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Exegesis of Matthew 6.9-13
So you should pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one. (The Jerusalem Bible, NT 23-24)
I. Literary Criticism
Context: The passage constitutes a portion of the long evangelical discourse of Jesus that began in Chapter 5 wherein he encountered crowds of Jews, which moved him to go up one of the hills near Capernaum (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 5.1). When his disciples joined him sitting, he commenced his discourse with the Beatitudes (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 5.2-12). The Matthaean account placed both chapters 5 and 6 close to the beginning of Christ’s ministry. In fact, both chapters cover the evangelical discourses, which opened his ministry after he emerged from a seclusion of 40 days in the wilderness where the devil tempted him.
Specifically, the passage immediately followed a teaching on the venue of prayer wherein Jesus taught that it should be done in secret; in a private room where the door shut close (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 6.5-6). Verses 7 through 13 continued the subject of the prayer into how it must be performed in secret using a spontaneous prayer he created, which later on came to be known in the Christian tradition and history as ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’
The passage also acts as the trajectory for Matthew to quote another saying from Jesus about the needed secrecy in the acts of fasting and the storing up of the true treasures in heaven (The Jerusalem Bible, 6.16-21). In effect, the Lord’s Prayer finds itself within the immediate vicinity of two acts that must be done in secrecy: prayer and fasting.
Form Criticism: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is a “quasi-biographical, semi-historical” (Just, Catoholic-resources.org) work of literature that portrays the life and teaching of Jesus. It is a canonical gospel in the Catholic tradition as well as in the Protestant traditions. The passage is a component of this book-level form, and specifically a quasi-biographical saying of a Christian prayer. The prayer has four-component forms, consisting of adoration (v. 10), contrition (v. 12), and supplication (v. 11, 13). The passage begins with an adoration of God (“may your name be held holy”), followed by two petitions (“Give us today our daily bread” and “save us from the evil one”), separated by a cry for forgiveness. However, the prayer has not exact parallel anywhere in the New Testament or in the Hebrew Scripture, indicating a uniqueness that is essential that of Jesus. Of course, there are recorded prayers in the Bible; but mostly adoration by content such as Zechariah’s Benedictus (The Jerusalem Bible, Lk. 1.68-79), Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1.46-55), and Simon’s Nunc Dimittis (Lk. 2.29-32) in the New Testament and the adoration-petition combination (e.g. 2 Kg. 19.14), including the adoration-intercessory petitions of Abraham for Sodom (Gen. 18.22-32), and pure supplication prayers (e.g. Dn. 9.5-19) common in the Old Testament..
Structure: The passage reflects a unique Matthaean special affinity to the symbolic value of the number seven. For instance, it contains seven petitions, namely, (1) “may your name be held holy,” (2) “your kingdom come,” (3) “your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” (4) “Give us today our daily bread.” (5) “And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.” (6) “And do not put us to the test,” and (7) “but save us from the evil one.” This structure of seven appears to be a favorite of Matthew’s as it can be found intertwined in the gospel’s writing.
Second, the book itself was divided into seven sections, as follows:
I. The Birth and Infancy of Jesus (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 1.1-2.23);
II. The Kingdom of Heaven Proclaimed (3.1-7.29);
III. The Kingdom of Heaven is Preached (8.1-10.42);
IV. The Mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven (11.1-13.52);
V. The Church, First-Fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven (13.52-18.35);
VI. The Approaching Advent of the Kingdom of Heaven (19.1-25.43);
VII. Passion and Resurrection (26.1-28.20)
Third, it contains seven parables (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 13.3-50), namely that of the sower (v. 4-9), of the darnel (v. 24-30), of the mustard seed (v. 31-32), of the yeast (v. 33), of the treasure (v. 44), of the pearl (v. 45-46), and of the dragnet (v. 47-50).
Fourth, Matthew also used the number seven in the Genealogy, written in three series of generations with 14 (2 x 7) names (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 1.17).
Fifth, forgiveness must be given in multiplied by a factor of seven: “Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times’” (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 18.22).
