03 May The Lord’s Prayer Explained by Helmut Thielicke
Some of the most eloquent Lord’s Prayer commentary delivered by a 20th century minister was that of German Protestant theologian and lecturer Helmut Thielicke, who also was the rector of the University of Hamburg from 1960-1978. His sermons on the Lord’s Prayer were delivered to congregations in Stuttgart during the punishing WW II air raids that the allies inflicted on Nazi Germany. They were begun in the Church of the Hospitallers and concluded in St. Matthew’s parish house, the largest auditorium available at the time after all of the Stuttgart churches had been reduced to rubble.
Thielicke’s Protestant heritage is clearly seen in his interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, and he is much more a traditionalist than progressive German theologians like Paul Tillich. The Living Hour’s modern interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer is more Unitarian and expansive due to our more figurative (and we believe accurate) reading of the Gospels. However, Thielicke’s commentary remains eloquent and an important one within the history of Lord’s Prayer meditations.
Helmut Thielicke Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer
Excerpts from the book Our Heavenly Father (1960).
…We clearly see the tremendous importance that is to be attributed to the fact that it is Jesus Christ himself who teaches us to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Remarkably enough, in this prayer he himself retires into the background. And time and again it has been concluded from this that Jesus himself had no intention whatsoever of being the “Son of God,” but wished only to reveal the Father more clearly while he himself remained unrecognized in the background, like an unknown prophet, or at most was present in the way that medieval painters included their self-portraits somewhere in the background of their pictures…
“Our Father, Who Art in Heaven.” In these words that introduce the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus calls attention to still another aspect of the fact that God is always there before we pray. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
This means quite simply this. When we ask God for something, when, for example, we ask for the healing of a sickness or for gracious guidance of our nation through all the present terrors, we should not think that we are bringing forward something new, for which we have to give special reasons or emphasis by saying our prayer more loudly and more vigorously. Long before we open our mouths God knows what’s what. The very fact that God’s eye finds us in the dark means that he finds our hearts, so filled with cares and desires, fears and hopes. He knows it all.
…Jesus shows us that the Father knows our deepest needs and secrets. And that means that he looks upon us men as a mother looks upon her child who is sick or in pain. The little child cannot tell what is wrong with him, and simply looks upon his mother with great, appealing eyes. But the mother knows what is wrong with him even though he cannot speak about it, and therefore she takes hold at the right spot. As a father, as a mother pities her children, so the Lord pities those who fear him and cry out to him in trouble, even though it may often be the wrong trouble they are crying about.
Here we can only cry out: Thank God that our prayer does not depend on our expressing the correct desires, that it does not depend on our making a correct “diagnosis” of our needs and troubles and then presenting God with a properly phrased and clearly outlined prayer-proposition. Thank God that this is not so and that it doesn’t need to be so, but that he knows us before we pray, that the Father is always there with his goodness before we come with our many words or with our great silences.
…Jesus turns our attention away from ourselves, even from our pious selves, and concentrates it upon the Father. The prayer is not “May I be hallowed” but “thy name be hallowed.” What does he mean by this?
Quite simply, he means to say that if I want to become a new man, I should not begin with myself, with my good intentions and my moral endeavors. This can only come to nothing, even though it is recommended by the philosophers, the moralists, and other honest people. For all these people have but one unanimous message to proclaim. They say that the only way to get anywhere is to do one’s duty, to have ideals, and to try to be a good man.
Now I certainly have no desire to belittle these honest efforts. I know many honest idealists and many dutiful per-sons who could teach us Christians manners, and I take my hat off to them.
Nor did Jesus simply dismiss these earnest people who struggle to do their duty. When the rich young ruler, who was just this kind of person, came to him and told him how he had struggled and wrestled with himself and what he had accomplished—”all these commandments I have observed from my youth—the evangelist’s report of the Lord’s first reaction was: “Jesus looking upon him loved him.”
There is, however, one definite reason why this merely idealistic attitude cannot lead us to life. And I refer again, primarily in order to establish this fact as such, to the figure of the rich young ruler, who, as we know, came to Jesus after having kept all the commandments from his youth, and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Let it be understood that he did not come to Jesus as a crass beginner in order to secure a bit of advice with which to make a start on a new life. On the contrary, he had already run the greater part of the race on his own strength, and somehow just because he had tried so honestly, it suddenly dawned on him that this would never do and that obviously he must change his whole life if anything was to come of it. What do you suppose is the ultimate reason why this kind of life which we propose to tackle and master by our own strength gets us nowhere?
