The Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-15)
Growing up, there were very few instances in my home church when the congregation collectively spoke during our worship services. We rarely read the responsive readings printed in light and dark in the back of our hymnals. We did, however, recite the Lord’s Prayer from time to time, and I remember the power of those words ringing through our small country church. It was as if a light switch had suddenly been turned on as the entire community of faith spoke those familiar words together.
Since my childhood in that little church, I have spoken those words many times in many different groups of believers, feeling each time that sense of community and awe at the power of the voices united in prayer. Yet, as is the danger of any tradition, I realize that at times I am lost in that warm and fuzzy feeling of reciting the prayer alongside my sisters and brothers in Christ. Many times, the very words that Jesus gave as the model for prayer become merely words spoken or sung as part of our worship service.
Jesus’ instructions on which the Lord’s Prayer is based are found in Matthew 6:9-15 (see also Luke 11). The instructions are found in the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings by Jesus on various matters of faith. Much of the sermon is an admonition on taking faith to a new level, beyond what the most pious of the day were doing. Although many of the Pharisees and priests were hyper-religious, Jesus encouraged believers to attain a new level of sincerity and humility in their faith. The beginning of chapter 6 covers the importance of humility and genuineness in offering and prayer. It encourages believers to avoid what must have been common prayer practices of the day, the loud, showy prayers of the Pharisees and the overly wordy prayers of some of the Gentiles. Jesus gave a model for the personal prayer of the believer.
Finding materials for further study on the Lord’s Prayer is not difficult. Entire books, Bible studies, and sermon series have been committed to those five verses in Matthew. The prayer’s recitation is perhaps one of the most common practices among Christians. The prayer is an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and power and of our own need for the sovereign God to be involved in our lives.
The words remind us not only of God’s participation in our daily lives but also of the importance of forgiveness—God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. Even the very first words remind us that the God of the universe has a familial connection to us. Jesus offers a model for prayer, understanding our human need for direction in the best way to connect to God, and foreshadowing God’s desire for a new kind of relationship with creation.
As significant as this model of prayer is for believers today, I think that it’s important to point out several things about the passage. First of all, Jesus never calls it the “Lord’s Prayer” or instructs the group to recite the words together in a communal worship situation. Even in Luke, when the prayer model is given in response to one of the disciple’s inquiry on how to pray, it is intended as a model and not as the actual words they should speak. I am not suggesting that we not recite the Lord’s Prayer together as believers. However, I think that Jesus, because of the religious practices he observed, would have been leery of communal recitations, even of his own teaching. Jesus was concerned about understanding and practice, not the parroting of his words.
Second, the warnings about prayer given by Jesus earlier in chapter 6 are significant in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus warns against words that are merely loud or numerous and encourages an attitude of reverence and repentance in his model for prayer.
As we look at great prayers of the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer easily tops the list for Christians. Jesus’ instructions on prayer struck our founding parents of faith so significantly that those instructions are a powerful part of our Christian tradition today. It is important, however, to remember that these words are more than a group recitation or theme song. They are also not magic words that need to be spoken exactly in order for genuine prayer to take place. They are words exemplifying God’s desire for communication with us.
I have encountered many believers, from children to adults, who do not know how to pray, and even who wonder about the necessity of prayer. Like me, these same people have probably recited the Lord’s Prayer dozens of times, and yet have missed Jesus’ intended message. It is about attitude. It is about acknowledging that God is bigger than we are. It is about seeking God’s will even as it sometimes transcends our own understanding. It is about communicating every part of who we are to our Creator, from our everyday concerns to our need for forgiveness and to forgive. We are challenged every time we pray, individually and communally, to consider this model, not merely as an equation for faith but as a way to balance our own human desires and needs as we seek providence.
Tradition is a great thing. As believers, our Christian traditions transcend generations and connect us to those very believers who first followed Jesus. Of the many traditions no longer shared in our denominationally separated world, the Lord’s Prayer is one of the best Christian practices. Its words are recognized and remembered regardless of geography or church attended. As powerful as the tradition is, we must be careful not to relegate the words of Christ to mere tradition. These words are instructions on how we can best communicate with our Creator.