The Lord’s Prayer is a Jewish Prayer
Years ago, during one of my residencies in clinical pastoral education, one of my fellow students and good friends was a rabbi. She was a good student, and a good chaplain, and an enthusiastic participant in all the activities of the Pastoral Care department.
Well, all but one. She struggled with participation in worship. This was a Lutheran hospital, and she was the first non-Christian student they had ever had in the program. No one wanted to exclude her, and she didn’t want to be excluded; but as a Jew, and more particularly as a Rabbi, a representative Jew, she had some difficulties with participation – especially with the expectation of participation – in Christian worship.
Of course, not with everything: she said, “ I don’t have a problem with the Lord’s Prayer. There’s nothing in that prayer that a Jew couldn’t say. The only problem with the Lord’s Prayer is the Christian understanding that Jesus is the Lord.”
Jesus was a Jew; and when he prayed, he prayed as a Jew. He led Jews, and when he taught them to pray he taught them to pray as Jews. He taught them the Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4)
That thought may come as a bit of a surprise. We think of the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus’, and as ours; and it is ours. Jesus taught it when disciples asked him how to pray.
At the same time, there is nothing distinctively Christian about it, or there wasn’t when he taught it (remember, our departure from our Jewish forebears comes after the resurrection, and not before).
- There is honor to the Father, but no reference to the Son.
- There is a call for God’s Kingdom, but no suggestion that Jesus was bringing it in, as there is in Luke’s account of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum.
- There is prayer for God’s grace, but none for, say, our resurrection.
When scholars look at the Lord’s Prayer, they see this even more clearly. We think of Jesus’ address to God as Abba, “Father,” as distinctive; but in fact it was already known in the Hebrew Scriptures and in early synagogue prayers. There is a remarkable parallel between the various clauses of the Lord’s Prayer and a prayer long central to synagogue worship, the Amidah, also known as the Shemonah esre, “the Eighteen Blessings.” In that prayer God’s Name is declared holy, and there are prayers for the coming of the Messianic kingdom, for daily needs, prayers asking forgiveness and calling on the believer to forgive others. While Jewish scholars believe that the Amidah took on its current form in the generations after Jesus’ death, they believe that the separate prayers, and earlier versions of this prayer, were probably current long before.
The Lord’s Prayer has become central to all of our prayer, both in public worship and private devotion. But it is not the only prayer from our Jewish heritage that has become so central.
Consider the Psalms. For certainly the Psalms are prayers. We think of them more as hymns, chanted in public worship; and certainly many of them were. However, are not our hymns also prayers? For, as St. Augustine said, “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about. There is a praise-filled public proclamation in the praise of someone who is confessing, in the song of the lover (there is) love.” So, when one sings one’s prayers, one might accomplish more than one thing. Thus, the statement has come down to us in the distorted form of, “He who sings (or sings well) prays twice.”
We still hold that hymns are prayers. Thus we have a hymnal, and the hymnal of the Episcopal Church must be approved by General Convention. That’s not to say that we can’t use music outside what’s in the Hymnal; we can. But the Hymnal sets the standard of what the content should be of our hymns, whether we use those approved by Convention or from another source. The Hymnal sets the standard of the theology we express in worship; and so, like the Prayer Book, it must be approved by General Convention.
So, the Psalms are indeed prayers, some for public worship and some for private devotion, that have come to us from our Jewish heritage. And it is no surprise that they should have come down. For the first Christians were largely Jewish, or familiar with Jewish worship. Remember that the first Gentiles to embrace the faith were “God-fearers,” pagans who had embraced the One God as proclaimed by the Jewish people, without formally converting. They attended synagogue worship, even though they sat outside the sanctuary itself. Thus, whether Jew or Gentile, the first Christians were familiar with the chanting of the Psalms. Regular chanting of psalms continues to be an aspect of Jewish worship and devotion.
This is also important for us in Christian Communities and Orders. In his Rule, on which our various specific rules are based, St. Benedict quotes extensively from Scripture to justify his provisions. He quotes more from the Psalms than perhaps from any other portion of Scripture. Indeed, he considered them so important that he so arranged the Offices, the times of prayer during the monastic day, that the entire body of Psalms was read through every week. For each office there might be a portion of another part of Scripture – usually a brief passage, at most a few verses - but always a long portion of the Psalms.
And look how important the Psalms have become for our worship. In the Book of Common Prayer it is virtually impossible to find a public service or private devotion that does not incorporate some portion of the Psalter. Even the brief "Daily Devotions for Families" incorporate some small portion. Certainly, the Eucharist and the Daily Offices call for portions of the Psalms. We are not as rigorous as Benedict’s early monks. The Daily Office Lectionary repeats the Psalms through a period of about seven weeks; and within the Psalter itself in the Prayer Book there is a guide to read through them in thirty days instead of seven. The Order of the Holy Cross, of which I am an Associate, completes the Psalms over fourteen days, and then leaves out the unpleasant parts. However, extensive and repeated reading of the Psalms is central to the rules of professed religious and their associates and oblates in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.
And yet, why have they become so central? Like the Lord’s Prayer, we do not find the distinctive beliefs of the Christian faith in the Psalms. There is proclamation of the Messiah, but it relates more to the kingship of David and his descendents than to God the Son. There is some suggestion of resurrection, but not through the Messiah.
And there is so much in the Psalms that makes us uncomfortable – the bitter, angry, nasty parts. That’s why the Monastic Breviary of the Order of the Holy Cross has excluded certain passages. There is great violence in the Psalms. There are cursing and brutality in the Psalms, and cries of abandonment by God. Jesus himself, in his most desperate hour, quoted perhaps the most tragic verse in the Psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
And yet I think that is why we continue to chant and to value the Psalms. They help us to proclaim the full range of our human feelings, and to share them in our relationships with God. For what sort of relationship is it that focuses on only the good stuff, the happy times? Our experience as human beings is not only good and happy. Sometimes it is indeed unpleasant, ugly, and violent. We would say a relationship that could not also incorporate those experiences was shallow, lacking in intimacy; and if we would say that of a human relationship, how much more true must it be of our relationship with God? Yes, God does indeed see and know all of that in our lives; but if we have not offered to God those parts of our lives, we have not really offered ourselves wholly to God. How shall we lay on God our troubles, if we’re not willing to share them even with God? That was true in ancient Israel, and it is true today.
And, like so much of the Hebrew Scriptures, we look at them through the lens of our Christian experience. And so, we see in the Psalms references to the Messiah as we know him, even if they who originally wrote them did not see those references. They are a part of our Jewish heritage that illuminates our Christian experience.
And so, what are these aspects of our Jewish heritage to us as individual Christians? What does it mean to us that these central prayers, the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms, are both so Jewish and yet so pertinent? How to we appreciate these as aspects of our worship now? And how do they connect us to the experiences of the early Church, both those who walked with Jesus and the subsequent generations?