7 "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
We are working through the section in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is addressing issues of personal piety. In the first two sections, on alms giving and prayer, Jesus emphasizes the close, watchful presence for our heavenly Father. Our Father is in secret, there in the quiet lonely place where we are tempted to believe no one can see or hear us. He is listening and looking over us, waiting to reward us with His presence, His welcome.
Before moving to the next topic of fasting, Jesus continues to talk about prayer and teaches His listeners how to pray. This is a fairly long section, but it is better to see it as a piece.
In the previous section Jesus told His listeners that when they pray, they are not to pray like those who pray only to be seen and heard by others. The reason that He gives is because the reward they receive, being heard by men, is not as wonderful as the reward of being seen and heard by God which they have when they pray in secret to Him. In other words, their prayer life needs to conform to and reflect the truth about the character of the One to whom they are praying.
Jesus follows in this section with an admonition to “‘not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do’” when they pray. The reason the Gentiles pray this way, Jesus goes on, is because “‘they think that they will be heard for their many words.’” The Gentiles, who believed in many gods, thought that it was necessary to get a god’s attention, to secure a god’s interest. One of the ways that they did this was to attempt to flatter the gods with lots of words. Do we sometimes believe that we will be heard because of our many words? Do we ever find ourselves praying “loudly” or repeating ourselves in hopes that God will be more likely to hear us and grant us our request?
Jesus tells His listeners that they are not to pray like the Gentiles because “‘...your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’” The problem with this kind of prayer, Jesus says, is that it betrays a lack of knowledge of or trust in the God that is being prayed to. This is the underlying point in the previous passage on prayer as well. Jesus wants His listeners to understand the character of their loving Father so that they will pray in a way that reflects the One to whom they are praying. In order to know how to pray, we first need to know something about Who we are praying to. When we pray in such a way that others might be impressed, it is because we don’t know or we forget that our heavenly Father is waiting for and listening to us in secret. When we attempt to find ways to gain attention and favor with God, it is because we don’t realize or recall that our Father already knows what we need before we even ask Him.
I have been mulling this passage over for the past month or so now and this one statement by Jesus is so profound! I have been like the Gentiles many times in my prayers! I have found various ways to try to pressure God into fulfilling my requests. I have reminded Him of His promises, begged, even insinuated that I would not be so happy with Him if He didn’t do what I asked. Behind all this, I realize, is a doubt that God really does see me, know me, and know my real needs before I ask Him. I can even forget that He is most deeply my Father, not my genie, a magician, or a taskmaster with whom I can bargain.
I have real, ongoing concerns in my life, as I am sure you do. I am sure that those who were listening to Jesus did as well. They were living under the often oppressive rule of a foreign country. Many, I am sure, had physical pain, illness, or disabilities. Some may have been wondering how they were going to provide for their families. They, like us, were tempted to “heap up empty phrases” in hope of being heard. They too were tempted to forget, and needed to be reminded that the God they prayed to was their loving Father, who did see them, and knew all their needs. He is not distant, slow to listen or consider His children. He knows before us, and often in spite of us, what we truly need.
How does it affect our prayers to come before God as to our Father who already knows what we need? This is a wonderful truth worth pondering over. How quickly I find I forget it! When I am anxious, impatient, or frustrated in my life, I find that I have forgotten this word from Jesus. I am tempted again to doubt God’s presence, concern, or activity in my life. What a relief it is to hear this about our Father! It gives me room to rest in His Fatherhood and to trust that, if He is not answering me in the ways that I desire, it is not because He doesn’t know what I need. Maybe it is I who don’t know what I really need at this time.
So is Jesus then suggesting that we do not actually need to pray at all? After all, if God knows what we need before we ask them, then what point is there is asking? Not at all! Jesus assumes that we will be praying. He says that “in praying” we mustn’t be like the Gentiles. Prayer is a given for a believing person. But Jesus wants them to know better the character of the One they are praying to. I also think that Jesus, in telling us how to pray, is tuning us into what we most deeply need. Our Father does indeed know what our deepest needs are, and in teaching us to pray, Jesus is helping us to “tune in” to these needs. This prayer gives us a context, a framework, to hand God all the concerns and longings of our heart that we are aware of, knowing that He knows us better than we know ourselves and is really to give us what we need.
Now Jesus goes on to teach his listeners how to pray. Because you have a Father who knows what you need before you ask Him, Jesus tells us, “‘pray then like this...’”
“‘Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name’
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.’”
