Commentary on Matthew 6:7-15
Into yesterday’s passage on how we are to worship God through prayer, alms and fasting, Matthew puts a related piece of teaching how we ought to pray. This clearly seems to be an insertion and today we deal with it separately.
Jesus tells his disciples not to pray like many of the Gentiles. They go in for long prayers, hoping that eventually God will hear them. That is quite unnecessary, Jesus says, because our Father already knows our needs before we ask. If that is the case, why then should we bother praying at all? We do not pray to tell God what he already knows; we pray so that we will realise more deeply our needs and our total dependence on him.
Jesus then goes on and tells his disciples how they should pray. He teaches them, in effect, what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, or the ‘Our Father’. We have become accustomed to reciting this prayer very often – at every Mass, whenever we say the Rosary and at many other times.
The prayer in this form (Luke has a shorter version) contains seven petitions. Seven is a favourite number for Matthew. In listing the genealogy of Jesus he divides it into three lists of seven (chap. 1); there were probably seven Beatitudes in the original text (chap. 5); there are seven parables of the Kingdom (chap. 13) and forgiveness is to be offered not seven times but 77 times (chap. 18); there are seven ‘Alas’ when denouncing the Pharisees (chap. 23). Finally, the gospel itself is divided into seven main sections (Infancy, five discourses, passion).
The text of the Lord’s Prayer should not be seen as just a formula for vocal recitation. It is, rather, a series of statements and petitions in which we affirm our relationship with God, with the people around us and with the world in general. It is a statement of faith and it is, as we shall see, a highly challenging and, therefore, even rather dangerous prayer.
Let us take a brief look at the petitions one by one.
1, Our Father:
The challenge and the danger begin right in the first two words. We address God as Father, the source of life and of everything that we have; we have nothing purely of our own. But God is not just ‘Father’; he is ‘our‘ Father. And that ‘our’ includes every single person who lives or has ever lived on this earth; not a single person can be excluded.
In addressing God as ‘our Father’ we are acknowledging that every human person, including myself, is a child of God and therefore that we all belong to one huge family where we are all, in a very real way, brothers and sisters to each other. There is no room here for rejection, or hatred, or prejudice or contempt of any kind based on race, nationality, colour of skin, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion… If I am not prepared to accept every single person as a brother or sister, I will have problems even beginning to say this prayer.
2, May your name be held holy:
Other forms are ‘Hallowed be thy name’ or ‘Holy be your name’. Of course, God’s name is holy no matter what we say or think. We make this prayer for our sake more than for his. Here we are praying that God’s name be held in the deepest respect by people everywhere. That is not the case: some people despise his name and others do not even know it. We pray that the whole world will know God’s name, which is to say, to know and recognise God as their God and Lord, their Creator and Conserver and the final end of their lives on this earth. It is, in fact, another form of the next petition.
3, Your kingdom come:
We have already spoken about the nature of the kingdom. It might be more accurate to say, ‘Your kingship come’. In other words, we pray that every person in our world may put themselves consciously and willingly under the kingship and lordship and the love of God. We do this, above all, by our working together to make this world the kind of place that God wants it to be – a place of truth and love, of justice and peace, of sharing and caring. In one sense, of course, God is Lord irrespective of our relationship to him. But it is clearly his will that people, on their part, should accept that loving lordship as the centre of their lives. And that is the work of the Church and of every single Christian, indeed of every person anywhere – to help people recognise the kingship and lordship of God and to accept it as the key to their present and future happiness.
4, Your will be done on earth – as in heaven:
This, in a way, is simply another way of saying what we have already asked for in the previous two petitions. For that is the will of God that people everywhere recognise the holiness of his name and submit themselves gladly to his kingship and lordship in our world. We do that most effectively by identifying totally with the mission and work of Jesus to bring life, healing and wholeness to our world. To do the will of God is not simply to throw aside what we want and accept God’s will even when it is totally contrary to our own. We are only fully doing God’s will when we can see clearly that what he wants is always what is the very best for us. And we are only fully doing his will when we fully want what he wants, when our will and his will are in perfect harmony. Then we do what he wants and we do what we want. We are praying here to reach that level of oneness.
5, Give us today our daily bread:
It does not look like it but this also is a highly dangerous prayer for us to make. First of all, we are only asking for what we need now. Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will tell us not to be anxious about the future. We are asking for what we need today; tomorrow is another day. We take care of one day at a time.
But there is one little word here that is highly dangerous. It is the word ‘us’. Who is that ‘us’? Just me and my immediate family? or my parish? or my neighbourhood or my town or my country? Surely it is the same as that ‘our’ in the first petition – it includes every single person. I am praying, therefore, that every single person have bread to eat today. We know, of course, that there are millions of people (some of them in rich countries) who do not have enough to eat or who suffer from malnutrition and poorly balanced diets. In praying that all of ‘us’ have our daily bread, are we expecting God to drop manna from the skies or are we not reminding ourselves that the feeding of brothers and sisters is our responsibility? If people are hungry or badly fed, it is not God’s doing; human beings are responsible in most cases (outside of natural disasters).
This petition prayer can also include the Bread of the Eucharist. But in sharing that Bread together we are saying sacramentally that we are a sharing people and we will share our goods and blessings with others, especially those in need. Otherwise our Eucharist becomes a kind of sacrilege.
6, And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.
Again is this not another dangerous prayer to make? We are asking that God’s forgiveness to us be conditional on our readiness to forgive those we perceived to have hurt us in some way. That is a daring thing to do. And forgiveness does not simply mean uttering a few words. Forgiveness in the Scripture always includes reconciliation between offender and offended. In fact, I would go even further and say that the fully Christian person is never offended, cannot be offended. The true Christian has a rock solid sense of their own security and their own inner worth which no other person can take away. When such a person is the recipient of some attack, be it verbal or physical, their first response is to reach out to the attacker with concern and sympathy. It is the attacker who has the problem, not the one attacked. Most of us have a long way to go to reach that level of inner peace. ‘If what you say about me is true, I accept it; if it is false, then it is false. Why should I take offence?’
7, And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one (or from evil).
In the end, we acknowledge our weaknesses and our total dependence on God’s help. We pray that we will not find ourselves in a situation where we fall seriously. We ask to be protected from the powers of evil with which we are surrounded.
Some texts conclude with “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen”, which is used by many Christian denominations and is now included in the Catholic Eucharist after the Lord’s Prayer but separated by a prayer for peace. It is believed that this conclusion, not found in most MS., was introduced for liturgical reasons.
Finally, in addition to simply reciting this prayer in the rapid way we normally do, we could sometimes take it very slowly, one petition at a time and let its meaning sink in. Or we could just take one petition which is particularly meaningful to us at any time and just stay with it until it really becomes part of us.