The primary, main question of our life is whether we are in fellowship with God. If this relationship of our life is right, then our interior life will also be right. No man can live inwardly if he cuts himself off from the source of life and retreats behind the frontiers of his own self in order to try to manage his own autonomous life…
…Isn’t there a comfort, a peculiar message in the fact that, after all the conflagrations that have swept through our wounded city, a sermon can begin with these words: “We shall continue our study of the Lord’s Prayer”? We don’t need to interrupt and search the Bible for texts appropriate for catastrophe. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are immediate to every situation of life. The farmer can pray it at the close of the day’s work and let it wrap him round with the evening hush of its great tranquility. The mother can pray it with her children in an air-raid shelter as the cargoes of death fly past overhead. The little child, experiencing the first presentiments of fatherly protection, the aged person, going through the trials and pangs of his last hour, both can say it.
It can be spoken by everybody in every situation, without exception, and we can see this with a special clarity in this hour as we gather together, a little bewildered remnant of the congregation, in the ruins of our venerable church, and begin quite simply with these words: “We shall continue . . . ,” as if nothing had happened at all. For if we take eternity as our measure, what actually has happened? Is God any less the Father than he was before? Do the overwhelming events which have just happened have no place within the Message or are not these events themselves a message in which God sets his seal, in terrors and woes, in destruction and fire, upon what he has always been proclaiming in judgment and grace?
So we continue; the Lord’s Prayer encompasses the whole world, and therefore it includes us too in this terrible exceptional situation of life in which we are all involved. In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell-torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come!” We pray it more fervently than ever…
…Jesus said, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
And what this message means is that the kingdom of God appears precisely at the place where there is blindness, lameness, leprosy, and death. It does not shun any of these things because it is too good for the slums and haunts of misery, because only the distant realm of a golden city, a city above the clouds is worthy of the dignity of God. No, the kingdom of God is the light that is ineluctably drawn to the benighted places of the earth where people sit in darkness…
…Every petition of the Lord’s Prayer so far has taught us that it is a prayer that is uttered from the depths. I need only to recall to your minds a few thoughts in order that we may have this clearly before us.
When we look at ourselves, with all the pelting blows and burdens that threaten to break us down, we seem to be orphans delivered to the mercy of a pitiless and utterly “unfatherly” fate. Not until we realize that we are encircled by the powers of fate—and all of us today know a little or perhaps a great deal of how escapeless they are—do we realize the tremendous liberating power that comes from being able to say: “Our Father.”
And further, not until we consider that we live in a world in which men kill and die (and how they kill and how they die!), in a world in which we can fall into the terrible hands of men, a world in which only dim traces remain of the glory and the grandeur that God intended for his creation—not until we remember all this can we begin to measure the fervency of that petition, “Thy kingdom come,” the fervency of hope and homesickness with which we await the coming of a new heaven and a new earth where God will be all in all.
And so it is also with the petition, “Thy will be done.“…
…Jesus never said to any blind or sick or lame man: You should love your sickness, your leprosy, your blindness; then you will stop groaning. Nor did he say to the mother of the young man of Nain: Love this terrible breach that death has brought into your life; then your nerves will calm down and your tears will be dried. No, he rather laid his hands upon the sick and tormented to show them how the Father feels toward them, to give them a sign that their pains grieve the Father and that he is present with his help.
And this is exactly what he is conveying to us in this petition: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” What it means is this:
Everything that happens to you, whether good or bad, must first pass muster before your Father’s heart. Even in the midst of tumult and war the thoughts of that heart are thoughts of peace toward you. And if his dealings with you appear to be utterly horrible, cruel, and incomprehensible, then let your tormented gaze find rest in me: in my compassion, in my healing and helping that heart is speaking at its clearest. Even the darkest places of your life must be seen in this light, in this Christ-light. And only because you see him there, only because there you see him as he really is, can you love him—can you love him in return.
Then afterwards, perhaps after long years of inner growth, you may also learn to love and affirm what is now so bitter and cruel. For the Father’s hands transform and hallow the destinies that flow through them. He who is reconciled to the Father is also reconciled to his lot. For whomsoever the will of God has lost its terror (and this it has for all who know the Father of Jesus Christ), for him the darkest night of the valley of life has lost its specters and it shines with light.
…The Lord’s Prayer embraces in its tremendous span the greatest things and the smallest things. This vaulting arch springs all the way from the prayer for the coming of the kingdom, and thus the total transformation of all things and every power-relationship, to prayer for our daily ration of bread.
Great things, small things, spiritual things and material things, inward things and outward things—there is nothing that is not included in this prayer. It can be said by a child, praying for bread and butter, and it can also be uttered in that agonizing zone between “annihilation and survival” in which men fervently yearn for the coming of the kingdom which will resolve the hopelessly tangled skein of this world’s conditions.
