The Lord’s Prayer puzzles me


Something about the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster) has always puzzled me.*  First, let me remind you of it.


Our father who is in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.** (Matthew 6:9-13.  Compare with Luke’s abbreviated version, Luke 11:2-4)

Jesus tells us that the Lord’s Prayer is a private prayer.  Don’t be like the Pharisees who stand on the corner muttering long prayers for everyone to hear.  Don’t be like the pagans and go on and on.  Go into your room, close the door, and pray this prayer in private.  That’s all you need to do, for your Father knows what you need more than you do (Matthew 6:5-13).   

Private or communal?

There’s a tension here.  If it’s a private prayer, then why do all the pronouns refer to more than one?  Every reference to “us,” or “we,” or “our” employs the Greek term hēmin (ἡμῖν;  Strongs G2254), a collective pronoun.  There is no “I” or “me.”  In terms of its content, it seems to be a prayer intended for collective use during worship.  Yet, Jesus introduces it as a personal prayer.  Is there any way to make sense of this?

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Paul in love

Paul in Love

Paul in Love.  Several well-known Protestant theologians claim that Paul is the intellectual equal of the Greek philosophers.  “Paul ranks with Plato and Aristotle as a thinker,” says N. T. Wright.*   I don’t think so, but it hardly matters.  Paul has his own great idea.  Paul loves love.  Nothing is more important than love. 

The ancient Greeks had a lot to say about love, but almost always they were talking about eros (ἐρεῶ), passionate erotic love.  If not, they were talking about philia (φιλία) based on a strong ongoing relationship.  What Paul calls agape (ἀγάπη) is more and less than eros.  Agape may be as intense as eros, but it is not as personal.  It is hard to be erotically in love with more than one or two people.  (Like the Greeks, I’m talking about love, not just sexual attraction.)  Agape has room for more.  Latin generally translates agape as caritas.  When Paul speaks of charity (a translation from Latin), he is talking about agape.

What is agape?  Sometimes people use the term to suggest a self-sacrificing love, the type of love Jesus had for humanity, and humans sometimes have for each other.  But Paul’s meaning is broader than this.  Agape is love that is concerned above all with the welfare of another.  Faithfulness and commitment, as well as sacrifice, characterize agape.  Eros, as the Greeks well knew, is fundamentally selfish (Plato, Symposium, 198c-213e); philia is more personal. 

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