It has probably not struck you that in one way it’s odd to be discussing the Lord’s Prayer on Good Shepherd Sunday. Although once we better understand this prayer, and are then also brought thereby into that intimate relationship which Jesus shared with his Father, it may be argued that the Lord’s Prayer is a very special way by which our Good Shepherd cares for the people of his pasture. However, I would point out the basic dissimilarity between today’s Gospel text from John 10, in which Jesus portrays himself to one and all as the Good Shepherd, and my text from Luke 11 where, in an intimate teaching moment, Jesus shares with his primary disciples his personal way of praying. Or to put this dissimilarity into focus, we must understand that the Lord’s Prayer is not like the Beatitudes which Jesus gave to the multitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. They were offered general wisdom, suitable for application by any friend or alien. The Lord’s Prayer, on the other hand, was rather Jesus’ private piety shared with those followers who were living in a dedicated relationship with him.
Jesus’ disciples were at the time of our text still far short of saintly maturity. But unlike the crowds who followed Jesus, they were not following to witness exciting miracles or to relax in the good feeling of a charismatic ministry. These twelve had left home and occupation, even wives, committing themselves as totally as possible to the inbreaking of the messianic kingdom of God, promised for ages. The common people saw Jesus as a new Elijah, even shortsightedly as John the Baptist arisen from the dead. These disciples accepted him as the Christ of God on the testimony of John the Baptist.
And so it happened, as Luke describes, that one day Jesus had again been noticed by them to have been praying, indicating a deep relationship with God. This was attractive to them as a way to express and progress in their own commitment. They wanted something of Jesus’ prayer relationship with God. It must have been precious to Jesus to be asked for this, signaling that they were spiritually hungry for God. He could have hope for them.
I suspect, however, that the disciples were asking for a form, a prayer such as it seemed Jesus then in fact gave them. They were like many Christians through the ages who want a form for themselves to use. I’m not altogether sure that the twelve at the time understood that Jesus had given them infinitely more. Instead of giving them words to pray, Jesus gave them a way to pray that opened a relationship with God—communion—as opposed to a procedure for God’s help. This likelihood is already suggested by comparing Luke’s preface in which Jesus says, “When you pray, say…” with Matthew’s preface to the other Gospel report of the Lord’s Prayer (6:9ff) where Jesus says, “Pray then in this way…”
I have been gradually led to the firm conviction that in giving us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was not giving the disciples a prayer so much as praying with them; they were learning by doing. As their priest, Jesus was praying and they were participating, praying along with Jesus’ perfect petitions. He was asking for their benefit. And they were only eventually expected to understand what Jesus was asking for them. I furthermore expect that from that day on, Jesus gathered the twelve into his daily prayer, which he had before this done in private, using this prayer, which was his way of expressing his relationship with his Father. How could the disciples, throughout their lifelong use of Jesus’ prayer, not always sense Jesus’ presence as the actual one who was praying, and doing so rightly?
But even more assuredly, I am convinced that Jesus, probably knowing that the twelve would eventually pass his prayer all the way down to us and beyond, was not only gathering the twelve into prayer with his opening words, “Our Father,” but is even today still gathering us for prayer whenever his prayer is used. He is still doing the praying, and we are stumbling along, only gradually and occasionally having a clue about what Jesus is asking our Father on our behalf. That’s fortunate for us who often only recite his words without meaning. Jesus is our priest when we use his prayer.
