A few years ago I found myself in a similar spot to these early disciples asking what it meant to pray. Fortunately, our community was doing some thinking and reading on the Lord's Prayer and I decided to try experimenting with praying the prayer on a regular basis. Over these years the prayer has become a tutorial for me in learning how to pray. The prayer can easily become routine, especially if I enter into it in an unthinking way, but even then I have learned the prayer has the ability to surprise me with different insights and to awaken my soul.
It was a real pleasure therefore to learn more about the historical context within which the Prayer was written as I read and reflected with N.T. Wright on the meaning of this prayer and its place in Jesus' life through his article The Lord's Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer.
Wright places the prayer squarely in the center of Jesus' memory, ministry and hopes for the future. He sees the prayer as an invitation to us to share in the prayer life of Jesus himself. In praying the prayer we find ourselves inside the mind of Christ, being united with him and his agenda, his work, his pattern of life, and his spirituality.
This can prove to be quite a stretch for us as our minds are often focused on other things but I think submitting ourselves to the discipline of regular prayer can be quite a significant act of discipleship. Wright emphasizes that Jesus entered his world with a real sense of expectancy. He believed that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the story of Israel and opening up God's long promised future. I can see how Jesus, growing up with the hopes and longings of Israel for a messiah, could have been excited about the possibilities of the Kingdom breaking in through his ministry. But standing on this side of the Resurrection with 2000 years of a rather sorry track record of Christendom it seems harder to have hope in this coming Kingdom. It's hard to hold onto this vision of new creation when I seem to find myself catching only fleeting glimpses of the Kingdom breaking in. Maybe this is just one part of the conversion that the Prayer asks of me though, a conversion to a deeper sense of faith in God's coming Kingdom despite appearances. As Wright quoting the apostle Paul says: 'hope that is seen is not hope'.
One of the meaningful ways in which Wright explores the Prayer is through the paradigm of Israel's exodus from Egypt. He considers the Prayer as encapsulating and celebrating a new exodus vision for the church. Placing the Prayer against the backdrop of Israel's exodus helps to add depth to our understanding.
Wright states that we start the Prayer with the word Father in memory of the fact that God has chosen us to be his children. Just as he chose the children of Israel in Egypt to take them from slavery so he chooses us. Exodus recalls the election of Israel in these words: 'Israel is my son, my firstborn; let my people go that they may serve m.' (Exodus 4:22-23). N.T. Wright reminds us that it is important to remember that the nature of the God we pray to is that of a Father who redeems his children from their slavery and their sin. We begin the prayer with ‘Father’ rather than with 'Sorry' because the nature of our identity with God has more to do with being sons and daughters of God than with being sinners. Penitence and asking for forgiveness has a place in the prayer but it is not the pre-eminent place. Priority is given to grace and how God has chosen to see us first as his chosen children. A case can be made that Jesus used the more intimate address of Abba (Daddy) to underscore the nature of this intimate relationship with God.
In praying 'Hallowed be your name' we ask God to be true to his name and faithful to his nature as our Father. Just as Moses pleaded with God to remember his promises on Mt. Sinai after the people had worshipped the golden calf so we too plead with God to remember his promise to bring in the kingdom and deliver us from our sins.
Praying for the coming Kingdom ushers us into one of the central themes of Jesus' preaching. We repeat the hopes and aspirations of Jesus. But praying the pray goes further than just repeating the words of Jesus. Wright states: "To pray 'your kingdom come' at Jesus' bidding, therefore, meant to align oneself with his kingdom movement and to seek God's power in furthering its ultimate fulfilment. It meant adding one's own prayer to the total performance of Jesus' agenda. It meant celebrating in the presence of God the fact that the kingdom was already breaking in, and looking eagerly for its consummation."
When we pray for the Kingdom we also assert our faith that God is stronger than the forces that prevent his Kingdom from coming. Wright comments that this is also true of the story of the Exodus. One of the subtexts in the Exodus story is the question of which God is stronger. Is it the god of the Egyptians or the God of Israel? In our own world we have forces (gods) that challenge our belief that God is able to bring about his kingdom. Other forces challenge our allegiance to God - the gods of materialism, cynicism, and approval - and distract us from God's coming Kingdom. In praying that God's kingdom come we pray that God would show himself mightier than these other gods and restore our faith in his sovereignty.
For many of us in a North American context the request for daily bread has less to do with physical food than it does with the food that nourishes our belief in God. The background for this request of provision is the provision of manna in the wilderness. God delivers his people out of their slavery in Egypt and guides them into the wilderness. Once in the wilderness the people lose faith and begin to grumble so God once again shows himself faithful to his children by giving them their daily manna. Wright says that manna is a requirement for a people on the move and for a church that lives its life between the already and not yet aspects of the Kingdom. We need this daily provision to keep our faith alive in difficult times. It's interesting how often the Gospels portray Jesus eating with people. It seems eating with people and sharing the Kingdom around a table was one of his primary ways of keeping this faith alive.
The fact that the people in the wilderness repeatedly grumbled gives us the context for the next petition: 'forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'. We need forgiveness for those times when we fail in our faith and mistrust the goodness of God. The inclusion of forgiveness in this prayer is no accident but a central thrust of the ministry of Jesus. He offered forgiveness to all. The only requirement was an honest recognition of our plight as sinners.
Once forgiven, it is our responsibility to forgive those who sin against us. Wright considers this idea of forgiveness of one's brother or sister a badge of membership of the new covenant people. It harkens back again to the Exodus and the command to Israel to practice Jubilee and forgive the debts of their fellow Israelites (Leviticus 25:38-55). Redeemed slaves must themselves live as redemption people.
It is natural for us to pray not to be led into difficult situations. But this is not the real meaning of the petition: 'Lead us not into temptation or lead us not into testing'. If we look at the life of Jesus we see him often being led by the Spirit into difficult situations, into times of temptation and testing.
Wright asks the following questions to get at the meaning of this petition: Who is testing whom, with what intent and with what result? The Exodus story talks about the people in the wilderness testing God. They continually put God to the test by their grumbling, their unbelief, and their calls for God to produce demonstrations of his presence with them. Their question: Is the Lord in our midst or not gets to the heart of this (Exodus 17:7).
There are, of course, other temptations that we ask to be delivered from. Each of us has our own but I found it revealing that one of the things I should be praying for is to be delivered from testing God. It is a prayer asking God to help us remain faithful to the one who is faithful to us.
Even this brief overview of the background of the Lord's Prayer has given me much to think about and added richness and depth to the Prayer. I see how the Prayer can be so helpful both in keeping me in an attitude of faith and in challenging the ways I go astray. It shows the wisdom of Jesus in giving us a prayer that can truly teach us how to pray.