What the Lord’s Prayer Really Means

What the Lord’s Prayer really means.

It’s an odd thing about the Lord’s Prayer.  Almost any religion could endorse it, or so it seems at first.

  • let heaven be the ideal for earthly governance
                      • let there be enough food for all, and let all be free of crippling debt
                      • forgive each other and God will forgive you
                      • spare us from the temptation of evil.

It was first spoken by a Jew to a Jewish audience, but it has become a Christian prayer, though there is nothing particularly Christian about it.  It became a Christian prayer because it is attributed to Jesus.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)

The good householder

The Greek word used for father is abba (αββα), and while it is sometimes seen as equivalent to “daddy,” this is misleading, for there are other Greek diminutives for daddy, such as pappas (παππας).  The term abba is best interpreted as the head of the Jewish household.  God is the head of household earth, just as the father is the head of the family in the world Jesus was addressing.

The roles enacted by God as head of the earthly household correspond to those of the head of the family household: To help create life; to protect the members of the household; and to equitably provide for the household.

What horrifies the biblical conscience in all those cases is the inequality that destroys the integrity of the household and therefore dishonors the Householder.  In what sort of household are some members exploited by others? (Crossan, p 43)

Your kingdom come, your will be done

It must have sounded absurd to those who heard him for Christ to suggest that God’s kingdom has already arrived.  Tiberius was emperor in Rome, and almost 98% of the population were peasants barely surviving on what they could grow.  Rome taxed any surplus to support its extravagance. The aristocrats were small in number, but they controlled the military.  Peasant revolt was fruitless (Herzog).

What Christ meant is that while you have been waiting for God in the image of a mighty Davidic warrior to set you free, God has been waiting for you.  Waiting for what?  Not revolt, but waiting for you to understand.  Paulo Freire wrote a book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he sought to teach the underclass the reality of their situation, for many oppressed people internalize the values of their oppressors, even if they are unaware of it.  For example, if their oppressors are violent, then the only response can be violence.

In asserting that God’s kingdom has arrived, Jesus means that the oppressed can live the values of the kingdom, even if they must do so in the shadow of their oppressors.  The values of the Jewish householder listed above are the way people can live in God’s kingdom now.

Non-violent resistance

The ideal that Jesus taught in his parables and speeches, and exemplified in the sacrifice of his life, was non-violent resistance to violent authority.  Jesus died not as a sacrifice for the sins of man (substitutionary atonement), but so that he might exemplify with his life what non-violent resistance means.  Jesus died to maintain the integrity of his life.

The death of the nonviolent Jesus as the revelation of God’s nonviolent character is a sacrifice (a making sacred) that atones for our sin of escalatory violence. (Crossan, p 144)

It began with Cain and Abel, and continued in the systems of oppression then (Rome), and today.

The petitions

The petitions, as they are called, are found in the second half of the prayer.  They elaborate on what “thy kingdom come” means in practical terms.


“Give us this day our daily bread.”  Not only that there be enough to eat for today, but that we need not worry about where our next meal is coming from.  That’s what “daily bread” (ἐπιούσιος) means.  Recall the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).  The disciples want to send crowd away, because there is not enough to feed them.  Jesus appears to turn two fish and five loaves of bread into enough food to feed 5,000, with much left over.  But if you consider the way Jesus organized the distribution, seating the crowd in groups of 50 or 100, it is as though Jesus were saying that manna comes not from heaven, but from what is already present among us all, if only you will distribute it fairly among yourselves.  A group of 5,000 couldn’t do that; smaller groups could.


“Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.”  The Greek (ophelilema) does not mean transgressions, even though that is the usual metaphorical interpretation.  If we understand something of the Judean peasants’ plight, then real debt makes sense too.

Hundreds of years before Christ, debts had become monetized in Canaan.  This meant that peasants no longer paid their taxes with a portion of their crop, but from the money earned when the crop was sold.  This put them at the mercy of the market.  It also meant that debts could be carried over from year to year, leaving the peasant in perpetual debt.  Most importantly, it meant that peasants who could not pay could be kicked off their land, to the economic advantage to the landowner.  For the peasant farmer, debt was no metaphor, but the heaviest burden he carried.

We miss something important when debt becomes mere metaphor.  We forget that poor peasants were Jesus’ audience, and that a fair and just society, on earth as it is in heaven, would mean the abolition of accumulated debt.


“Lead us not into temptation.” The Greek word for temptation is πειρασμόν, which Strong’s Concordance tells us can also be rendered as a trial or test, but this is not an issue that can be settled by analyzing the Greek.  The specific temptation Christ has in mind, according to Crossan (pp 167-168), is the temptation to use violence in response to violence.

In the kingdom there is no violence.  The closest people can come to the kingdom on this earth is to respond to systemic violence with non-violent civil disobedience.  This is what Jesus did, telling the disciples to sheathe their swords when he was arrested by Roman soldiers, and healing the ear of one of the soldiers who had been attacked by Simon Peter (Luke 22:49-51).

