Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our bread for tomorrow.
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.
Matthew 6:9-13 (NRSV with footnoted translation of v. 11 taken as the preferred)
Having warned his followers not to pray in order to win the favor of the gods, the Emperor, or an audience, he offers a contrasting prayer. It is a prayer that recognizes that a large, eschatological event is on the doorstep. It is the compact, urgent prayer the night before the exodus.
In this prayer, we see Jesus’ hopes for his audience that have come through loud and clear in the rest of his sermon. What he sees before him is God’s restoration of Israel – the first citizens of the renewed kingdom. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the epicenter of Jesus’ prayer – that people on earth would do God’s will on the earth just as God’s will is done in heaven. He prays that earth would look like heaven, not in the sense of pearly gates or streets of gold, but in the sense that the kingdom will have come and the people of that kingdom will be doing God’s will in the earth.
It is a prayer for the future, but it is a prayer for an impending future. It is a prayer for something God is at the cusp of accomplishing, not a far flung hope that extends to the end of the world. The prayer is not that God would destroy the world or take everyone to heaven or anything like that. The prayer is that the kingdom would come and that earthly people on earth would do God’s will on earth, and this state of affairs would mirror heaven.
Honestly, if I had to pick a single kernel out of all of Scripture that defined the Christian hope, mission, and destiny in the world, it would be the ideas encapsulated in the opening of Jesus’ prayer – that earth would resemble heaven by way of what people are doing. How many practical applications could be spun out of that meditation, alone?
Most English Bible translations include as a footnote the translation I chose to put in the quoted text. Do you want to know why it’s a footnote and not the main translation? Because it doesn’t make as much sense to people.
The Greek word that is usually translated as “daily” in the phrase “our daily bread” is epiousion, and nobody knows exactly what it means because the Lord’s Prayer is the only place it ever appears. I don’t mean it’s the only place in the Bible; I mean it’s the only place in the entirety of extant Greek writings. The only clue we really have is Acts 7:26 has a similar word (epiousei) where it means “the next day.”
It ended up being translated as “daily” in the King James which virtually guarantees a long lifespan in church tradition, because this apparently makes more sense. Jesus knows we need food every day, so he’s asking God for it. Makes sense.
Well, it does, but if that’s what Jesus is saying, this seems jarringly out of place in a prayer about coming kingdoms, transformed earths, and universal forgiveness.
I think the word is probably meant to be understood in the sense of getting the next day’s bread, today, because this comes directly from Israel’s experience of gathering manna the day before the Sabbath. Since work on the Sabbath was prohibited, God would send an extra measure of bread the day before so that the people could collect the Sabbath’s bread. It’s what you did the night before the Sabbath day, and I think that image fits great in Jesus’ prayer of eschatological expectation. The true Sabbath is right around the corner, so prepare us for it.
This very well may include the sentiment of material needs. When talking about the coming judgement, Jesus urges his followers to take supplies and make friends with wealthy people because times will get very hard for everyone in the region. But still, the sense is once again of eschatological urgency and not just a pleasant homily about God’s daily provision.
Finally, Matthew’s version of the prayer concludes with forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins was not a trivial matter. It wasn’t like when you and I pray nightly for forgiveness of our sins that day. Israel’s sins are why she is in exile. To be forgiven of those sins would mean being released from the curse of the Law – an end to her oppression and a restoration to her true being and status.
But this forgiveness is also conditioned on faithful Israel forgiving those who break covenant with them. You cannot expect God to forgive your debts if you refuse to forgive those who owe you. You cannot expect God to remove the consequences of your sins against Him if you insist on enforcing consequences on those who have sinned against you. As Jesus has urged in the previous verses, Israel’s stance toward her own people and even toward her enemies needs to look like God her Father. This is a staple that will be repeated in Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ parables, and carried into apostolic instruction to their congregations.
We need to take care, just like with the rest of the Sermon, that we don’t see this prayer as disconnected from the Sermon, as if Jesus is addressing a wide variety of topics and is now at the point where he teaches us what our prayers should look like. Jesus has been talking this whole time about how the promised fulfillment of God’s redemption is about to come to pass and what this means for the faithful in terms of, not just future blessing, but present behavior. The Lord’s Prayer falls right in line with that context, is explained by that context, and needs to be carefully applied in light of that context.
We find, in our day, that earth does not look very much like heaven. The new creation that Jesus reboots seems to happen more in fits and starts than continuous growth, and it is certainly still embattled. Not only is there the evil that men do, there is famine, there is disease, there is poverty, there is destruction of the planet, and a whole host of values, behaviors, and just natural screwed-uppedness that are the thorns and thistles that resist the work of new creation.
The realization of this work is not something we can achieve just by working on it hard enough. Yes, we are commanded to participate in God’s plans, and we are supposed to work on it. But it is God Himself and only God who can unscrew all of this, as much as He may choose to use us to do it. As long as Death continues to rule over man, the world will not be as God wants it, and as much as we can stave Death off, we can’t stop it nor raise ourselves from it. And beneath the power and reach of Death is an entire hierarchy of woes and evils.
We do not have a promise like Jesus’ followers did that their generation would not pass away until they saw the Son of Man on clouds of glory. We don’t know if some great happening is waiting for our generation or waiting for another thousand years. But what we do have is a mission, a witness, and a hope – and in that sense, we can easily adopt Jesus’ outpouring of prayer for our own.
- Why do you think the Lord’s Prayer has enjoyed such widespread longetivity and practice in Christian worship?
- What kind of scope is required for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? Is it inspiring? Overwhelming? Does it make you want to get to work? Does it make you feel inadequate and want to pray? Can it be both?