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Perhaps the best way to learn to pray is by following the example of Jesus. The Our Father guides readers through the prayer Jesus taught us, and asks us to consider important questions as we learn to pray: What are we asking for? What are we committing ourselves to? What does the Our Father teach us about prayer?
A Guided Discovery of the Bible
The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on ...
Perhaps the best way to learn to pray is by following the example of Jesus. The Our Father guides readers through the prayer Jesus taught us, and asks us to consider important questions as we learn to pray: What are we asking for? What are we committing ourselves to? What does the Our Father teach us about prayer?
A Guided Discovery of the Bible
The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on how we might respond to it. To do this, we need guidance and the right tools for discovery. The Six Weeks with the Bible series of Bible discussion guides offers both in a concise six-week format. Whether focusing on a specific biblical book or exploring a theme that runs throughout the Bible, these practical guides in this series provide meaningful insights that explain Scripture while helping readers make connections to their own lives. Each guide
• is faithful to Church teaching and is guided by sound biblical scholarship
• presents the insights of Church fathers and saints
• includes questions for discussion and reflection
• delivers information in a reader-friendly format
• gives suggestions for prayer that help readers respond to God’s word
• appeals to beginners as well as to advanced students of the Bible
By reading Scripture, reflecting on its deeper meanings, and incorporating it into our daily life, we can grow not only in our understanding of God’s word, but also in our relationship with God.
How to Use This Guide
If you want a prayer to help you pray, the best one to begin with is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray—the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer. And if you want to deepen your understanding of the Our Father, a slow, careful reading of the prayer and of related Scripture passages is a good way to proceed. That is just what we are going to do in the present book. The goal of our reading is to grow in prayer by learning from the great model prayer that Jesus has given us.
Our approach will be a guided discovery. It will be guided because we all need support in understanding Scripture and reflecting on what it means for our lives. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Whether we are reading in a group or by ourselves, we need resources that aid in understanding. Our approach is also one of discovery, because each of us needs to encounter Scripture for ourselves and consider its meaning for our life. No one can do this for us.
This book is designed to give you both guidance for understanding and tools for discovery. You can use it in a group or alone.
The introduction on page 6 provides background material and helps you to get oriented for our exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. A brief “Background” section in most of the weekly sessions will put the Scripture readings in context, and the “Exploring the Theme” section that follows the reading will bring out their meaning. Supplementary material between sessions will offer further resources for understanding and reflection.
The main tool for discovery is the “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” section in each session. The first questions in this section will spur you to notice things in the text, sharpen your powers of observation, and read for comprehension. The remaining questions suggest ways to compare the people, situations, and experiences in the biblical texts with your own life and the world today—an important step toward grasping what God is saying to you through the Scripture and what your response should be. Choose the questions you think will work best for you and your group. Preparing to answer all the questions before your group meets is highly recommended.
We suggest that you pay particular attention to the final question each week, labeled “Focus question.” This question points to some especially important issue raised by the reading. You may find it difficult to answer the focus question briefly. Do leave enough time for everyone in the group to discuss it!
Other sections encourage you to take an active approach to your Bible reading and discussion. At the start of each session, “Questions to Begin” will help you break the ice and start talk flowing. These questions are usually light and have only a slight connection to the reading. After each Scripture reading, there is a time for each person to offer a brief “First Impression.” This is a chance to express an initial, personal response to the text. Each session ends with a “Prayer to Close” that suggests a way of expressing your response to God.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and twenty minutes. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, read the “Exploring the Theme” sections aloud at the points where they appear.
What about leadership? You don’t have to be an expert in the Bible to lead a discussion. Choose one or two people to act as discussion facilitators, and have everyone in the group read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 84) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this book. It contains the biblical texts, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each person will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 88 for recommendations.)
Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 84) or individuals (page 87).
