“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men,” Jesus cautioned. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:5, 7).
“This, then, is how you should pray, ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.’” This, in turn, sets the context for the remaining prayer. Moreover, it was calculated to recall their earthy parents by way of analogy. With what intent? It was primarily associated with his authority, as indicated by the petition that his name be hallowed, and sovereignty be realized.
By way of illustration, some years ago I paused at an Arab shop located in Manger Square in Bethlehem, to see a youthful acquaintance. Upon entering the shop, there was no one in sight. Then I heard muffled sobs coming from a corner of the room. I subsequently found the young man curled up as if a dog which had been beaten.
In response to my inquiry, he indicated that he had anticipated moving to Canada. However, when his father learned of this, he refused to grant him permission. Greatly disappointed, he felt obligated to comply.
As an aside, a Jewish person humorously observed that Abraham misunderstood God’s identification of the land of promise. “It was not Canaan,” he observed, “but Canada.” At this, he broke out in laughter.
Other related matters come to mind in connection with the allusion to our heavenly Father. Perhaps most striking, that he provides for our diverse needs. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear,” Jesus enjoined his disciples. “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens. They do not sow or reap, they have no storerooms or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds” (Luke 12:22-24).
Just so! My father spent long hours in his general store so as to provide for the needs of our family. During the winter months, he would rise early to stoke the fire in the furnace. With little respite, he worked throughout the day, and well into the night. As a result, my siblings and I did not lack for food, clothing, or home. But, as Jesus reminded his disciples, life consists of more than these. So that our heavenly Father is concerned for the full range of our needs, most assuredly including those of spiritual nature.
We are further reminded that Jesus stressed God’s benevolent character. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” he rhetorically inquired. “Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9-11).
Consequently, his commentary first draws upon that which is in common between our heavenly and earthly parents, and then that which differentiates between them. As for the former, both alike are concerned for the welfare of their offspring. As for the latter, our Father above is manifestly without reproach.
Now the privileged relationship with my earthly father was shared with my siblings. This implied that he did not single out any one of us for special consideration. What he would do for one, he was disposed to do for the others. Assuming that he was able to do so at any given time, being far more restricted than our heavenly Father.
In turn, we were supposed to honor him for his endeavor, rather than taking it for granted. As indicated by the petition, “hallowed be your name,” and evidenced not only by what we say but do. In keeping with the saying, “A parent is known by his or her child.”
This also suggests a special relationship among siblings. Giving rise to an Arab proverb, “I against my cousin, and my cousin and I against the stranger.” Thus to preserve the integrity of the individual within his or her extended family context and society in general.
My sisters were away at school early on in my filial experience. While my brother was nearer of age and available. For better and for worse, but mostly for the better. Some years later, I inquired of him: “When did you stop picking on me?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied: “When you got to be bigger than me.” As evidence of his apt sense of humor. On the other hand, I recall an instance when he intervened when others were threatening me. Which was more characteristic of his behavior.
As siblings, we were remarkably different. One sister and my brother were dark complected. While the other sister and I were much lighter. My oldest sister was the most outgoing. My brother and I were least so, and yet these differences seemed to blend together.
“Now the body is not made up of one part but of many,” the apostle Paul declares (1 Cor. 12:14). So that each should serve in its distinctive manner for the general welfare. Thus serving as a reminder that unity does not imply uniformity but constructive diversity.
As for God residing in heaven, this implies leverage to accomplish his righteous purposes. In contrast to those residing within earthly confines, where limiting what they can accomplish. Which suggests a cooperative endeavor, rather than given to competition. Our Father thus setting the precedent.
If not addressing prayer to our heavenly Father, then where else? An alternative qualifies as idolatry. Away from the God who made us to the gods we make, so as to further our own presumption. Whether in the form of a clay artifact or humanistic ideals.
Which gives rise to the notion of theophobia, a morbid fear of and/or antagonism to God. As evidenced in disrespect, and the demeaning of his followers. Whether blatant or in more subtle fashion.
We have touched only on Jesus’ initial suggestion. While providing a precursor to what follows. Whether stated or implied, establishing the context in which to pray.
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