Is this not what the church in time, possibly even subconsciously, understood by what became the principal use of the Lord’s Prayer? Just after the very moment when Jesus’ presence in, with, and under the bread and wine is recognized in the communion liturgy, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. To make the point more clearly: once we by faith see Jesus present on the altar, this Jesus leads us in his prayer to ask for what really matters: forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation. And then, as we go forward to approach him at the table, we sing to and of his presence: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…”
Revolutionary as this may be to you after a lifelong use of the Lord’s Prayer, hear also this: when Jesus first began to pray the Lord’s Prayer, synthesized over time from his praying the divinely inspired Psalms, rather than asking for personal benefits (as people usually do at prayer) he was communing with his Father about their relationship and all its temporal and eternal implications. What was there anyway for Jesus to ask? He was content with what the Father had always been giving him. What I’m saying is that it’s a violation of Jesus’ prayer to try to use it for acquiring personal benefits. Anyway, with Jesus doing the actual praying, any such intentions of ours are not even being prayed.
Consequently, this prayer isn’t a prayer for all people, not even for all Christians; it wasn’t given to the multitudes from the mountain top. It’s for us only if we are committed to the Lord Jesus and look to meet him to pray with us to the Father. With it we open the door to meet Jesus and his primary teaching, able to cultivate a true relationship with him, as the twelve had face to face. And per his intent in living in our world for a time, he is all about introducing us to his Father to begin a relationship of fellowship that the Father envisioned when He created the world with His Son and Spirit.
That use to which Jesus himself put his prayer, communing with his Father for consolation, thanksgiving, joy for grace, and peace amid all threatening dangers, is precisely the use he expected from the twelve and all of us. He gave not a magical form of words but the way to connect with our Father in this world where His presence and activity is not only obscured but denied. He gives us a way to meditate on the critical matters that we commonly overlook in our self-absorption. With this we can rise above the ticking of our clock to luxuriate in the perfect grace our Father is working at with this creation and providence, including in and through us individually. Here we are to deal not with our poorly conceived desires but with what’s actually going on and will inevitably prevail. Considering and adjusting our relationship with God by way of Jesus’ prayer frees us to live as He intended for greater peace.
I’d like to at least briefly comment on the fourth and fifth petitions, which I understand are difficult and even troublesome for most everyone. Jesus elsewhere leaves no question about our need to forgive others; it’s simply a matter of expressing an active faith in the whole idea of forgiveness, bound together with God’s forgiveness. Recognize, however, that the character of Jesus’ prayer places the accent on celebrating with God what He does for us. Like with the third petition, we know that we can’t just sit on our butts and wait for God to give us bread. But to highlight God’s obscured process of feeding all creatures, Jesus has us altogether avoid mentioning our work. Here with the fourth petition he might have similarly let it go with, “Forgive our sins.” However, our forgiving each other dare not be overlooked, since it’s at the center of the problems of the world. Luke reports Jesus as praying, “for we ourselves forgive”; likewise Matthew reports Jesus saying, “as we also have forgiven.” Neither has Jesus praying about a process whereby we first forgive and then God forgives. (Matthew’s further comments of Jesus in 6:14–15 are undoubtedly condensed and must be expanded to be clarified.) Instead, since we are here to be celebrating what God does, this second half of the fourth petition says in effect: “As You have helped us to forgive, we urgently need and want You to help us to be more forgiving.” We can all comfortably pray that way with the accent on what God does rather than placing the focus on our uncertain works, leaving a fear about God’s forgiveness because we often fumble our forgiveness of others.
With the fifth petition, I have come to appreciate the new version of the Lord’s Prayer which was intended to replace the traditional version of over four hundred years ago. To pray “Lead us not into temptation” is at best obscure, as if he might want to. Both Luke and Matthew report Jesus as praying, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” That’s really a statement of faith that God doesn’t do this. It’s an acknowledgment, as the book of Job clearly teaches, that the devil inevitably does do so. Therefore the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer has us pray, “Save us from [meaning ‘in’] the time of trial.”
In conclusion, let’s summarize the character and purpose of the Lord’s Prayer in this simple way: with it we are celebrating what our Father is consistently doing, not what we wish He would start doing. We’re not so much asking for anything but rather accepting these gifts of His as precisely what we most urgently need and relaxing in this merciful fellowship. Setting aside our personal pain and fear, we boast in His most perfect love.