Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lord's Prayer

Maybe it’s because I have grown up with these particular words and they are deep in my psyche. Maybe it is because I learned them from my mother and father when I was tiny. Maybe it’s because in a world of change there’s part of me that holds on to the things that don’t change.

I like what I suppose you would call the ‘traditional’ words of the Lord’s Prayer.

It is the version based on Matthew chapter 6 as translated into English by William Tyndale, polished by the translators of the Authorised Version, adapted into the Book of Common Prayer and tweaked a little since!

It is part of the genius of William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, the translators of the Authorised Version and the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer that they had an ear for the rhythms of the English language, and an eye for the vocabulary of English too. For those who are native English speakers there’s something about these words that is special.

Spoken English has a rhythm that matches the rhythm of the heart beat – the iambic de dum, de dum. These traditional words capture that rhythm …

Our Father,
Who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day
Our daily bread
And forgive us
Our trespasses
As we forgive
Those who
Trespass against us
And lead us not
Into temptation
But deliver us
From evil
For thine is the kingdom,
The power and the glory
Forever and ever

The very words themselves invite us, almost compel us to feel this prayer as very much part of us: it’s not just deep down inside our psyche, it’s deep in the very heart-beat and rhythm of our lives.

And that is as it should be. Let this prayer be the heart-beat not just of our prayer life, not just of our spiritual lives, but of the whole living of our lives.

There is a point, however, towards the middle of the prayer when the rhythm is more difficult. The difficulty arrives as you reach trespasses, temptation and evil. It is as if those very things disrupt the rhythm and are immensely unsettling.

The rhythm and the beat returns however and comes to its climax as it returns us to the source of the very life we lead – the modern translation keeps the words, but they lose their power – the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours

Yours is a very weak word to finish on.

Thine has so much power to it, and by putting it first it enables you to know from the very start who the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to … and it enables you to rise to a wonderful climax in such powerful words – thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever Amen.

Those translators and writers of English had an eye to the vocabulary of English, and in particular the weight of words.

One characteristic of English is its love of single syllable words, and its respect for words of more than one syllable. There was a wonderful illustration of that when a couple of weeks ago the Bodleian Library in Oxford exhibited for one day only one of its great treasures – the original manuscript for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Never mind the film … read the book! What was fascinating was that out of about 80,000 words in the novel, 5000 of them had been changed by Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy the poet. Mary Shelley had written words of single syllable that had a directness of speech that was simple and straightforward. Her husband, the poet, had replaced all those words with longer words, usually drawn from Latin or from French in what some would regard as a mistaken attempt to make her writing more literary!

The traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful illustration of the weighting of words.


There are 50 words of one syllable
There are 16 words of two syllables
There are 4 words of three syllables.

Think of the two syllable words as words of greater weight

Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not in to temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory
Forever and ever amen.

These are the great powers, that we draw into the very rhythm of our life:
Father, heaven, kingdom, power, glory

That rhythm of life sees to it that daily needs are met …
And fundamental to that rhythm is our willingness to forgive.

Creeping into that rhythm is trespass, evil. And that too carries weight.

The brutal reality of life is that the evil, the nastiness often seems to carry more weight.

That’s what happens when you weigh words by their syllable count.

There are only 4 3-syllable words. What’s the first?


Replacing that word with the English word ‘sin’ may be theologically accurate, it’s arguable whether it’s necessarily easier to understand. But it is a throwaway, lightweight word.

Whereas trespasses carries weight. Our trespasses, the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done, the words we have said we shouldn’t have said, the thoughts we have had in our minds that should never have been there, not to mention all those things we have left undone, unspoken, that have slipped our minds.

Forgiveness is so important!

The next three syllable word also carries immense weight and can often be such a burden that it weighs us down.

Lead us not into temptation.

How often the world of temptation gets the better of us and we sink under its weight.

These things that are so weighty they matter. And they need something equally weighty to counter them. As we draw on Our Father, in heaven, whose name is hallowed, as we draw on the kingdom, the power, and the glory … the God we believe is up to the task.

