March 5: Matthew 6:9 (continued)

Matthew 6:9b, continued

In the previous note, we examined the longer invocation to the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew (and the Didache [8:2]): “Our Father, the (One who is) in the heavens”, pa/ter h(mw=n o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$ (Did. “…e)n tw=| ou)ranw=|“). I pointed out how the expression “…Father the (One) in the heavens”, as well as “(in) the heavens [pl.]” itself, is distinctive to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew, and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount, where it occurs numerous times (along with the parallel, “heavenly Father”). Indeed, it is a key thematic phrase within the Sermon, and expresses an important theological principle. The significance of the expression will be examined here in today’s note.

To begin with, let us consider the use of the plural “heavens” (ou)ranoi/). The word ou)rano/$ in Greek refers specifically (according to the ancient cosmology) to the high hemispheric vault (‘firmament’) which covers the earth, separating it from the waters (above), and providing the atmospheric space (air/sky) directly below. It came to be used broadly for the entirety of the skies above the earth, especially when used in the plural—on this traditional usage in the New Testament, cf. Mark 1:10 par, etc. Ancient religious thought tended to view the dwelling place of God (or the gods), in spatial terms, as being in a high location above the ‘vault of heaven’ (ou)rano/$). The divine dwelling-place generally came to be called by this name, whether in the singular or plural (“heavens”, ou)ranoi/). Most of the occurrences of ou)ranoi/ in the New Testament refer to the place where God the Father (YHWH) and other divine beings (“Angels”) reside, and this is certainly so in the Gospel sayings of Jesus.

The extensive use of the plural (ou)ranoi/) in Matthew, however, may also reflect the corresponding word in Hebrew and Aramaic, which is always in the plural—<y]m^v* š¹mayim; Aram. /y]m^v= (always emphatic aY`m^v= š§mayy¹°, “the heavens”). A reconstruction of the Matthean phrase in Aramaic might be: aY`m^v=B! yD! an`Wba& (°A_»ûn¹° dî bišmayy¹°); cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901. Aramaic aY`m^v= has essentially the same range of meaning as oi( ou)ranoi/ in Greek. For Aramaic references in the Old Testament, where it refers to the abode of God, cf. Dan 2:18-19, 28, 37, 44; 4:31, 34; Ezra 5:11-12; 6:9-10, etc. The close association of God with “heaven” is indicated by the fixed (emphatic) expression “the God of Heaven” (aY`m^v= Hl*a$). It is possible that “…Father the (One) in the heavens” in Matthew reflects such a traditional expression in Aramaic.

Whether one attributes the phrase “our Father the (One) in the heavens” primarily to the Gospel writer or to Jesus himself (in Aramaic), there can be no doubt of the importance it has to the Sermon on the Mount, where it occurs six times (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21); the expression “in the heavens” itself occurs again in 5:12, and “the kingdom of the heavens” (par. to “kingdom of God”) also six times (5:3, 10, 19 [twice], 20; 7:21). In addition, we find the parallel expression “(your) heavenly Father” (o( path\r [u(mw=n] o( ou)ra/nio$) four times in the Sermon (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32). Thus there is a definite (and concentrated) emphasis on associating God the Father with “the heavens” in the Matthean Sermon on the Mount, beyond anything we find elsewhere in the Gospel tradition. How is this to be understood?

The main point of emphasis appears to be idea that the behavior of Jesus’ disciples on earth should follow the example of God the Father in heaven. This is clearly expressed in 5:16 and 45, and the principle is summarized powerfully in the declaration of verse 48, whereby, if Jesus’ teaching is followed:

“You shall then be complete, (even) as your heavenly Father is complete.”

When we turn to the instruction in 6:1-18 (of which the Lord’s Prayer is a part), we find a slightly different emphasis: that of a dualistic contrast between common religious behavior by people (on earth) and the behavior of Jesus followers (focused on God in heaven). The principle is well expressed in the opening verse: “you must not do (things) in front of men to be seen by them, otherwise you hold no wage [i.e. reward] from your Father the (One) in the heavens“. The earthly desire and inclination of human beings is to demonstrate one’s religious devotion publicly, and to receive recognition for it from other people. Such recognition, Jesus says, is the only reward such people will receive—i.e. earthly, not heavenly (vv. 2b, 5b, 16b). Jesus’ followers are instructed to behave in just the opposite way—to act privately (“in the hidden [place]”), being concerned only about being seen by God (who is in heaven), vv 3-4, 6, 17-18. When it comes to instruction regarding prayer, the contrast is expressed two ways:

    • Prayer should not be done (publicly) in front of people, especially not for the purpose of being seen/recognized by others for one’s devotion; rather, it should be practiced privately, in one’s inner room (whether understood literally or figuratively), before God alone [vv. 5-6].
    • The importance in prayer is not the number of words/petitions, nor the pious-sounding character of them—characterized by the verb battologe/w (“give a chattering account”) and noun polulogi/a (“account [of] many [words]”). Moreover, even with the best of intentions, it is not necessary to utter everything out loud to God, since the Father (in heaven) knows the all needs of his children (on earth) before any request is made [vv. 7-8].

In all of this there is an implicit spiritual dimension at work, even though the Spirit (Pneu=ma) is not specifically mentioned, neither in the Lord’s Prayer (the variant reading in Lk 11:2b will be discussed), nor in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. This is in contrast to the Lukan context of the Prayer, where the Spirit it is of the utmost importance. I would, however, maintain that for the Matthean form of the Prayer, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea of the Spirit is embedded in the expression “in the heavens”—i.e. the heavenly dimension defined by God’s own Power and Presence. This will be discussed further in the notes which follow.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.