‘Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1) Jesus’ answer was an answer given to his disciples. In those times, a disciple was one who attended on the master in all things with the aim of becoming just like the master. His disciples saw him praying; they want to pray like that. So, it was not just a matter of Jesus teaching them some kind of formula prayer that they could rattle off when they thought to pray — and when we pray the Lord’s Prayer in that way, we have missed the point.
As one commentator put it: The ‘Our Father’ tells us how Jesus prayed and how he lived. Jesus called God ‘Father’ and treated others as members of God’s household. He actively worked for the coming of God’s Kingdom. He lived a simple life and depended upon God for his daily needs. He preached forgiveness and he forgave people. He fought against evil, even to the point of death. What Jesus prayed, he lived. His prayer summed up the Gospel. In teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus was teaching his disciples how to live as he lived, how to live as Christians. He taught them how to pray, not what to say. It’s not a matter of just saying words. In reciting the Lord’s Prayer, we almost need to say it as a kind of check-list, to remind ourselves how we ought to be living. It is meant to be words that are lived, so that our very lives are the Lord’s Prayer.
To do this is not easy. For as St Paul found: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15, 18-19) This is us. Left to ourselves, it is not possible for us to live as Jesus lived … and so it is not possible for us to pray as Jesus prayed. We need his Spirit to come upon us; this is why we are his disciples. A disciple is one lives with his master, doing everything as he does, until he has absorbed the master’s very spirit. When this happens, the disciple is so like his master that an encounter with him is as an encounter with his master. So much so, that if his master is taken away, the master still ‘lives’ so long as his disciple is alive.
When Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, was with his master on his last day, Elijah said to Elisha, “Make your request. What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha replied, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (C.f.: 2 Kings 2:1ff) To pray and live like Jesus, we need to ask the Lord for Christ’s Spirit to come upon us. This is not something we can just say in prayer in a wishful way: “Send Christ’s Spirit on me.” Rather it is something we need to work at over a long period of time, trying to do as Christ does — as a good disciple does. This is something that requires ‘persistence,’ as Jesus’ parable of The Importunate Friend recommends to us. (Luke 11:8) But it comes with Jesus’ assurance: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) We need to ask for his Spirit, and keep on asking … but not so much in words, as in what we do to try to live like Jesus … getting up again and again after our many failed attempts and having another go, until we can do as Jesus does. This is how we ask until it is given us, how we search until we find, how we keep on knocking until the door is opened to us. (Luke 11:9-10)
When Christ’s Spirit finally comes upon us, we will be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus, and doing what it calls us to:
“Father/abba/dad” — we normally think of God as Lord, or as the Judge, someone exalted and a long way off; but we have to come to know him as one more like the Prodigal Father: ‘When he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy and clasped in his arms and kissed him tenderly.’ (Luke 15:20) This the Lord does to all who call on him. Our task is to recognise our fellow petitioners as our brothers and sisters and treat them accordingly.
“May your name be held holy. Your kingdom come” — What we are asking for is that God’s holiness be acknowledged by us all, not just by our words, but by the way we live. It is a prayer that God’s holiness be reflected in our lives and in the lives of every single person. If we all were to do that, we should be living in the Kingdom and it would have come. It is a prayer that asks that God’s reign embrace the hearts of all humanity, a prayer that asks that we may play our part in making it happen.
“Give us each day our daily bread” — Here we express our trust in God’s care for us, that we may have the necessities of life, physical, emotional and spiritual. And it challenges us to see that everyone has their needs for today supplied. It is also a prayer that sees us ask for only as much as we need, rather than as much as we want, a prayer needed more than ever in a world overstretched and struggling to meet our insatiable consumerist mentality.
“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” — Here we pray for a share in God’s most beautiful quality: his readiness to forgive us, not just ‘seventy times seven times’ but indefinitely. (Matthew 18:22) This, of course, obliges us to do the same to those who sin against us. (Matthew 18:33) Here we are asking God to rescue us from ourselves, from the human frailties that lead us to harm those around us.
“And lead us not into temptation” — Here we pray that in the trials that beset us we may not fail and so betray our following of him.