The next three letter word is the key …

But deliver us from evil.

Over against the weighty things that weigh us down is the deliverance that frees us.

But we must not get too hung up on the words.

You might have expected the words of the Lord’s Prayer to be standardised from the very beginning. Intriguingly they are not. The wording is very different in Matthew and in Luke – and yet it is recognisably the same prayer.

The most obvious explanation is that Jesus used different words on different occasions.

What is beyond all doubt is that different church communities from the very earliest times used different words – if you examine the different manuscripts you will find different words – most obviously in the finish.

If you go to a Roman Catholic church you will find they finish as it seems in mid air, without getting as far as ‘thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory …’ They are in good company, lots of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew 6 do not include those words either!

What do we make of that?

It is a reminder to us that however much we love these words, maybe they are not to become ‘idle repetition’, recited for their own sake.

More important is the pattern they offer us for our praying.

But as ever it is good to return to the text of the Gospels. For there is another difference you will notice when you go North of the Border to Scotland, or West of Offa’s Dyke to Wales.

Never mind ‘trespasses’ or ‘sins’ … in Scottish churches and in Welsh-speaking churches and in many reformed churches – forgiveness has to do with debts.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

That’s interesting!

Where does that come from?

Well, in fact, that’s the word in Matthew 6.

That’s intriguing – is it a metaphor for sin and trespasses?

Or does it have to do with debt and obligation to others. It puts a different cast on the prayer … and one that is very timely today.

Only yesterday on Radio 4 someone being interviewed about the impact of the global financial crisis on them as an individual spoke of the ‘slavery’ of debt.

The jubilee 2000 campaign to write off the debts of the poorest countries spoke of the slavery of debt and used the broken chains of slavery as the badge of its campaign.

Forgiveness of debts? Forgive us for getting into debt … as we forgive those who have got into debt to us. Maybe it is the mutuality of forgiveness that is to the fore. It was something that Jesus used in one of his wonderful parables – when he spoke of the man who owed a massive amount whose debt was written off who went out free of his own debt only to make a massive demand on someone who owed him only a very little amount.

Jesus was urging a mutuality of commitment that would make all the difference and bring freedom. This is very much in line with the thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures. Society has to be ordered – or in the words that are in vogue at the moment – some kind of ‘regulation’ is needed. A lot of the Books of the Law is to do with ordering society … and intriguingly it is about how to order society in such a way as to support the poorest, not least as they are in danger of sinking under the weight of debt. Hence the notion of ‘the jubilee’ year when the slate is wiped clean and people can begin again.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors – maybe food for thought and reflection – and reminder daily, within the rhythms of our praying of our commitment to those facing financial difficulty

Maybe the Lord’s Prayer goes right to the heart not only of the rhythms of our prayer life, our spiritual life, our personal lives … but also to the heart of the rhythms of society and the way it is structured.

Last week, in the course of a service celebrating Baptism with little Harry, the invitation was for us to pray the Lord’s prayer with an individual in mind – Harry himself, or maybe someone else we are thinking of.

Today comes the invitation to pray the Lord’s prayer with society and its needs in mind.

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come, your rule of justice, peace and integrity of creation

Thy will be done, for good not ill

On earth as it is in heaven – in war torn parts of your world, in people’s lives devastated by financial collapse, in the lives of those facing tragedy, illness, poverty and want

Give us this day our daily bread – give to each part of your world what it needs that there may be an equitable sharing of the world’s resources

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

May that mutuality of respect and forgiveness mark the relations between communities, between societies, between nations as well

And lead us not into temptation

May we build the kind of society where temptations are not put in people’s way all the time – the temptation to consume more than we ought, the temptation to spend more than we can, the temptation to hurt and damage others and ourselves,

But deliver us from evil – where evil has a hold over people’s lives in a world of so much evil – deliver people we prayer.

How easy it is to despair in a world of wrong, a world of temptation a world of evil – help us to hold on to that forgiveness, to be released from that temptation, and delivered from that evil – for the faith we share enables us to be sure in the face of all the world hurls at us that you will prevail:

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever

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