In his 1519 commentary on the Lord's Prayer Dr. Martin Luther speaks of the trials which are common to sinful mankind. He writes, "When we experience these things we must act wisely and not be surprised, for they are natural to this life. Then we must draw upon prayer and count our true beads, saying, 'O Father, this is surely a trial ordained for me. Help me lest it entice and assail me.'"1 Indeed, the Lord's Prayer is the Lutheran's rosary. Here we count our "true beads" in all the necessities of life.
The Prayer of Prayers
The Our Father is the most perfect and sublime prayer of all, coming from our Savior's own holy lips. It has been an aid to countless sufferers, a gatherer of the Church, the faithful and ancient companion of the Eucharist and the Daily Office, and a comfort to the dying sheep of the Good Shepherd. Along with the Twenty-third Psalm it has undoubtedly been on the lips of more believers who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death than any other words of God. It comes to us from the One who tenderly invites us to pray and who taught us by his own example of prayer in the garden, where he prayed that the cup of suffering would pass, but sought the Father's will and drank that cup to its dregs, draining it of divine wrath. That saving act, mediated through Holy Baptism, makes Christian prayer possible, and gives the faithful confidence to pray.
Although prayer is the baptismal right of the Christian, the Christian is not left to go it alone when it comes to the composition of his prayer. Indeed, we do well to join with the Apostles and ask Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples." (Luke 11:1) We need instruction in this art. There is much praying out there, but little of it is good. Much is being said about prayer warriors and prayer chains. Church newsletters and marquee signs carry catchy slogans about prayer, but most are tacky if not downright false. We also all too often pray from the poverty of our own hearts. Seeking happiness instead of God we "become victims of our own emptiness." 2
We need a "fair and square catechism" on prayer, as Luther once observed, and so we go to the Master. "Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure."3 What the Savior speaks is the Gospel. The Gospel speaks us Christians into being, and then we speak back, not in our own words, but in words taught us by the Spirit. Once you know the grammar of the faith, then you know the grammar of prayer. In this regard the placement of the Lord's Prayer in Luther's catechisms is not coincidental - it is in third place. The Lord speaks his two-fold word: The Law which kills (The Ten Commandments) and the Gospel which makes alive (The Creed). Having been spoken to, the believer can now speak in petition and praise.
The believer will need to pray, for once he has been baptized into the hallowed name all hell breaks loose. A terrible enemy has been hung about the neck of the baptized, the Reformer observed, and he will give the believer no respite. The ungodly flesh and the ungodly world join the devil's conspiracy against the child of God. Therefore, he will pray that the kingdom will come to him and others, and that the Father's will displaces and breaks his own aberrant will. Luther, the young novice, sought escape from this conspiracy in his monastic cell, but he did not reckon that Satan would be his bunkmate and that his flesh would bed down with the old evil foe. He learned that if God's will would be done, then Luther would have to step aside. He said, "(I)n this petition you will notice that God bids us pray against ourselves."4 Pray against yourself! We tread on dangerous ground when we approach the Lord's Prayer for it is deadly; deadly to the flesh.
There is even more startling news: Our Father... in heaven has joined the conspiracy against us! Luther's theologia crucis made much of the hiddeness of God. We do not live by sight. God sometimes seems to be deaf to the Christian's pleas. His holy Law reveals the utter wretchedness of his people. He allows his Christians to suffer the same tragedies as unbelievers, making both wonder what advantage there is in having faith. For Luther this was the paradox created by the tension of Law and Gospel: of being condemned and rejected by God, while at the same time being comforted by his mercy in Christ. Most discussions of Law and Gospel tend to take the matter in a linear way: the sinner is terrified and then comforted. In real life, however, being condemned and comforted often overlay one another. All of this gives occasion for much prayer. Mark well, this prayer is not that which is often portrayed in "how-to-books" on prayer, in which the petitioner controls God by the frequency and earnestness of his prayer. God does not bid us to pray so that we might badger him into doing things for us, but that we might know that our justification is certain, for he does not ask the unholy to pray. Prayer is faith, faith in action. Prayer is faith in the promises of God and speaks those promises in God's hearing and in its own hearing, even when all else is telling faith to despair. The Lord's Prayer is the finest example of praying the promises of God into his ears and into our own.