Pray This Way
Have you ever had this experience? For some reason, you get to church well before Mass begins. The church is almost empty, and you break your normal pattern and sit up front. Gradually, people filter into the pews behind you, but you don’t pay much attention to them. Mass begins. The congregation murmurs the responses in a subdued way. But when it comes time for the Our Father, you suddenly realize that the church is full of people, for everyone is praying the prayer quite loudly. Even little children can be heard, reciting it in their high, clear voices. The Our Father is obviously the part of the Mass with which everyone feels most familiar and most comfortable praying aloud.
Among all Christians, it seems, the Our Father is the most used and most cherished prayer. Many of us cannot remember when our parents taught us this prayer—or even if they taught it. We seem always to have known it. The prayer is a part of us.
Not only is the Our Father our first prayer in childhood. For some of us, it will be our last prayer in this world. Already some among us are sufferers of mental deterioration, who can no longer carry on a meaningful conversation but can still pray the Our Father without a hitch, as soon as someone else starts it.
You might wonder whether anything is to be gained from exploring such a familiar prayer. It may even be asked whether exploration is appropriate. After all, the Our Father is a prayer. The essential thing is to pray it, not talk about it. Discussion could be distracting.
Yet the Our Father is not only a prayer. It is a model prayer—a pattern for prayer. Introducing it, Jesus does not say, “Pray this prayer,” but “Pray this way.” He presented the prayer to us as a lesson in prayer. Some Christians, in fact, have spoken of the Our Father as a whole school of prayer—a school from which we never graduate, even in a lifetime. Thus, in addition to being prayed, the Our Father is to be pondered. No matter how thoroughly familiar we are with it, the Lord’s Prayer contains depths we have not yet plumbed, lessons we have not yet mastered.
In this book we will read the Our Father slowly and carefully, along with a few other texts in Scripture that shed light on its meaning. As we go forward, we will repeatedly consider some important questions about this seven-petitioned prayer:
♦ What are we asking God for?
♦ What are we committing ourselves to?
♦ What picture of God do we imply by what we say to him in this prayer?
♦ What picture of ourselves do we imply?
♦ What does this model of prayer teach us about how to pray?
These will be the main lines of our exploration and reflection.
Beginning on the following page—before our first session—there is an introduction that examines the setting of the Our Father in Matthew’s Gospel. Then, in Week 1, we will consider the prayer’s address to God as Father. In Week 2, we will explore the first three petitions—our appeals that God’s name would be hallowed, that his kingdom would come, and that his will would be done. In Weeks 3 through 6, we will explore the four remaining petitions of the prayer one by one.
To return to the Lord’s Prayer is to return to the Lord who taught it. Exploring the prayer anew is an opportunity to become like a little child, asking Jesus once again to teach us how to pray. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,” Jesus tells us (Luke 18:17). However much we have prayed, we remain infants, needing help to take our first steps. Indeed, only when we realize this are we getting somewhere in prayer!
Three Ways of Getting Close to God
The Context of the Our Father in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
The Gospel writers have handed on to us two versions of the Lord’s Prayer. St. Luke has given us the shorter version (Luke 11:2–4), St. Matthew the longer one (Matthew 6:9–13). This longer form is the one that we usually pray, and it is this form of the prayer that we are going to explore in the present book. In preparation for our exploration, it is helpful to view the prayer in its context in Matthew’s Gospel. The prayer is located in the center of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). In a sense, all of Jesus’ instructions in the sermon about how we should live revolve around the Lord’s Prayer, where we find ourselves alone with God.
In the opening of his sermon, Jesus calls us to purity of heart, that is, to a single-minded commitment to seek what pleases God (5:8). He commends those who hunger and thirst for justice (5:6). He tells us to follow God’s law not in a merely external way but from the heart, in our thoughts and intentions, taking God himself as our standard of faithfulness, truthfulness, and love (5:1–48). Later in his sermon, Jesus cites the Golden Rule—“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (7:12). He urges us to go through the narrow gate that leads into the kingdom of God (7:13–14).
All of this is very demanding. Responding to this call requires deep personal change. But what can produce such a profound inner transformation? Where can we get the power to live this way? We know from our experience that our ability to change ourselves is rather limited. Remaking ourselves into people who always prefer God’s will to our own seems beyond our reach. To love other people as we would like them to love us seems impossible, even in relationships of mutual trust and respect. Demonstrating God’s love to those who have hurt us or threaten us often exceeds what we even aspire to.
