A Prayer for All Peoples

Bible text: Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4

At the heart of Christian piety lies the prayer we traditionally call the Lord’s Prayer. It is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. Its words are designed to guide us in wording our own prayers.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen

Through centuries of use, this prayer has embedded itself deep into the European and American consciousness. I was fascinated to recognize that when I was watching the funeral of Princess Diana on TV back in 1997.

At one point in the service, a bishop started leading the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. The TV cameras showed nearly everyone in Westminster Abbey and among the crowds assembled outside reciting the words. In a world where fewer and fewer people attend church, still a large proportion of the secularized crowds around us know and can recite this prayer.

It is startling, however, to notice that there is nothing distinctly Christian about this prayer that has been central to the Jesus movement ever since Jesus taught it. The prayer does not invoke the name of Jesus, as do most other Christian prayers when we add on to the end, “in Jesus’ name.”

The language is not distinctly Trinitarian. Yes, the prayer invokes God by the name Father, but this prayer precedes by a couple of centuries the Trinitarian meaning Christians were to later give to the word Father.

In fact, the most Christian element in the prayer is probably this naming of God as Father. This language reflects Jesus’ own practice of calling upon God as his Father. The Aramaic word he used was Abba, which can be translated as Daddy. Jesus’ usage expresses the intimate relationship that Jesus seems to have felt with God. He wanted others to share that intimate relationship as well.

What I find notable about this prayer is that I imagine most Jews and Muslims would also feel comfortable in speaking this prayer. Calling God Father was not the most favored usage in the Hebrew Bible, but I don’t imagine any Jew would feel he or she was compromising his or her faith in addressing God as Father. And phrases like “hallowing the name of God” and praying for the coming of God’s kingdom are very distinctive Jewish themes.

I am not familiar with common usage among Muslims, but I again doubt that most Muslims would feel they compromised their faith in speaking this prayer. And probably many others of others faiths might feel the same.

So this prayer that many Christians regard as distinctly theirs proves to be a prayer whose wording allows people of many different faiths to join in a united invoking of God. Is it not characteristic of Jesus that in creating a model prayer, he should choose language that unites rather than divides?

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