The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)

The Church has always considered the Lord's Prayer (Pater Noster) as the Christian prayer par excellence.
In the ancient Church in Africa for example, the rudiments of the faith ('quid credendum') were drawn from it; in it the catechumens were immersed in the knowledge of prayer ('quid orandum'). After having followed the explanation of the Creed ('traditio') they would have had to publicly recite it by memory ('redditio'); the transition between this 'traditio' and 'redditio' was the Lord's Prayer.
Tertullian was not the only one who considered the Lord's Prayer to be a compendium and synthesis of the Old and New Testaments.
'In only a few words, it summarizes the sayings of the prophets, the gospels, the Apostles; the discourses, the parables, the examples and the precepts of the Lord and, at the same time, so much of our needs become fulfilled. In invoking the Father, we honour God; in the Name is the testimony of faith; in His will is the offering of obedience; in the Kingdom is the record of hope; in the Bread lies the question about life; in the asking for pardon is the confession of sins; in the asking for protection is the fear of temptation. Why awe? Only God could have taught us how He wanted to be prayed to.' (De Oratione 9,1-3)
Leaving aside Luke 11,2-4, I will examine only the text of Matthew 6,9-13. It appears to be inserted just after the second of the three good works - almsgiving (6,1-3), prayer (6,4-15) and fasting (6,16-18)-all of which form the greatest works of justice by the Jews.

Matthew 6.9-13 is structured in three parts. It begins with an invocation, followed by three petitions with regard to God, and it closes with three petitions concerning the messianic people. The prayer has a clear eschatological orientation and it supposes a God-man synergism.

The Opening Invocation
'Our Father who art in heaven'

