This is not surprising because Jesus was a Jew, he lived as a Jew, he worshipped as a Jew, he prayed as a Jew so any prayer that he would have left to his disciples would have been a prayer that came from the heart of his faith, the Jewish faith but also expressed his own understanding of that faith.
The prayer is divided into 2 parts. The first part addresses God and honours His name
- Our Father who art in heaven
- hallowed be thy name thy name
- thy kingdom come
- thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
- give us this day our daily bread
- forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others
- lead us not into temptation but
- deliver us from evil
Our Father who art in heaven and Thy kingdom come.
As 21st century Christians we understand this prayer differently from Jesus who was a 1st century Jew. For Jesus the world would be seen as a 3-tiered universe with heaven above, hell below and earth in between. We now know from modern cosmology that in fact we live in a vast universe made up of billions of galaxies which has evolved over time. So where is the heaven where God dwells. It’s reported that in 1961 when the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first human launched into space—returned to Earth he had a simple, Soviet-style message: “I looked and looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” I don’t know if this story is true but if it is Yuri Gagarin was looking in the wrong place.
The catechism, that many of us were brought up on tells us where God is – everywhere. In the Acts of the Apostles St Paul in a debate with Greek philosophers tells us that “God is the reality in which we live and move and have our very being” and in the gospels Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God, the dwelling place of God is within and among us.
So, when we say Our Father who art in heaven, we are not suggesting that God is in some distant place but rather recognising God’s mystery and otherness, the source of life of all of us, the bond that unites us with one another, here amongst us.
This is a prayer we that we never say as an isolated individual. For some people the ‘our’ represents the Christian community but if our God is the God and Source of all life then the ‘our’ applies to all beings. And today we know so much more about our interconnectedness and interdependency with the natural world so that the ‘our’ in fact includes all sentient beings, all of creation including the stars and the planets.
From this prayer we know that for Jesus ‘Father’ was a favourite image of God. But it is only an image and shouldn’t be taken too literally. An image is like a finger pointing at the moon; if you look only at the finger, you will miss the moon. So too with the image of father. If we take it literally, it can obscure the mystery and greatness, the otherness and closeness of a God who does not reside in heaven but amongst us and within us.
Addressing God as father does not mean God is a big man, certainly not with a white beard, and yet that is a dominant image of God. I only learned recently, when I went to see the Sistine Chapel exhibition, that Michelangelo’s depiction of God in the creation of Adam and Eve was the first time that the human form was used and, as in the depiction of the creation of Eve, the first time and perhaps the only time that God has been depicted standing on the earth. But this male human image has come to dominate our imagination.
And so, we come to the second phrase, Thy Kingdom come. For me this is the heart of Jesus message. According to the Gospel of Mark Jesus begins his ministry with the words, repent, believe the good news for the Kingdom of God is among you. Scholars have debated what Mark meant by these words. Is he suggesting that the Kingdom has come in Jesus or with Jesus? Whatever, this kingdom is not to be found in another dimension such as heaven but amongst us. I once heard someone say that Christians should be Kingdom spotters; then cooperate wherever they find the Kingdom. Today we live in a world where everything seems to be falling apart and unravelling - climate change, wars, a global pandemic, the rising cost of living. How easy it is to be depressed.
But this is not the whole picture. There are many people working for justice and peace, struggling to live a good and honest life, desiring, praying for and working to make our world a better place for our children and succeeding generations, spreading goodness around them in all sorts of ways. The kingdom of God is all around us - if we have eyes to see it. And sometimes, it’s to be found in the most unexpected places - outside the church, outside religion.
There's more to be said and perhaps there will be a later blog on that but this reflection shows that there are many ways of understanding the Lord's Prayer and further study on a familiar prayer could be a good thing.