Read the scripture here.
Read what Working Preacher has to say here.
This text comes as a part of the Sermon on the Mount, a group of teachings by Jesus, collected in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel. (Some parallels are found in Luke 6:20-49.) Jesus introduces this section by telling us not to practice our acts of piety so others will be impressed. Similarly, our prayers are not to be piles of empty words.
“When you pray,” Jesus instructs next, assuming that prayer is already part of a life connected to God. Words full of meaning come next, as Jesus tells how to pray, and then gives an example. His lesson has become one of the most famous prayers in the world. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that both the practice of a rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time. “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers; and there is indeed a certain similarity noticeable between these prayers and that of Jesus.” You can read more here.
The prayer, like Jesus’ life, begins with a focus on God. After the connection with God is made, then the petitioner asks for the essentials. Daily bread, calling us back to God’s goodness to the people of Israel in the desert, receiving just enough manna each day. Irving J. Arnquist and Louis R. Flessner observe that this prayer functions on both the level of daily life, and on an eschatological level, pointing ahead to the fullness of God’s reign. “In the context of this relationship with God, Jesus’ prayer reveals the nature of God’s eschatological work. Some would even title it the Kingdom Prayer because it is saturated with the imminent reign of God. Even the more “earthly” petitions, like the request for daily bread, bear striking eschatological overtones. Out of the relationship with God, exemplified by the Lord’s Prayer, comes true piety. The disciple is to give, pray, and fast, but not by the rules or institutional demands of religion. Faithful living comes from the heart, and only God can do this work. When this happens, the reign of God has come.” You can read more here.
For these authors, forgiveness is at the heart of the prayer, and at the center of what Jesus teaches us. “If the Sermon on the Mount is a summary of Jesus’ teaching, and the Lord’s Prayer is at the heart of this sermon, then this petition for forgiveness is at the epicenter of the gospel. Reconciliation is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry. Thus, forgiveness is at the heart of the relationship with God, of piety, and of life in Christian community. No better word can be found to describe the saving work of God or the day-to-day work of Christ in setting relationships right. Perhaps no other theme appears more often in Matthew’s gospel than that of forgiveness. Matthew uses the word aphiemi forty-nine times, nearly one third of the total number of its occurrences in the New Testament. And few are the chapters without several references.”
Once we’ve entered into this immediate kind of prayer with God, we return to regularly scheduled spiritual programming, with instructions on fasting. Following the same pattern, Jesus gives instructions for “when you fast.” This, too, is to be done without any attempt to impress anyone else. Finally, he turns his attention to our relationship with material things, instructing us that seeking treasure, in any form, will distract us from God. Our attention follows our treasure, and so we are to be careful what we store up.
This phrase finds its way into popular culture through the Harry Potter series. In the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, preparing for a final battle, Harry makes his way to the village where his parents lived, and visits the graveyard. There he finds the graves of Dumbledore’s family, with the puzzling (to him) inscription: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The inscription reflects a struggle within the once-young Dumbledore, a great wizard by the time we know him in the books, between love and power. Later, Harry and Hermione find the grave of Harry’s parents. That tombstone also has a quote from the Bible. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
All of Jesus’ instructions, including the Lord’s Prayer, have to do with fixing our attention on God. We’re not to get distracted by how other people see us, or the impression we’re making. We’re not to try to impress anyone with our spiritual lives, or our material goods. Jesus is calling us to a rare kind of focus on God, in all that we do.
- For people accustomed to the Revised Common Lectionary, this text will evoke Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent. How does it feel to hear these words on a random Sunday in the winter? For me, they come with an overlay of Lent, and they feel like a reminder that sacramental living isn’t limited to Lent, or any other season. Our lives need this invitation back to God all the time, not just for the forty days before Easter.
- Jesus presents forgiveness as the essential food of the spirit, the “daily bread” of relationships, and he connects the measure we receive to the measure we give. The sermon might explore this connection – how we manage to forgive others, and the space it creates in our lives for God’s presence. Is enduring anger, like fancy displays of piety, a distraction from the presence of God? Jesus says: “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is it possible for God not to forgive us? Or is it just that we can’t experience it until we forgive others?
- This prayer offers an immediate, direct connection to God, both in the simple words and in the spirit of the one who teaches it to us. Where else do you find that direct connection to God? Are there other places? The sermon might look at our direct connections to God, and how we nurture those practices / places.
- In contrast to Jesus’ instruction about “when you pray,” the authors of Never Pray Again suggest that “prayer is an idea that has too much baggage to do its job anymore. That is the problem. Maybe the solution is to simply never pray again. But what do we do instead?” (Check the authors out here.) The authors of the book suggest that we’ve traveled so far from what Jesus taught that it’s hard to get back to it. As they say, “we want to live our lives more fully, and in order to do so, we found that we had to set prayer aside. For our spiritual lives to flourish, we needed to be set free from the rock imprisoning us before we could be much use. We noticed as we looked at the ancient structure of Christian worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling. No longer able to simply clasp our hands and close our eyes, we instead had to find ways to go and do.” Have we lost what Jesus had in mind? How would you feel if you never prayed again? Is there a difference between “praying” and “doing”?