I have a confession: I find myself increasingly fidgety every time I say the Lord’s Prayer according to one of the accepted forms in English language. It all began with a post I wrote five years ago on the poetic structure of Jesus’ teaching, including the Lord’s Prayer, and the fidgetiness gets worse each time I say the prayer with others. Let me explain.
The ‘traditional’ version of the Lord’s Prayer as currently used is actually slightly different from the historical version found in the BCP, which is slightly different again from the version of Matt 6.9–13 in the AV. But they share a very particular poetic shape in the first half, and this determines both the rhythm by which the prayer is said and also affects the way many people understand it. The shape consists of a two sets of three phrases:
1a Our Father
2a who art in heaven
3a hallowed be thy name
1b thy kingdom come
2b thy will be done
3b on earth as it is in heaven
This shape is effected by three things. First, the opening address ‘Our Father in heaven’ has been extended by turning God’s location ‘in heaven’ into a relative clause ‘who art…’. This leads to the second feature: the pause introduced between the first clause and the second. You will be aware of this if you ever lead this prayer in public; if you say ‘Our Father [pause]’ then those you are leading will automatically revert to the traditional form ‘who art…’, whereas if you keep going, everyone will join you in the modern form ‘Our Father-in-heaven’. The third feature effecting this 3 x 2 structure is the inversion within ‘hallowed be thy name’ where the verb comes first, in contrast to the following two phrases where the verb comes at the end.
These three features are in contrast to the way Jesus actually says the prayer in Matt 6.9–13. As David Wenham explored in his article in Expository Times 121.8 (May 2010), the Greek text reads as follows:
Father ours the-one in the heavens
Hallowed-be the name of-you
Come the kingdom of-you
Done the will of-you
As in heaven even on earth
The bread ours the coming-day give to-us today
And forgive to-us the debts of-us
As even we forgive the debtors of-us
And not bring us to temptation
But deliver us from the evil
As Wenham points out, the structure then is:
6 words Opening address
4 words First invocation in relation to God
4 words Second invocation in relation to God
4 + 6 words Third invocation in relation to God with second clause
8 words invocation for our needs
6 + 7 words First invocation in relation to ourselves with second clause
6 words Second invocation in relation to ourselves
6 words Third invocation in relation to ourselves
It is immediately apparent that, in the Greek text, the opening address consists of a single phrase, that the basic word order is the same in the three sayings about the name, kingdom and will of God, that these three belong together, and therefore that the concluding invocation to the first half (‘as in heaven even on earth’) would naturally be read as applying to all three.
What is truly fascinating is to see the way that modern versions of the Lord’s Prayer attend to some aspects of the actual text, but (constrained by the weight of tradition) do not correct them all. So we have lost the relative clause ‘who art…’ but we have retained the change in word order between the first and the second of the three invocations. This is even found in actual Bible translations, so (for example) the TNIV retains the form of the modern Lord’s Prayer inherent from the traditional form, rather than actually translating the Greek text faithfully as you might hope.
Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!
What impact does this have on the meaning of the prayer as we pray it? There are two things to note. First, since the ‘hallowed by thy name’ is attached to the opening address, it loses all its force, and becomes a polite term of deference. There is a parallel here with Muslim practice in mentioning the name of Mohammed, which is customarily followed by the phrase ‘peace be upon him’ (PBUH). In terms of language effects, this phrase does not function as a request or invocation that Mohammed might be blessed with peace; it simply functions as a customary term of respect, much as we would refer to the Queen as ‘Your majesty’. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are in this form effectively saying ‘Your are our Father, you dwell in heaven, and your name is holy’.
The second thing this does is then separate the hallowed of God’s name from the doublet of asking that God’s kingdom come and that God’s will be done. I am currently at our diocese conference, and was struck by the comment of a national church leader who is one of the guest speakers who stated that ‘the prayer starts with the kingdom and ends with the kingdom.’ You can only think the prayer starts with the kingdom if ‘Hallowed be thy name’ has lapsed into a customary term of deference instead of being the first invocation.
