansing them from sin, and giving them a new spirit. By such holy actions God’s “name” or identity is made known in the world.
Your Kingdom Come…
In Week 2, the second and third petitions continue focusing on God by saying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Matthew’s gospel recognizes that the world is the scene of contending forces that hold people captive. People do not live in neutral space. The powers of evil are manifest in diseases of mind and body, the falsehoods that people claim are true, and the sins that destroy individuals and communities. To pray that God’s kingdom will come is to ask that God’s power to create will prevail over forces that destroy, and that his power to redeem will bring release from bondage.
God’s kingdom comes through his Messiah, who was enthroned through crucifixion, revealing a kingdom characterized by sacrifice and resurrection. In heaven, God’s will is unopposed, for there sin and death have no place. As long as sin and death are active, people are moved to pray that God’s life-giving purposes may be carried out on earth as they are in heaven.
Give Us This Day…
In Week 3, the fourth petition shifts to the requests made directly for “us,” beginning with “Give us this day our daily bread.” The needs of the individual are not separated from those of the wider community. The praying person seeks bread not only for “me” but for “us,” since all have the same need of sustenance from God. In Israel’s tradition, a vivid form of daily bread was the manna that was gathered in the wilderness. People could not create manna for themselves; they could only gather it. And they could not hoard it, since it spoiled; they had to receive it each day. The simplicity of this petition is a startling reminder that each person is like those who journeyed through the wilderness. Our lives are not self-generated or self-sustaining. Life relies on what we receive from the Giver and can only be stewarded as a gift.
Forgive Us our Sins…
In Week 4, the fifth petition says, “Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” The Greek text more literally asks for release from our “debts,” which is the translation used in the King James Version and some Protestant liturgies. The older translation of Tyndale read “trespasses” and the parallel in Luke 11:4 reads “sins.” The assumption is that sin is like a debt that is owed to God and is beyond our capacity to repay.
At the level of relationships, people accumulate hurts and grievances, which end up defining the relationship. As long as wrongs from the past define the present, the wrongs also close off the future. The term “forgive” is literally “release.” To forgive is not to say that what has transpired does not matter. Rather, it is to say that the wrongs that have occurred no longer define the relationship. Forgiveness or “release” means that there can be a different future, which is not defined by the past. People are to see themselves first of all as the recipients of release.
God begins the process of opening up the future for new relationship by his acts of forgiveness. Those who have received forgiveness from God are then in a position to extend it to others. Forgiving does not mean perpetuating destructive patterns of relationship by turning a blind eye to it and “letting things go” on in the old way. Forgiveness or release is designed to bring change. It accomplishes its purpose when it opens up a future that the wrongdoing from the past had closed off.
Lead Us Not into Temptation…
Week 5 takes up the last two petitions. The traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The newer translation, “Save us from the time of trial,” reflects discomfort with the idea that God would ever “lead” people into temptation, since God tempts no one to sin (James 1:13). Temptation is more properly ascribed to Satan, the “evil one” mentioned in the final petition.
Yet the Greek text of the prayer leaves open the possibility that God could “bring” people “to the test” by situations that challenge their faith (Genesis 22:1; Exodus 16:4). The petition recognizes the confrontational side of God. The prayer does not try to explain what lies behind experience, and affirms that even if God is capable of challenging people, God is the one who saves. Therefore, in all circumstances, people are to call upon him.