Our Father: A Study of the Lord's Prayer

Chapter I. Introduction

A. C. Deane: No other form of words has a hold upon mankind like the few brief sentences of the Lord's Prayer. Not a day has passed without their use since that far time when Jesus taught them to His disciples. These were the first words we learnt by heart as little children, so that they are fragrant with memories of love and innocency. And they are the last to be forgotten by men who have lost all else of religion. They are recited by every Christian Church, in every service, from baptism to burial. They are at the heart of private devotion. People who differ on a hundred points of doctrine are linked by their common use of the Lord's Prayer. If much seems uncertain when we try, from our so different points of view, to interpret the mind of the Master, at least we know beyond doubt that we do His will when we pray "Our Father ...".

In the New Testament there are two version of the Lord's Prayer: the longer is in Matthew 6:9-13 and the shorter is in Luke 11:2-4. Their wording varies slightly across Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.

The phrase "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen" was added to the Prayer when it came into use in the Church.The currently most-widespread English-language version of the Lord's Prayer became popular in the reign of Elizabeth I of England around 1580 A.D.

Yet because it is so familiar we have the more need to guard against using the Prayer in mechanic fashion, or with only a dim sense of its meaning. Many books have been written to expound it, but their chief aim, for the most part, is to apply the Prayer's teaching to contemporary problems of social life and conduct. Exposition of that kind has been done in our own time with skill and thoroughness, so that there seems no present need to repeat it. But there is need, I think, for renewed study of another kind, which strictly should come first of all - a study less of the supposed implications of the Prayer than of the Prayer itself, a close scrutiny of its wording. For if we are to use the Prayer rightly, we must try to know the exact significance of its petitions. If we would relate its teaching with ethical and social problems, at the start we must make ourselves sure what that teaching is. We must neither rob the sentences of their full import, nor read into them an imagined meaning.

Of this the risk is greater, perhaps, than might be supposed. A very large proportion of those who use the Lord's Prayer have but a general sense of its meaning, and quite misunderstand some of its phrases. This happens partly because they have never examined the sentences in detail, being content to take them, as it were, on trust; and partly because often they retain through later years some inaccurate interpretation given in their schooldays. An immense amount of fresh light has been thrown upon the language of the New Testament within the past few decades, and a very real need of our time is that this knowledge should be popularized, should be transferred from technical treatises and journals so as to become the ordinary heritage of ordinary folk. As things are now, the new Testament of scholars is a quite different book from the New Testament of the average educated Englishman.

This book, then, is to be written with the single aim of studying the Lord's Prayer, not in its remoter applications, but in its direct and immediate significance, This is to be done by scrutinizing the actual wording of the Prayer, so that we may range ourselves beside the disciples to whom first it was given. Often, too, the significance of a phrase, the intent of its teaching, becomes clearer when we set beside it other words spoken by the Master on the same theme. All this should be no arid, intellectual study; rather it should help us to use the Prayer with a devotion heightened by understanding. If a word of personal witness be allowed, I would say that for me the beauty and the richness and practical helpfulness of the Paternoster were increased by detailed study of it to a degree I had never expected. And I shall be content indeed if this book can help others to a like experience.

II.

We will begin with a few preliminary points. The English form of the Prayer, which we all have by heart - that containing the word "trespasses" - comes not from the Authorized or Revised Versions of the Bible, but from the Book of Common Prayer, which in turn derived it from earlier English service-books. For the most part, however, it agrees with the later (1611) rendering of the Prayer in St. Matthew given by the Authorized Version. Beyond doubt, the doxology at the close ("for Thine is the Kingdom," etc.) was not of the Prayer as our Lord taught it, for it is missing from the best MSS. [manuscripts] of St. Matthew. When the Paternoster came early to be used in public worship, these words were added to it, as a very appropriate act of praise. Afterwards some scribe, transcribing the First Gospel and knowing the Prayer in its liturgical form, would assume these words to have been left out in error from the text he copied. In his own, therefore, he would append the doxology, and afterwards other scribes would copy his work without question. Thus the sentences which begin "For Thine is the Kingdom" came to be given a place in many texts of the first Gospel. The Prayer-book adopts them when the Lord's Prayer is used in a service of praise, and omits them at other times. We may well follow this example in private use, yet remembering that the words are a supplement to the Lord's Prayer, and not a part of it as taught by Christ.

