Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Ask, Search, Knock
Lord’s Prayer, a three-week series on the Lord’s Prayer(s) in Matthew, Luke, and John.
Week 2 of 3, preached September 19, 2021, for the 9:30 am Worship
We continue our sermons series on the Lord’s Prayer. Last week, we read Matthew’s version, the one most familiar to us. I invited us to unlearn this prayer as THE best prayer Jesus could ever teach us. Instead, this prayer is a basic starting prayer, a beginner’s prayer. When he told us to go pray alone, that wasn’t because prayer is best done alone. He sent us to practice praying in private, where we wouldn’t worry about what other people are thinking when we pray, where we could practice being very honest and vulnerable since it's just us and God. When we learn those things, we can pray in public again.
We also pointed out a few differences in how we say this prayer. Some say trespasses, others say debts, and still others say sins. Some, in the end, say “For thine is the kingdom and power and glory forever”, while others stop without saying it. To some, how we say the Lord’s Prayer is very important. We were taught the prayer a certain way, and it only feels right to say it that way and feels awkward to say it any other way.
Well, here’s the thing. There is not only one Lord’s Prayer in scripture. There are at least two. We read the Matthew version last week. Today, let’s read the Luke version.
Scripture Luke 11:1-10
11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, like John taught his disciples.” 2 Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom, come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
Just as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5 And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And your friend answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though your friend will not get up and give you anything because he is your friend, at least because of your persistence he will get up and give you whatever you need.
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Sermon Ask, Search, Knock
I suppose you are already noticing some of the differences in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the prayer.
First, there is a difference in context, in the place in the two Gospels where this prayer arises. The Gospel we call Matthew has Jesus introducing himself, calling his disciples, and launching his ministry with the sermon on the mount. This prayer, for Matthew, is very early and is a part of that Sermon. In it, Jesus is laying out upfront the true way to see things, to react, to act, and to interpret the law. He is clarifying God’s expectations of us to one another in our relationships, in our oaths, our promises, our angers, our desires to get even with one another, even telling us how to treat our enemies. He tells us how to give monies, and how to pray. Money and prayer are connected, with almost the same message, in Matthew’s version. Give the money that you should. Don’t lift it high for others to see how much you give. Just give what you should. Your faithfulness with money is seen and appreciated by God, the only one that matters. For prayer, do not lift up your prayers in public just so others may see or hear you praying. Pray from the heart, and do not use big, empty, awkward phrases that you wouldn’t normally use, as if you were trying to impress a stranger. Pray as if you are speaking to an old friend. God knows you very well, even if you don’t feel like you know God very well at all. Then, Matthew’s memory of the prayer, followed by an instruction to forgive others “trespasses”, because if we don’t forgive, neither will God forgive us.
Luke’s setting is different. In Luke, Jesus has announced his ministry, has gathered disciples but has been traveling for some time. He heals one or two, a leper, a paralytic, he tells a story or two, about a sower, a lamp, he teaches about a few things, about fasting, about the Sabbath. He’s calming storms. He’s raising a girl from death. He’s feeding 5000. He’s foretelling his death, and he’s casting out demons, and he’s sending out the 12 disciples, plus 70 more, in pairs. He teaches the lawyer the true meaning of the law, the Good Samaritan story, then teaches Martha how to be still, to stop being so worried and busy and distracted, and to just sit and listen and pray. And right there is where Luke gives us the Lord’s Prayer.
The disciples of John the Baptist were taught how to pray, and Jesus’ disciples want their teacher to teach them how to pray. That’s where Luke inserts his version of the Lord’s Prayer. Luke follows his version of the Lord’s Prayer with a story about being persistent in prayer. Just as a friend will get up at midnight to help you if you knock long enough, God will answer your prayers, if you are persistent enough. The position in Jesus’ life of this teaching on prayer, and the audience, and the impetus for teaching it are different between Matthew and Luke.
Second, there are differences in the content.
Matthew says, “Our Father”. Luke says simply, “Father.”
Matthew adds, “who is in heaven”. Luke doesn’t.
They both include, “Hallowed, holy be your name,” and “your kingdom, come!” But Matthew adds, “Thy will, be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Luke doesn’t.
Matthew asks God to, “Give us this day, today, our daily bread.” Luke uses a different form of the word to ask God to “Keep on giving us, throughout the day, our daily bread.”
