The Our Father might be the most prayed prayer in the world. We teach it to our little children, pray it at every Mass, and often recite it at the bedside of our beloved sick or dying. The German theologian, Gerhard Lohfink, has written a new book on the Our Father. It’s small but “meaty.” Today I will share five of his thoughts from chapter one.
First, there are two versions of the Our Father in scripture: Lk. 11:1-4 and Mt. 6:9-15. In Luke, the Our Father is Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ plea, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In Matthew, the prayer is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In his first chapter, Lohfink gives five general observations about the prayer.
The Our Father is pure petition. Some recitations of the Our Father end with this doxology: “for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.” These words are not part of the original Our Father, but were added many years later. “The original Our Father was nothing but petition,” says Lohfink.
The Our Father is short. In English, the Our Father contains only 55 words. Luke’s version contains only 23 words. Why is it so short? Lohfink says the answer is in Mt. 6:7-8 where Jesus says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” When it comes to prayer, Jesus seems to be saying, “Fewer words are better than many.”
The Our Father gets right to the point. There is a tradition is some Jewish prayers and other Near Eastern prayers to begin each prayer by addressing God the way you would address a King or other ruler—with many words of praise before expressing your needs. But the Our Father skips such highly ritualized words. It begins with only two words: Our Father. The language is familial, not solemn or courtly. In some ways, this is revolutionary.
God’s interest comes first. The petitions in the Our Father are divided into two parts. In Matthew’s version, there are three thou askings: Hallowed be thy name… thy kingdom come… thy will be done. Then there are four we petitions: Give us today our daily bread… forgive us our trespasses… lead us not into temptation… but deliver us from evil.
The first part, says Lohfink, deals with “the reign, name, and will of God.” The second part deals with the “disciples interests—concerning their food, their sinfulness, the crisis of temptations.” The structure of the Our Father matches Jesus’ admonition: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33).
God acts through people. The first three petitions “are oddly constructed: Hallowed be they name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” The construction raises the question, WHO is going to do this? God or us? Lohfink concludes that the correct answer to that question is BOTH God and us. He says the Our Father expresses “a fundamental theological insight: God takes the initiative. God acts. Everything comes from God. And yet, because of the independence and freedom God wills for human beings, God can do nothing in the world unless there are people who are prepared to make God’s will their own and thus make space for God to act.”
The very structure of the Our Father can give us a greater appreciation of this beloved prayer. Lohfink concludes this chapter with these vital words: “In the Our Father, Jesus summarized all he wanted and hoped for.” In future blogs, I will share a few more thoughts from this beautiful book.
What has been your experience praying the Our Father? Or what does this prayer mean for you?
Was there anything in this reflection that was new to you? that you appreciated? that challenged you?
Here are two versions of the Our Father for your prayer. The first is a recitation of the prayer with an unusual fall visual. The second is the Our Father sung in Aramaic, Jesus’ native language. Both versions include the doxology.
The Our Father recited:
Here is the Our Father sung in Aramaic:
I welcome your comments below!