February 18: The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10; Lk 11:2)

The Lord’s Prayer is undoubtedly the most familiar passage in the New Testament. For centuries it was an essential part of the catechism (basic instruction) of Christians, and has been recited regularly in public worship from the early Church period until the present day. So familiar is the Lord’s Prayer, that one may not realize just how remarkable a text it is.

The Prayer is found, in two forms: in Matthew (6:9-13, part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’), and in Luke (11:2-4), both in the context of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Critical scholars generally hold that the Prayer is part of a collection of common sayings and traditions (designated as the source document “Q”, Quelle) shared by Matthew and Luke; however, in the case of the Lord’s Prayer, it could just as easily have come by way of a separate tradition. As with the Beatitudes, the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter, made up of four imperatives (compared with seven in Matthew), with some differences in wording as well.

In these few, concise verses, one finds a multitude of difficulties and questions of interpretation, such as:

    1. What exactly does it mean to “make holy” (a(gia/zw) the name of God?
    2. What does it mean for the kingdom of God to come, and what is the force of the request?
    3. Similarly, what is the force of the request for God’s will to be done w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ (“as in heaven and/also upon earth” [only in Matthew])?
    4. What is the meaning of the word e)piou/sio$ in Matthew 6:11 (request for bread)?
    5. What are the “debts” (o)felei/mata) we ask to be released from? and what of the variant form of the request in Luke 11:4 which parallels “sin” (a(marti/a) and “debt” (vb. o)fei/lw)
    6. Is our releasing the “debts” of others a prerequisite for God releasing our “debts”, or does it follow as a consequence, or both?
    7. In what sense does God “lead” us into (“bring into”, ei)sfe/rw) testing/temptation (peirasmo/$)? And what does it mean when we pray that he not lead us so?
    8. What exactly is “the evil” (to ponhro/$) and what does it mean to be “rescued” (lit. “dragged [away from]”, r(u/omai) from it/him?
    9. How does the traditional doxology relate to: the prayer as whole, its context in the Gospel, its use in early Christian worship?

For the moment, I will discuss just one phrase, as found in Matthew 6:10a and Luke 11:2b—e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou (“[let] come your kingdom”, or “[may] your kingdom come”); for two reasons: (1) this request seems to be the focal point of the first half of the prayer, and (2) there is most interesting textual variant here [in Luke] that is worth discussing.

1. Position of the phrase in the Prayer

In Matthew, there are three imperatival phrases in the first half of the prayer:

  • God’s namea(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou (“[let/may] your name be made holy“)
  • God’s kingdome)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou (“[let/may] your kingdom come“)
  • God’s willgenhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou (“[let/may] your will/wish come to be“)
    to which is added the qualifying phrase w($ e)n ou)ranw=| kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ (“as in heaven and/also upon earth”), a phrase which, in a real sense, can be applied cumulatively to all three imperatives

Note that kingdom is in the center, between name and will, and closely connected to both. The “kingdom of God” is traditional Jewish language encapsulating and signifying God’s power, authority, sovereignty, His attributes, and everything related to his work (both in Creation and on behalf of His People). It is a simple, mighty concept, providing (for the ancient world, at least) an immediate sense of greatness and rule. The earthly metaphor of a kingdom is not merely fortuitous: for it expresses, or at least promises, the presence of (God) the king on earth—an expression also at the center of the Gospel message, and centered in the message of the incarnate Son of God—h&ggiken h( basilei/a tou= qeou=, “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.)

In Luke, there just four imperatival phrases in the prayer, the two in the first half identical with the first two in Matthew:

  • God’s namea(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou (“[let/may] your name be made holy“)
  • God’s kingdome)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou (“[let/may] your kingdom come“)

2. A textual variant in Luke 11:2

There are actual two substantial variants in this verse: (1) at the end of the verse, the majority of witnesses include the text of Matthew 6:10 (the third petition), but almost certainly an interpolation and probably not original to Luke’s version.

(2) The second variant is most interesting: in two late (11th-12th c.) manuscripts (162 700), instead of the petition regarding the kingdom (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou, “[let/may] your kingdom come”), we find (with slight variation): e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion e)f’ h(ma=$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$ (“[let] come your holy Spirit upon us and cleanse us”). The same basic variant is also attested in Gregory of Nyssa (4th cent., Sermon 3 on the Lord’s Prayer), and in Maximus Confessor (7th cent., Comm. on the Our Father §4, probably dependent upon Gregory). Earlier, Tertullian (Against Marcion 4:26) mentions a petition for the Holy Spirit along with the petition for the Kingdom; however, the reference is ambiguous (it may have been in Marcion’s version of Luke). There is also a similar petition which occurs in the (Greek) Acts of Thomas (§27). It is possible that the variant is the result of a liturgical notation (an adaptation for Baptism?) which accidentally made its way into the text. However, it is very much worth considering why such a connection might have been made in the early Church.

Perhaps one does not tend to think of the Kingdom of God in terms of the Holy Spirit; but how else are we to experience the Kingdom, how else is it to come upon us—”as in heaven also upon earth”? Gregory, in his Sermons on the Prayer was keenly aware of contemporary disputes—the so-called Macedonian heresy (Pneumatomachoi), which denied full deity (in the orthodox sense) to the Spirit—and took pains to emphasize, on the basis of this passage, that the Spirit possesses all the attributes, including power and sovereignty, of God the Father (and Son). He even goes so far to state, succinctly: to\ de\ Pneu=ma to\ a%gion baslei/a e)stin, “but the holy Spirit is kingship” (PG 44 col. 1157 C). In this regard, the coming of the (Holy) Spirit parallels closely the sanctifying (‘making holy’) of God’s own Name (which, in ancient thought was a way of signifying the Person himself), with the cleansing work in hearts and lives of God’s People: that is, in the temple (or palace—closely related in the ancient world) of the King. Is this not also where we most fully find the God’s will being done…or, at least to pray that it be so?

For more on this particular variant, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (second edition, pp. 130-131), and the standard Critical Commentaries.

There is a third ancient version of the Lord’s Prayer, found in the so-called Didache (“Teaching [Didakh/] of the Twelve Apostles”)—an early Church manual, probably dating from the mid-second century, but perhaps containing older material. The second half of the work (chapters 7-15) provides instructions for congregational worship and practice—ch. 8 briefly discusses prayer and fasting, and the text of the Lord’s Prayer is found in verse (or section) 2. This is the longest of the three versions, including the doxology, and is probably derived from the text in Matthew; however, it is at least possible that it came into the Didache through a separate tradition.

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