Archive for July, 2013

About the Lord’s Prayer

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Today, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, the 28th day of July, 2013, about three billion people around the world will pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Some, like us, will say it in English. Some will say it in Latin, or in Greek, or, like our brothers and sisters at Saint Spiridon’s Russian Orthodox Church in downtown Seattle, in Old Church Slavonic. Lutherans will say it is German, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. Dutch Reformed will say it in Dutch. The Lord’s Prayer will be prayed in the very many dialects of Chinese, in Korean, in Japanese and in Thai. In New Zealand, they’ll pray it in English but also in the Maori language. It is a sort of symbol of Christian unity, which exists in neither institutional nor organizational form, that so many Christians will pray the same prayer on the same day.

The Lord’s Prayer has the distinction of being the only prayer taught to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. If He taught any others to his disciples, they didn’t write ‘em down nor did the Church preserve them by liturgical use.

That the Lord’s Prayer is authentically the words of Jesus is beyond doubt. Exactly which words our Lord used when he taught them is a matter of some dispute.

There are two major problems encountered by prayer detectives trying to figure out exactly what Jesus said in response to his disciples request that He teach them to pray. The first arises from the Lord’s Prayer appearing in one form in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew and in a slightly different form in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The second arises from the doxology – “the kingdom, the power and the glory” part — tacked on to the end .., or not tacked on …, as you may prefer.

About the different versions in the New Testament: Here is how the Lucan version (which we heard in the Holy Gospel read this morning) differs from the Matthean version:

Luke says: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”  (That’s the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible version.)

Matthew has it: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (This, too, is from the New Revised Standard Version.)

It is the latter one, the one from Matthew’s Gospel, that we use liturgically and that most people use liturgically.

Then, to make matters even more confusing, there is the matter of the doxology. Notice that neither of the versions – neither Luke’s nor Matthew’s – includes the part about “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” There is an interesting story about how that latter bit came to be attached to Jesus’ words of prayer. Apparently, these words were added by the Early Church, so early that they found their way back into some copies of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, which explains why there are some early texts with it and some without it. Imagine the poor monk sitting in the scriptorium copying the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. He gets to the part about how Jesus taught the disciples to pray and discovers an apparent omission from the manuscript from which he is copying. “Oh!,” he exclaims, “look at what the last guy to copy this left out! I can fix that.”

The Lord’s Prayer was used universally by the Early Christians. They used it in the mass; they used it in what became the daily orders of prayer; they used it in their private prayers and devotions. In some places, they used it with the doxology. In other places, they left the doxology out.

Somehow, the Matthean doxology came to be identified with Protestant usages and omitting it with Roman Catholic usages but this was never universally the case.

Our own usage of the Lord’s Prayer in our own Prayer Book is illustrative. We use the doxology when we pray this prayer in the Holy Eucharist, and in Morning Prayer and in Evening Prayer. But we omit the doxology when we pray the Lord’s Prayer in Compline … which always messes some people up.

Although the Lord’s Prayer was used by pretty much all people everywhere from the beginnings of Christian worship, it is not perfectly clear that our Lord intended us to use it at all. J. I. Packer, a professor of history and systematic theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, published a book in 2007 in which he argued that Jesus never intended us to learn the Lord’s Prayer by heart and repeat it by rote. Professor Packer argues that the Lord gave us what we not call the Lord’s Prayer as an example, a guideline, on which to build our own spontaneous prayers to the Father. He’s going to have to work awfully hard to persuade very many people that his argument is correct.

Which is not to say that Christians have treated the Lord’s Prayer as a sacrosanct object which may not be altered. For example, we have translated it.

It is most likely that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples in Aramaic. If that is true, no copies of the original text exist as all of the recorded versions are in koine Greek. But we don’t pray it in Greek, nor do we pray it in Latin, into which it was translated early on. We had the audacity to translate our Lord’s words into English, several times, differently each time.

There’s the one that God likes best; that’s the one in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. There’s the commonly used one which appears in the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer. And there is the modern one – the one translated in 1975 by the ecumenical International Consultation on English Texts.  This is the one that people have had to get used to as the Rite II alternative in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

There are still more than these. Some of you have read a transliteration of the Bible called “The Message” by Eugene Peterson.  Here’s what he does with the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are.
Set the world right; Do what’s best; As above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
You’re in charge! You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

Some of you are familiar with the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the 1989 New Zealand Book of Common Prayer:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us.  From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.

Your vicar is in no position to criticize these whacky versions of the Our Father … because of the one I wrote myself. In 2003, an international on-line Christian magazine called Ship of Fools held a contest to see who could best reduce the Lord’s Prayer to the 160 characters which would allow it to be sent as a text message. Your own vicar entered this contest and did not win.  He came in third place worldwide with the following entry:

God@heaven.org, You rule, up and down. We need grub and a break. Will pass it on. Keep us focused. You totally rule, long term. Amen.

I’m sorry.

Even without the damage we can do to it trying to modernize it, the Lord’s Prayer appears to be less than the perfect prayer, so why do we use it ubiquitously.

It really isn’t the perfect prayer, you know. It doesn’t include all seven of the kinds of prayer identified in the Catechism to the 1979 Prayer Book: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition. It doesn’t cover all six of the things which the 1979 Prayer Book tells us to include in the Prayers of the People: the church, the nation, the world, the local community, those of suffer and the departed.

It seems to me that we persist in praying the Lord’s Prayer for several reasons: First, Jesus told us to. Second, the church tell us to. Saint Paul tells the Colossians to continue to live the Christian life “just as you were taught” and the church teaches us to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
When we pray it, we connect ourselves vertically with every Christian who has ever prayed it in all of Christian history. When we pray it, we connect ourselves horizontally with all of the Christians on the earth today who pray this same prayer. And because Jesus told us to … did I mention that?