St. Augustine says, “Pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.”
Prayer is the most important aspect of any religion and culture. It is something that brings the believers of God to the state of humility and dependency, signifying the negation of self-pride while recognizing God’s sovereignty and wisdom. Typically, prayer is an essential part of Christianity, as well and the Lord’s Prayer is regarded to be both important and significant in almost every tradition of Christianity. The Lord’s Prayer signifies different things to different people.
In a Bible study on the Lord’s Prayer, I asked the group to tell me what they think of the Lord’s Prayer and what it signifies to them. The responses I received were interestingly quite subjective and varied. The various responses were: “I like the Lord’s prayer, because I think it’s a good tradition that came from Jesus himself;” “Honestly, I like that prayer, sometimes I don’t know what to pray, so I say the Lord’s prayer;” “Well, I like it because it is the shortest prayer that I can think of” and so on.
Surprisingly, no one mentioned anything about its meaning or its significance. Therefore, as a minister and a biblical scholar I see the need for us not only to seek and understand meaning of the Lord’s Prayer but also to reflect upon how it might be understood in different cultures.
I come from a family tradition where the Lord’s Prayer is always said at the end of day to day family prayer. Culturally, it is understood in India that the Lord’s Prayer sums up all petitions to God, in case certain things are forgotten. In other words, the Lord’s Prayer creates safety and security for the believers. If we take a close look at the words that Jesus taught the disciples, in prayer it also contains a message.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches the disciples, first, to address God, with a relationship, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” a relationship with an everlasting bonding. The privilege of relationship, the need for bonding is expressed in the very first sentence. Jesus then moves on with the words of praise and adoration by saying “Holy is your name.” There is a misunderstanding of prayer, that is, prayer as a simple task of asking God for stuff so God will perform.
Mostly, the prayer is misunderstood to be essentially an intercessory prayer. Is prayer simply limited to intercessions? Sometimes, prayer is the time to open our hearts for self-reflection in the Holy presence that helps us to be honest with ourselves. It may be the time to realize our limitation as human beings against the majesty of God. It may be the time to simply thank God for all the blessings that we have or it could simply be the time for meditation.
However, in the Lord’s Prayer, after the words of praise and adoration, then it is said, “Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus wants his disciples to pray for the kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven, where the values of God’s rule are executed. Jesus, after praying about this world and earth, then tells the disciples to pray for them, a prayer that is challenging to every one of us here today, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Is it relevant in our context any more? In this prayer Jesus emphasizes collectiveness and oneness. Having “my” daily bread is not enough, but it is important that we ask for and seek “our” daily bread. There was no space for “I” in the Lord’s community, but only for “we” that brings shared experience. Maybe in the Lord’s community, there cannot be one person who is stuffed and the other starving.
Jesus then moves on in prayer for sustaining relationships between God and one another. The challenge in the Lord’s Prayer is as we seek forgiveness of sins, we must forgive those who sin against us. It is not just the prayer; it is the message for the world that is in need of peace. It is the equation for harmony and good relationships among people. These words of Jesus condemn any judgments and bring people to be aware of their own need for forgiveness of sins.
Finally Jesus teaches them to pray for their life and self-care and cautions them about existing evil and temptations. “Lead us not into temptation” – temptations today are many. It’s again a message for self-care and stewardship, cautioning us to be aware of our weakness for temptations.
The Lord’s Prayer makes the Christian faith a shared experience, not an isolated one, the one about the need but not greed, the one about harmonious relationships not the one of vengeance and violence. The Lord’s Prayer and its relevance, therefore, is not limited just to the disciples and their prayer life, but brings significance to all cultures and all times.