Ingenious in Structure
Law, Gospel, and Prayer. Here's our "fair and square" catechism. And just as the Small Catechism has ingenuity in its structure, the structure of the Our Father is purest genius. It goes this way: "Father...in heaven...thy name...thy kingdom...they will...on earth as in heaven." The concluding words of the first half of the prayer serve to tie together the Address and the first three petitions, bracketing them with the second reference to heaven. The church prays: What is done in heaven in regard to the Father's name, his kingdom, and his will, let it be done also on earth. There is certainty here. The verbs used in the first three petitions, in addition to the comforting Address, suggest that God is pursuing his goals according to his own divine purpose, and that these goals will be achieved in his good time. The first part of the prayer is also majestically Trinitarian: the God who names himself "Father", the Son who revealed the Father's name and who carried out the Father's will, and the Spirit who brings sinners into the kingdom of grace.
Yet, all of this seems less certain from our worldly point of view, especially when we keep in mind that the devil, the world, and the flesh daily fight against God's will and his church. In heaven these things surely are done, we would admit, but on earth, well, that's a different story. This anxiousness becomes more apparent as we leave the certainty of the first three requests and move on to the last half of the prayer, which is linguistically linked together with the reoccurring our/us. There is a sense of urgency here: Give us the bread we need, forgive us, keep temptation away, and deliver us from evil! Our Lord has a way of leaving much room in our lives for faith and prayer. One must daily relearn the lesson that God is a hidden god and that we must judge him based on his promises, and not his providences, which we can neither discern nor understand. Norman Nagel has observed, "The ways of God to (his people) are one. Despite the paradox of Law and Gospel, despite His myriad providence, despite our wondering and paltry under-standing, we may yet discern a unity in the way in which the holy God deals with us. It is the way of his grace, of which Christ is the archetype and the Lord's Supper the
consequent and continuing form."5 Mark that well.
Consider the context of Jesus' teachings on the Lord's Prayer in Luke's gospel (chapter 11). The seventy-two disciples had just returned from the mission which Christ had entrusted to them. Even the demons were subject to them they reported. Though that was true, the Lord gives a mild rebuke, "Rejoice not that the demons are subject to you but that your names are written in heaven." In the intervening time between their report and the teachings on prayer Jesus must rebuke a certain lawyer who sought to entrap him. A mild rebuke is also delivered to Martha of Bethany, who sought to control her sister and her Lord. The seventy-two pastors had viewed the kingdom in terms of glory and power, without regard for bearing the Cross. The lawyer sought his own way of salvation, not God's. Martha was more concerned about temporal bread than the Bread which truly satisfies. Following their heady experience in the mission fields, the disciples were surely brought to earth by these three rebukes. Now they seem confused, and so they say, "Lord, teach us how to pray. In other words, pull this all together for us. What should we desire and pray for? Jesus answers them, "Father...in heaven...thy name...thy kingdom...thy will...on earth as in heaven." All of this is indeed certain, both here on earth just as it is heaven, in spite of our paltry understanding and the trouble which daily vexes us. And all this comes right now, not just later, and here's how, here's the punch line: Bread, the Bread of Life, Eucharistic bread, which gives the forgiveness of sins to us and to those who trespass against us. Bread, which brings deliverance from temptation and all evil. Amen. Here, in the Bread, is the "consequent and continuing form" of the coming kingdom, for here is Jesus.
There are seven petitions: three on one side, and three on the other, with the petition about bread, the fourth, in the middle. In one sense the whole prayer is a commentary on what it means to have God as our father, with the first words of the prayer being preeminent. Yet in another sense the whole prayer turns on the petition about bread, for it is in Jesus and in his Word and Supper that the providences and promises of the Father become one and Christians are comforted in the midst of sin and trouble. And it is especially in the Mass that we see that what is done in heaven is also being done on earth. In the midst of the worst trouble of life the Mass with its divine pardon and mercy assures you that this trouble is your trouble, lovingly crafted for your good. In the Supper heaven is co-joined with all things on earth - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and you are saved, body and soul.
