N.T. Wright, “The Lord and His Prayer”

I like N.T. Wright, and a good friend recommended this book, so I read it. It’s quite short — 89 pages with no index or notes or headings — divided into six chapters that, as their titles suggest, march us sequentially through the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in Heaven,” “Thy Kingdom Come,” “Give Us This Day,” “Forgive Us Our Trespasses,” “Deliver Us From Evil,” and “The Power and the Glory.” Wright, an distinguished Anglican theologian, takes the text of the Bible seriously. He sees in it an endorsement of liberal (in the American, not European, sense — see, e.g., 45-46) economics but, to his credit, conservative views on sex; I mention this because you find the former in this book, though not the latter. In that vein, I’ll also note that Wright (11) is endearingly critical of being “modern, materialist, [and] self-centered.”

Wright’s approach here is to interpret the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus would have applied it to His own situation, which is interesting but I’m afraid also a bit odd and unhelpful when that meaning doesn’t fit very well with the issues confronting non-Jesus humans of A.D. 30, to say nothing of A.D. 2019 — since, after all, it was non-Jesus humans who had asked for His guidance on prayer and to whom this prayer was thus being provided as a model. For example, why would Jesus limit the meaning of time of testing to what He was going to go through on the cross (c. 68)?

Nonetheless, there were some good insights. I particularly liked his point that the communal nature of the prayer should be borne in mind throughout, so that when we pray for our bread, we are — or should be — praying not just for ourselves but for all those hungry in the world. Same thing for the forgiveness of trespassers.


I liked this from the prologue (7-8):

Before turning to the details, let me suggest three practical ways to use the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps at a special time of the year such as Lent or Advent, or just as a way of developing one’s prayer life.

First, there is the time-honoured method of making the Lord’s Prayer the framework for regular daily praying. Take each clause at a time, and, while holding each in turn in the back of your mind, call into the front of your mind the particular things you want to pray for, as it were, under that heading. Under the clause, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, for example, it would be surprising if you didn’t want to include the peace of the world, with some particular instances. The important thing is to let the medicine and music of the prayer encircle the people for whom you are praying, the situations about which you are concerned, so that you see them transformed, bathed in the healing light of the Lord’s love as expressed in the prayer.

Second, some people use the Lord’s Prayer in the same way that some use the Orthodox Jesus-prayer. Repeat it slowly, again and again, in the rhythm of your breathing, so that it becomes, as we say, second nature. Those of us who live busy or stressful lives may find a discipline like that very difficult; but, again, it may be precisely people like that who need—perhaps, physically need—the calming and nourishing medicine of this prayer to be woven into the fabric of their subconscious. Next time you make a car journey by yourself, leave the radio switched off, and try it. Yes, it takes time. What else would you expect?

Third, you might like, for a while, to take the clauses of the prayer one by one and make each in turn your ‘prayer for the day’. Sunday: Our Father. Monday: Hallowed be thy Name. Tuesday: Thy Kingdom Come. Wednesday: Give us this day. Thursday: Forgive us our trespasses. Friday: Deliver us from evil. Saturday: The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory. Use the clause of the day as your private retreat, into which you can step at any moment, through which you can pray for the people you meet, the things you’re doing, all that’s going on around you. The ‘prayer of the day’ then becomes the lens through which you see the world.

At the beginning of chapter one (12-13), Wright cautions:

In many ancient liturgies, and some modern ones, when the Lord’s Prayer is said at the Eucharist, it is introduced with solemn words which recognise that to say this prayer properly, and to mean it from the heart, would imply that we had become fully, one hundred per cent, converted, Christian; that the Holy Spirit had completed the good work that God had begun in us. And, since we know that’s not true, the priest says words such as these: ‘As our Saviour Christ has commanded and taught us, we are bold to say …’. In other words, we don’t yet have the right to say this prayer, but it’s part of the holy boldness, the almost cheeky celebration of the sheer grace and goodness of the living God, that we can actually say these words as though we really meant them through and through. It’s a bit like a child dressing up in his grown-up brother’s suit, and having the cheek to impersonate him for a whole morning, and just about getting away with it; and learning to his surprise, as he does so, what it must be like to be that older brother.