a) 'Our Father'
In every age, humanity has turned to a divinity whom it calls 'Father'. By that, humanity intends to recognize His authority and to appeal to His love.
The Old Testament - It is not surprising that among the inspired books of the Old Testament, twenty-two Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek texts give YHWH the Lord the name 'Father'.
God is first of all the father of the people of Israel. It deals here with a divine paternity which is generally unique in its kind, connected as it is to the historical events involving the people of Israel. God is the father of Israel because God had created by means of election and covenant, an existence for Israel which thus became the firstborn child of God, God's very own people (Ex 4,22-23; Dt 32,6-8).
There are two components in God's paternity: authority and love.
God is the Father of Israel. Thus He deserves the sovereignty, the prestige, the power and rightful command of the father of a family, on which the children depend and to which they are subjected, by showing respect and obedience (Is 64,4; 1,2; 30,9; Mal 1,6).
God is the father of Israel. Tender and affectionate to His children, He surrounds them with gratuituous love, always merciful and faithful (Is 49,15; 66,15; Ps 131,2; Hos 11,1-4.8).
God is also the father of individuals who have a close relationship with Israel. This involves eminent persons such as the king or the Messiah (Ps 89,27; 2Sam 7,14; Ps 2,7).
On the paternity of God for the individual, the authors of the later books of the Old Testament worked towards a change of perspective, i.e . towards greater universalism. Each human being may become a child of God, indeed it is a reality if he/she is holy and faithful to God (Sir 23,1-4; 51,10; Wis 2,13.16.18; 5,5; 14,3).
However, one recalls the 'solitary' God of Islam (Koran 112,4.171; 5,116-117).
The New Testament - With Jesus, biblical revelation of the divine paternity enters a new phase. God is the father of Jesus Christ and the father of Christians.
It is not rare to find in the Pauline letters the expression 'the father of our Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom 15,6; 2Cor 1,3; 11,31; Eph 1,13; Col 1,3). On the other hand, Jesus never says 'Our Father' but 'My Father and your Father' (Jn 20,17) distinguishing between 'my Father' (Mt 7,21) and 'your Father' (Mt 5,16).
The self-consciousness of Jesus' sonship is very clear in the Gospels (Lk 2,49; Mk 13,32). He frequently declared himself to be sent by the Father (Jn 3,17.34; 5,23.36.37; 6,44.57 etc...), hence Heb 3,1 calls him 'the apostle', i.e. the 'sent one'. Jesus also affirmed his preaching the words of the Father (Jn 3,34; 12,49-50; 14,10) and fulfilling the work of the Father (Jn 5,19.36; 9,4).
The gospels contain several prayers of Jesus. But only Mk 15,34 invokes 'God': 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?'. But this cry of the Crucified One is a citation from Ps 22,2. All the other prayers begin with 'Father'; from the joyous cry (Mt 11,25-26) to the invocation during the agony at Gethsemane (Mt 26,39.42), to the entreaty on the Cross (Lk 23,34.36).
The second gospel gives us a taste of what Jesus meant when he addressed God with the expression 'Abba' (Mk 14,16). It is an Aramaic word used as a form of courtesy towards an elder, and moreover it became adopted in the language used by children in a family, even if they were grown-up, when they addressed the father. By calling God "Abba", Jesus manifested the unique relationship between himself and God, and at the same time showed the familiarity, the fidelity, the reverence, the availability which he enjoyed. No prayer, whether ancient Jewish, liturgical or private has ever ventured to address God as "Abba".
Besides being the Father of Jesus Christ, God is also Father of Christians in every sense. This is not purely a natural phenomenon - everyone is a child of God -, but it is an eschatological gift in Christ.
It has its origins from God who has prepared us to conform to the image of His Son so that he may become the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Rom 8,29), and has given in our hearts the Spirit of His Son which cries out: Abba, Father (Gal 4,6). God has chosen us to be His adopted children through Jesus Christ (Eph 1,6). The Holy Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are children of God (Rom 8,16) and we who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan within ourselves, awaiting the adoption as children to be complete and definitive (Rom 8,23).
In the meantime, it is through faith that we actualize our divine sonship. "All of you are children of God through Christ Jesus" (Gal 3,26). Whoever has received the Word, has been given the power to be a child of God, to those who believe in his name" (Jn 1,12).
Love (Mt 5,45) and mercy (Lk 6,36), forgiveness (Mt 6,14-15) and peacemaking (Mt 5,9): these are some of the concrete manifestations of Christians as children of God. As children of God, Christians become brothers and sisters in Christ, through whom they can address God as "our" Father.
Jesus, the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8,29), calls his apostles (Mt 28,10; Jn 20,17), those who fulfill the will of God (Mk 3,31-35) and the most marginalized (Mt 25,40.45) as his "brothers". He exhorted to love one's enemies (Mt 5,43-47) thus stretching the meaning of "brothers". He invited to love one's neighbours (Lk 10,29-34) who could be a friend or enemy, the one who helps and who engages us to help. The two Old Testament commandments are fused into one (Dt 6,5 and Lev 19,18; Lk 10,25-28). He finally showed his love for his own like a fount and foundation of our love for one another (Jn 15,12-13).
b) 'Who art in heaven'
In the Gospels, Jesus speaks repeatedly of "Father...in heaven" (Mt 5.16.45) and the "heavenly Father" (Mt 5,48).
What is "heaven" for Jesus and the writers of the New Testament? It is the throne of God (Mt 5,34) from which His voice is heard (Mk 1,11). The Holy Spirit descends from heaven (Mk 1,10; Acts 1,12). Jesus who is from heaven, descends from it (Jn 6,38), and it is to heaven that he ascends (Acts 1,10-11), and one day he will descend from it again (1Thes 4,16). Even the angels come from heaven (Lk 2,13-15). The rewards of Christians are found in heaven: a homeland (Phil 3,20), a home (2Cor 5,1), blessings (Eph 1,3) and rewards (Mt 5,12), hope (Col 1,5) and inheritance (1Pet 1,4). Heaven is thus a divine reality - and it oftens substitutes the name of God (Mt 3,2; 16,1 etc...).

"Our Father who art in heaven"

Intimately united to Jesus the only Son, all his disciples constitute a single family of adopted childern of God. They can address God as "Father" of all humanity which He loves, and in His omnipotent love He stoops to grant humanity His transcendance which is humanly impossible to attain.