The Lord’s Prayer is really a total prayer. And its seven petitions are like the rainbow colors of the spectrum into which light divides when it is refracted in a prism. The whole light of life is captured in this rainbow of seven petitions. Nobody can ever say that it sends him away empty-handed or that it does not take into account his need. It can be spoken at the cradle and the grave. It can rise from the altars of great cathedrals and from the dark hovels of those who “eat their bread with tears.” It can be prayed at weddings and on the gallows. And the fact is that it has been prayed in all these places. All seven of the colors of our life are contained in it, and so never is there a time when we are left alone.
If the Lord’s Prayer were not so familiar to us, if we had not so often looked through this prism, then surely this shaft of light that falls upon our daily bread would strike us as strange and astonishing. Is not this to talk about things too petty for prayer? Dare one come to God with such things without demeaning him? Is not this actually a trespass of materialism upon the refined realm of prayer, this sudden intrusion of the question of food and livelihood where only things “eternal” and “spiritual” should prevail?
I think that we ought to ask these questions quite seriously in order that we may then go on and re-examine our whole scale of values so far as our vital needs are concerned.
If we do this—and the “idealists” among us, especially, might well do this—we shall very soon discover that it is precisely the “little things” and among them our “daily bread,” that occupy a very high priority which is by no means lower than that of the big things in our life, for example, our interest in music or scientific and technical problems, or our profession or patriotic ideals.
…Among men there are sages and simpletons, scoundrels and saints, some who rule and others who are ruled. But straight through all these manifold differences there runs one common characteristic, and that is that every one of them —including you and me—must confess: We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Everyone has fallen short in a different way: the Pharisee falls short in a way different from the publican, the young man different from the aged woman.
But all the differences meet together in that one sentence: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord.” “We all came forth from thy hands different from what we are now; never can we give ourselves back to thee as we were when we came out of thy hands. All of us remain sinful in thy sight. All of us have a great mortgage upon our life.” And that means “debt.”
So when we pray this petition, “Forgive us our debts,” we do not pray it only for ourselves personally and individually. In these words we bring to the Father the whole mountainous burden of sin that weighs upon the whole world and like a nightmare haunts this present historical hour. For this hour in history makes us dimly, or perhaps sharply, aware that back of its travails and back of the torments that have seized and shaken the whole earth there stands a terrible sentence of guilt…
…The strange fatality in our human life and the life of nations is that it is always basing itself on the other person’s guilt and forgetting to beat its own breast. And our world will never find peace, neither nations nor individuals in their private and vocational lives will ever find peace as long as only the cry for vengeance is heard among us and as long as we are not ready for reconciliation: Forgive us our debts!
And there is the key word to what Jesus is teaching us here. He does not teach us to pray: Avenge the guilt, 0 Father. Thou seest the injustice and thou hast the power to strike down the transgressors. Thou knowest the guilty ones, thou knowest the tormentors of our tortured world. The scourges that fall upon our backs, are they not thy divine scourges? Why canst thou not break them in pieces and cast them away, for now they have become guilty as thine instruments? Canst thou not rid me of the competitor, the one associate, the one tenant, the one person who has shattered my life?
No, Jesus teaches us no such thing. He absolutely refuses to be the spokesman of this voice of our blood and our natural instinct. Instead he teaches us to say: “Forgive us our debts.” And the fact is that he does not intend this to be merely a private, devotional prayer. No, when I pray these words I am bringing into the light of God’s countenance the guilt of all the world, war and rumors of war, every conscious and every unacknowledged wickedness.
But when we put it in this way there are two things to be remembered.
First, that in all the fateful guilt that hovers over the world, its continents and seas, my guilt is a part of it too. What I see there is my own heart blown up to gigantic, global proportions; retaliation is the law that rules my little life too. I know how very much I am merely an echo of those around Me. When people are kind and friendly, my face lights up. When they vex or cheat me, my mind and spirit is darkened. We need only to look around us to see the spark of malice leaping furiously from pole to pole, in a crowded train, for example, or in a queue outside some store or office, where a single manifestation of spite or impatience immediately flashes out and affects the whole group.
Second, I must therefore begin with myself and my own guilt whenever there is anything to be said about the world’s guilt. I cannot simply look out the window and be morally indignant over the great Babylon that lies spread out before me in all its godless darkness. No, what I see out there in global proportions must only remind me of my own “Babylonian heart” (Francis Thompson). And quite involuntarily I will be reminded of the prophet Nathan’s hard rebuke to David: “Thou art the man!” I am the one who needs forgiveness, and the sanitation of the world must begin with me.
…We are all familiar with the watchword coined by Nietzsche and flung at us by thousands of newspapers and speeches: “Live dangerously.” That motto is a protest against all the snug, respectable Philistinism which is content to go on sliding over safe tracks with as little risk as possible and preferably with a secure pension ahead.