The tripartite structure of the first half of the prayer which follows the Address might indicate that the Fourth Petition, like the Address, has a similar relationship to that which follows. The prayer begins with the Father, but concludes with the Son, the Bread of Life, who makes the Father known. This is indicated in the original text where the words "Father" and "Bread" appear first in their respective sentences, which is not the case with any of the other petitions. Just as the divine name, kingdom, and will relate to the Father in a special way, so forgiveness and deliverance from temptation and evil relate to the Son. However, the structure of the prayer can be viewed in another way. Structurally the prayer also forms a chiasm, with corresponding or antithetical thoughts balanced on either side of the middle petition. The hallowedness of God's name is paired with the petition about the deliverance from evil. This deliverance was wrought when the holy name was placed upon us in baptism, and evil is thwarted daily when we live in our baptism; that is, "when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it." The prayer for the coming kingdom is matched with the prayer about temptation. When one hears the word temptation, it is difficult not to think of the supreme test our Lord endured in the wilderness following his baptism. The temptation in the wilderness was the continuation of the age-old debate about how the kingdom comes. Does it come by man's self-willed reach to the wrong tree? Is it a kingdom of glory or one of the Holy Cross? Will it come through raw power, religious exhibitionism, or through a simple genuflection? Our Lord refused these blandishments, and instead of a spectacular free fall into angelic hands he took the unspectacular stairs and did not stop walking until he came to Calvary. We also pray for the kingdom and for rescue from temptation, for we have not been spared this satanic allurement. The church today, especially the Lutheran Church, reeks with the Theology of Glory. Just read any official church magazine. May the seemingly mundane means God has chosen to bring his kingdom to the world not languish in disuse.
Working chiastically toward the middle we come to the third pairing: God's will and the forgiveness of sins. These two are linguistically linked by the two-fold request that God's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven", and that heaven would forgive our trespasses as we on earth forgive the trespasses of those who sin against us. Indeed, what is the will of God but the salvation or forgiveness of sinners and that his church lives as a reconciled community. Through the chiasms we have been brought to the petition about bread. In many chiasms there is a middle, and the middle of a chiasm is the most important thing. This petition is about much more than bread for the stomach. Jesus is the true Bread of Life. With our ears we feed upon his Holy Word, and with our mouths and hearts we feed upon him in his Holy Supper. All that precedes the Eucharistic Petition leads to it. Jesus, who revealed the holy name of the Father, who did the Father's will unto the death, and who with the Father sends the Holy Spirit and thus the kingdom, most fully reveals and delivers all this in the Eucharist, our daily provision along life's way. Having been forgiven as we kneel at the communion rail, we can hardly withhold forgiveness from those with whom we kneel. Finally, in the Bread of Life, in Jesus and his preaching and Supper, we have help in time of temptation and the deliverance from all evil. Amen.
This connection between the fourth petition and the Holy Supper was one made by many church fathers, and by Luther himself in his Exposition on the prayer written in 1519, a thought which he never retracted. Two quotations will be cited as examples. Each is set within the context of Luther's discussion of the Fourth Petition. Coupling his discussion of the petition with the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 Luther writes, "The bread, the Word, and the food are none other than Jesus Christ our Lord himself. Thus he declares in John 6 (51), 'I am the living bread which came down from heaven to give life to the world.'"6 Luther says this in regard to the giving of Christ to his believers, "And this is also done in two different ways: first, through words; second, through the Sacrament of the Altar."7 In view of this fuller approach to the Fourth Petition, why does Luther in his catechisms treat the topic only in a temporal way, leaving the spiritual dimension unexplored? It is helpful to remember that by the time of the writing of the two catechisms the Eucharistic controversies with the Sacramentarians had been raging for some time. Luther had seen how terribly Zwingli and others had handled the interpretation of John 6, and it appears that he shied away from connecting the expression "Bread of Life" with the Supper in his treatment of that text, thus also eliminating the Supper from any discussion involving the Fourth Petition. This narrowing of the focus would also have served his pedagogical purpose for the catechism, that is, keeping things simple for the simple.