2. The First Petition: The Sanctification of the Name of God

This opens the series of three petitions with regards to God. The characteristic possessive adjective in the second person singular is used in the petitions: "your" name, "your" kingdom, "your" will. The theological passive in the first and third petitions should be noted: "holy be", "be done", implying "by you". The three petitions could therefore be rendered as "sanctify your name", "come and reign", "fulfill your will".
a) The Name
It is the name among the Semites that which constitutes an individual, at least the aspirations which have been imposed upon and define the quality of the individual. But if among humanity there are many who do no honour to their names, God realizes in full the meaning of His Name. Among the divine names there is also "the Holy One". And God is truly Holy inasmuch as He transcends earthly realities; He is removed from the ineffectual and evil world, for He is absolutely powerful and good. One remembers besides that the Jews speak reverently of the "Name of God" in order to avoid pronouncing explicitly "God" Himself.
b) The Sanctification of the Name
According to the Bible the Name of God could and could not be sanctified (i.e. profaned) by man or God.
Humanity sanctifies the Name by observing His commandments. They profane His Name when they transgress it. Lev 22,31.32 states "Observe therefore my commandments and put them in practice. I am YHWH. Do not profane my Holy Name because I am Holy in the midst of the children of Israel." Note the two parallel forms: the progressive "observe" and "I am Holy"; and the antithetic "observe" and "do not profane".
For God, to sanctify (not profane) His Name is manifested by punishing the Israelites guilty of idolatry in Egypt and then liberating them. In this way the pagan Egyptians could not accuse Him of being impotent in helping His persecuted people oppressed by Pharoah (Ex 20, 5-12). God also sanctifies His Name (not profane) by intervening to punish the guilty pagans. In this way the idolaters see His power (Ex 39, 1-7).
Finally God will one day sanctify His Name in a definite and complete way when He purifies the Israelites of their sins, giving them a new heart and a new spirit, so that they may observe His laws (Ex 36, 22-28). Christians know that God had already initiated the eschatogical era. By intervening salvifically, He reveals Himself as Holy (He revealed the Holiness of His Name) in the Son, and has given us His Holy Spirit. In adhering to God who has revealed Himself as Holy, and awaiting to see Him in all His glory and power, Christians seek to reveal God as Holy, to sanctify Him by observing His Laws and thus rendering Him glory.

3. The Second Petition: The Coming of the Kingdom of God

a) The Kingdom
The Kingdom of God, its establishment as it developes and is fulfilled, constitutes the central teaching which Jesus imparted to the crowds and to his disciples in very clear language or at times under the veil of parables.
To indicate the entire epic of salvation, Jesus chose to use this expression 'Kingdom of God' to suggests the authority of God, the territory or the subjects on which this authority is exercised. This is well noted in the Letter to the Hebrews. It could suggests a dominion, an empire, albeit supernatural. Or it could designate a state of being, such as a community, a present or eschatological reality, an earthly or heavenly reality.
b) The Coming of the Kingdom
Jesus sometimes spoke of the Kingdom of God as 'it is near' (Mt 4,17; 10,7), at times it has 'arrived among you' (12,28). In Jesus' thinking, the Kingdom is both future and imminent, present yet mysteriously hidden in his very own person and activity.
In the 'Our Father', the aorist verb 'come' is used. By this christians are not asking for a slow and progressive coming of the Kingdom of God on earth; but a unique and definite irruption at the end of time, when God will come in person to rule. This eschatological event will coincide with the glorious coming of Jesus which Christians invoke with the 'Maran ata' (1Cor 16,22), 'Come Lord Jesus' (Rev 22,20). At the end of time, Jesus will vanquish all the enemies, including death, thus God alone will be 'all in all, all in everything' (1Cor 15,28).

4. The Third Petition: The Actualization of the Will of God

a) The Will of God
Except for Rev 4,11 which speaks of the creative will of God, the 'problem' of God in the entire New Testament denotes His gratuitous universal will for salvation, revealed and promulgated in its entirety only in the eschatological era inaugurated by Christ. The will of God to save all of humanity is expressed at times under the form of a promise, at other times in a form of a precept. The third petition of the 'Our Father' includes both aspects of the will of God.
Christians ask God to fulfill His plan of salvation which will arrive at the end of time. They also ask that humanity to not obstruct with sins the fulfillment of the divine project of salvation. Furthermore in positive terms, Christians ask that humanity co-operate with the will of God by observing His ethical demands.
If it is true, as St. Augustine teaches, that 'God does not want to save you without your co-operation', then God fulfills His plan of salvation in such a way that humanity, with the help of the Holy Spirit, feels free to follow the divine precepts.
This third petition is not about disheartened and depressive peoples who accept passively and with resignation, the will of God. It is instead about individuals who await and hasten (2Pet 3,12) dynamically the definitive and complete execution of the divine will by fulfilling its ethical obligations.
b) 'On earth as in heaven'
The phrase does not refer to this third petition alone but to all three. Just as God sanctifies His Name always in heaven where He reigns and executes His will, so God also sanctifies His Name on earth, reigns and executes His will. Or to put it in another way, God sanctifies His Name, rules and executes His will in the entire cosmos which includes heaven and earth.

5. The Fourth Petition: The Bread of Life

It is the first of three requests which concerns the messianic people. The pronoun and the possessive adjective are in the first person plural: give 'us', forgive 'us', do not lead 'us', sin against 'us', 'our' daily bread, 'our' sins.
a) The Bread
A basic food, like oil and wine, in the Mediterranean basin, bread indicates that which serves to sustain the body, and according to the interpretation of various Fathers of the Church, the sustenance of the soul.
The Christian begs from God with open hands for food that is bread, for the spiritual food of the Word of God and the Eucharist, for eternal salvation.
b) Epiousios
A term that had become obscure since the time of Origen. According to various etymologies, it could indicate the bread 'of the day to come'. And which is that day? Today. The Greek expression may have been adopted to avoid repeating 'semeron'/'today'. Instead of 'give us today the bread of today', it now says 'give us today our daily bread'.
Christians remember Jesus' words 'Your heavenly Father knows your needs (food and clothing). Seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice, and everything will be given to you' (Mt 6,32-33). Faith in the generosity of the heavenly Father is a necessary condition. He will provide the necessary sustenance of the entire community.
'The day to come' is 'tomorrow', i.e. the eschatology. Jesus had put his disciples on their guard against worrying about and accumulating goods for oneself; against being apprehensive over the things of this world. 'Do not worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have its own problems. Each day has enough troubles of its own' (Mt 6,34).
Christians ask for bread of the eschatological 'tomorrow', of the banquet of the Kingdom of heaven (Lk 14,15). They ask for it today because every earthly reality well-lived is the 'already' of the eschatological era that awaits its total fulfillment.

6. The Fifth Petition: The Remission of Sins

a) The trespasses
It does not mean the debts of gratitude incurred by us in the face of God's paternal generosity when He overwhelms us with His gifts. 'Debts' according to the Jewish understanding are our sins. They are not considered as perverse actions in themselves but rather in relation to God whose precepts we have transgressed and to whom we have to make adequate reparation. Though we ought to fulfill this, we never can do so, given the enormity of this debt.
We find ourselves in the condition of the merciless servant whose debt amounted to 10,000 talents, and who not being capable of restituting it, was sold away together with his family and his possessions (Mt 18, 23-25). The acknowledgement of this impossibility to repay the debt forces us to turn with humble faith towards God's merciful love which overlooks all; so that he forgives our sins which we ourselves can never expiate.
b)'As we forgive those...'
The generosity of God, to which we appeal, places only one condition on us in order to receive remission: that we forgive those who sin against us, that we pardon those who have wronged us. And we can show mercy toward our brothers and sisters precisely because we can pass on this great treasure of mercy which God had first shown to us. It is clear that the contrary is also true: that our prayer will not be fulfilled if like the merciless servant (Mt 18, 23.25; cf 6,14-15) we refuse to pardon our brothers and sisters.
The fifth petition, like the sixth, is the result of the fact that sins defer the definitive coming of the glorious Christ and the Kingdom of the Father. 2Pet 3,9 says that the Lord is not slow to carry out his promises, as some believe; but he is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everyone to be brought to change his ways.

7. The Sixth Petition: The Preservation from Temptation and the Liberation from Evil.

a) The Temptation
To tempt means to test, to try; hence temptation means test or trial.
Sometimes it is humanity that tests God, like the Israelites in the desert (Dt 8,2). It means to defy God, refusing to show Him faith and obedience, opposing His plan of salvation.
Sometimes it is God who tests humanity, as when He tested Abraham in sacrificing his only son (Gen 22,1f). It means to say that God, wanting to realize His plan for salvation, puts before humanity the decision to believe or not to believe in Him, to obey or disobey Him.
Sometimes it is the devil, Satan, who tests humanity by trying to obstruct the divine plan of salvation, seeking to push humanity towards disbelief and disobedience (Mt 4,1-11).
Temptation in this sense comes not from God but from the devil. But it is attributed to God in the Semitic sense of the concept, God being the ultimate cause of everything (cf the Prologue of Job). It speaks of the temptations of everyday life, an image and precursor of the temptation of the last days, of 'the trial which is to come for the whole world'(Rev 3,10). This 'great tribulation' (Mt 24,21) is the final decisive attack which Satan launches against the faithful, attacking with such violence that, as Jesus says 'if those days were not shorten, nothing living would be saved, but because of the elect, those days will be shortened' (Mt 22,22) so that there may be faith on earth (cf Lk 18,8).
Christians pray to the heavenly Father that He may preserve them not only from temptation but also from falling into temptation. Agreeing with this thought is the teaching found in 1Cor 10,13: 'God is faithful, and He will not permit that you be tempted beyond your strength; but with the temptation that comes, He will give you a way out and the strength to bear it'. This is valid for the temptations of daily life, but it is valid above all for the great temptation of the last days.
b) The Liberation from Evil
This second part of the sixth petition repeats more or less what was said in the first part, though in a positive manner (unlike the negative first part).
Christians beg God to preserve them from evil. Though the personal meaning of 'ponerou' (masculine of 'poneros' to indicate Satan) is preferred, it does not exclude the meaning of 'evil' (neuter).


Seen from the light of the Old Testament and Judaism, the 'Our Father' does not seem to include any new ideas.
In 'Anicia Proba Faltonia'(a little after 411 AD), St. Augustine, born of a most noble family which sought refuge from Alaric's Goths, noted the parallels in the Old Testament of each petition of the Lord's Prayer. He concludes 'If all the words of the holy invocations contained in the Scriptures were reviewed, you will find nothing, it seems to me, that is is not contained or summarized in the 'Our Father' (Epistola 130,12.22-13).
Here is a synopsis of the parallels cited by St Augustine:
Holy be your name - As in their sight you have proved yourself holy before us, so now in our sight prove yourself great before them (Sir 36,3).
Your Kingdom come - Lord our God, bring us back, let your face shine upon us and we shall be safe (Ps 80,7).
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven - Direct my steps according to your word, let no evil win power over me (Ps 119,133).
Give us today our daily bread - Give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat (Prov 30,8).
Forgive us our traspasses as we forgive those who traspass against us - Yahweh, remember David and all the hardships he suffered (Ps 131,1). Yahweh my God, if I ever soiled my hands with fraud, repaid a friend evil for good...(Ps 7,3-5).
Deliver us from evil - Rescue me from my enemies, O God, protect me from those attacking me... (Ps 58,1).

The same can be observed in Jewish literature; passages of liturgical prayer and other ancient texts have been seen as parallels to the Lord's Prayer, an example being G.G. Montefiore's "Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teaching", London 1930, 125-135.
Below is a brief synthesis:
Our Father who art in heaven - Our Father in heaven, you delight in establishing a House of our life and to place Your Presence in its midst in our days.......(Liturgy for Sabbath Morning according to the Roman usage).
Holy be Your Name - May Your great Name be magnified and sanctified (Qaddish).
Your Kingdom come - May Your Kingdom be fulfilled in your life, and in your days and in the life of the whole House of Israel soon and in the near future (Qaddish).
Give us today our daily bread - Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: whoever has a piece of bread in the basket and says: what will I eat tomorrow? is a person of little faith (B. Soda 48b).
Forgive us our sins - Forgive us, O our Father, because we have sinned, Absolve, O our King, because we have committed transgressions (Amida).
As we forgive those who sin against us - Samuel the Small said: if your enemy falls, do not rejoice, if he trips, let not your heart be happy, lest God would see and turn His eyes and remove from him His wrath (Aboth 4,24).
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil - Be a shield for us, and remove our enemies, pestilence, the sword, famine, anguish. Remove the Adversary from before us and behind us (prayer of Mar bar Rabna, 5th century, in the Evening Liturgy).

Notwithstanding this, the Lord's Prayer is still a most original prayer; it is the prayer par excellence. All that it says and contains (and what it doesn't say) are the essentials regarding the relationship between humanity and God.
Placed above the contingency of time and space, it has a universal character in which humanity finds itself, across every age and civilisation.

Father Marco Adinolfi
Italy


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