Matthew’s Gospel shows us that the source of personal transformation is Jesus himself. He is “God is with us” (see Matthew 1:23). He has come to forgive our sins and heal us of the sinful tendencies that lead us away from God. By his death and resurrection, Jesus reconciles us with God and gives us the inner freedom to respond to his call to perfection. The answer, then, to our questions about how we could ever respond to Jesus’ challenging call is this: become his disciples. As Matthew shows, Jesus invites each of us to become one of his followers. In this discipleship relationship, through Jesus’ personal presence and training, we can learn to imitate him in the circumstances of our own lives.
But this raises a further question. How can we respond to Jesus and become his disciples in the circumstances of our lives? We don’t live in Palestine in the year 30. We can’t walk along with him and his first followers on the roads of Galilee, observing his miracles, listening to his teaching, sitting around a table and having a conversation with him.
In the central section of his Sermon on the Mount (6:1–18), Jesus provides some answers to this question. He speaks about three means of being in contact with him and with his heavenly Father, three ways of responding to his spiritual presence and growing in relationship with him. The three means were already traditional in Judaism in the time of Jesus: acts of mercy, prayer, and fasting. Jesus presents them to us as means by which we can get close to him as his disciples. Let us look at this section of the Sermon on the Mount more closely (the biblical text is given on pages 17–18).
At the outset, Jesus identifies an issue that arises in all three of these kinds of religious behaviors. “Beware of practicing your piety before others” (6:1). All three types of piety have a public aspect, inasmuch as—immediately or eventually—our actions become known by other people. Others almost inevitably will find out when we help someone in need. Others see when we pray with the community of faith. And our fasting, too, often becomes known to others. But since the essential purpose of these activities is to grow closer to God, the public knowledge of our behavior gives rise to a danger. It opens the possibility of a different motive creeping in beside our desire to get close to God. The desire to gain other people’s respect, approval, and admiration can become our main, if hidden, intention.
Almsgiving: 6:2–4. “Whenever you give alms . . .” (6:2). Our English word alms comes from the Greek word that is used here in the text of Matthew’s Gospel. The New Revised Standard Version translates the word as “give alms.” The English word alms implies giving money, but the Greek word is not so narrowly focused. Rather, it means showing mercy in any way. It encompasses not only financial giving but also any act of helpfulness, any expression of kindness, any form of aid to someone in need, any compassionate deed. We might paraphrase Jesus’ words as “Whenever you show . . .”
Jesus’ advice regarding acts of mercy boils down to this: do it for God’s sake. In practice, this means doing it in a way that points people’s attention to God. Our acts of compassion should enable people to see that God is their primary benefactor; we are simply the means he is using to show his love. We should give aid in a way that draws attention to God’s generosity and brings him praise. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:16).
The description Jesus gives of those who act “to be seen by them” (6:1) contains the Greek word that has given us our English word theater. In a sense, Jesus is reminding us that our acts of kindness are necessarily a type of performance, for which there is always an audience. The questions he wants us to ask ourselves are these: When I show kindness, who is the audience for whom I am performing? Is it God? Or is it other people? Am I trying to show God how much I love him? Or am I trying to show other people how much I love God? And if I’m trying to show people how much I love God, how much do I love him? And, if I am mainly concerned that people would know that I love them and would thank me for it, am I acting out of love for them—or for myself? And a further question: If I am so keen on getting people’s approval, why is their approval worth so much to me? Do I really need it so badly?
Jesus speaks of “the hypocrites” (6:2). The Greek word here means “actors in a play.” The hypocrites whom Jesus describes act pious in public to gain other people’s praise. By this very fact, their piety is false. They are pretending to love God. Perhaps their performance convinces other people; perhaps it even convinces themselves. But God isn’t fooled.
If we put ourselves in the center of the picture, seeking to gain praise for our generosity, we distract people from God. Yet he is the original source of any help we provide. Jesus tells us that if we act this way, we shouldn’t expect anything from God in return. Why should God reward us for leaving him out of the picture?
