Humility Is Key to Understanding the Our Father

The Our Father is a bit of a mystery.

This may seem a strange assertion. The prayer, after all, is simple in its language and imagery. It asks for simple things—like daily bread—and is straightforward in its petitions, deferring to the will of God, for example, and asking for deliverance for evil. But that’s just the point. Beneath this simplicity much is happening.

The key to unlocking the hidden meaning of the Our Father, this author believes, is humility. It is humility that lends this prayer its special majesty and spiritual force. A slow word by word and phrase by phrase walk-through this, the original and most fundamental Christian prayers, demonstrates this truth.

The whole prayer: Before anything else, it must be noted that the entire structure of the prayer builds humility. It begins with God, His holiness, and His plans—not our needs, wants, or desires. As Aquinas notes in his commentary on the Our Father, it is ordered so as to teach us to properly structure our desires.

The Father as Creator: In the Greek, as in the Latin, the Father is the first word. In the context of ancient Greece, ‘father’ had been used by Plato in the Timaeus to denote the creator of the universe. Plato chose ‘father’ by way of analogy with procreation as it was then understood. Just as human fathers generate life by implanting their ‘seed’ in mothers, so also the creator-father generated the universe by imprinting his designs on matter. Although the understandings of biology and cosmology at work in Plato are off, the important point is that ‘father’ had this association with ‘creator’ in the Greek mind. Of course, Christ was originally speaking to a Jewish audience. But Matthew and Luke wrote in Greek for a broader Greco-Roman audience.

The Father of Israel: ‘Father’ would have also had a particular meaning for Jesus’ Jewish audience. On the rare occasions when it was used in the Old Testament, it denoted God as the ‘father’ of Israel the nation or God as ‘father’ of individual persons, such as its kings, according to one Bible dictionary. The opening address, then, doubly demands our awe: we are addressing God the Creator who is the same God the father of the chosen people and its kings.

Our Father: God is not ‘my’ Father in the sense that I have exclusive access to Him. I pray to Him as one of his children. My faith in my Father is not private. There is no pride of place in my relationship with Him.

Who art in heaven: And now the prayer inserts a reverential distance between us and the Father. We are humble petitioners here on earth not high princes of heaven. Now the majesty and magnitude of the Father comes into full view. …

Hallowed be Thy name: … And so we immediately proclaim God as holy—implicitly recognizing our unworthiness to even be addressing Him by name.

Thy kingdom come: This seems like such a simple and obvious thing to say but it’s a bit shocking in context of the ancient world. Just imagine a pagan king or emperor praying to one of their gods that that’s god’s kingdom might come! Quite the other way: an ancient ruler would have prayed to the gods that his kingdom would flourish.

Thy will be done: Here the full radicalism of the Our Father comes into view. Yes, our hypothetical pagan king would have prayed that the ‘will of the gods’ prevail, but this was always said with the hope that their will aligned with his will, his plans, his personal hopes and dreams—and he would have done whatever he could to bend the divine will to his own designs. This is inverted in the Our Father: our will must be conformed to God’s will. Here, all selfish desires are crucified.

Daily bread: The hinge upon which this whole prayer turns, its climax, its heart is something quite simple: a humble desire that our most basic needs be met—and, even then, just for today, not tomorrow, not for the month, not for the year. Thus, implicitly, in this petition we acknowledge that is it is God who provides for us and our needs. As Jesus says later in the same chapter in Matthew:

So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil (Matthew 6:31-34).

Debts to deliverance: This sense that we must rely on God and His providence is reinforced in the next two petitions, in which we ask God to cancel our debts—or forgive us our trespasses, as we say at Mass—and deliver us from evil. Here, we acknowledge that both our pasts and our futures are in God’s hands.

Yours and Ours: Notice how there is no ‘my’ in this prayer. We focus first on God and His plans, then ourselves as a community. Salvation is social, not individual. There is no place for personal pride here.

The implied Son: ‘Father’ of course implies the Son. Even though He is not named He is everywhere in this prayer. It is the Son who makes it possible for us to address God as ‘Our Father.’ The Son is the ‘kingdom that comes’ (so Pope Benedict XVI says in Jesus of Nazareth). And it is the Son who most radically acquiesced to the will of the Father in that night of agony on the Mount of Olives. Again: it is the Son who is the Bread of Life and the Son whose sacrifice canceled our debts and delivered us from evil.

This is the radical humility of the Our Father—that Jesus would refer all to God His Father, as He did so often during His ministry. He sets this example for us, showing us that humility is the way to heaven (to paraphrase Augustine in the City of God). In this sense, we can read the first clause of the prayer not only as a statement of fact but also an aspiration—a longing to be in heaven with our Father, as Aquinas himself suggests:

This part of the prayer—that is, ‘in heaven’—is appropriate and fitting also, if ‘in heaven’ is taken to mean that spiritual and eternal good in which true happiness consists. Because of it our desires are lifted up towards heavenly things; since our desires ought to tend towards where we have our Father, because there is our true home. … Moreover, from it we are told that, if our life is to be in heaven, then we ought to be conformed to our Heavenly Father. …From all this the words ‘in heaven’ are most appropriate in prayer in that they signify both a heavenly desire and heavenly life.

Let us then pray: Our Father, who art in heaven. …

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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