Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org. The series is edited by Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.), on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.
The prayer that Jesus taught the disciples has a relational and communal coherence throughout that may be missed if we exclusively employ an individual lens that has the danger of rendering the plural “our” as merely the singular “my.”
The overall relational and communal coherence of this prayer moves us to extend the focus of our prayer beyond the bread for the individual and his or her loved ones, forgiveness of personal sins, and protection from personal temptations and external evil and harm.
The first part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples sets the nature of the relationship between God and Jesus’ disciples and that of the disciples with each other.
What is our relationship to the one to whom we pray and to each other?
Jesus teaches us to pray to “Our Father,” implying God’s authority and the initiative of God’s love for all.
Calling on our Father also reminds us that we are God’s family, God’s children, and therefore brothers and sisters among one another who are guided, loved and protected by that intimate divine presence. It reminds us of that familial relationship and the hierarchy and humility that the bond between parent and children entails.
During Jesus’ time, the head of household, the “father” of the extended family, was responsible for it and was respected for that responsibility. It called for love and protection of the extended family and, most importantly, total faithfulness to its interests.
Today, when both fatherly and motherly roles are lifted up as social patterns of responsibility and authority for their family in many parts of the world, we can expand the image for the addressee of this prayer to “Our Father/Our Mother.”
Many in our church and in many cultures have been raised with the image of father, and that is the one to which they faithfully relate. That faithful relationship is eminently valid and should be duly respected for those individuals and cultural groups and congregations in this time of options and transitions.
Where is the Divine Parent?
In the cosmology of the day and culture in which Jesus lived, heaven was above the Earth and contained and embraced its fullness. The prayer refers to heaven as the place where humans are not. The allusion to this particular location of the Father/Mother was indicative of the supernatural status of the divinity.
By contrast, we humans occupy a lower plane. This metaphorical contrast based on the social convention that high is superior to low, calls us to humility and obedience to our Father/Mother.
How are we to hold the name of God?
Jesus taught us to bless/hallow/respect/sanctify God’s name in recognition of its supremacy and authority over us. When we express our plea that the Father/Mother’s name be blessed, we are indicating our own submission to such a named one.
Under whose authority shall we live?
Jesus teaches us to claim the sovereignty of the Father/Mother for us. We are to pray that we may live in and under that divine sovereignty. We pray that it may come to us: “Your kingdom come.” We express our desire to inhabit in, with and under God’s sovereignty and to be subjects of it.
As Martin Luther said: God’s kingdom comes whether we pray for it or not; we pray that it may come to us to our consciousnesses.
Whose will should we follow?
As in the previous petition, when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, we again acknowledge our obedience to the divine authority. The acknowledging of the desire that God’s will be done on earth where we are implies, by contrast, that our will isn’t the one to govern our lives on earth: “Your will be done.” Jesus teaches us to pray acknowledging that God’s will is to be supreme over our human will.
In the second part of the prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray for divine intervention so we can indeed live God’s will for us.
That all of God’s creation live as God wills.
When we pray for “our daily bread,” we are reminded that being able to be sustained by the bread of creation every day is God’s will for us all. Life is to be sustained according to God’s design. The implications of justice and fairness for all and our responsibility for the care of creation that sustains life is at the heart of this petition. “Our” stands in contrast to “my,” and “bread” for food, dignity, and all that we need to live as true children of God and as brothers and sisters among ourselves.
Jesus teaches us to pray for God to take away the obstacles that are put in the way of life for all. We would not need to pray for what God intends if there weren’t hungry and forgotten children and adults across the world or across town. Now that we are even killing creation itself, that which is designed to feed us all, the prayer of Jesus connotes also our relationship of life with the earth.
Jesus teaches us to acknowledge our self-centeredness and repent from not following God’s will.
This petition parallels God’s forgiveness with our forgiveness of others. God’s forgiveness does not depend on our forgiveness of others. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s free grace. This plea reminds us of our relationship to others, to our place in the human family and creation. The prayer reminds us that God is a God of forgiveness even when we fail to act under God’s authority and we don’t follow God’s will.
Our forgiveness of others is assumed. Jesus reminds us ever so subtly that that is also God’s will. We are transgressors to be forgiven by God and our transgressors are to be forgiven by us.
In this prayer where Jesus teaches us to acknowledge the supremacy of God’s will for us, rather than our own will, sins would be the instances of rejecting and ignoring God’s will for all. We sin when we are the obstacle for our brothers’ and sisters’ lives to be sustained by the bread that is for all. We ask God to forgive our greed and our indifference to the plea of others and the suffering of the earth.
The mere act of asking for forgiveness implies acknowledgement and repentance. As we ask for God’s forgiveness for our transgressions, we acknowledge and repent of our indifferent or greedy ways.
Jesus encourages us to ask for strength to follow God’s will.
In the final two petitions, Jesus teaches us to pray for strength to follow God’s will as we pray to be saved from trials and to be delivered from evil. We pray to be spared the trials and temptations that would keep us from following God’s will as well as to be freed from the evil consequences of being trapped in our own.
Given our tendencies for ignoring others’ needs, Jesus teaches us to pray to be spared from the sinful instinct of self-centeredness and from our own insistence that our own will be done.