It is notable that Jesus does urge us to seek a reward from God. Act in such a way, Jesus says, that “your Father . . . will reward you” (6:4). Jesus is not suggesting that our acts of kindness place God under an obligation to us. God does not pay wages for services rendered. The reward that Jesus means is a deeper relationship with God.
Jesus does not speak here explicitly about acting out of genuine love for our neighbor. He implies, however, that showing kindness in order to please God is the essential basis for true love of neighbor. The reason is that the more we focus on pleasing God, the less we focus on trying to get something from those we serve. The attempt to please God frees us from the selfish desire to get something from other people—recognition, honor, praise—as payment for our kindness to them.
Jesus’ discussion about showing mercy challenges us to examine our picture of God. If I regard the acclaim of other people as more important than God’s approval, is it because God seems unimportant or unreal to me? If desiring to please my Father in heaven is not my motivation, is that because I do not think of him as my Father? Do I, instead, think of God as a distant deity, someone who deserves respect but not love? That is certainly not Jesus’ picture of God.
Prayer: 6:5–8. By placing almsgiving first in his discussion of pious practices, Jesus indicates that growing closer to God involves loving and caring for other people. By putting prayer second, Jesus does not suggest that prayer is of secondary importance. Rather, he places prayer at the center of his instructions about pious practices, indicating that prayer is at the heart of merciful deeds and self-renunciation. By putting prayer at the center, Jesus implies that we can live his way of life only with God’s help, obtained through prayer. Spending time in prayerful attentiveness to God is the starting point for coming to share God’s desires for human lives and for society and to find the grace to cooperate.
Jesus’ initial concern with prayer is the same as his concern with compassionate activities: we should pray to please God, not to impress other people (6:5–6). If we pray in order to be seen by other people, our prayer is valueless. It is valueless because, in fact, it is not prayer. Self-promotion is not prayer.
Jesus says of hypocrites, “They love to stand and pray . . . at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (6:5; italics mine). Hypocrites enjoy showing off. In their concern about what others think of them, they are concerned about themselves. For them, Hans Dieter Betz, a New Testament scholar, observes, “Prayer, supposedly the most intimate expression of love to God, has turned into its very opposite, preoccupation with oneself.” Jesus is saying, when you pray, God wants to be the center of your attention.
To counteract our tendency to display our piety before other people, Jesus offers a practical remedy: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door” (6:6). Throughout chapter 6, in the Greek text, “you” and “your” are plural—except here in verse 6, where “you” and “your” are singular. Go off and pray by yourself, Jesus is saying. Go and be alone with God. This point is reinforced by the particular Greek word for “room” here. The word generally refers to rooms in the interior of a house—the innermost room, the back room, the storeroom. In poorer houses, such a room might be the only one with a door. In many cases, it would be windowless and dark. Clearly, Jesus is recommending a place of privacy for our individual prayer.
God is holy, other, hidden from human sight. Often he seems hard to detect in world events and even in the circumstances of our lives. Yet, Jesus assures us, God makes himself known in the place where we might least expect it—in secret, even in darkness. There, in private, God makes himself present to us. We can talk with him and get to know him. German theologian Romano Guardini points out that Jesus does not say,
“If you want to call upon God, go to such-and-such a place, and there you will find Him,” or, “Wait for a certain time, and then you may invoke Him,” or, “You must do it in such-and-such a way to succeed in making contact.” Nothing of the kind! On the contrary, . . . “Simply address yourself to Him who is in Heaven, and your prayer will reach Him.” . . . When we stop to consider it, there is something immeasurably marvelous in the fact that God is accessible from anywhere, at any time.
Jesus goes on to criticize long prayers (6:7–8). Unlike the hypocrite, the person who makes wordy appeals may be earnestly focusing on God, seeking rewards that only God can give. Yet the person’s picture of God is flawed. Rather than recognize God as a loving Father who knows our needs and has our best interests at heart, the verbose person treats God as an uncaring deity who has to be nagged into paying attention and giving us what we need. The problem that Jesus is addressing lies not in the “many words” (6:7) in and of themselves but in our thinking that many words are necessary to get God to help us.
Long, repetitious prayers may also reflect the mistaken idea that we can get God to do what we want by using the right formulas. In Jesus’ day, some non-Jews addressed God with prayers containing many titles, almost like incantations. Having the correct divine titles and repeating them over and over was thought to increase the prayers’ effectiveness. But the notion that one can, in effect, turn God into an obedient servant by using the right titles and the proven formulas is closer to magic than to prayer.
Against the picture of God as someone who needs to be shouted at or manipulated, Jesus presents the picture of God as a Father who loves us, knows our real needs (6:8), and does not have to be talked into acting on our behalf.
We might ask, If God already knows what we need, why pray? St. John Chrysostom posed this question in his explanation of the Our Father. His answer: we pray “not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins.”
Fasting: 6:16–18. Finally, Jesus speaks about fasting. Fasting is an act of limiting ourselves, of refusing to satisfy our own desires (for example, our desires to eat or drink) in order to turn to God and become responsive to his desires.
Jesus is critical of those who “disfigure their faces” when they fast (6:16). The meaning of the Greek here is unclear. Were those who fasted not washing their faces as they normally would? Or were they smearing ashes on their faces to draw attention to their fasting? It is impossible to be sure. Jesus also says that when we fast we should wash our faces and put oil on our heads (6:17). But since scholars disagree about whether people in first-century Palestine bathed frequently and routinely used fragrant olive oil, they are uncertain whether Jesus is telling us that when we fast we should make special efforts to look happy or should simply go on with our lives as usual.
In any case, the basic point is clear. Fasting is a way of turning to God, of expressing our desire for him and for his action in our lives. If, instead, fasting becomes a way of showing off to other people, the whole exercise is a waste of time. Really, Jesus indicates, it is worse than a waste of time; it is an insult to God. Please, don’t bother.
Before we leave this section, a final question is worth considering. Jesus speaks of “hypocrites” in “the synagogues” (6:2, 5). Does he regard Jews as particularly susceptible to the temptation of hypocrisy? Not at all. Jesus is speaking to his fellow Jews about Jews. He is not comparing Jews to other people. He is not saying that hypocrisy is more prevalent among Jews than among gentiles. He does not suggest that the synagogue is a center of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy happens anywhere, he says, on the street as much as in the synagogue (6:2, 5). He does not level his criticism of hypocrisy against the synagogue itself but against those who abuse the synagogue by making it a theater for their own piety. Jesus believes that the synagogue, where Jews customarily studied Scripture and prayed, ought to be a place for paying attention to God. Any good Jew would have agreed with him. Far from condemning the synagogue, Jesus demonstrated a concern for it; he wanted the synagogue to be what it ought to be.
Try substituting the word church for synagogue in 6:2–5. You will find that Jesus’ criticism of hypocrisy works just as well for Christians as for Jews. In any case, Scripture is not given to us as an opportunity for standing in judgment over other people but for discovering and correcting our own failings (see Matthew 7:1–5).
Questions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 When and how did you learn the Lord’s Prayer?
2 What other prayers did you learn as a child?
Opening the Bible
Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”
The Reading: Matthew 6:1–18; 7:7–11
Don’t Lose Out on Your Reward
6:1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Practice Kindness Secretly
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Keep Your Devotions Private, Too
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your 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 do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Don’t Put Your Piety on Parade
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Ask God with Confidence
7:7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Briefly mention a question you have about the reading or one thing in it that surprised, impressed, delighted, or challenged you. No discussion! Just listen to one another’s reactions.
Exploring the Theme
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Reflection and Discussion.”
The context (6:1–8, 14–18). After mentioning some basic attitudes for our relationship with God (6:1–8), Jesus introduces his model prayer with an assurance that God knows all about our needs and wants to reward our efforts to turn to him. “Pray then in this way,” Jesus says (6:9). In other words, let your prayer be shaped by confidence that God has your best interests at heart. As you begin, consider his love for you.
