What it means to say ‘Our Father’

In Luke’s Gospel, the Our Father, like so much else in Jesus’ teaching, is occasioned by a request from his disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). This should get our attention, because as is typical of Jesus’ method of revelation, instead of going around, announcing, “Hey! I’m the Messiah!” he appears to leave so much to the initiative of others. Half of his sayings are replies and rejoinders to things somebody else said or asked. Even the great and shocking revelation of his identity as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is made, not by him directly, but through the apostle Peter. The disciple makes the great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then confirms it by telling Peter that flesh and blood has not revealed it to him, but “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). In both cases — the revelation of the Our Father and the Messianic revelation — had the disciples not made the request for instruction on prayer or plucked up the courage to make the shocking confession, we might never have received the revelation. That should stagger us, because it points to the first thing we should realize about prayer: the fact that we pray at all.

Of course, psychologically, prayer is perfectly understandable. There’s no big shock about weak flesh crying out to the heavens for some sort of help in making it through this vale of tears. If we were all pagans, there would be no great surprise in the idea of our trying to wheedle and cajole the various clashing egos and agendas of the Olympians into playing favorites with us or scheming against other gods and humans in order to obtain some desired outcome to our plight.

But Christians do not believe in such a deity. We believe in a God who is omnipotent, all-knowing, and all-loving. That raises a huge question — namely, what’s the point of prayer to such a God? We can neither tell him anything he does not know nor urge him to love more than he already does (a candle may just as well command the sun to shine more brightly), nor can we add one particle to his infinite and endless happiness by our praise. We are pretty much the definition of a kind of cosmic fifth wheel. In light of such a God, our prayer — and indeed our very existence — is utterly superfluous. We are, in the words of Robert Farrar Capon, “radically unnecessary.” God not only doesn’t need us to pray, but he also doesn’t need us to do anything. He doesn’t need us to exist at all!

Yet Jesus teaches us to pray and makes his actions, in a certain sense, so dependent on ours that his very instruction on prayer is given because we ask him to tell us how to pray. Why this seeming passivity on the part of him who is Pure Act?

The answer is found in the immense gulf between Jesus’ reference to God as “my heavenly Father” and his instruction to us to refer to God as “Our Father.” Jesus uses the term “my Father” in a way that makes clear that he enjoys by nature a relationship with God that we do not enjoy. God the Father is the Father of Jesus he Son. Jesus shares the Father’s divine nature. Jesus is of the same “God stuff” as the Father. We are not. We are creatures, not sons and daughters. We are related to God as a statue is related to its sculptor, not as a child is related to his parent. Moreover, to complicate matters, we are creatures in rebellion. Evil has distanced us from God in ways that merely being a creature never could.

Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that distinct relationship when he tells us things like “You are from below, I am from above” (John 8:23) and when he takes for granted the fact that he is without sin and entirely pleasing to the Father while we are sinners, etc. To be sure, his teaching, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, insists that we must call God “Father.” But the whole point of this language is to make clear that this is shocking and revolutionary.

Mark Shea is the author of Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life (Servant, $15.99). He writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/.

This is an excerpt from “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary.”

You can read more about the Our Father throughout Lent in OSV Newsweekly. Carl Olson provides a reflection each week on this timeless prayer.