Teach Us to Pray: Model Prayer

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-e4b4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rChristianity isn’t magic.  God’s not a genie.  There is no necessary correlation between performing certain religious ceremonies and experiencing good things.  If we think about any prayer in this way (including the Lord’s Prayer), we’ve got it all wrong.  This is superstition.

Perhaps one of the great tragedies of the Lord’s Prayer is that it has come to viewed as a mantra.  Some treat it as a formal rite that somehow carries some potency just by repetition.  This isn’t a magic prayer and it doesn’t have magical power.  It doesn’t conjure up blessing just by giving utterance to the syllables.

There is evidence that very early on in church history the Lord’s Prayer began to be treated as a mantra.  The Didache includes the words of the Lord’s Prayer with instructions to pray it three times each day (this threefold prayer is no doubt in imitation of Daniel’s pattern of threefold prayer in Dan 6:10).  Certainly for many Christians recitations of the Lord’s Prayer are made routinely with little or no reflection on the content of the prayer.  In nearly every Christian church the prayer is offered corporately in every worship service.

There is nothing wrong with praying the Lord’s Prayer (Jesus did give us this prayer).  However, there is something very wrong with praying this prayer in some sort of ritualistic, mechanical way with the assumption that there is some sort of blessing to be found simply based on said behavior.

Good teachers use examples.  Lots of them.  Jesus is the best teacher who ever lived.  As a master teacher, he used examples as well.  The Lord’s Prayer isn’t a mantra; it is a model prayer.  In fact, some refer to this prayer as The Model Prayer.  Jesus didn’t give it to us so that we would just repeat it verbatim, ad nauseam.  He gave it to us as a model, an example.

That the Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer is evident from the way he gives it in Matthew: You should pray, he says, houtōs, a Greek conjunction meaning in this mannerhoutōs indicates the how of prayer, the manner in which prayer is to be offered.  If Jesus was interested in emphasizing the content (or the what) he would have introduced the prayer differently.

This is also obvious from the context of the prayer in Luke:  Luke 11:1  One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  The disciples don’t want a mantra, they want to learn to pray.  They want to understand how to pray, not a magical formula to repeat.

The answer is the Lord’s Prayer.  It sets a pattern.  It lays down a paradigm for prayer.  It is to be followed as an example.  It is to be imitated, not necessarily simply recited.  To be clear: the issue here isn’t whether it is appropriate to recite the Lord’s Prayer (it is); it is whether it is the intent to simply recite the Lord’s Prayer (it isn’t).  Jesus’ intent was to teach us how to pray, not what to pray.

Jesus himself rules out any superstitious understanding with his preamble to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew:

Matthew 6:7   7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 

Mindless babbling is good form for pagans, but not for Christians.  What he has in view for the Lord’s Prayer is something different.  Not magical words, no mantra, but an example, a model to be imitated.

So we should consider: what does this example teach us about prayer?  What is it that Jesus would have us to learn from it?  How can I live out that paradigm in my own life of prayer?