Just the same, Jesus is the Bread of Life, and all other bread is a type of Christ the archetype. The Fourth Petition is also about bread for our bodies, but only as it is comprehended in the Bread of Life. Indeed, we have bread on our tables at home because we have the Bread of Life on the Lord's Table at church, for the home is an extension and a continuance of the Mass. Each meal at home is a reminder of the greater Meal which awaits us in God's House. Take Jesus from the altar, then what does our earthly bread really mean? The lesser flows from the greater. As our first parents ate their way, and our way, into sin, rebellion, judgment, and death, so we in the Supper eat our way into forgiveness, holiness, blessing, and Life. The Lord's Supper is the Feast of the Lamb on earth. On account of this it was only natural that the Lord's Prayer would be the ancient companion to the priest's words of consecration spoken over bread and wine in the Holy Communion.8
Since this interpretation of the Fourth Petition is not one which most Lutherans are accustomed to, time must be spent in handling objections to what has been termed a "spiritualizing view" of the petition.9 First of all, some have argued that this petition cannot be about the Supper since the Sacrament had not yet been instituted (this same argument is used against seeing a Eucharistic dimension to John 6). This objection is a failure to understand that Matthew's hearers, as catechumens, were aware of the Christ story and the Supper. What would not have been entirely clear to those who first heard Jesus' teachings on prayer, was apparent for the catechumen who looked back through the lens of Holy Week. Some see the word rendered "daily" as problematic for a Eucharistic interpretation. And yet the Supper is the Christian's daily sustenance, for it does not just satisfy momentarily. It should also be stated that the rendering "daily bread" is not entirely assured. Linking the word daily with the words this day presents us with an unneeded redundancy, which would seem strange in such an economical prayer. One must also consider the optional rendering for the original, "Give bread for the morrow." This would be that supersubstantial bread which prepares the people of God for the eschaton, a favorite Matthean theme. If Matthew's catechumens are largely Jewish, as most believe, the idea of a miraculous, supersubstantial bread might be the first thing which came to their minds, recalling as they would the miraculous gift of manna. The argument for a temporal understanding of bread seems all the more strange when we realize that Jesus follows the prayer with sayings about fasting and an admonition against excessive concern and worry about earthly goods. Also, if the temporal understanding is the only valid approach, it would seem strange that Jesus would use the community pronoun "our" with bread, for the true bread held in common is the Eucharist, not noonday lunch. Finally, as Jesus says in his Bread of Life discourse, "I am the Bread of Life." The Lord's Prayer is a prayer for Jesus. He, our true Bread.
The Lord's Prayer is truly a table prayer, the prayer of the Lord's Table, as well as the table of the Christian home. The Eucharistic nature of the Fourth Petition places the Our Father into the context of Heaven itself and is anticipatory of our participation in the Feast of the Lamb, which we are already privileged to share even now.10 May the Lord grant us a heavenly hunger, like the hunger of the Syrophoenician woman, to whom Jesus said that it was not right to give the children's bread to their dogs. She, upon hearing the word "dog", scurried under the table to catch the blessed fallout when the Children of Israel tossed aside their Heavenly Bread. Her request that Jesus heal her demon-possessed daughter was answered affirmatively, even though "yes" was spelled "d-o-g." As Luther's father-confessor, Johannes Bugenhagen, said in his commentary on the Psalms, "Christ would not be king were he defeated in his saints.11
Therefore, those who take into themselves the Bread of Life, and who breathe out the Prayer of prayers, will never be defeated. And so, with our namesake we may say, "To this day I suckle at the Lord's Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer..."12 To that we can all say, "Amen." §
The Reverend Fr. Peter M. Berg is pastor at Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church (LC-MS) in Chicago, Illinois. This article originally was published in the July 2004 issue of the Magpie.