But it has in it another meaning, namely, the inner attitude of the man who has thrown overboard every higher law and authority and taken the helm in his own hands, nay more, the inner attitude of the man who has even pushed aside the hand of God, in which he might be safe, and gone off on his own. For he doesn’t want to be “safe”; he wants to live “dangerously.”…
…It is fearfully easy to say, “I want to live dangerously” when one has lost one’s sense of the real dangers. It is dreadfully easy to say, “I must march bravely and without fear through the dark forest of life and I must not be afraid of the dark,” when one has no idea that this forest of life is filled with the armed knights of a very dangerous God who is not mocked.
And here we encounter the real, the biblical, meaning of “living dangerously,” which is much deeper than and totally different from what the great adventurers of life imagine. The petition “Lead us not into temptation” really does show us that life is dangerous, that it is something that can trip us up and ruin us, a place where we can stake everything on the wrong card.
In one of his expositions of this petition, Luther once said, “We are beset before and behind by temptations and cannot throw them off.” Luther, we know, saw the world filled with devils who were clutching at him, and in his drastic way he even threw his inkwell at them. Now perhaps we may wag our heads over such a view of life and say: What a poor medieval fool! After all, our modem, enlightened world has emancipated us from this superstitious, specter-haunted twilight. Or do the words stick in our throats, because in this apocalyptic hour we are beginning to understand what Luther saw and what we have forgotten how to see? Just because we do not see a thing or have forgotten how to see it does not mean that it no longer exists…
…Literally translated, this petition reads: “Deliver us from the evil.” And here again what is meant is not evil in general, and therefore what is bad, imperfect, vicious, perhaps even demonic, but rather the “evil one.” It is therefore a personal magnitude. It is nothing less than—the devil. From his tyranny may the Father deliver us. This is what Jesus teaches us to pray.
The petition “Lead us not into temptation” has already pointed in this direction, for in our last study we saw that, behind all the dangers in our life and behind all the dark menaces that overshadow it, there is a dark, mysterious, spellbinding figure at work. Behind the temptations stands the tempter, behind the lie stands the liar, behind all the dead and the bloodshed stands the “murderer from the beginning.”
Several decades ago some preachers who had to speak about this figure would probably have begun by apologizing in more or less decent fashion for venturing as a modern and educated person to mention the word “devil” at all. And they probably would have taken some pains to convince their hearers that, after all, the Middle Ages had some very wise ideas in its conception of the devil—though naturally expressed in all too “realistic” terms which were in accord with its time, but which we could no longer share.
The preacher would perhaps have continued: We today must take these crude images of medieval fantasy (the
fact that there really is a personal devil) and recast them in the crucible of our modern, informed understanding and distill them in all kinds of philosophical retorts until we had transformed this green-eyed devil with the cloven hoof and the smell of brimstone into a properly spiritualized “concept of evil” which we might expect modern man to accept…
…The mystery of the kingdom of God can never be recognized from the outside, by a disinterested spectator, but only from within, by entering into it, in other words, by looking into the eyes of Jesus Christ. That is to say, in the kingdom of God everything is a matter of perspective; everything depends upon where you stand. If you stand at the wrong place, you see absolutely nothing. On the other hand, if you stand at the right place, then even children, fools, and the despised of this world can see the great mysteries of the kingdom of God.
It is like the colored windows of a church. If you go around the outside of the church, you see nothing but gray monochrome and cannot tell whether they are merely dirty, sooty panes or works of art. In other words, you are seeing them from the wrong perspective. But the moment you enter the nave of the church, the windows begin to shine and the whole story of salvation, captured in color, rises up before you. The mystery of the kingdom of God can be seen only if we are “in” it.
That’s why Pontius Pilate never discovered who Jesus was. That’s why he had only a scornful, and perhaps behind the scorn, a sad smile when Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Because he did not stand “beneath” the eyes of Jesus, as one who sought his forgiveness and was ready to call him “Lord,” he had no “eye” for the kingdom of God, no sense of its proportions. Therefore he had to measure it by his own political standards, compare it with the Roman imperium, and so he saw—nothing. For where were the armies and the ensigns of this kingdom? Where were the more than twelve legions of angels which supposedly would do his bidding? Pontius Pilate saw and heard nothing.
But the harlots who returned to bow before the eyes of Jesus, the poor in spirit whom he had comforted, the children on whose heads he laid his hands, they knew his secret. And they are ready to sell everything to possess the one pearl of great price. And for the mature among them even the splendor of the Roman imperium was only a tawdry bauble, for suddenly they had seen the amplitude of God’s kingdom and they knew who would be King when history came to an end…