But in the prayer as Jesus taught it, the prayer starts with the desire that God’s name (that is, his character) be acknowledge as holy, alongside his kingdom coming and his will being done. In other words, confession of who God is, and recognition of his holiness, is what Jesus asks us to pray first. If we miss this, then it makes it easier to avoid the ‘proclamation’ aspects of mission and evangelism, and easier to reduction mission to social action.
Last week, the Church of England released a video about ‘The Church and the Estates’:
Stephen Kneale, who is himself involved in ministry in this context, offered some observations from his own perspective as a non-Anglican. He was impressed to see the testimony of those willing to engage:
Now, there is so much right about it. There are people going into deprived communities, clearly wanting to love and serve the people there. I liked the focus on ‘accompanying’ people and taking on some of their issues and bearing their burdens. I really liked the emphasis on living in and among the folk on the estate. There is loads to like.
But, as someone from a more Reformed tradition, he also had concerns about what was being expressed:
Three particular things stood out. One was the vicar arguing that people simply need to know that ‘they’re loved and forgiven by God.’ Now, unless I am badly misreading my Bible, that is not the message people need to hear. They need to hear that they are loved and can be forgiven by God…Second, the same vicar insisted that people need to know they’re loved and forgiven ‘rather than come to church and go on about sin.’ But if they don’t know about sin, what exactly do they need to be forgiven for? If all that matters is God loves them, what on earth is he doing forgiving them when they’re alright as they are?
Third, there was a repeated emphasis on ‘doing good’. Now, I’m all for doing good. I think loving people is important. Here is the nub of the problem: Social action and evangelism are not the same thing. The video emphasises good works and yet says nothing of the gospel. It is all doing good (which is noble in a sense) while incorporating none of the gospel.
Social action and evangelism are inseparable. So, nobody is arguing that doing good is a bad thing. In fact, unless our gospel is backed up by a genuine love for the people we are reaching – and that necessarily includes meeting their physical and emotional needs too – then we may have the right message but it will seem hollow to those we are trying to reach. We need both the right gospel message and the right gospel action to support what we are saying. But to offer people only good works with no gospel is to comfort them in their immediate need, whilst failing to do anything about their deepest need.
These are important criticisms, and we need to listen to them. Stephen doesn’t have much time for those in his own tradition who criticise the message and aren’t willing to make the costly commitment of mission in these areas:
Where Evangelicals should feel a stinging rebuke, however, is in the fact that here are people willing to go. We can decry the message being presented all we want, but all credit to them that they are willing to go to where many of us won’t.
But that is not his position, since he is working in this kind of context. So his critique has credibility.
Now, I am not suggesting that praying the Lord’s Prayer in the way we do causes this loss of connection between proclamation and social action. But perhaps it just makes it a little bit easier. If we prayed the prayer the way Jesus actually taught it, I think we would be reminded of these points: that the central concern of our lives should be both that God is known and that justice, healing, and forgiveness should come. The one cannot be reduced to the others.
But is it possible to pray the prayer differently in practice? The Greek word order would suggest that we should conform the second and third petition to the form of the first:
Hallowed be your name
Come be your kingdom
Done be your will…
but that just sounds odd, and isn’t English. (So was ‘Hallowed be your name’ really ever natural English either?) Instead, it is easy to conform the first petition to the form of the second and third:
Your name be hallowed
Your kingdom come
Your will be done…
From now on, that is what I am going to try and say (though habits take some time to change) and I hope it might catch on. It is a simple reminder that, for Jesus, seeing God known as both loving father and holy lord was his first priority, and that proclamation and action are distinct but belong together. If these are good enough for Jesus, shouldn’t they be for us too?
Additional note: I have just spotted that in a previous post I pointed out: ‘Colin Buchanan (in his Grove booklet) notes the additional versions produced in Australia and New Zealand, which also try to match the Greek text by restructuring the opening petitions ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done…’.
So it is certainly possible!
Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!
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