Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
7 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
As you might remember, this passage is part of the reading we used as the basis for yesterday’s Reflection – a reading from a part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking to his disciples about “acts of righteousness,” which we usually call “spiritual disciplines.” Jesus warns his followers – including us – against praying, giving alms and fasting to attract attention to ourselves and make others admire us as good, virtuous, “religious” people. He says that the purpose of those three disciplines is to strengthen our relationship with God, not to make other people think well of us.
We set aside the part of the passage we’re looking at today because it’s Matthew’s account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the reading is given over to this prayer that’s one of the core elements of the Christian faith, but before he gets to that, Jesus warns against thinking that piling up high-blown religious oratory has some kind of special influence on God.
OK, it should probably be said that we preacher types tend to write prayers for worship services that can sound more flowery and poetic than necessary. It’s natural to want to write prayers that strike people as powerful and meaningful. But ‘fancy’ prayers can give people the idea that God wants to hear poetry from us, and that’s a mistake, I think. My suspicion is that God prefers simple prayers that come right from our hearts rather than flamboyant prayers we might think up.
The one thing that gets overlooked about that kind of grandiloquent prayer is that there’s an element of ‘magical’ thinking about it. In the ancient world, there was a strain of religious thought that said your god would hear you better if you used specially worded incantations and such. It was almost as though your god was obligated to do what you wanted if you said it right. (And for that matter, there are probably a lot of folks who still believe something like that today.) But Jesus is making it plain that our God is not a genie who can be commanded by magic words – he is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God already knows what we need anyway, so we can spare the religious rhetoric. Simple is better. It seems to me that’s the point Jesus is making in giving us the Lord’s Prayer.
People sometimes debate the question of whether Jesus meant for us to pray these exact words, or whether he meant to give an example of the kind of simple prayer that he has in mind for us. Personally, I suspect that he was more concerned to communicate the simplicity and the humility of the prayer than the exact words. But I think it’s still useful for us to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, especially together. It’s a prayer we all know and can say together, and it’s also a prayer that re-focuses our shared faith when we pray it.
It seems to me that one most-overlooked aspects of the Lord’s Prayer is that when we pray it, we’re not trying to persuade God to do anything that he isn’t already inclined to do. People tend to have the idea that prayer is meant to persuade God to do something he wouldn’t do otherwise. That might mean healing somebody who’s sick, or protecting someone who’s traveling, or bringing about peace, or whatever. But when you look closely at the Lord’s Prayer, it seems that everything we’re told to pray for is something God is already working to bring about.
So if God already wants all this to happen, why is Jesus teaching us to pray for it? Good question. My sense is that he’s making a very important point about the subject of prayer: that the most important purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we want him to do, but rather to get our wills lined up with his. When Jesus prayed in the garden on the night of his arrest, he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” If that’s the bottom line of any prayer we pray, we’re probably pretty close to the spirit of prayer Jesus has in mind for us. And if we really pray the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully, it can help us to keep in mind that the real purpose of prayer is more to change our minds than to change God’s mind.
And if you only carry away one thought from this Reflection, please let it be that – that the New Testament understanding of the main purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind, but rather to change our minds so they line up with God’s.
We sometimes use a couple of alternative versions of the Lord’s Prayer in worship. Tomorrow, we’ll think a little about those. But let’s end our time together today by reminding ourselves that the God we serve wants us to pray simply and humbly out of the joy and pain of human life, and to come to know him and trust him more and more as we do.
Let’s pray together now. Lord, we thank you for the gift of prayer, for the invitation to pour out our hearts to you, and to let you pour your love and guidance into our hearts to strengthen and sustain us for living out our faith in this world. And we thank you for the Lord’s Prayer, this great model and guide to our lives of prayer. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 98 and 146; Leviticus 16:20-34; and I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Our readings come from the NIV Bible as posted on Biblica.org, the website of the International Bible Society.)