Introduction: A Model Prayer?
Posted by Ash Carter, 20 Mar 2018
Revd Ash Carter begins the final part of our 2018 Lent series, Believing, Living, Praying, with an introduction to the Lord's Prayer. All the posts on the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments can be found here.
Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s prayer will be familiar to anyone of a certain generation schooled in England, and certainly to anyone who has spent any time in an Anglican church. It may be the most often repeated piece of Scripture of them all.
But why is it so well known?
After all, it is not Jesus’ only prayer. We are told repeatedly that Jesus prayed, and we are given insight into his prayer life at Gethsemene (Luke 22:42), at the cross (Luke 23:34), and in his High Priestly prayer (John 17). In fact, the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer by Jesus at all. It is, rather, a gift from Jesus to his Church. In Luke’s version, Jesus is responding to the request of his disciples: ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1) and in Matthew’s account, it is part of his wider teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-15).
Nor is it because this is everything that Jesus wants to say on prayer. Earlier in the Sermon, Jesus tells us to pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). This is not everything that Jesus has to say, and certainly not everything that the Bible would want us to know about prayer.
But it is a model prayer. Indeed, it is the model prayer; a prayer from Jesus for his Church to use in relating to their heavenly Father. The prayer is familiar to us because it features in every Holy Communion service and every Service of the Word. This is the prayer that Jesus taught us and it has become the prayer that the Church uses, often.
It may be helpful at this point to pay attention to the context of the prayer before we think about how we can use it for ourselves to best effect.
The Lord’s Prayer falls right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins to address prayer, as a part of the wider narrative on Christian living, with the words ‘And when you pray’ because, for Jesus, prayer is a given (Matthew 6:5). The Lord’s Prayer is not about encouraging us to pray, but to pray for the right reasons and in the right way.
Jesus knows that the church of his day is full of hypocrites. They seek the approval of others and so they make all their prayers public: ‘they love to pray standing on the street corners to be seen by others.’ And they will be seen: ‘Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full’ (6:5). It is possible to use the right forms and words of prayer, but have no thought of God in your heart if all you want is that others think of you as a religious person.
The answer is not to give up prayer altogether, nor to give up corporate prayer, but is to make sure you also ‘go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father’ (6:6). It is the Father to whom we pray, and it is the Father who rewards our prayers with his gracious answers. We should pray for the right reasons.
But equally, we must pray in the right way. Jesus does pray longer prayers than this (see John 17), but he urges us not to ‘keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words’ (Matthew 6:7). The pagans pray long prayers because they think that God has to take notice of the prayer the longer it is. Not so, says Jesus. An arrow prayer, a single word, is enough to get the attention of a gracious Father. Moreover, the ‘Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matthew 6:8). God is not ignorant, needing a shopping list from us before he knows what to do. Our Father knows our situation better than we know it ourselves.
In other words, our prayers are an expression of our dependence on him, not an attempt to twist his arm, or inform him of things he doesn’t understand.
Matthew’s gospel teaches us we must pray to God, not to men, and that we must pray as though he were God, and not some impotent pagan deity.
Luke gives us an even briefer account of the prayer in his gospel, as though emphasising the point Matthew makes about not babbling. Again, the disciples in Luke assume they will pray. Jesus teaches them what to pray, but then gives them great encouragement to persevere in prayer. Jesus follows the prayer with the story of the man who asks a neighbour for bread to feed a traveller who has just arrived. Not because the cause is good, but because of the man’s ‘shameless audacity’ the neighbour relents (Luke 11:5-8). Then he tells the story of the father who, despite being evil, knows that if his son asks for an egg should not give a scorpion, nor a stone for a loaf of bread (11:11-12). In both cases, the principle is this: if this is how it works in human relationships, how much more generous will God be. For God is a Father to his people, but not an evil one. He will give the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of the prayer if we ask (11:13). And we should ask because ‘it will be given’, because our God is a generous God.
How shall we approach the Lord’s Prayer?
What the gospel accounts of the Lord’s Prayer remind us is that the prayer is devotional before it is liturgical. It is right and proper that the Church should have such a model prayer in her liturgy. But Jesus teaches us to pray in private. It is a devotional prayer. It is first of all about you and your walk with your heavenly Father.
Matthew tells us that God rewards those who pray. Luke tells us that God is generous to those who ask. So both gospels teach us dependence. We are to depend on God for everything that we need. Of course, the prayer itself will teach us what those things are that we need.
So, perhaps the thing that the next week or so offers us is an encouragement to pray consistently and persistently to our heavenly Father, in private, for those things he is willing to give according to the prayer Jesus taught us.
Questions for reflection
1. Where do you pray most, in public or in private?
2. What do you most often pray about?
3. What motivates you to pray?
Our Father, make us people of prayer. Help me to know that you are a gracious Father who answers prayer. Though my lips are stumbling, and I often do not know what to pray, thank you that you accept simple prayers and long to reward them. Please grant that I may learn how to pray in line with your will. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.
Ash Carter is the Assistant Minister at Christ Church, Earlsfield, and the Honorary Treasurer of Church Society.
Add your comment
Let us know what you think on our Facebook page