‘Do not put us to the test’ Reflections on a difficult petition in the Lord’s Prayer

Pietro Bovati, SJ

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The most influential Church Fathers and countless scriptural commentators throughout the centuries have commended the Our Father for its theological richness, extolling it as the perfect prayer, especially since the Divine Master himself taught it to us. There are those who maintain that the Our Father is the culmination of every prayer contained in the Old Testament. Others define it as a synthesis of Christian catechesis presented in the form of an invocation.[1] Underlying the prayer’s exalted status is the fact that believers, whenever they recite it, repeat the very words of Jesus, making his prayer their own (cf. Luke 11:1). The perfection of Christian faith is thus given witness in the very way that the Christian community turns to God in prayer.

Prayer and desire

Without wishing to contradict this perspective, we can say that the Our Father is actually nothing more than a supplication. We are dealing neither with a form of thanksgiving or praise, nor with an explicit expression of trustful abandonment to God. The prayer is neither an explicit act of adoration nor a meditative listening to God’s Word. What Jesus asserted as essential to his teaching on prayer was the orientation of desire[2], so that his disciples might be aware and accept wholeheartedly what was truly good; that which the Father will undoubtedly do for them, since this human request, taught by Christ, adequately expresses precisely what God wants.The Our Father, in fact, presents a series of seven petitions, introduced by an appeal to the Father that clearly constitutes the foundation of trust underlying the supplicant’s petitions. The first three invocations manifest the obedience of God’s children. Through them, the supplicant asks that what the Father desires be fulfilled, that his will come to pass, and that his Kingdom be realized in human history. The four petitions that follow, even though they express human desires, are nonetheless structured in full conformity with God’s will. They essentially ask that what the Lord has already fulfilled in heaven come to pass on earth.

On the other hand, with this prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask (“ask,” “seek,” “knock,” in Matt 7:7), because asking is the defining characteristic of a child in need, something that the believer must never forget. This condition of needfulness serves to exalt the goodness of the One who has stooped down to the poor in order to make them rich (Ps 113:5-9; Luke 1:51-54).[3]

It is nevertheless necessary to note that the very act of turning to God in supplication is marked by elements of ambiguity that are not easily perceived. We must draw attention not only to the ways in which we mistakenly understand these petitions, even if they are held sacrosanct by the one praying them, but also the fact that the invocation is presented as an imperative to God, as if the creature were dictating to the Creator how he should behave; as if the Lord needed to be reminded to fulfill his duty. Now, as Scripture reminds us, our Father in heaven already knows perfectly the needs of his children (Matt 6:8, 32); he is always ready to give (Isa 30:19), and he hears the calls of the supplicants even before their requests emerge from their mouths (Isa 65:24). To ask and insist might therefore seem offensive and inappropriate. It might even suggest a lack of faith. Are we trying to wake up God because he is asleep (1 Kgs 18:27)? Are we trying to draw his attention to something he has not yet noticed? Do we need to persuade him to do good, overlooking the fact that he exists for that very purpose?

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