Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: The Lord’s Prayer

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July 27, 2012 by jmar198013

Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored. May your kingdom come, and may your will be done–as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver is from evil. (Matt. 6.9-13)

Stanley Hauerwas writes: “The message of the Sermon cannot be separated, abstracted out, from the messenger … The Sermon is but the form of [Jesus’] life, and his life is the prism through which the Sermon is refracted” (“A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount,” in Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993], 66). We can only live obedient to the Sermon when we recognize that discipleship is constituted by our emulation of Jesus’ form of life. To be a disciple means living ever in light of the Cross. Many balk at Jesus’ word that we must be reconciled to those with whom we are angry rather than seek to destroy them; that we would rather pluck out our eyes than commit adultery; that disciples do not divorce; and especially, that we are willing to suffer rather than inflict pain on others, and that we must generously love those who are hostile to us. Some of us have perhaps been told that the Sermon represents a series of impossibilities designed by God to have us throw ourselves upon his grace by holding up a mirror to our sin. Yet the Sermon does not, in fact, hold the mirror to our sin; rather, it directs our attention away from our own sinfulness by describing the life of Jesus, and calling us to share in that life. The Sermon is only impossible for those who are unwilling to share in Jesus’ life even if it means to share in his suffering and death. It would not have been lost on Matthew’s audience that the one who calls us to a life of nonviolence and love of enemies died in accord with the life he proclaimed. The Sermon, then, is Jesus preaching what he practiced.

At the core of the Sermon which is Jesus’ form of life is a prayer, which should not surprise us, for as Hauerwas reminds us elsewhere, “we learn to pray by following Jesus, who is the Father’s prayer for us” (Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 76). There is a deep mystery in this idea of Jesus being our Father’s prayer for us, and Hauerwas does not explain himself. But surely it has to do with the form of Jesus’ life, and God’s will that we would imitate it. Jesus’ life is what God desires for us. And again, in the Sermon, Jesus is teaching us his life. In fact, just as Jesus has taught us how to be reconciled, how to avoid adultery, how to speak truthfully, how to not repay evil for evil, and how to love our enemies, at this juncture he teaches us how to pray. It should not surprise us that Jesus must teach us to pray, for in one of his letters Paul will also inform us that “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8.26). Later on in the Sermon, Jesus will tell us that we don’t even know any better than to give holy things to dogs or pearls to pigs (Matt. 7.6). Prayer is much too crucial to be left up to such confused people to figure out on their own.

The prayer Jesus would have us pray begins with an appeal to “Our Father.” Discipleship is about accepting the invitation to follow Jesus, to learn from the Son how to be children of our heavenly Father. Jesus has already noted earlier (Matt. 5.43-48) that being children of our heavenly Father means we will love our enemies. To pray along with Jesus to “Our Father” obligates us to bear a family resemblance to God. We can only do this by imitating the life of Jesus, the Son, whose life teaches us what it means to be a child of God. That we pray to “Our Father” quite significant for a people who have been told just a few verses earlier that we are to pray in secret. Even when we pray in secret, we pray along with Jesus, and with the saints both living and dead. Our prayers are all joined to Jesus’ prayer. We are praying God’s prayer for us. Even when we pray in secret, we pray in community. For we are always praying along with Jesus, and by praying along with him, his Father and ours is present with us, too.

We pray not only to our Father, but our Father in heaven. This means that God’s fatherhood of us does not model the care of our biological fathers, or lack thereof, for us. Rather, all fathers on earth are judged by the care God takes of his children. God’s care for his children confronts all human assumptions about what makes good parenting. This is especially important for those of us who recognize that the gospel calls us to live free of violence. For the world–and often the church–tells us that if we will not kill to save our children, then we are irresponsible parents who do not love our children well enough. And yet, by that standard, the Cross would prove God the most irresponsible Father ever. That our families may suffer because we refuse to believe that the blood of our enemies is any less red than the blood of our children is not a sign that we do not love our families. To the contrary, whatever form of life we choose may very well cause our families to suffer. The life of Jesus, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, merely tells us what is worth suffering for.

We pray that our Father’s name will be honored. This connects our prayer to the task of the church–that our good deeds may be seen by the world who will on account of those deeds honor God. We are praying not only for grace to live lives that honor our Father, but that the lives we live will give others reason to honor him, too. The task of the church ought to remind us that the only adequate apologetic we have is a form of life which others cannot believe to be the result of anything other than divine intervention. To ask that God’s name be honored is not only a prayer of grace for ourselves, but a prayer to be vehicles of grace.

Jesus then directs us to pray that God’s kingdom/rule/reign will come and his will be done–as in heaven, so on earth. These are in fact two ways of expressing the same concept. When our Father’s will is done on earth as in heaven, his reign is present. Again, to pray this prayer means to accept responsibility for the presence of God’s kingdom. For we are not praying that God would do his own will. That would be redundant–God does not need us to ask him that. Rather, it is a prayer for grace that will enable us to cooperate with God by doing his will. The life of Jesus as rehearsed in the Sermon teaches us what God’s will is: be reconciled; be faithful to your spouse and don’t exploit them; tell the truth and speak plainly; do not repay evil for evil but overcome evil with good; love your enemies and extend hospitality to strangers; don’t showboat your piety. When we are intentional about these practices, we are creating room for God’s kingdom. We are dwelling in God’s time.

We are then instructed to pray that we be given our daily bread and that we forgive others their debts to us as we have been forgiven our debts. Again, these petitions are intimately connected. A people capable of trusting God for our daily needs is capable of forgiving others their debts, because we recognize that our survival depends not on others giving us what is “due” us, but on God’s generosity. Furthermore, to be a people that petitions God daily for bread reminds us that we are ever beggars and debtors before him. People who are not often reminded of their debts will get it in their heads that they don’t owe anyone anything. People who believe that they don’t owe anyone anything are incapable of forgiving others, or of seeking forgiveness (for that would mean that you owe someone something). Those who are incapable of forgiveness are incapable of discipleship.

Finally, Jesus tells us that we must pray not to be led into temptation, but to be delivered from evil. It is again at this juncture that we need to recall that the Sermon is Jesus’ own form of life, that he preaches what he practices. Just before he preached the Sermon, in Matt. 4, he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness three times to dishonor God and choose some other way of being the Messiah. He tells Satan on one of those occasions that he will not put God to the test. To pray that we not be led into temptation but delivered from evil is to pray that we will not put God to the test. We put God to the test when we fail to trust in his abundance and instead trust in human wisdom and all the gimmicks that go along with it. We are praying, then, that we would not fall into idolatry–that we would not bow to Satan in exchange for control of our world. Christians often fall into this trap when we attempt to dominate the public space instead of simply inhabiting it, and when we trust mammon and violence over the generosity and peaceableness to which God has called us. Once more, Jesus will remind us that when we choose those idols over our Father’s generosity, we are giving what is holy to dogs and casting pearls before swine. He also lets us know that when we do that, we will only be trampled and torn (Matt. 7.6-7). When we are humiliated by trusting dogs and pigs, we dishonor God and do not fulfill our vocation and task.

The Lord’s Prayer is not simply Jesus teaching us how to pray, then; he is teaching us by it how to live.

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2 thoughts on “Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: The Lord’s Prayer

  1. […] daily bread, and that we would forgive our debtors as God forgives our debts (Matt. 6.11-12). In a previous post in this series, I suggested that you cannot separate those two petitions. A people who must rely on […]

  2. […] have written previously that we should not separate the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer give us this day our daily […]

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