Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
In the middle of Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer. It is the model prayer. But Jesus also has an ax to grind.
Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer amid warnings against pious exhibitionism. Do not call attention to your generosity in giving, making sure your coins clank loud and long in the collection plate or that you get a special plaque in the narthex. When you fast, do not grimace and swoon in hunger to impress people with your heroic devotion.
In the middle of those sayings, he says do not make a public show of your prayers but go to a private place for a heart-to-heart with God (Matthew 6:5-6). He did not mean that good religion is a strictly private matter; otherwise, he would not have suggested opening prayers with, “Our Father…” He never suggested we could follow him without the support of friends.
But if we practice poverty of spirit — radical gratitude that all we have worth having is God’s gift and all we are is beloved of God — why show off to the local folks? To try to gain their esteem or donations through a pious show presumes the insufficiency of all God already gives. It also compromises the intimacy of conversation with God.
Jesus also warned against long-winded prayer as if God needs repeated reminders. God hears our prayers. God knows what we need, and God knows we need to talk about it. So, get to the point. Keep it simple and honest (Matthew 6:7-8).
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9-13).
The prayer starts with praise. Ancients knew that names convey the person’s power, and to hallow a name meant to honor power, in this case, to “fear” the Lord. Open the prayer with the faithful expectation that God gets things done, and take it to the Source.
Then ask for the one thing needful: that Israel’s Celestial Deity bring it all down to earth, a wild request, if you think about it. God’s invisibility and silence, God’s seeming remoteness in everyday existence reflects the mercy God showed Moses on Mount Sinai. When Moses asked to see God’s face, God said no, for that would overwhelm and kill him. God let Moses watch the back of God passing by (Exodus 33:17-23).
But in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prompts us to beg God, “Bring it on! Come down here! Take over!” And we can pray that boldly because Immanuel, “God with us,” is already present, healing and preaching.
In that reign of God, we face the reality that despite all our toils, it is God in the end who provides our daily bread. Despite all our claims and debts and injuries to self and others, it is God who forgives us and invites us to join God in the whole divine enterprise of forgiving and making peace. Once we have our daily bread, we need to live a life of purpose, and all real purpose lies in joining God’s peacemaking project of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Finally, Jesus believed we must face forces that would undermine that peacemaking project, forces like cynicism, bigotry, economic insecurity, and many more, sources within and about us, that would close hands open to God, that would make fists to fend for ourselves. Lead us not into the temptation to close our fists. Keep our hands open, we pray. Keep us poor in spirit, ever remembering that all good comes from You and that all power to make peace is available through You. We can receive it all if we love. We start with loving God, and loving all God’s children naturally follows.
Is the Lord’s Prayer a simple prayer? Yes. Yet, we could spend our lives talking about it. But that would not suffice to truly mine its riches. We best pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly and let it set the tone for every prayer. More to the point, the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer to live, a word to do. Then we come to understand it and find the prayer answered with a kingdom come.