THE Evangelists maintain “great reserve” when speaking of Jesus’s devotional life. They tell us he was critical of ostentatious displays of piety, and discouraged verbosity in prayer. More positively, they describe “a loving filial delight in God, in Himself and for Himself, which is unique in vividness and depth” (Evelyn Underhill, Worship).
It is his “vivid” and “deep” love that compels Jesus to break off from public ministry to spend time in communion with his Father. At the end of one such time of retreat, the disciples ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” His response is a simple, easily memorisable prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is as accessible to Galilean fishermen and peasants as to scribes and teachers of the Law. Yet its simplicity contains an infinite depth.
In Aramaic, it begins with a simple, direct Abba — a term that indicates intimacy, although not one to be sentimentalised. It is the counterpart of “Father” rather than “Daddy” (Judith Lieu, Epworth Bible Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
The structure of the Lord’s Prayer gives the framework for all Christian devotion. It begins with the hallowing of God’s name. In so doing, it draws us into the eternal offering of praise from the Son to the Father. As Jesus observes in the second half of our Gospel, the Father is not like the lazy friend who needs to be roused by our pestering. His care far exceeds that of earthly parents. The primary purpose of prayer is to unite our wills with that of God, and to draw us into the Triune movement of praise, glory, and mutual delight. “Prayer”, as St Julian of Norwich writes, “oneth the soul to God.”
It is only after three petitions focused on God that we come to any focused on human beings. Here, again, is a striking simplicity. Jesus identifies three of the most fundamental human needs: bread, mercy, and deliverance from the tempter’s power.
The request for “daily bread” has a greater sense of immediacy than the liturgical prayers of Jesus’s day, which asked for “sustenance through the year”. Jesus’s petition “is not directed to securing a state of comfort but having needs met each day as they come” (David Lyle Jeffrey, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke). This reflects the state of life of Jesus and his followers. In their vulnerability, they have a deep and immediate sense of divine providence.
From the patristic era onwards, this petition has also been understood Christologically, and hence eucharistically. Tertullian writes that “when we ask for our daily bread, we are asking to live for ever in Christ and to be inseparably united with his body.” This has a particular resonance when we say the Lord’s Prayer together before communion. The practice emphasises the Triune nature of all Christian prayer. We join with the Son “in the power of the Spirit” as he offers praise and intercession to the Father.
Moreover, it reminds us that God is the ultimate answer to — as well as the answerer of — our petitions. In Christ, he feeds us with the bread of life, in whom we find forgiveness, reconciliation, and deliverance from the evil one. Here we experience what Jesus promises in verse 11. We ask, and what is given to us is the one thing needful: “To be inseparably united with his body”.
This point is reinforced in the verses that follow. Listing the good things an earthly father would give his children, Jesus continues by saying “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God gives us nothing less than himself.
Only one petition involves a promise of action by those who are praying. When asking for forgiveness, it continues with the declaration “for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”. The two are inextricably linked. To refuse to extend forgiveness to others is to reject the summons into the divine love.
By contrast, as we see in our Old Testament lesson, when someone petitions God to show mercy, this is a sign that his grace is at work within them. Abraham’s prayer is answered by the Lord precisely because it reflects his heart of mercy. Like all true prayer, the petition is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Such prayer is not a cry to a far-off deity. It is a participation in the flow of compassion, praise, and delight which goes on eternally within the Godhead.