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?

The usual way is to ignore Christ’s emphasis on the private character of the prayer, and let the plural pronouns remind us that we are all in this together.  Even in a household economy, such as existed in Jesus’ day, “my” daily bread is the product of “our” work together.  Similarly, we are all sinners, and so need to be forgiven by other sinners. 

Though the Lord’s Prayer is probably the prayer most often said alone (I say it before I go to sleep), its wording and structure remind us that we are not alone but live in a community of other believers who together make up the body of Christ.  One should not downplay the tension between the context in which Jesus presents it as a private prayer, and its plural content.  There is something essentially private and personal about my relationship to God, just as there is something essentially corporate, as expressed in the Eucharist (Communion).  In sharing bread and wine, we participate not just Christ’s body, but in the body of the church, its members momentarily become one.

Let’s not find a way around the tension between individual and community in the Lord’s Prayer.  And let’s not ignore it.  Instead, let’s live with it. 

Thy kingdom come 

Ordinarily, when we think about going to heaven (whether we believe in heaven or not) we think about going up to heaven.  In fact, the Lord’s Prayer says nothing about going to heaven, and nothing about individual life after death.  “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The prayer refers to the end of days, saying nothing about people being raised from the dead.  Instead, it says that the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, comes from heaven to earth.  And earth will be like heaven. 

How can we imagine this?  I suggest we imagine it in terms of the world transformed by the Sermon on the Mount.  Not just the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” etc.), but love your enemies, forswear revenge, be generous to those in need, and so forth.  It is no accident that it is the Sermon on the Mount that contains the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5-6).  The Sermon on the Mount tells us what “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” means in practical everyday terms now.  In particular, it reminds us to pay special attention to the needy and the bereft. 

We don’t need to wait until the end of days for heaven and earth to become one.  We need only act as if they already are. 


One couldn’t pray the entirety of Matthew 5-7 every day.  Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the Lord’s Prayer has lost its original meaning of what it would be like if the ways of heaven were practiced on earth.  “Whatever Jesus’ Kingdom-announcement was all about, it was about something that actually happens, within the space-time world.” (N. T. Wright, p 15)  Heaven and earth are closer than they appear.  Or could be, if humans acted with all the goodness and generosity with which they are occasionally able. 


* An earlier post also discusses the Lord’s Prayer.

**  The earliest manuscripts of Mark and Luke do not contain the last clause that is so familiar to many, “For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”  Some Bibles include these lines, some don’t.  Catholic Bibles don’t, but others also omit it.  Luke’s version (11:2-4) stops at “temptation,” omitting “deliver us from evil.”  He also omits “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The moral of the story: there’s no one literal reading of the Bible to hold onto because there is no single Bible, only textual variants and the choices of translators.

See also my short post on “Lead us not into temptation.” 


N. T. Wright, The Lord and his Prayer. Eerdmans, 1996.

7 thoughts on “The Lord’s Prayer puzzles me”

  1. Much of what Jesus taught was in regards to the Kingdom of Heaven. The sin of Adam and Eve was a revolt against God’s authority and Jesus came to restore that authority. The prayer for His kingdom to come is our participation in that quest. When I first read the Lord’s Prayer I was struck by the plea that He “lead us not into temptation”. At the time I considered it my duty to resist temptation so this prayer seemed counterproductive. In time I saw that living in the Kingdom of God (obeying Him) is my immediate task and the transformation of my soul is His.
    I take His use of the plural pronouns to simply be the way He communicated it to the multiple disciples. I didn’t think it had any other significance – interesting take.

  2. From emails and comments, I think a lot of people are puzzled about “lead me not into temptation.” Why would God do that in the first place? If someone can interpret this phrase (perhaps it’s a poor translation) let me know. Fred

  3. I’m not a Greek scholar but after reviewing multiple translations, I don’t think it’s a bad translation but rather shorthand for the sovereign work of God. As sovereign, God is ultimately in charge of everything. In Job we see God allowing the troubling and temptation of Job, and doesn’t Paul (in Romans) refer to God “giving over” some to wickedness? While this may not be God LEADING into temptation, it certainly places it within His purview. I have a complicated view of our “free will” as it doesn’t preclude Gods unseen influence. For example, the Egyptians giving the Israelis their Gold in the Exodus – caused by God, but freely given by the Egyptians. When we pray that He lead us not into temptation, we are acknowledging our weakness amidst our desire to do His will.

    1. I’m going to take a little while to digest your response, and also to take a look at the Greek. Right now, I think your last line is as good an explanation as any. Fred

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