“Our Father . . .” With these two simple words, we say a great deal about God and about ourselves. Of God, we affirm that he is one, not many, and that he is a person—someone with whom we can have a conversation. Of ourselves, St. Jerome noted, “When we pray ‘Father,’ we acknowledge that we ourselves are his children.” Thus, with the first words of the prayer, we affirm that we did not tumble into the world by chance; we are here because a Father has willed us into existence. Our lives have a purpose, which, even if it is hidden from us, is known by the one to whom we are beginning to speak.
Calling God Father strikes a note of familiarity. For myself, I can say that this familiarity becomes more and more astonishing as I realize more and more clearly how little I understand of the immense universe in which we live. Yet I, who cannot understand the created universe, can experience the creator being close to me. Like my father when I was a little boy, God bends down to listen when I speak to him. Amazing!
Acknowledging God as sole creator and ruler of all is fundamental in Judaism. Jews know that God is merciful and faithful, a loving guide and teacher. In Jesus’ day, however, Jews did not think of God mainly as Father. Only rarely did they address him that way. But for Jesus, God is essentially Father. Jesus often spoke of God as Father (in this week’s reading, see 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 14, 18; 7:11) and addressed God this way in his own prayer (more on this in Week 5). Jesus experienced God as an affectionate Father and, Jesus revealed, this is how God is toward us, too. In a sense, the whole purpose of Jesus’ mission in the world is to share with us his own Son-to-Father relationship with God. To pray the first words of the Lord’s Prayer is to accept this offer of an intimate relationship with God.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that “of all the things required of us when we pray, confidence is of great avail. For this reason, our Lord, in teaching us how to pray, mentions those things which instill confidence in us, such as the loving kindness of a father implied in the words, Our Father.” With these opening words, we open our hearts to God as little children (see Matthew 19:14). At the same time, these opening words imply an adult commitment to behave as God’s children, to obey him, and to accept the responsibility of imitating him (see 5:48).
Before moving on, it is worth giving a little thought also to the very first word of the prayer: “our.” When we say “our,” who is the “we” that we have in mind? Does it include only those who are close to us? Is the “we”—asked Ukrainian archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky—only those who belong to our ethnic group, our nation? Isn’t it, he replied, “all of us who have been redeemed by Christ’s Blood? Does it even include the unbaptized? Does it relate to those who live, or also those who have not yet been born, or even those who died long ago?” The word our is very small, the archbishop observed. “But what boundless prospects it presents, how it expands the heart and soul to yet unknown limits. The feeling of human solidarity knows no bounds, nor does it know the limitation of a heart which, satisfied with what it possesses, is unwilling to share with others.” Thus, when we call on God as “our” Father, we include in the “we” all who call him Father and, indeed, all whom God considers to be his children, regardless of what they think of him. And we accept the obligation of treating them as our brothers and sisters.
“Who art in heaven . . .” What do these words add? Surely we already know where God is. The point, however, is not to identify God’s location but to distinguish him from every other source of life. With these words we make a distinction between our heavenly Parent and our earthly mothers and fathers. We affirm that the gift of life that came to us through our parents originated in our heavenly Father. He is the source of our lives.
The words “who art in heaven” also remind us that while God is intimate and affectionate with us like a father, he remains far above us, unseen, beyond our comprehension. Romano Guardini wrote that “heaven” here signifies “the inaccessibility of God.” Heaven, Guardini said,
is that blessed, inviolable freedom in which He belongs to Himself, as He who is. . . . Heaven stands for the otherness of God. . . . We must raise our minds from the earth when we address God, who is in Heaven. . . . We must admit that He is not like things or like time or like ourselves. We do not prescribe to Him what He is to be like, but are agreed that He is the One who is of Himself. . . . And we are prepared for the fact that He is different from our expectations, mysterious and unknown. . . . The words “in Heaven” say, “I want You, God, as You are in Yourself.” And in uttering them, the Christian takes the risk, as it were, of having this God come into his life; of having the everyday tenor of his own life disturbed by the entry of God, the Other, the Inscrutable.