A harder look into the Matthaean gospel will reveal more use of the number seven.
Redaction Criticism: In reference to its exactness and verbatim faithfulness to the actual words that Jesus used in teaching the disciples ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ no strong reference can be obtained to resolve the question because both the Matthaean and the Lukan (The Jerusalem Bible, 11.2-4) texts are different in form and content. For instance, the Matthaean version contains seven petitions as earlier mentioned; while the Lukan version has only five (it skipped on petitions 3 and 7).
Key Words: There are at least three theologically important words in the Matthaean passage, namely, “Father,” “will,” and “forgive.” The word “Father” introduced a new concept of God as a father. To the Jews at the time of Jesus, this new attribution of God amounts to a blasphemy as the Jews did not conceive of God as “their” father. Their conception of father presupposed an identical nature between the father and the child. Logically, for a man to call God his father would be scandalously blasphemous. The concept of a protective and providential God (a “father”), however, is not new in the Old Testament (e.g. Isa. 66.12-13; Hos. 11.1-4). Nonetheless, the Jews called God ‘Yahweh’ (e.g. Lev. 1.9), but never “Father.” It was Jesus who affectionately called God “Father,” a salutation that the Son of God called his Father in heaven (Chan, Christianitytoday.com.). Incidentally, it was during his evangelical discourses that Jesus referred to God as the Father (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 5.45).
Moreover, in the Matthaean version of the prayer, the word “Father” also came with the possessive adjective “our,” which changed the perspective of God’s fatherhood from a personal one into one of universality. This meaning is unique with Matthew as such cannot be found in the Lukan version (The Jerusalem Bible, 11.2). It anticipates the direction of the Kingdom from a purely Jewish beginning into a community of believers that will conquer even the pagans.
The word, “will,” referring to God’s will is not new in this Matthaean passage. It is clearly spoken of even in the Old Testament, such as in the Psalms (The Jerusalem Bible, 40.8; 143.10) and in the Chronicles (The Jerusalem Bible, 1 Chron. 13.2). Christ’s commitment to the will of God, however, resonates far more strongly than accounts of obedience in the Old Testament.
The teaching of mutual forgiveness, as a requirement for God’s forgiveness, emanates strongly from this passage. It is a forgiveness that is founded on love wherein forgiveness is given to someone who had forgiven others, too. This is a new conception of forgiveness, which in the Old Testament understood as achievable only through burnt offerings (Jackson, Christiancourier.com; The Jerusalem Bible, Lev. 1.9; 2.2; 3.5).
II. Theological Analysis
The Relationship with God: The passage expresses, firstly, Christ’s close personal relationship with his Father; secondly, an invitation to his disciples and listeners to follow his example in moving closer to God the Father, and; thirdly, a direct and exemplar way to address God in prayer.
The closeness of Christ to his Father during his ministry was stunning and unexpected by the religious elites of his time who viewed God as less known and distant God. Although such relationship between father and son could be mirrored from good father-son relationship models of that time, the Jews apparently did not expect God that closely to mankind. In their disbelief, they interpreted Christ’s claim of closeness with God as nothing but blasphemous.
However, to Christ’s followers who received the sanctifying grace through Christian baptism and those elects whom the Spirit touched in a special way, the example was clear and heartening. In their mind, they saw a majestic God from heaven that left his throne to be among men to show them how to respond to the ever-present love of the Father for them. They saw God, inviting them to be their friend, to be their Brother, or to be their Father. They learned from Jesus that God, their Father, invited them into a personal relationship like that between human individuals. How excited and expectant they must be to have heard that divine invitation?
In addition, Jesus showed them a direct and effective way to connect with God in prayer. In effect, he showed them simple steps, like that of little children, how to relate to God in a very personal way. The first step is always to adore and glorify God both as their Father and as their God. Luke confirmed this in chapter 11, verse 2 and the rest thereafter.
The positioning of the daily bread petition is interesting, though, as it precedes contrition in importance and immediately next to the adoration of God. It indicates the primary place that God held his providential love before any need for forgiveness and reconciliation as well as the protection from the demons. It explains another Matthaean passage that stated: “For he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest men alike” (The Jerusalem Bible, 5.45). This is a commitment of love that God binds himself to the care of all people, and to pour upon them actual graces regardless of their knowledge of him.
The third step is to forgive in order to be forgiven. Jesus told his disciples that forgiveness is a work of mercy and love that will not be effective to those without mercy and love. While the Mosaic Law demanded an eye for an eye (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 5.38; Exod. 21.24), the love of God that Jesus preached demanded love for love – charity for charity; forgiveness for forgiveness – instead.
Relevant Communitarian Questions: First, the passage answered a common concern about how to pray to God. Although religious, the Jews may have lost their way towards effective prayer for Jesus to introduce a simpler and more personal approach to communing with the Father in prayer. They may have called themselves children of Abraham (The Jerusalem Bible, John 8.39). But they could not imagine themselves, or someone else including Jesus, to be a son of God, including the Son of God. Their basis of confidence with God was their blood heritage of Abraham, and not a close personal relationship with God. Through the prayer, Jesus brought them back to the basics of the Jewish religion that they apparently had forgotten: the two great commandments of love – love of God and love of fellowmen (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 22.38). The most important of all, they must love God and adore him above all things. In the new form of prayer that Jesus taught, they must adore God first. They must also submit their lives to the total care of God in faith even their daily bread. Then, they must relearn forgiveness of their fellowmen as the inherent condition in the forgiveness of their own sinfulness. Finally, they need to seek God’s help in keeping them from temptation, and should temptation be ordained they be delivered from the clutches of the devil.
Second, where the Jews looked at God as the Lord, and often in a distant way, Jesus invited them, and in a certain way through the prayer, to look at God in a new way never before conceivable as a Father, their Father. To those who responded to the grace of revelation, this teaching constituted a stunning breakthrough in their desire to seek God’s closeness and enjoy the Presence in their private lives. It answered the question, which may have dogged and troubled their hearts for centuries: why is God distant? Thus, the arrival of the Emmanuel (‘God with us’) (The Jerusalem Bible, Matt. 7.14; Is. 7.14) was good news that those who understood the revelation treasured in their hearts and changed their lives for good. The Son of God left heaven to be among them, to reveal to them new things of God, to heal them from afflictions, and to invite them to join the new Kingdom that he was bringing on earth to help bring about God’s good news to all people, which they initially interpreted as the Jewish people and later revealed by the Holy Spirit to include those they called ‘pagans’. Those who stuck with Jesus through his death and resurrection found the grace and the privilege to have seen it in their own eyes, and themselves became the missionaries of the early Christian community.
Third, the passage answers the common question on how much money is enough. Both this passage and Exodus 16.4-5 agreed that the more important thing about food and sustenance is not really food but the faith that God will provide. The petition for the daily food was not a coincidence. While the Matthew passage looks to be simplistically direct, the Exodus text told of God’s will to Moses that the daily provision to the Israelites was meant to test their heart and faith to God. Keeping extra provisions for tomorrow (The Jerusalem Bible, Exod. 16.9) is entirely different from letting God decide what they should eat when tomorrow comes. The former replaces faith with the certainty of having food tomorrow with certainty, and, in the process, replacing God with food in the order of worship. The answer to the question is astoundingly clear: Just for the day! And it runs counter to the modern-day capitalist mantra of “wealth accumulation and progress” (Ayres and Martinas 347).
Ayres, R.U. and M. Martinas. “Wealth Accumulation and Economic Progress.” Journal of
Evolutionary Economics. 1996. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
Chan, S. “Why We Call God ‘Father.’” Christianity Today. 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
Jackson, W. “Was There Forgiveness Under the Mosaic Regime?” Christian Courier. Web. 30
Just, F.S.J. An Introduction to Biblical Genres and Form Criticism. Catholic-resources.org. 14
Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
The Jerusalem Bible. London & New York: Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd. & Doubleday &
Company, Inc., 1966. Print.
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