But more important than this detail is a question which may have perplexed the reader, and indeed has been a theme of debate among experts. There are two versions of the Paternoster - one in the First Gospel, the other in the Third. They are notably different, both in wording and setting. According to St. Matthew, the Lord's Prayer was spoken as part of the Sermon on the Mount, and followed some general teaching on the right method of praying. According to St. Luke, it was given at a quite other time, in answer to a request from a disciple. We will compare the two narratives and forms of the Prayer, quoting the Revised Version, which here is far more accurate than the Authorized:

St. Matthew 6:9-13

After this manner therefore pray ye
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

St. Luke 11:1-4

And it came to pass, as he was praying in a certain place, that when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples And he said unto them, When ye pray, say,
Father,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins; for we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us.
And bring us not into temptation.

The seeming discrepancies are plain. Which Gospel, then, it has been asked, records rightly the occasion of the Prayer? Which preserves the true wording? Did the Third Gospel abbreviate the Prayer, or the First expand it?

Concerning the first of these questions, we may feel sure that St. Luke's narrative is true to fact, and that the Prayer was spoken, as he describes, when a disciple had begged "Lord, teach us to pray." It is incredible that St. Luke invented this story. It is not incredible, on the other hand, that the writer of the setting down in the Sermon on the Mount our Lord's directions about praying, should insert immediately after them the Prayer which the Lord Himself taught. If, then, the Prayer were spoken but once by the Master, we may believe the occasion to be described rightly by St. Luke.

Of greater importance is the other question. Is the Prayer as spoken by our Lord represented more faithfully by the Matthean version or the Lucan? The divergences between them are even greater than our English translations make plain. In Greek, I find that there are fifty-seven words in St. Matthew's version. Only twenty-five of these are used identically by St. Luke. Twenty-two words are omitted entirely by him. The remaining ten are changed to different forms.

A close study of the problem thought to arise from these facts would compel the examination of technical details outside the scope of this book. Let it suffice to state results. The judgment of scholars has confirmed the choice made by the Church when it took the form given in St. Matthew's Gospel for daily use. The text of the Lord's Prayer as we all have learnt and say it is, we have full right to believe, in accordance with words spoken by Jesus Christ. It has been thought by many that the two evangelists must have had before them the same Greek version of the Prayer, as both reproduce one word which has been found nowhere else in Greek, either of the New Testament or elsewhere. If so, we may believe more easily that St. Luke shortened the Prayer than that St. Matthew lengthened it. Some of St. Luke's changes can be explained; once or twice, for instance, he seems, without making any substantial change of sense, to replace a word by another he himself liked and used often in his writings. As for his omissions, these too have been explained. Thus it has been supposed that be held the petition "Thy Kingdom come" to imply and include "Thy will be done," so that the meaning was complete without these latter words. On the whole, then, scholars find it not difficult to account for the alterations they suppose St. Luke to have made.

On the other hand, they believe the longer form of St. Matthew to be the more accurate. The Prayer was meant to be committed to memory, and, as an aid to this, the Rabbis (whose methods our Lord adopted) were wont to clothe such teaching in a symmetrical form. And the Lord's Prayer of the Matthean version is strictly symmetrical. After the opening words of address there are six petitions: three for God's glory, three for our needs. Of the first three, the dominant word is "Thy" - "Thy name," "Thy Kingdom," "Thy will." Of the second three, the dominant word is "us": "Give us," "Forgive us," "bring us." (As we shall see later, "but deliver us" is not a separate petition.) To sum up, then: if the Prayer were delivered but once, St. Luke best describes the occasion, St. Matthew best gives us the wording of the Prayer; and it is St. Matthew's version which we have learnt to use.

III

Yet was the Prayer taught but once? Until lately scholars have been quite curiously apt to take this for granted. None the less, it is an assumption which does violence both to human nature and to all we know of educational methods in our Lord's time. Through the years of His ministry He came before mankind as a Rabbi [teacher]. Thus He was known and thus addressed, alike by His disciples, by the multitude, by His enemies. He taught on themes which none but accredited Rabbis might touch. He sat to teach - the recognized posture of a Rabbi. And the method of a Rabbi was to select from his general instruction certain things which seemed of a chief importance, and to say these many times to his disciples, until they had them by heart, or at least were sure of their meaning. A teacher who had framed prayers for his disciples (as many Rabbis did, and as the Baptist had done for his followers) would repeat them many times. It is for commentators who assume our Lord to have departed from this practice to show any evidence for their view. And, in fact, there is none.