The greatest temptation of Rome’s systemic violence was to respond in kind.  It would have been fruitless, but Jesus is not making a strategic claim.  His claim is that the kingdom is a place of peace, and avoiding the temptation of violence is the way we begin to realize God’s kingdom on earth (Crossan, p 168).

Every act that Christ takes from this point forward is an act of civil disobedience, allowing himself to be crucified without resistance, but also without attempting to prove his innocence of the charge that he claims to be king of the Jews.  Of that he is innocent, but he is not innocent of attempting to found another kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, on this earth.  Eventually it would render all earthly kingdoms obsolete.


Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer as part of a criticism of Pharisees who make a big deal out of praying in public, going on and on.  Instead, go into your room, close the door, and pray (Matthew 6:1-8).  But that’s actually a little misleading.  The Lord’s Prayer does not say give me my daily bread, forgive me my debts.  In every case where we might expect the Lord’s prayer to say me, it says us.  The Greek word for us is hemon (ἡμῶν).  Give us our daily bread, it says. Forgive us our sins.  Lead us not into temptation.  Just as the kingdom of God is a collective project, so too is the Lord’s Prayer.  It is about us, that we might be strengthened so as to help found the kingdom of God on earth, nothing that one man or woman can do.

This is my 100th post on godblog.org


John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer.  HarperOne, 2010.  [Crossan is helpful, and I draw upon him]

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Bloomsbury Academic, 4th edition, 2018.

William Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech.  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Nicholas Perrin, The Kingdom of God.  Zondervan, 2019.

8 thoughts on “What the Lord’s Prayer Really Means”

  1. I always have a problem with the English translation:”your will be done” – the ‘will’ has a double meaning implying future as well as mindedness. Note also, the description is of a ‘kingdom’, with the ruler at the top firmly in control. This is not a socialist dream. It’s left plenty of room for later interpreters to suggest dreadful punishments to those who do not comply.

  2. True enough, Mike. I don’t think any Western book has been subject to so many and diverse interpretations as the Bible. Kingdom is subject to many misinterpretation. But it was then too. In Jesus’ day, most expected the kingdom to be God’s superpower descending to overcome all obstacles and establish his reign. Though it’s led to countless abuses, I find the ambiguity interesting. Not to its victims though. Fred

    1. Well,everyone in academia possibly writes too much.When Thatcherism struck our Universities. staff were told they must write a book every year.I know for sure it was so at Manchester.
      The scholarly path at Oxford was that some people spent 30 years before publishing a superb book.Once they were a Fellow of the college it was for their life time
      That slow thoughtful scholarship was worthwhile.Now it might be useless books being published
      Whether Protestant Theologians have written too much would mean finding out where they were teaching and what pressure there was to produce.Or maybe they enjoyed it and didn’t know it would be annoying to students who had to read it all
      People write for different reasons… maybe they have few other interests.Maybe they want to be the Star.
      Value in books doesn’t come from the number of words in them but in what words are and how they are structured.In the Hebrew Bible much of it is poetry.That might be better than what is written now.
      If you want to follow Jesus , books are not necessary.Otherwise they
      can be part of an argument between rival groups within the church
      I know a person who wrote an admired book about Aquinas continuing long after he became an atheist.
      So what do we want? To live the life or enjoy the scholarship?
      In a broader field, many books are being written in order to get promotion or to avoid talking to boring people ot to show off.
      You can recognise these books when the kindle edition is £99
      .Ordinary people can’t afford them but University libraries must buy them
      When the books are £9.99 you know they are for anyone interested in the topic who is not an academic.Like,\\
      ” how to use the art of verbal self defence to become a winner in…”
      Though if you were a winner, why would you need self defence?
      I think this is long enough to make my point.Be grateful it’s not a book!

  3. I think ambiguity is of interest to many people, not just theologians
    After all, what is not ambiguous? That is the question
    Communication ,even when with a person not just writing to them is hard to achieve.We never know whether we have been truly heard.Sometimes we know we haven’t tried very hard….And we can never be certain we have understood.
    We may think another has understood us….. the proof of the pudding … may be a divorce.
    I liked as a little child thinking this lovely Kingdom would come but I was enervated by lack of political correctness as then undefined.
    When is anything clear and plain?
    I think many lovers have wondered what the other really meant
    Unanswerable.It’s even worse than ambiguous.
    Seven types of ambiguity by William Empson is not enough
    They may be uncountable!
    Still, what do I know?

  4. I like the emphasis on we and us which you mentioned in a previous post. I have read that psychoanalysists claim rich people suffer with knowing why.Everyone is more happy when the wages not so different as they are in many countries.All the key workers are on low wages… yet our lives depend on them…
    Boris Johnson nearly died.Private hospitals don’t have Intensive Care
    This is not very good.I will write a poem
    The kingdom is like a dream image.

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