Further on in his sermon, Jesus adds a remark about praying to God as our Father (7:7–11). Because God is our Father, he says, we should keep on praying to him when we do not receive what we ask for.
Does this instruction conflict with Jesus’ earlier prohibition against long prayers (6:7–8)? Not really. The two instructions have a common root: relating to God as a real father. Using lengthy prayers as though they were magical formulas disregards God’s fatherly love. Likewise, we disregard his fatherly love if we stop talking to him when we do not immediately receive what we ask for.
Our heavenly Father will give us “good things,” Jesus assures us (7:11). This does not mean he will give us whatever we ask. God knows what is good for us; often we do not. Our first parents, as depicted in the Bible, acted as though they knew better than God what was good for them (Genesis 3). Jesus urges us, instead, to trust God’s wisdom and ask him for what he considers good for us. What is that? The rest of the prayer will provide excellent guidance.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Why would a person want to have his or her religious practices be “seen” (6:5) and “praised” (6:2) by other people?
2 Reread 6:3. Jesus sometimes exaggerated to make a point (see also 5:29–30). What is the value of this kind of exaggeration? What are the dangers?
3 Reread 6:7. What picture of God is in the mind of the person who prays like this? How is this different from the picture of God that Jesus reveals?
4 How can a person do good in a way that points people’s attention not to himself or herself but to God?
5 Who has been an example to you of helping others without calling attention to themselves?
6 Jesus urges us to please God rather than enhance our reputation (6:1–6, 16–17), to speak to God simply and directly (6:7–8), to have confidence that God knows all about us and wants to reward our efforts (6:6–8). In what ways does the Our Father meet these criteria for prayer?
7 How might a person’s experiences of their father and mother have a positive or negative effect on their relationship with God? How does God show himself to be more loving than any human parent?
8 Jesus repeatedly says that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6:4, 6, 18). What benefits do you seek when you pray? Do you receive them?
9 Focus question. What has helped you experience God as your Father? How has God shown himself to be your Father? How has this affected your relationship with him?
Prayer to Close
Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Let someone read Romans 8:14–17 aloud. Pause for a minute of silent reflection. Then pray “Our Father, who art in heaven” together and pause, giving one person the opportunity to express a short prayer; for example, “Help my son to find a job” or “Guide our leaders to the road to peace,” and so on. Pray “Our Father, who art in heaven” again, letting another person offer a prayer. Continue in the same way until everyone who wishes to pray has had a chance to do so. Conclude by praying the whole Our Father together.
Saints in the Making
Surprised by His Father
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
By Fio Mascerenhas, SJ
In 1968, for the first time, I failed a university examination. I had joined the Society of Jesus in 1963, after graduating in chemistry. My superior sent me back to the university to specialize so that I could become a professor of chemistry in our Jesuit university in Bombay. I was very happy. I said to myself, “I’m going to be a famous professor of chemistry.” In my daydreams I even dreamed that one day I would get the Nobel Prize for chemistry.
So you can imagine my consternation, shock, confusion, and humiliation when I failed the exam. This was something quite extraordinary, because I knew everything and I had gotten the gold medal at the university the previous year. Everybody was expecting me to top the class. But as I walked into the examination hall, my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember anything.
I appeared for the exam a second time some months later, again preparing myself very well. But again, as I walked into the examination hall, my mind went blank. And I failed the second time.
I appeared for that examination a third time. This time, as I walked into the hall, I whispered this prayer: “I know, Lord, that you don’t love me. So I’m not going to ask you anything for myself. But I hope you still love my poor mother.” Mummy had been making novena after novena and offering Masses that her poor Fio would pass the exam. But my mind went blank there in the hall. And I failed the third time.
This was a real crisis of faith. I stopped praying to God. I could not believe that God loved me. When people said, “Pray more,” I said, “That’s all rubbish.” And slowly I began to rebel within myself. I became bitter, turned in upon myself.