And that, of course, is exactly what the Lord’s Prayer invites us to do. …

Wright argues that the different iterations of the “daily bread” part of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew and Luke are significant. In the former, where the passage is linked by Wright more to the “kingdom come” plea that precedes it, it means, “Party on!” In Luke, not so much. As the author explains (emphasis in original):

… [I]f Jesus was celebrating with all the wrong people, he was also, from his contemporaries’ point of view, celebrating at exactly the wrong time. The Jews of Jesus’ day kept various fast days, commemorating moments of great sadness in Israel’s history. But Jesus refused to fast on those days. Instead, he threw parties. By way of explanation, he spoke of the wedding-guests being unable to fast as long as they had the Bridegroom with them. He was celebrating the great wedding-banquet of the Kingdom of God. You can’t look miserable and keep fasting while that’s going on. Jesus was celebrating the strange presence of God’s Kingdom. And the prayer he gave his followers was a prayer for the complete fulfilment of that Kingdom: for God’s people to be rescued from hunger, guilt and fear. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ means, in this setting, ‘Let the party continue.’

This should help us to understand the interesting difference, in this clause of the prayer, between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions. The Greek is tricky, but Matthew’s seems to mean ‘give us today our bread for tomorrow’; while Luke understands it as ‘give us each day our daily bread’. They both probably reflect different aspects of what Jesus intended. Matthew, in line with Jesus’ whole agenda, means ‘give us, here and now, the bread of life which is promised for the great Tomorrow’. Give us, in other words, the blessings of the coming Kingdom—right now. Matthew, writing his gospel, saw this prayer partially answered in the feedings of the five thousand and the four thousand; more fully in the Last Supper; and, most fully of all, in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But Luke’s version is not to be sneezed at as merely one-dimensional, just praying for boring old bread. The whole point of the Kingdom, as we saw in the previous chapter, is that it isn’t about shifting our wants and desires on to a non-physical level, moving away from the earthly to the supposedly ‘spiritual’. It is about God’s dimension coming to birth within ours, which is after all what Advent and Christmas are anticipating and celebrating. The Kingdom is to come in earth as it is in heaven. Daily needs and desires point beyond themselves, to God’s promise of the kingdom in which death and sorrow will be no more. But that means, too, that the promise of the Kingdom includes those needs, and doesn’t look down on them sneeringly as somehow second-rate.

Wright employs a framing analogy in chapters 4 (“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”) and 5 (“Deliver Us from Evil”) — to the Prodigal Son’s father running toward him in the former, and to Mary’s labor pains in the latter. I think the former works better than the latter.

I thought this paragraph in chapter 6 (81) was important:

It is this double vision of reality that we invoke every time we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the words ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.’ This concluding doxology doesn’t appear in the best manuscripts of either Matthew or Luke, and it is only comparatively recently, in the last few centuries, that it has been restored to the liturgy of the Western church. But it was already well established within a century or so of Jesus’ day; and it is actually inconceivable, within the Jewish praying styles of his day, that Jesus would have intended the prayer to stop simply with ‘deliver us from evil’. Something like this must have been intended from the beginning. In any case, it chimes in exactly with the message of the prayer as a whole: God’s kingdom, God’s power, and God’s glory are what it’s all about. It is the prayer that the alternative vision of reality may become, not just a vision, but reality. It is the prayer that the baby in Bethlehem may be the reality of which Augustus is the parody.


Some other notes:

  • C.S. Lewis is quoted directly on page 37, but I had already been reminded of him a few pages before (33-34), when Wright had given some attention to the importance of “body language” in prayer, as Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters (#4).
  • While there is no bibliography, Wright does briefly mention some other sources in his prologue (6, specifically The Prayers of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias and an article by J.L. Houlden in the Anchor Bible Dictionary).
  • I have to note that there were some glaring typos, like misspelling “Gibraltar” (78, odd for a Brit) and “cacophony” (a couple of times, odd for someone who knows Greek), and beginning two sentences in a row with “Finally” (73, when the first one should be “Second” since a list of three is being elaborated, “First …,” “Second …,” and “Finally …”).
  • This blogsite’s own take on the Lord’s Prayer can be found here.
  • And I discovered that apparently the entire book is available online: Do a google search for “is this double vision of reality” (in quotes), followed by “doc” — voila.