Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

3 Simple Things I’m Learning About the Lord’s Prayer

the lord's prayer

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

The Lord’s Prayer is known to everyone. I mean, even NFL players with concussions and the Friday Night Tykes know the words and pray it before games (and don’t get me started on using the Lord’s Prayer to support such tribal warfare, but I digress.)

I know the Lord’s Prayer really well, too. Perhaps too well.

I’ve begun going through a liturgy twice a day (three times if I can remember) that includes praying this most famous of prayers that Jesus taught his disciples.

I don’t mind saying, I thought at first, Sheesh, really? Give me something I don’t know. But I went ahead anyway—2 or 3 times a day—and after a few days

. . . this will blow your minds. . .

I started actually thinking about what this prayer is saying. Go figure.

Three things in particular have struck me these past couple of weeks (even though the prayer has a lot more going for it than just three things):

First: the Lord’s Prayer is basically about God and what God does.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

God is the principle character in the prayer. God’s name is to be hallowed; God’s kingdom is to come; God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I know that’s not the most profound insight in the history of humanity, but it struck me (and this post is all about me).

Side note (though not really), this kingdom of God is not an “up there and away” thing we aspire to get to one day after we die. It’s here and now. That’s the whole point: on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus is praying that the rule of God be made manifest here and now, which is happening because the King has come (that would be Jesus).

This prayer is about the presence of the kingdom of God now on earth, filling the earth.

OK, that’s great. But what about us? Where do we fit in?

Second: and here’s we we come into the picture.

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Now we ask God to turn the divine gaze toward us, and we ask that, in this great kingdom project, that we have what we need for that day, our daily bread.

That’s a hard thing for thinking-ahead-people like me to deal with. I wonder what it would be like to live like this for just one day.

We also ask God to forgive us. It strikes me that this is something Jesus included in such a short prayer. And I think the reason why is answered in the next line: as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Up to this point God has been the acting agent, both on the big scale (your kingdom come) and also on the more personal scale (daily bread and forgive us).

But now, for a brief moment, we become the active agent. Our prayer is that WE do something: forgive our debtors (or as some translations put it those who trespass against us).

The one thing we pray for ourselves to do is to forgive others. That’s our contribution to all this.

Practicing forgiveness seems to be a core characteristic of followers of Jesus, and so Jesus figured he’d just throw that in there and make a point of it.

Forgiveness is, as we all know, very hard to do. As C. S. Lewis put it somewhere (and I’m quoting from memory), everyone thinks forgiveness is a great idea until they actually have something to forgive. Yup.

The third point, though, is more difficult and it’s hard to know what to do with it.

Third: what’s all this “lead us not into temptation” business?

Here’s how the NRSV puts it:

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

What Christian hasn’t said the Lord’s Prayer and wondered what the heck is going on here? God would never actually lead us into trial (or “temptation”) because God is love, etc.!

Or if God were to do that, God is only giving us what we can handle and so it’s no biggie.

Whew! God is off the hook. Unless you read the Bible. Then God is right back on the hook.

In the Bible we see God most definitely bringing people into a “time of trial.”

One big example is Abraham in Genesis 22, who is tested (that’s the word used) by God to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham was willing to go through with it (but stopped at the last second) and thus passed the test. As the divine voice says to Abraham, Now I know that you fear God. . . 

A better example is the story of Job.

In Job 1-2, in a heavenly board room scene (read it and see what I mean), God starts bragging about how there’s no more blameless and God-fearing person alive than Job. A divine figure simply known as “the accuser” makes a bet with God: Job is only a holy roller because you made his life too easy. Make it hard and Job will fold faster than Superman on laundry day.

Of course, God takes the bet. Uh . . . WHAT?!  Yeah, God takes the bet, and so “the accuser” has his way with him. Job loses everything, becomes a total physical and psychological wreck, and curses the day he was conceived in his mother’s womb.

There’s good precedent in the Bible for thinking God might bring you into a “time of trial” allowing the “evil one” to have his way.

If we read Jesus’s prayer from the point of view of Jewish tradition (which we must surely do) rather than our own philosophical or theological categories (can an all loving God really do something evil?), this part might not sound so weird after all.

Who knows?  Maybe the people listening were saying to themselves, “I hope Jesus throws something in here about God not treating us like He did Job.”

Let me suggest this. Jesus in his prayer is acknowledging a particular kind of portrait of God found in the Old Testament and therefore part of the Jewish tradition, and he is telling the people to pray that God doesn’t do the same to them. At least that’s the idea that I am noodling with at the moment.

There are, after all, varied portraits of God in the Old Testament. Jesus is telling the people to pray that one of those portraits not become their reality.

It’s not clear, though, whether the Greek word ponēros (PON-ay-ros) should be translated “the evil one” (as in “the devil”—13:19), or someone who means you harm (5:39), or the harm that results from it, perhaps persecution or mistreatment (15:19).

But however you handle it, it’s still not a good thing! The problem still remains that God is enough of a trial-causer for Jesus to teach people to pray that God not do that.

Anyway, bottom line for me on the third point: Jesus is engaging a portrait of God that is part of the biblical tradition but for many of us is simply off the table.

I’m really getting to like the Lord’s Prayer. Not in the slightest bit boring.

This blog was first posted in March 2017.

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