Read the section in the Small Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer.
Before we go any farther with the Lord’s Prayer it might be instructive to see what Martin Luther understood about prayer itself. For Luther, prayer is something the second commandment teaches (remember that one? You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.) When we pray, we are calling on God in every need. In fact, Luther goes so far as to say that those who do not pray “should know that he is no Christian and does not belong in the kingdom of God.” We are required to pray… and God promises to hear us. So, we should pour out those things that burden us to God and pray in the name of God with the faith that God will hear and help us. This definition of prayer as primarily a crying out to God in need (more than one of praise and thanksgiving) separates his understanding from that of his contemporaries.
Luther admits that prayer is difficult, even he finds it so. Luther once said that prayer is even harder than preaching because preaching is God’s work through us. Prayer, however, comes from us. Yet, he believed that even the simplest of prayers is a sure anchor in time of trouble.
Luther encouraged short prayers. He trusted from scripture that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words to express. And because we know the Spirit does this and know that God is listening, we have no need for “everlasting twaddle”. Instead, we should pray like the saints with brief, but strong and powerful words. “The fewer the words, the better the prayer; the more words, the poorer the prayer. Few words and much meaning is Christian; many words and little meaning is heathenish.”
Luther understood the Lord’s Prayer to be a great gift from God. One that is the prince of prayers and which provides for us a model for how we pray. Here we see the human needs we pray for; Forgiveness, necessities of daily life, for faith, God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, strength, and deliverance from evil. Here we are given the very words we can pray. Here is a prayer to have always on our lips and written deep in our hearts.
Address to God- Our Father, you who are in heaven
Keep in mind, this comes right after the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot believe…” It is his experience of God in the Third Article, of a merciful God by whose grace we receive faith itself, that we can have confidence to pray. That we can boldly proclaim our need to this loving father who has claimed us in baptism.
First Petition (request)- May your name be hallowed
God’s name is holy without our asking that it be, look back at Commandment #2. Instead, Luther understands the prayer to be asking that it become holy among us, on earth, in the church, in our household, even as it is in heaven already.
How does this come about? Note this extra question in the first three petitions. Also note how Luther phrases the answer, “To this end help us, dear Father in heaven!”, “Preserve us from this, heavenly Father!” All this comes about because of God and God’s activity (I cannot by my own understanding or strength…) This is made even more apparent in Luther’s connection of how this comes about to the Word of God being taught “clearly and purely”. For it is through this Word that the Holy Spirit comes to us. This Word is Jesus, is Scripture, and is the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints (remember that?). The God-talk that is to happen among us all the time.
Second Petition- May your kingdom come.
Again, God’s kingdom is coming whether we ask for it or not. Note well, where does Luther believe God’s kingdom has come? Whenever we receive his Holy Spirit (see the explanation of the Third Article and on baptism). God’s kingdom exists in the now, not just the yet-to-come. It is through this grace shown to us (Third Article) that we believe in God’s Word and live a life according to that grace.
Third Petition- May your will be come about on earth as in heaven.
For a third time we are reminded, God’s will comes without us praying for it. Rather, we pray that it will come about “in and among us.” What does it mean for us to pray that God’s will comes about among us as the Body of Christ that is the church?
Note the tie in to the previous two petitions. God’s will comes on earth when God breaks and hinders the evil that comes from the devil, the world, and “our flesh”. What Luther called the “Old Adam” which prevents us from hallowing God’s name and would prevent the coming of this kingdom. Note also who is doing the work here…it is God who breaks and hinders. It is God through the Word and the Holy Spirit who enables us in the first two petitions. I believe I cannot believe….
Fourth Petition- Give us today our daily bread.
Luther paraphrases Jesus here, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45). This prayer is more that we would recognize what is our daily bread and receive it with thanksgiving.
Note the direct tie in with the First Article of the Creed in the list of what daily bread is. The gift to us, even as the gift of faith, is that we realize that God is the one who has given this to us – even though we are as undeserving as the “evil people”. The gift is that we know we are undeserving and that we receive this gift anyway. What other response to that could there be than thanksgiving to such a gracious and loving Father?
Fifth Petition- Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Anyone else pray this and add a silent, “Oh dear God, please no!” because they know how often they don’t forgive sins of others against them? We pray and trust that God will be so much more gracious than we are.
In his explanation, Luther expresses the medicine that is at the core of this prayer, “we daily sin much and indeed deserve punishment”, but we trust that “God would give us all things by grace” even as we have experienced that already (Third Article, “I believe I cannot believe…”).
This is also the ground for the final explanation and one that answers my own silent cry. “We truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.” As Dr. Timothy Wengert writes, “Here faith speaks its will (“We, too, truly want to”), but without the Holy Spirit, the death of the old creature (through the Ten Commandments), and the birth of the new (through the Creed’s gospel), we remain trapped.” The gift to us in this petition is that whenever we forgive another, it is a sign of God’s grace for us as real as the sacraments. For in that forgiveness of another we receive assurance that God’s Holy Spirit has worked faith in us and that God in grace has forgiven our sins as well.
Sixth Petition- And lead us not into temptation.
In this petition we are sent back to the First Commandment and to the Third Article. The First Commandment demands trust and the Third Article fulfills that demand. Given that reality, Luther acknowledges what we already know; that we live as both saint and sinner in our lives. That we sin and fall short of the glory of God but that we want to forgive, and love, and feed. In this petition we call upon God who provides all our daily needs (First Article and Fourth Petition) to daily preserve and keep us also from that triumvirate; the devil, the world, and our own flesh. That we might not be led into false belief (what Pastor Brian’s ordination promise calls “illusory hope”) or despair (the lack of hope). Luther acknowledges that we will be “attacked” by these things. Here Luther uses the German word anfechtung meaning struggle (think of Jacob wrestling with God).
So, this petition acknowledges the reality of our struggles, but also lands on the trust in God and God’s promises that has already been given to us.
Seventh Petition- Deliver us from evil.
For Luther, this is a broad summary of the whole prayer, that God would deliver us from all that afflicts our body, soul, property, and reputation. That all the evil that can and will befall us during this life will, in this life (perhaps) and certainly in the next… by God’s grace… be removed from our lives.
Closing the Prayer- Amen. *
As our confirmands have heard, amen is a term of agreement. It means something like, “What they said.” or “Yep, I agree.” or “May it be so.” In this ending, Luther encourages us to be “certain” that this prayer is “acceptable to and heard by our Father in heaven.” for God has commanded us to pray this prayer. To ask for these things. To consider what this means for our lives. How much more should we say, “May it be so.”
* Note- The doxology “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever” is omitted from the catechism as was medieval practice.
Questions for thought and conversation:
- As Christ-ians, those who bear the name of Jesus. How are we manifesting, making real, the holiness of God’s name by who we are and what we do?
- What does the kingdom of God that we pray for look like? What are we really asking for in this prayer? Does Jesus, does Martin Luther, give us any clues?
- What is something you learned or never thought of about this prayer? How will you pray it differently from now on?