British professor N. T. Wright has written a book, The Lord and His Prayer (published in 1997 by Wm. B. Eerdmans), about the model prayer that Jesus used to teach his disciples to pray. The prayer, recorded in Matthew 6:9-13 has been recited in public Christian worship and in private prayer since at least the late first century. I wrote about this prayer and its implications for our own prayers in a post that you can read by clicking here. The brevity of this book is balanced by Wright’s insightful, provocative revealing of the meaning of a prayer that we think we know well. Looking anew with his help, I discovered aspects of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in concrete ways. Awareness of this prayer’s power to transform our relationship with God are swept away when the prayer becomes mundane ritual or its meaning is spiritualized into triviality. Wright recommends pondering on the meaning and implications of each clause of the prayer, then building our own prayers and lives around that knowledge. I recommend the book highly.
I share a few quotes from the book. As he discusses what it means to call God “Father,” Wright suggests that it reminds us that we are children in the midst of a world that can be quite terrifying. But that, he says, is a prelude to our accepting the mission to which God calls us:
“But if , as the people of the living creator God , we respond to the call to be his sons and daughters ; if we take the risk of calling him Father ; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God ” (p 9)
Wright emphasizes that we who pray following this model prayer should not pray it glibly, but consider carefully how each phrase unpacks itself into our lives when applied as disciples of Jesus. The prayer helps us find order amidst confusion and assign priorities correctly. Wright says,
God knows our desires in order that we may turn them into prayer ; in order that they may be sorted out , straightened out , untangled and reaffirmed . If we truly pray this prayer , with due weight to each clause , we are taking the first steps from the chaos of our normal interior life towards an order and clarity which will let the joy come through to the surface (p 29).
When we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, we must confront the grave possibility that God’s will does not match our desire. God may deny our petition, even when we pray intensely with tears. Wright considers the prayer of Jesus just before he was arrested and what the book of Hebrews says about that prayer and its relationship to this model prayer, and what the response to Jesus from God was when he prayed that he would be delivered from temptation (Wright translates it as “The Testing”) and that God’s will be done:
We therefore have to come to grips with the fact that Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples , but that when he prayed it himself the answer was ‘ No ’ . He put it together with an earlier part of the Lord’s Prayer ( ‘ Thy will be done ’ ) . When he held the two side by side , he found that God’s will involved him in a unique vocation . He would be the one who was led to the Testing , who was not delivered from Evil (p 50).
The prayer also includes a petition that God will forgive us in the way that we forgive. That in itself is a challenging prayer. Do we really want God to treat us the way that we treat other people? As we consider this model prayer and meditate on the meaning of these clauses that Jesus included in it, we discover, as Wright suggests, a framework that we can use to organize our own prayers, but also a challenging assessment about what it means to be adopted into God’s family.