Well, last time I promised to write about the Lord’s Prayer and suggested that Jesus never intended us to repeat his words. I’m sure he would not object to our repeating his words, but I see nothing in the Bible that unambiguously suggests that he wanted us to. The fullest version is found in Matthew, Chapter 6 verses 5 through 14. There is a version in Luke, but it is rather truncated, and the version in Mark is barely there. I will concentrate my thoughts for the most part on Matthew’s version. Since I don’t read Greek, the original language of the Gospels, I have to depend on translations. I have consulted seven.
To begin at the beginning, Jesus says not to pray in public, but in private, in your own room with the door shut. He also tells us not to “heap up empty phrases” (Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible version is “do not babble”), and since God already knows what we need, there is no point in asking for anything. So, for Jesus, true prayer is done in private, silently, and with humility. After this introduction, he says what I think is the crucial point. He does not tell us what to pray but how to pray:
- “After this manner therefore pray ye” (King James)
- “Pray then like this” (RSV)
- “So you should pray like this” (Jerusalem Bible)
- “This is how you should pray” (The New English Bible)
- “This, then, is how you should pray” (New International Version)
- “You should pray like this” (Contemporary English Version)
- “Instead you should pray like this”(The Jesus Seminar Version)
All of these translations are in agreement, even though each group of translators comes from a different place on the Christian spectrum. So it would seem that Jesus was not telling his followers what to say but how to say it. At least that seems to me what he was up to in Matthew.
The other version of the Lord’s Prayer is in Luke, Chapter 11, verses 1 to 4. There is no preamble in Luke as there is in Matthew. Jesus is simply responding to the Disciples request that he teach them to pray. His instruction is that, “When you pray, you should say” (Jesus Seminar version).
The two Gospels, then, are not in agreement on this. It seems to me that when faced with two contradictory passages there are only two options. One can try to resolve the contradiction or one can choose the one that seems to be the more coherent with the rest of the body of teachings. In this case, the contradiction seems so bald that I see no obvious resolution, so let us see which seems the better fit with Jesus’ other teachings.
First, I note that The Jesus Seminar does not think it likely that Jesus actually uttered either the Matthean Preamble or the Lukan Instruction. Therefore we cannot fall back on noting that Jesus probably said one and not the other. Chances are he said neither.
As I read the Gospels, though, Jesus thought that the crux of the religious matter is something that is between each human being and God. Thus, for just one example, we are told not to judge one another since judgment is God’s business. It seems to me unlikely, then, that Jesus would insist that prayer consists of specific words being said or even that God would care more about the words of the mouth than the words of the heart. Therefore I think the Preamble is more coherent with Jesus other teachings than the Instruction, whether or not Jesus actually uttered it.
I conclude, then, that Jesus intention was not to teach a specific prayer so much as an attitude or a manner of prayer, not so much “Pray this prayer” as “Pray in this way”. And which way is that? We should pray privately, in the silence of our hearts, and with humble thanksgiving. At least that is how I read it.
In my next installment, I’ll consider the prayer itself and how I understand it, which understanding you may find somewhat non-conventional. Some do; some don’t. See what you think.