Again, quite apart from the Rabbinical methods Jesus employed, is it in the least likely that He would speak His Prayer on one occasion only? St. Luke describes a moment when "a disciple" - unnamed, and presumably not of the Twelve - asked the Master for a model prayer. May we not feel sure that other disciples at other times would make the same request? And, when once our Lord had framed the Prayer, would He not, of His own accord, repeat it to different groups of people, and in the different places He visited? It seems likely enough that, while its essence would be always the same, its details of wording might be varied, perhaps the better to suit the audience before Him at the moment. We know now - until lately it was quite unsuspected - that the Jews were bilingual, speaking Greek as well as Aramaic. In Aramaic, no doubt, the most of our Lord's converse was held, but it is possible - perhaps even probable - that, at one time or another, He spoke the Prayer in Greek. Thus again there would be small variations of detail in the wording.

In fact, the scholastic dilemma which sets us to choose between the two settings and versions of the Paternoster has, I believe, no real existence. No doubt the authorities are right who tell us to credit the story of St. Luke. No doubt they are right when they bid us accept the wording of the Prayer as given by St. Matthew. Only it does not follow that the setting ascribed to the Prayer by St. Matthew is wrong, or that the version of the Prayer recorded by St. Luke was never spoken. Far more probably, I think, both Evangelists are accurate, and bring us two of the various forms and two of the many times in which the Lord's Prayer was delivered.

Let us return for a moment to St. Luke's narrative. A disciple came and said, "Lord, teach us to pray." Perhaps Jesus long had wished to do that. But, as with His works of healing, He seems ever to have been constrained by a law which forbade Him to give until man had asked for the gift, had shown his sense of need. No sooner had the disciple said, "Teach us to pray," than the Prayer was bestowed. There was no delay during which it was shaped into studied form. Rather, that which was spoken, and recorded by St. Luke, proved, in effect, an extemporized first draft. Thus its unsymmetrical and comparatively brief form is to be understood. Later, our Lord would develop this first draft. He would expand the original wording. He would perfect the form, dividing the whole into two sections of three petitions apiece, thereby making it the more easy to remember. Afterwards He might include this perfected form in His Sermon on the Mount, according to St. Matthew's record. Anyhow, He would use it in His subsequent teaching. The complete and symmetrical form would be that which His followers would learn by heart and transmit to the Church. St. Luke's version would be the first extempore sketch of it, given without premeditation in the circumstances he describes. Thus the two accounts of the two Evangelists become not contradictory, but complementary.

IV

There is one other point of seeming discrepancy, and again the true explanation may be of the same kind. St. Matthew's words are, "After this manner pray ye"; St. Luke's, "When ye pray, say" - so that, according to the former, this Prayer is to be taken as a model for prayers of our own; according to the latter, it is a prayer actually to be recited as it stands. But are not both accounts of it true? We may accept it, surely, both as one the wording of which is to be taken on our own lips, and one the spirit of which is to serve as a pattern when we pray, "after this fashion." Long usage of the Prayer shows us continually new stores of richness in its meaning. And the prayers we make for ourselves accord with the mind of God in proportion as their spirit and wide range and unselfishness reproduce the spirit of that pattern prayer which Jesus gave.

Thus we will turn to examine closely the wording of that Prayer, both in order that thereby we may come nearer to a right understanding of its significance, and also because to know the Lord's Prayer is to know how to pray.

That which we attempt need be no frigidly academic study, but rather an effort to come and learn of Christ, as the people of Galilee came, because we want to know how to pray better, and therefore to understand better the greatest Prayer of all.

by Anthony C. Deane, Canon of Worcester Cathedral, pre-1939.


    The Lord's Prayer
  1. Chapter 1: Our Father
  2. Chapter 2: Hallowed be Thy Name
  3. Chapter 3: Thy Kingdom Come
  4. Chapter 4: Thy Will be Done
  5. Chapter 5: Give Us Our Daily Bread
  6. Chapter 6: Forgive Us Our Trespasses
  7. Chapter 7: Lead Us not into Temptations
  8. Chapter 8: Using the Prayer

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