This morning we move into the second week of our summer worship series on the Lord’s Prayer. Last week, we read the prayer in its context in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus uses it as an example of how to pray. He contrasts his style of prayer from that of the Gentiles, who heap phrase upon phrase, and from the religious leaders, who use formulaic prayers with all kinds of preludes and postludes that wrap it up in an air of self-importance. Jesus’ prayer, by contrast, is simple, it’s personal, and it’s intimate.
This morning’s reading contains a very similar prayer in the gospel of Luke. This time, the prayer comes in direct answer to the disciples’ question, “How should we pray?” This discussion on prayer is Luke’s introduction to the Sermon on the Plain, which actually begins in verse 17. There are many parallels between Luke’s Sermon on the Plain and Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, such as the Beatitudes; so many parallels, in fact, that some have wondered if the two sermons are actually one sermons, just reported on by two different witnesses.
Whatever the case, the prayer contained in Luke is similar, but has some distinctions. One notable one is that Luke records Jesus saying “forgive us our sins”, while Matthew records the exemplary prayer as “forgive us our debts.” I mention this by way of foreshadowing what we will be discussing on July 29. So mark your calendars!
One other notable distinction is that Luke’s prayer omits the phrase that is our focus today: “who art in heaven.”
Why “who art” instead of “who is”? I’m glad you asked. As we talked about last week, the version of the prayer we Presbyterians typically use is, more or less, the version that is contained in the King James translation of the Bible, which was first published in 1611. And if you’ll indulge me, we’ll go on a little grammar nerd detour here.
If memory serves me correctly, seventh grade is really when I began to get a handle on the basics of grammar. That’s when we did things like diagram sentences. And for those skills, I’m indebted to my English teacher, Ms. Coffin, which may be the most intimidating teacher name I’ve ever come across.
When we talk about pronouns, we talk about first person – I in the singular, we in the plural; second person – you in the singular and plural, unless you’re in the South, in which case the plural is ya’ll; and third person – he, she, it in the singular and they in the plural.
Many other languages follow this form. But some of them have an important distinction in the second person by having both a formal pronoun and an informal pronoun. In Spanish, for example, the formal second person pronoun is “usted” as in “Cómo está usted?” – how are you – and the informal second person pronoun is “tú.” German is the same, with Sie as the formal pronoun, as in “Wie heissen Sie?” – what is your name – and “du” as the informal, as in “Wie heisst du?”
The grammatical difference is actually a social one. If you’re speaking to someone with whom you have a formal relationship, when you’re likely to use “sir” or “ma’am”, then you would use the formal pronoun. If it’s an informal relationship, such as that with family, the pronoun used is the informal one.
What we’re seeing in the traditional Lord’s Prayer here is the remnant of what used to be in English, the existence of second person informal and formal pronouns.
In addition to the pronoun “you”, there is also the second person pronoun “thou” – as a direct object, it’s “thee”; possessive, it becomes “thy” (as in “thy will be done”) and “thine” (as in “for thine is the kingdom”). And the verb that agrees with it is “art” – that is, “thou art” as opposed to “you are”.
And that’s where it gets interesting – at least, it does to me. And so I return to my seventh grade English teacher, Ms. Coffin. Who really was as intimidating as her name might suggest. Even when I see her now, I admit to some boot-quaking. She ranks as one of my favorite teachers, though, because she was able make it clear who was in charge while, at the same time, encouraging in you a love of learning.
In any case, Ms. Coffin would periodically illustrate this point about second person pronouns in English. She was raised in a traditional Northeastern Quaker family, which retained the distinction between “you” and “thou”. It was, for us, a combination of parlor trick and lesson in American history.
But here’s the important distinction: “thou” is the informal second person pronoun; “you” is the formal.
Now, maybe you know this already. But this seems to always catch me by surprise. Perhaps because the language of the King James Bible feels ancient (archaic), I think I assume that it must be more formal because it’s older. But the truth is that, when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, what the seventeenth century translators of the English Bible were trying to get across is that God is someone to whom we should speak informally!
How does that sit with you? I don’t know about you, but there’s a little unease for me. I mean, if we still retained this distinction between formal and informal, in other words, if I were to address Ms. Coffin with the formal pronoun, wouldn’t God be addressed with the utmost of formality? After all, we not only have to reach to the divine, but a divinity that resides in heaven of all places!
But wait: it gets weirder. Neither Greek, the dominant language of the New Testament, nor Aramaic, the language in which Jesus prayed and spoke most often, have informal and formal pronoun. That means that when early English translators were working on the Bible, they chose to translate the Greek word “you” two different ways; and when speaking of God, they chose the informal “thou”. On the one hand, it’s a linguistic invention. But on the other hand, for seventeenth century English speakers, it was a reminder that the correct relationship with God is not one of formality, but one of intimacy.
Last week, we picked up on the Aramaic word “Abba” in the Lord’s Prayer, which is more accurately rendered “Daddy” or “Papa” than “Father”. While the English translators may have lost that familial intimacy with the opening of the prayer, they were able to retain it with their grammatical slight of hand by substituting the informal “thou” for the more formal “you” when God is the subject at hand.
And when we look at the rest of the prayer we read in Luke’s gospel, this choice makes all the sense in the world. Because what we find Jesus advocating for in prayer is not formality, but persistence. He tells the parable of the friend knocking on the door in the middle of the night asking for bread, who will eventually get his way out of pushiness. It’s the example of the child, tugging at our pant leg, asking for our attention. There’s nothing more persistent than that. And God’s desire for us, Jesus says, is to grant us all that is good!
How do you pray? Or should I say, “how prayest thou?” After all, that’s the question that ought to be at the heart of our conversations this summer. When you approach God, is it like entering the Emerald City, approaching the Wizard with fear and trembling, ready to turn tail and run at a moment’s notice? Does the very thought of praying give you pause, wrapped up in anxiety that your words stumble too much, that they will fall upon the deaf ears of a God who is not easily impressed?
Or do you cast all of that aside, opening up your heart and mind to the God who already knows you far better than you will ever know yourself?
Friends, the Lord’s Prayer was never meant as formula. Instead, it is meant as encouragement to pray in the same way that Jesus did, with that private intimacy of the beloved child speaking to the loving parent, a parent who wants nothing but good for you!
My dear child, how prayest thou?