Matthew suggests we pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We’ll get to that word in a moment. Luke uses a different word for the first part of that, “And forgive us our mistakes,” and then a different form of the same Matthew word for the second part, so it becomes something like, “as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Matthew and Luke both have, “And do not lead us into temptation,” but Matthew adds, “but rescue us from evil.”
In Luke, maybe your Bible has a little footnote there at the end that says something like, “Other ancient authorities or manuscripts add, ‘but deliver us from evil.” But then, maybe your Bible also has a tiny little symbol at the end in Matthew, another footnote, which links you to some very small text below, which probably says something like, “Other ancient authorities or manuscripts add ‘For thine is the kingdom and power and glory forever’.” And of course, when we say it, we add, “Amen,” although neither version tell us Jesus taught us to end this prayer with that word.
Matthew makes sure we know which Father we are praying to. Father, our father, the one in the heavens. For Matthew’s Jewish audience, this would clearly be a reference to the God who is the creator and great ancestor of all, Adam, Abraham, Moses, everyone. For Luke’s gentile audience, this reference wasn’t meaningful. The clarifiers Matthew adds are to help us remember the only audience of our prayers is God and God alone. Sigmund Freud said, “the god of each (person) is formed in the likeness of his father… and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.” I don’t think Freud understood the true God very well in this quote. But I do think Freud understood sinful human being’s tendency toward idolatry, our tendency to worship and love what we know over the unknown or the unknowable. Therefore, we can pray Our father, the one in the heavens, as a reminder that our prayer goes to the one who is the creator and parent of us all, making us all brothers and sisters with one another despite our differences.
We pray, with Matthew, “Thy kingdom, come, thy will, be done.” In Greek, however, the word order is flipped. It becomes awkward in English, but the word order in Greek is meaningful and intentional, showing emphasis where the author wanted it. It would be closer if we prayed something like “COME, your kingdom. HAPPEN, your purpose.” In other words, this God is a God of verbs more than nouns. This God is a God who is Lord, and imagines a holy community, and has a plan, a purpose, what we often translate as “will” to bend all creation toward God’s purpose.
The way Jesus teaches us to say it would make our prayer less about the kingdom, and more about its coming, less about God’s will, plan, purpose, and more about its happening. Will is awkward for us because it is a future tense of the verb to be, and Will also refers to that document of a person’s wishes after they are dead. So the word, will, can confuse us. There is nothing future or after death in this prayer. This prayer is about immediate. Happen, right now! Be real, right now! Let all you want, wish, desire, for us and for this world, come and happen right now, God!
Matthew adds, “as in heaven, also upon earth.” But Luke didn’t. We hear this and I fear many of us begin to divide God’s reign into two kingdoms, the heavenly one, where God is already in full control and power, and this one, the earthly one, where God is still catching up, and overtaking the enemy, the evil one. But both prayers, do not speak of kingdomS. They speak of a single kingdoM, that stretches over all the heavens, plural, and all the earth, singular, one kingdom where God already rules and reigns, that includes everything that ever was, is, or will be. Our prayer is asking God’s purpose and kingdom to happen in all its fullness here and now. Our prayer isn’t about whether or not God’s purpose and kingdom will happen. It’s God. Of course it will. Our prayer is our deference to be so caught up in what God wants that our wants match God’s.
Both pray for needed bread. Matthew suggests we ask God to give us what we need today. Luke’s is a little more interesting. He’s saying we should be asking for God not to just give it once to us, for today, but to keep on giving it to us, all throughout the day. They agree bread is what we need. Bread here means food, sustenance, and we shouldn’t forget the core and root meaning of bread, food, is for everyone to have enough to eat and survive today. Not everyone has the luxury of jumping over the real meaning straight to metaphorical meanings as their stomachs growl and they worry what and when their next meal will be. Food is the primary prayer need of all human beings.
Only after we remember the basics, food, only then we stretch this meaning to be Spiritual nourishment. The stuff that helps our inner spirit be fed. We need that too. Matthew sees it as a once-a-day gift. The Jews Matthew is writing to would think about the manna, given to them daily, in the desert as they escape slavery. Luke sells it to the gentiles as a continuous, throughout-the-day gift. Neither allows it to be a once-only gift. We pray for God to constantly appear and provide. What we need from God does not come to us once, in a single life-changing moment. We are never done leaning on God. We can always grow and learn more, every day, and every moment throughout the day.