We begin our prayer addressing God as “Our Father.” The reason for this is because He is most truly our Heavenly Father and we come to Him then as the children who belong to Him and are loved by Him. Our first request is that our Father’s name be hallowed, followed immediately by requests of the coming of His kingdom and the doing of His will. All three of these requests are closely related. Remember that Jesus tells us to pray like this because God our Father already knows our needs before we ask Him. Since this is true, we ask God to reveal who He is and what He is up to, to all. When we ask that God’s name is hallowed, we are asking that it receive the recognition and glory it so aptly deserves. We want His name, His good character to shine forth. We then are to ask for His kingdom to come and His will to be done here on earth as it is already done in heaven. God’s kingdom is where His will is being done, where His ways are seen, where His good purposes for His subjects are accomplished. Since our heavenly Father knows our needs before we pray to Him then, in prayer, we want to first simply ask that this Father is known and that His good will is obeyed by more and more people. And, we pray this because this is what we most deeply need. We need to know God as our Father, and ourselves as His children. We need to see His goodness and ways become established more and more in all areas of our lives.
“‘Give us our daily bread,’”
We can ask in confidence of our Father who knows us, to provide us daily with our bread. We do not need to beg out of fear or uncertainty that maybe God is arbitrary, doesn’t know our needs or isn’t interested in or able to care for us. Notice that Jesus tells us to ask for our “daily” bread. Our love relationship with our heavenly Father is a dynamic one. We are to continually receive from Him that which we need and so continually remember and enjoy our identity as beloved children of a caring Father.
“‘And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;’”
In teaching His listeners what to pray, Jesus now instructs them to pray for forgiveness. It is interesting to remember that the context of this lesson on prayer is Jesus’ emphatic statement that God already knows what we need before we ask Him--in other words, we are praying, not to an imposing judge, or a distracted master, but to a Father who knows us intimately and loves us greatly. And it would seem that forgiveness is what we need, more basically and deeply than the other needs we may be more immediately focused on. We ask our heavenly Father to forgive us our wrong doings, our neglects, our failures to love or upbuild because He knows that this is what we need and that He can provide this for us, His children. He knows that what we most deeply need is healing, a new beginning, and the assurance that our misdeeds and our bent thoughts are not the last word on who we are.
Notice that this request is tied to a statement about our forgiving those who have done wrong to us. This echoes the earlier statement in the beatitudes “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” To forgive another is to not want to give up on another person, or to give up on God. Even when you are angry at the other person and you can’t believe they did it again, you can’t quite give up hope that they can change and that the relationship can get better. When you are merciful, you are willing to give another a second chance. Often when someone has made a mistake, has hurt us, we are tempted to think of that person only in terms of what they did. When we forgive them, we are hoping that there is more to the person than their mistake or sin--that that mistake does not tell us all of who they are. Forgiving another is not pretending that what they did wasn’t that bad, or wasn’t wrong. If that were the case, there would be no need of forgiveness. To forgive is to acknowledge being sinned against, but to hand that person and that sin over to God to deal with Himself so that it is not what stands between us any longer.
The reason we want to look beyond the sin, even very horrible sins, is because we want others to look beyond our own sin. We hope that we are not able to be reduced to our flaws or brokenness. We hope that our sin will not get to be the last word on who we are and where we are going. When we ourselves long for mercy, for another chance, we realize that we are not that different from the person who stands before us. We are alike--broken, hurting, and in need of hope that this is not the end.
“And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.”
This is the last request Jesus tells His listeners to make in their prayer to the Father who knows them and their needs. Again, Jesus is helping them to have a better understanding of what is the deepest longings and needs of their hearts. Our Father knows that we need to be protected, that we are fragile and unable to handle all the temptations that surround us. Daily we are bombarded by temptations to not count on God for our lives and our identities, to put our trust into other things that are not God. So we not only are to ask God for forgiveness for what we have both done and failed to do, but we are to turn to Him for help in living in a world always ready to pull us off of our center in God. We may not realize our own frailty and therefore our deep need for help in times of trial.
We need God to deliver us from evil. We are not as capable of taking care of ourselves as we may think. We live in a broken, marred, evil world where great pain is inflicted and great injustices are permitted every day. Our heavenly Father is the One who knows our need for deliverance, He is the One we are to turn to for rescue.
We don’t ask God for this deliverance because He is unwilling to do this otherwise. This is what the Father is up to, because He loves His children. He is the One who does His own good will, ushers His kingdom in, provides food for His creation, forgives and redeems, and protects. We ask for our own sakes--to put ourselves in a place where we can receive all that our Father is towards us and does for us. As I have stated, it is very important to remember the context of this prayer. Otherwise we might be tempted to believe that we pray to condition God to do these things for us. Jesus tells them first of God’s character so that they ask, they pray, in response to seeing their heavenly Father clearly. When we ask, we place ourselves before God to receive Him and His blessings.
“‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’”
To conclude His teaching on prayer Jesus goes back to the topic of forgiveness and re-emphasizes the connection between receiving God’s forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others. This time it comes to us in the form of a warning. Warnings are often times difficult because we are tempted think that when someone turns to warning us they have taken on a completely different attitude towards us. Sometimes we fear that the warning indicates an outcome that the one warning would like to come to pass. In this case we could be tempted to conclude that the Father is just as happy to withhold forgiveness as to offer it and that what we do completely conditions the Father’s desire to forgive.
If we only had this verse and thought of God being mostly like us, this interpretation would be a possibility. However, given the whole context of Jesus’ teaching studied above and the consistent character he displays throughout his whole ministry and which shows us his Father’s character , this view of a conditioned God who can be of two minds about us is really ruled out. Actually, if we remember the nature of a warning,--to prevent an unwanted outcome or result, and not express a change of attitude or indifference to the outcome,--then we have no reason to believe that Jesus is contradicting himself in what he is now telling us about the Father here. The Father, and so the Son, want us to receive their forgiveness even when we resist it.
The strong warning is aimed to prevent us from failing to receive it. It warns that, if we somehow manage to hang on to unforgiveness and harbor ill will rather than the restoration of a relationship, we will not have the Father’s forgiveness. Our unforgiveness will block our reception of God and the blessings of God’s forgiveness. Hearts closed toward the neighbor are also closed towards God. Hearts open to receive from God will pass on to the neighbor what we have received from God. Jesus puts it in this conditional way to point out a real possibility, not being/having forgiveness; a possibility that is against His will and opposed to His purposes--to forgive. Our refusal may prevent us from experiencing the blessing of God’s forgiveness (and so are not or don’t have forgiveness in this way) but our rejection has no power to change God’s mind about us or undo Christ’s work and intentions for us. God in Christ has made up his mind once and for all about us. That is his unconditioned grace which call for our unconditional response of reception of that grace.
[Some may wonder how this fits grammatically the translation: “If you do not forgive....neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you.” Besides the fact that biblical interpretation can never be reduced to grammar, but always involves taking the context into consideration (the ultimate context being the character of God revealed in the person and work of Jesus) a lot seems to depends upon how we interpret the word “neither” that introduces the possible result That this is a warning, and one which uses a weaker (subjunctive) form of condition, seems to guard against taking the “neither” in a tit for tat way, as if God is looking for an excuse to not forgive us. Although it is easy to infer a purpose from the result that we are “not forgiven,” we should remember that such an inference is not necessarily (or even logically necessarily) true. God does not necessarily purpose or aim to assure that we are not forgiven even if the result is that we are not.
Grammatically we often have to discern between a result and a purpose. But it is very easy to confuse these two aspects of meaning. Sometimes what results is not what is purposed even for God. This distinction is especially important in the context of a warning. A warning is essentially descriptive of a condition and warning of a potential result or consequence and not proscriptive (telling us something about the heart and character of God). The potential results of warnings aim to convey the practical results as related to us. The consequence is descriptive not proscriptive. And, practically speaking, from our side, the result of not having forgiveness and not being forgiven are not distinguishable. The consequence contained in warnings appeal to things as viewed from the side of the one in danger and so speak of the potential resulting danger to us. But results described from our side can’t be directly translated into insight into the purpose and heart of God on the other side, especially in the context of a warning. Grammatically then there is every reason to interpret the consequence to be a result rather than a purpose hidden in God heart. The described result does not answer the matter of purpose, even though we often want to (wrongly) infer purpose from the result.
In answer to the question about purpose we ought to place the interpretive weight on the nature or purpose of someone giving a warning:, namely, to avoid the possible result rather than deriving it from the potential result. The purpose of God can be derived from the purpose of a given warning. In this case then, the purpose of this warning is to avoid prevent someone from not being/receiving forgiveness. That is consistent with the character of God throughout the Beatitudes. A descriptive result clause in the warning ought not overthrow this clear revelation. Giving consideration to the larger biblical context as related to God’s forgiveness, whenever Scripture speaks from God’s side, and tells us directly of God’s character and purpose we see that God is not conditioned by us, and is of one mind and character towards us. He is gracious, forgiving, redeeming. It is clearly his purpose to save, not condemn.
So even thought the result in this warning is expressed in the indicative, since it is set in the context of a warning there is no grammatical reason to take it as purposive, revealing the aim and intention of God. The consequence should only serve to indicate a result and one that is contrary to God’s purposes. It should not initiate a reinterpretation of the character of God. Note that even here God is addressed as our Heavenly Father. Whether we receive it or somehow manage to refuse his forgiveness, God remains our Heavenly Father because Jesus remains our Heavenly Brother.]
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