The Lord’s Prayer
(Gen.18:20-32; Col.2:12-14; Lk.11:1-13)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is still on his ‘Great Journey’ to Jerusalem, which takes up a third of Luke’s Gospel. A central theme through these ten chapters is discipleship, so it provides lots of useful advice for anyone who is serious about following Jesus.
Today’s reading reminds us that prayer is essential for any Christian. Many of us know this, but we’re often too busy or too distracted to pray well. It can be a struggle.
Jesus was a busy man, but he always made time for quiet prayer. His relationship with his Father depended on it, and he encouraged his disciples to do the same.
The truth is, you cannot do your best work without God. That’s why we all need to withdraw regularly to somewhere quiet, to receive his divine nourishment and inspiration.
In Luke’s Gospel, when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, he teaches them the ‘Our Father’. This Lucan version is shorter than the one we use today, which comes from Matthew (Mt.6:9-13). We use Matthew’s version because it’s more complete, but there’s nothing unusual in there being two versions. As a teacher, Jesus often repeated his lessons and sometimes used different words.
Matthew’s version has seven petitions, and St John Paul II once said that ‘Everything that can and must be said to the Father is contained in those seven requests…’
In other words, the essence of any prayer we might pray can be found in one of the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer.
In ancient times, the number seven symbolised perfection, and some say that’s why there are seven virtues, seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Spirit and seven petitions in this prayer. Perhaps that’s also why St. Thomas Aquinas called it ‘the perfect prayer’.
Luke’s version doesn’t have seven petitions, though. It only has five. They are:
- Hallowed be Your Name,
- Your kingdom come,
- Give us each day our daily bread,
- Forgive us as we forgive others, and
- Lead us not into temptation.
Matthew’s version has two more:
- Thy will be done, and
- Deliver us from evil.
Now, let’s look briefly at Matthew’s ‘Our Father’. The first 3 petitions are all about God:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name (here, we pray that God’s name will be made holy in us and in the world); thy kingdom come (here we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom of love, truth, peace and justice); and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (here we pray that we will all faithfully do what God wants us to do).
The other 4 petitions are about ourselves:
Give us this day our daily bread (here, we pray for our material needs and for spiritual nourishment); and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (here, we ask God to forgive our sins, and for the grace to forgive those who have offended us); and lead us not into temptation (here we pray that God will help us avoid sin); but deliver us from evil (finally, we ask God to free us from all physical and moral evil). [i]
This prayer is simple but has such depth that many saints, including St Francis of Assisi, St Teresa of Avila and St Augustine, wrote about it.
St John Paul II also said that this prayer is so simple that even a child can learn it, yet there’s such depth that a whole life can be spent meditating on its meaning. Indeed, the second century theologian Tertullian said that it’s a summary of the whole Gospel.
And have you noticed that this prayer is written in plural terms? It never mentions ‘me’ or ‘my’; it only refers to ‘us’ and ‘our’. So, this is a prayer we pray for others, as well as for ourselves. [ii]
Finally, in her book Everyday Epiphanies, Melannie Svoboda notes that the traditional English translation of this prayer has 56 words, and 40 of these only have one syllable, e.g., ‘thy will be done on earth’. She suggests that Jesus is trying to tell us something here: that he likes our prayers to be short and simple. [iii]
So, the next time you find a moment to reflect and pray, say the ‘Our Father’ and be aware that the words come from Jesus himself.
And remember that the Father you pray to is not only Jesus’ Father; he’s yours, too.
[i] It’s worth noting that the doxology ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’, was not part of Jesus’ original prayer. It’s a brief hymn of praise from 1 Chronicles 29:11 that was added by Protestants for occasions of public worship.
[ii] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies, Year C, Dominican Press, Dublin, 2018:277.
[iii] Melannie Svoboda, Everyday Epiphanies. Twenty-Third Publications, New London, CT. 2013:7-8.