Some sell a relationship with God as a conversion experience, a moment when we accepted, or when we confessed, or when we were baptized, or when we prayed a special prayer. All of that language, though very typical in some American churches, is not very scriptural and definitely not expressed in this prayer. Those moments are evidence of God’s promises kept. They are about God giving us bread. But in both, Jesus teaches us to pray that remembers we will always be hungry and will need God constantly to provide.
Let’s do the big part. Matthew says, “And forgive to us the ὀφειλήματα, the debts, of ours, as also we forgive to the ones indebted of us.” That’s my best attempt to translate from Greek literally and in word order. Now you see the problem, why translations cannot be simple. That English sentence, though matching right along with the Greek, doesn’t really make sense. To help it express not just the words but also the emphasis and meaning of the word order, it becomes for us something like, “And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive those indebted to us.”
Luke is similar. “Forgive to us the ἁμαρτίας, the mistakes, the sins, of ours and for to others we are forgiving all debts to us,” or in better, less-broken English, “Forgive us our sins, even as we are forgiving others their debts to us.”
We have three places to work on here.
First, Forgive. Both Matthew and Luke use the same word in both places, forgive us as we forgive. This Greek word means to send away, let expire, let depart from, abandon all claims upon. It means do not keep the receipt, either physically or mentally. Do not have an account of what once was owed, or done, or left undone. Treat it as if the claim on us, or by us, is settled, gone.
Second, debts versus sins. For Matthew, the Greek word here really does mean debts, as in what is legally owed, usually money, or merchandise. That English word, debts, is probably the closest translation we can find. However, even in our language, debts, indebted, does not mean only money. “I am forever in your debt,” doesn’t only mean someone lent you cash. It can mean they showed up at the right time and helped you out in some intangible, incalculable way. We hear this phrase used when someone feels like their life has been saved by another. That’s what is being said here. Forgive us our debts…
Luke uses a different word. It’s translated as our sins, but it literally means our errors, our mistakes. Theologically, religious folk translate a Godly error or mistake as a sin. However, this word meant error or mistake outside of religious circles as well. We’ve taken a common word, errors, and made it into an insider word, sins, to summarize what a mistake or error against God means. But it was an outsider word, one the Gentiles, the unchurched, the non-religious understood. If we were to use Luke’s version, instead of Matthew’s, we could say sins, and we would know what that means. But, what about a non-religious person? Perhaps we should stick with the Gentile, outsider language of Luke, as opposed to the theological, insider language of Matthew more often, and try using terms that make sense to everyone, not just those raised on the inside. Forgive us our errors, our mistakes. Notice Luke does return to the “debts” concept for the second half, which does make sense in the non-religious world.
What about trespasses? Where does that come from? I think it probably comes from those extra verses in Matthew, just outside the Lord’s Prayer. We read those verses last week, the ones that said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you yours.” The Greek word there is παραπτώματα. It literally means falling or wandering to one side. Para, we are used to. A parapro teacher or paralegal works alongside a teacher or lawyer. But para is also in words like paradox and paranoid, meant to imply there is something going wrong in there like something is at conflict with itself, or divided among itself, or standing beside itself. Trespass suggests someone has fallen or wandered from the way, and is now meandering over a boundary into someone else’s territory. We become trespassers by walking on ground that isn’t ours, and isn’t where we are supposed to be. I think this word, which is outside the prayer, gets pulled back up into the prayer as an interpretive choice that trespasses is preferred over other words like debts and sins. Debts has us talking about money in church. Sins feels so judgmental. Let’s borrow that other word to soften the prayer and make it more acceptable. Lots of traditions use trespass and trespass against us, even though neither Matthew nor Luke use the trespass language in their Greek.
And the third big word in this section is the smallest… as. Forgive us, even as we forgive others. Are we praying for God to forgive us, AND for God to help us forgive others? Or are we praying for God to forgive us AS, or in the same way AS we forgive others? This second interpretation matches much better with verse 14 from Matthew, where what we forgive on earth God forgives in heaven. Luke, the more worldly, Gentile sensitive, salesman leaves it out. But Matthew seems to say we can only pray for God to be as gracious with us as we are willing to be gracious to others. Mind you, Matthew doesn’t really expect us to achieve perfection in order to be forgiven by God. Matthew just teaches us not to expect more from God to us than we are willing to give to others, to keep us humble.
