Two Key Lines in the Lord’s Prayer
This homily was given on the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle C.
Today Jesus teaches us how to pray. To preach a homily on the Lord’s Prayer is intriguing; it is simultaneously the most influential and common prayer in history and the single easiest prayer for us to recite without reflecting on its meaning for a single moment. Volume after volume has been written on the Lord’s prayer, and a homily could never exhaust the richness of it. Thus it seems clear to me that the entire Lord’s prayer would be too much for a single homily – unless everyone here would be stoked to hear me talk for an hour. I am standing on one leg here, so I don’t think I would make it that long. And even if I were healthy, I wouldn’t want to hear myself talk for that long, so I will focus upon two phrases: the very first phrase – Our Father, and final petition- Deliver us from evil.
Yet before I even do that, we must first ask why Jesus even gave us a formula for prayer. Did he not restrict the needs and desires of the human heart the second he commanded us to recite a 55-word prayer? Is his earlier teaching from the sermon on the mount not sufficient? “When 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.” Why must Jesus force one formula upon the all Christians? Prayer is communion with God and this prayer should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys and our sufferings. We are uniquely created, and our relationship with God is unique, thus our prayer ought to be wholly personal. So why is there any need for a formula?
St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism in the west might have an answer in a phrase he coined, “Our mind must be in accord with our voice.” (Rule 19, 7) This phrase seems counter intuitive, for in normal circumstances, the voice follows the mind, our thoughts precede our words. In fact, usually when my words precede my thoughts, I get myself in trouble. However, with the prayers of the Church, and in particular the Lord’s prayer, we must do as Benedict suggests. Our words go ahead of us, and our mind and heart must follow upon them and be molded to them. When we recite the petition, “Hallowed by thy name,” are we petitioning God to make his name holy? No, we are asking him to change our hearts, that we may see His holiness. In recognizing God’s holiness, we make His will our own rather than forcing our will upon God. If we did not have rich, inspired formulas of prayer like this in the Church, we would find our prayers being directed to a God who looks a lot like us, not God the Father whom Jesus revealed to us.
When I visited Assisi on Pilgrimage, an old Franciscan told us a great story about St. Francis. He had been called to Rome to preach, so he grabbed a brother from his order and they set out on the trail. Francis told the brother they would spend the 38-mile journey contemplating the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase – quite a lengthy contemplation.
So they set out, beginning with the phrase, “Our Father,” and in the 38 miles they moved no further than that. They were overwhelmed, confounded by the mystery that is God’s fatherhood. Just think – to call God Our Father – It’s Absurd! Ecumenical dialogue with our non-Christian brothers and sisters stops here, for calling God Father is blasphemy! God is our master, he is other, transcendent, all powerful, all knowing, creator of the universe, king of creation, a God of justice and truth. All this is true! Yet, when Jesus teaches us to pray, he commands us to call upon God as Father. This is a great mystery of our faith, but it is not a mystery as we understand the word today, rather as the first Christians understood it. St. Paul understood mystery as God’s plan being unveiled before our very eyes. We cannot see the whole picture, dissect it or control it, but we can enter into it, contemplate it – for an entire 38-mile hike – and never reach its fathomless depths.
Yet how do we even begin? For not everyone has had a good experience with their father. What does it mean for God to be our father? Jesus tells us in our scripture today, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Jesus also makes it clear that he does nothing on his own, but only what is the Father’s will. Thus all Jesus’ compassion, his mercy, his patience, his love for the poor and vulnerable – all of this is an expression of the Father’s love for us. Jesus showed us the Father, He says, “When you see me, you see the father.” So I tell you, if you find yourself in need of a father’s love, go to God in prayer, say the prayer Jesus taught us, and ask God to conform your heart to your words. God is yearning to be your Father, to show you what a father is, you must only open your heart to Him.
Now that we have inadequately contemplated the first petition of the Lord’s prayer, let us look to the final petition from today’s gospel: Do not subject us to the final test. This is Luke’s version, though commonly translate it as “deliver us from evil.” What seems clear in both versions is a petition of weakness. We call upon God to deliver us from temptation when we cannot deliver ourselves. Weakness is something we hate in America. Weak people lose, weak people are vulnerable, they cannot stand alone. We must only look to politicians across the spectrum to see campaigns built entirely on the promise to remake all of us Americans into strong, rich people who win all day ‘err day.
So is this a petition of weakness for losers? Let’s use myself as an example, as of four weeks ago I liked to think I was a pretty fit, able bodied 26 year old man. Yet one crab apple gets under my foot as I go to drive to the hoop in a basketball game and I am dealing with a full rupture in my Achilles. Now I am recruiting buddies to help me do my grocery shopping, because I am incapable of doing it myself. I have realized just how weak and fragile my physical body is even when its in fit condition. And now, with all my extra time, I have reflected plenty upon how weak my spirit is in times of temptation. When I am not living in God’s grace I fall almost immediately, whether it is anger, or judgement, or envy of everyone with two healthy legs and takes them for granted. Yet when I trust in God’s grace I can withstand any trial, St. Therese of Lisieux reminds us, “We obtain from God as much as we hope for.” So let us conform our mind and our heart to the final petition of the Lord’s prayer, that we may hope to be delivered from all evil, entrusting our whole lives to our good Father in heaven!
My hope in this homily was not to make perfectly clear the first and final petitions of the Lord’s prayer, but rather to stir up a desire to enter into the mystery that is God’s plan for us. Communion with God in prayer does require intimate, private contemplation where we pour out our hearts to Jesus in our own words. It also calls us to conform our hearts and minds to the words given to us by Jesus and the Church. Words that remind us who God really is, and give us the words we are searching for.
Let us avail ourselves to the Father, face our weakness that He may make us strong. “For the Christian there can only be one hero: [and that is Jesus] Christ.” In coming to know Jesus, may we see the Father’s love for us. Amen.
Texts quoted in or inspiring this homily:
-Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol 1
-Benedict XVI, Jesus Of Nazareth Vol 1
-John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons