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Jewish origins of the Lord’s Prayer



Catholic News Service


As Jews, Christ’s disciples already knew how to pray. Psalms were sung as the priests offered the sacrifices in the Temple. Psalms were chanted in the synagogue services and prayed around the table at Passover.

Jews also prayed morning, noon and night (see Dn 6:11). The most important of these prayers was written on a little scroll and bound to a man’s forehead (phylactery) and fastened to doorposts (mezuzah):

“Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Dt 6:4-5).

A man looks out over the Jazreel Valley from Mount Precipice, the start of the Gospel Trail in Israel. The Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer, is another stop along the trail. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)
A man looks out over the Jazreel Valley from Mount Precipice, the start of the Gospel Trail in Israel. The Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, is another stop along the trail. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

This prayer, the “Shema,” was the first thing whispered in a newborn’s ear, and the last thing whispered to the dying. It was the verbal emblem that distinguished Jew from gentile.

So why did Jesus have to teach his disciples to pray? Because it was time for a new Israel to be born. The identity of God and his plan of salvation, revealed in bits and pieces in the law, was now being fully revealed in the Son.

It was time for the new Israel to pray in a new way, a way that would make clearer than ever the identity of the one God and how we should love him with all our heart.

There had been hints that the fearsome God who had revealed himself on Sinai was father, at least to the widow and orphan (Ps 68) and to the king (Ps 110). But Jews in Jesus’ time had so emphasized God’s majesty that, far from calling him Father, they no longer even dared to utter the name revealed to Moses, “Yahweh.” They didn’t even like to say the word “God,” preferring to substitute “the Lord” or even “Heaven.”

So Jesus, who himself nearly exclusively addressed God as “Abba” or “Father,” teaches his disciples to do the same. His father becomes “Our Father.” He is, of course, transcendent, majestic, the King of the Universe, “who art in heaven.”

But his majesty draws near to us in tenderness and calls us to a prayer that is an intimate dialogue of love. In this prayer, we dare to approach him and to rest secure in his affectionate embrace.

“Hallowed be thy name.” For a Jew, one’s name is not just a label, but expresses the essence of the person. Jesus has just revealed God’s name, Father. To “hallow” means to make visible, like the cloud of God’s glory that covered Sinai and shone from Moses’ face. We pray in this petition that through and in us the Father’s love would be made manifest to the world and that people would see, understand and glorify him.

“Thy kingdom come.” Though the kingdom or reign of God won’t come in its fullness until the return of Christ, it began to break into history in the public ministry of Jesus and broke in with even greater force on Pentecost Sunday, falling upon 120 initially, which in a matter of hours became 3,000.

“Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” God reigns where people yield to his will. His will and his kingdom mean the same thing: “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).

“Give us this day our daily bread.” This helps us understand the attitude we should have as God’s children; we confidently expect our loving Father to provide for all our needs. But we pray not just for our own private needs but for the entire worldwide family’s needs. On the flip side, there is never a moment when our brothers and sisters are not praying for us.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here, Jesus reminds us that the church, the new Israel, is a community of mercy, where all is forgiven by God and the family. If we refuse to forgive, we block the flow of God’s mercy to and through us, and essentially put ourselves outside of the family.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This petition is a sober reminder that we live in a world where the kingdom is in conflict with another kingdom. Our world is a dangerous place where a powerful adversary prowls “like a roaring lion” (1 Pt 5:8).

In praying this, we reject Satan’s tricks and humbly acknowledge our need for God’s help in escaping his snares. But we also rest confident that our Father has the power to protect us.

In the writings after the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer replaced the “Shema” of the Jews, and Christians prayed it at least three times per day.

Yet in the Holy Land, there are still descendants of the first Christians who preserve the ancient Jewish-Christian heritage. When a baby is born to such a family, it is still customary for the father to be the first one to speak to the newborn. What does he whisper in the child’s ear? “Our Father, who art in heaven …”

D’Ambrosio is co-founder of Crossroads Productions, an apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization.