This article is an excerpt from my book, The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down: The Lord's Prayer as a Manifesto for Revolution. This post is the first in an eight part series on the Lord's Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most astounding and theologically rich portions of Scripture. In Matthew’s gospel, the Lord’s Prayer stands at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Before Jesus gives instructions on praying, he spends a significant amount of time criticizing the prayer practices of the Pharisees; Jesus evidently did not think much of their many words and empty phrases. By implication, he may not think much of today’s standard fare Christian prayer.
The Sermon on the Mount presents a picture of life in the kingdom of heaven. Thus, the contents of the sermon are those issues that Jesus himself identified as essential to the kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer is no exception. For this and many other reasons, Christians need to regularly revisit the rich theology of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer stands at the very center of the Sermon on the Mount; as Christ’s followers, it should thus stand at the very center of our lives.
The Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount is part of Christ’s vision for life in the inaugurated Kingdom of Heaven. The arrival of God’s Kingdom leads to a complete transformation of values that in turn leads to a transformation in piety—particularly in the giving of alms, fasting, and prayer.
No one is better able to teach us these transformed values and the nature of true prayer than Jesus himself. The gospels regularly repeat that Jesus was constantly engaged in the work of prayer. Perhaps the most prominent example is Jesus’ prayer in John 17, what we typically call Jesus’ high-priestly prayer. In this text, we get a small glimpse into Jesus’ private prayer life and his intense communion with the Father. This passage alone shows us the richness of Jesus’ prayer life. Yet, prayers like John 17 cannot serve as model prayers. Indeed, many of the elements of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 could only be spoken by Christ as the divine-human Mediator. The Lord’s Prayer, however, is quite different. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for disciples to pray. In other words, Jesus specifically designed the Lord’s Prayer to be used by the people of God and to enrich our prayers. The account of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew makes this point explicitly. Jesus says, “Pray then like this."
In Matthew, Jesus leads into his model prayer with these words:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Matthew 6:1 is the key to understanding this passage. Jesus instructs his disciples to beware of practicing their righteousness before men. Jesus urgently warns against a piety that is public and ostentatious—a piety, therefore, that is completely vapid and false. This type of piety is self-referential. It draws attention to the one who is supposedly, by his or her actions, a pious man or woman.
Jesus shows that something is going to be disclosed in our piety—either the glory of God or the superficial, insincere “piety” of the believer. Jesus is also decidedly clear that those who wish to be seen as pious have already received their reward. The Pharisees make themselves look famished and hungry when they fast in order to draw attention to their artificial piety. What they desire are the approving and admiring looks of those who see them. They want to be considered holy by men. They may get what they want—but that is all they will get. Their only reward is the praise of man, but that is where their reward ends. Jesus commends another type of piety—a secret piety that will be rewarded by the Father. The contrast is stark. We can pursue the glory of the Father by humbling ourselves, or we can pursue our own glory by exalting ourselves before others. We simply cannot do both.
You do not have to be a Pharisee to fall into this trap. Christians sometimes feel the need to impress other believers with our prayers, whether in a worship service or in a smaller group. But authentic prayer is never about impressing anyone. The prayer God seeks is the prayer of the humble and contrite heart. As Jesus says elsewhere, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”