Spiritually, I could not believe in God, and I was rebellious. Emotionally, I could not face people anymore; I thought they would be laughing at me because of my three failures. Physically, I had suffered from asthma all my life, and in these days I was hospitalized many times. I could not walk much. I was gasping for breath most of the time. I had all kinds of dietary restrictions.
One day I was moved to kneel before my crucifix. As I knelt before that crucifix I could sense a prayer coming from deep within. I felt myself saying, “Lord, I am useless. I have no future. But if you have a plan for my life, here I am.” All along before that, I was telling the Lord what he had to do for me. Now I was saying, “Lord, if you have a plan for me, here I am.”
Immediately, even as I was kneeling there, the response of God became clear to me. It was a voice that spoke to me interiorly, “Fio, you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” At once, my mind started working. “Well pleased? How can he be well pleased with me?” And yet, though I could not understand it intellectually, from deep within my heart a joy began to bubble up. I leapt to my feet, threw my hands up in the air, and shouted, “Jesus, you’re alive!”
That was my baptism in the Holy Spirit. I was completely healed in three ways. Physically, I was healed. Since then I’ve never had a problem with asthma. I told you I had dietary problems. Until then, I couldn’t eat ice cream. Now I can. A whole bucket if you give it to me!
Emotionally, I was healed. I told you I could not face people. But God’s saying to me, “Fio, you are my beloved son,” gave me a new sense of my own self-worth, not based on human achievement, but on the realization that God loves me; I am his son.
Spiritually, I was healed. I now have an intuitive, spontaneous conviction that God loves me. That brings up within me a deep sense of humility and a sense of tremendous gratitude to God.
So what happened to my chemistry? I appeared for that examination a fourth time—soon after this experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit—and everything went well. I passed with a first class. As a result, I’m qualified to teach chemistry at any university in the world. But do you know, I never taught chemistry again!
When I was ordained in 1975, three years after my baptism in the Spirit, my Jesuit provincial said: “Fio, you are qualified for two apostolates. Which do you want to choose?” I said, “What are they?” He said, “Well, of course, there’s chemistry. But you had an experience of God, and you are able to communicate it to others. Why don’t you get into the charismatic renewal and be full-time for it?”
Over the years I have had the opportunity to go to over eighty countries to speak at conferences. Wherever I went, I would ask people, “If I was a chemistry professor, would you have invited me here?” From this I realized that God did the best thing he could do for me by bringing me through that period of suffering. Otherwise I probably would have been too proud and too much a “head” person to get involved in the charismatic renewal.
To God, each one of us is a son or a daughter first—a sinner second. That was my experience. I was a sinner. I rebelled against God. I had given up prayer. I did not believe in him anymore. And yet, he loved me first. It is not because I deserved it, but because he knew that I was misguided, lost in the desert. His amazing grace came to bring sight to my eyes and to bring hope into my life.
Look at the parable of the prodigal son. Here was a boy who had rebelled—who in every way was a sinner. As he came back to his father he recognized, “I can never be a son again. I will always be a sinner.” And what did he do? He came to his father thinking he would say: “I am no longer worthy to be your son. Treat me as a servant.” But the father would have nothing to do with that attitude. He ran and he embraced his boy and said: “You are my son first and always. Nothing can change this, not even your sins.” In grace and in disgrace, we remain sons and daughters.
So, when Jesus taught us to pray, he said, “First remember that you are a child and cry out as a child, ‘Abba! Dear Daddy!
6 Pray This Way
8 Three Ways of Getting Close to God
16 Week 1
Matthew 6:1–18; 7:7–11
28 Week 2
Your Name, Your Reign, Your Will
Selections from Matthew 4; 6
38 Week 3
Give Us Our Bread
Selections from Exodus 16; John 6; Matthew 6
50 Week 4
Wipe Out Our Debts
Selections from Matthew 6; 18
62 Week 5
Keep Us from Sinning
Selections from Matthew 4; 6; 26
74 Week 6
Rescue Us from the Evil One
Selections from Matthew 6; 13; John 17
84 Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups
87 Suggestions for Individuals
89 Six Weeks with the Bible on Your KINDLE