Two more zones to work on. We normally say “do not lead us into temptation.” Matthew and Luke more literally write, “And do not bring us into trial/proving/testing/affliction.” Lead is okay. But bring is better. Lead suggests God is out in front of us, and we have some choice in the matter of whether we follow or not. The Greek word here isn’t as much about leading as it is carrying. Please do not pick us up and move us and set us down in the midst of temptation.
But Temptation isn’t quite it either. Again, temptation implies that we might be in the middle of tempting situations, and we would have the choice or power to either resist or to fall prey to their tempting devices. The Greek word here is more about a time of trial or proving, or testing, or affliction, or struggle. What we are praying for is that God not decide to move us into situations that are hard, and that will test our faith and strength, and commitment. It is an admission of our weakness. It is begging for God to be gentle and lenient and easy on us because we are deeply concerned we will not be able to handle the tough moments God may ask of us. And we won’t.
But thankfully, God doesn’t put us into those situations for God’s sake, but for our own, to help us grow. Only in the struggles do we get stronger and find our limits, and become a bit tougher or able to reach even higher. In that growth is where we truly experience God’s deep, personal love and support of us, and God’s great power to accomplish something we could not have done without God.
Matthew adds in, what we say as “But deliver us from evil.” Deliver here is more literally, bring out. It’s almost as if Matthew knows. We’ve just asked this God NOT to bring us into trial, testing, proving. But this God is that kind of God. So God, even though we asked you not to, when you do bring us into trials and testing, please also bring us out from them.
Evil is okay. Some go so far as to turn this generic evil into a person, and translate it “the evil one.” That’s a stretch to me. Really, the word means labors/hardships/perils/pains. It’s just like human beings to see hard things as evil. Things that inconvenience us, and that stretch us… we call evil.
I’m not a woman, so I tread lightly as I say this. But labor pain, and the necessary stretching of the body that is needed in order to birth a child, it is painful, laborious, a hardship, and includes in it significant peril for mom. Moms, would you call birth evil? Do you see the labor, and hardship, and pain, and peril of birthing a child as evil? Nor should we consider this prayer about rescuing us from evil, and definitely not from some embodied evil one. To go that far would be like blaming the unborn child for the pains of childbirth. Instead, we pray, God do not bring us into pains and hardships, but when you do, make sure to bring us out stronger and wiser.
Last, there are different versions of Matthew, different manuscripts. The most reliable and dependable manuscripts do not add, “For thine is the kingdom and power and glory forever.” At some point, the best manuscripts we had might have included that. But today, we’ve discovered others even older or more authentic that do not. So, when we say “for thine is the kingdom and power and glory forever amen,” it is more out of tradition, from a later, edited manuscript, than from the oldest best Scriptures. Perhaps some early scribes added this to their copy. Perhaps they found it a useful liturgical addition in their own houses of worship and just wanted to share it. When they were writing these things down, they were not trying to preserve the original prayer, word for word. They were trying to preserve faith, and offering what they considered to be useful changes to help us pray and know God in Jesus the Christ. Only much later, in church arguments, did we decide which manuscripts and which versions of those manuscripts and scrolls would be translated and bound together as Scripture.
We are not sure that Matthew and Luke did not start with the same simple prayer, and then Matthew expanded it with all of his additions. Or maybe they started with the same, and Luke pulled out his eraser. We cannot be sure that either one of them, writing 30-40 years after Jesus’ death, really had access to the exact words Jesus instructed. Maybe this was one of those lessons Jesus taught many times, in every city, basically the same message, but a little different every time just because he was fully human and because he adapted it to match the ones he was sitting with.
All of these differences. So, what should we pray? Remember, this isn’t a prescribed prayer to us by Jesus because of its perfection. It’s a starting point for beginners at prayer. Whether or not we say or do not say sins, debts, trespasses, or the closing footnote is not better or worse. None of this is critical to our standing before God. Christians are never called to believe the Bible per se, but are being called to believe in and pray to the God we know in Jesus that these Scriptures uniquely point to. Our purpose does not depend on these written words, but through these written words, we come to know our purpose as followers and students of the living Word.
Maybe these oddities and differences in scripture frustrate you. But I hope not. I hope they make you even more excited to know God better by looking through multiple lenses, each of which can only show a partial image of the great, mysterious God. If today frustrated you, well, I’d be glad to chat with you more in our Diving Deeper time after worship.
Please remember, behind every word and every phrase of scripture is a great God, one whom we will never fully understand or express perfectly in our words or our prayers.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.