In a preceding essay (Plagiarizing Jesus), we saw how the gift of the Lord’s Prayer frees Christians from exacting divine expectation for prayer and during prayer. We can’t do it, but Jesus fulfills the condition of perfect fellowship with God through prayer and gifts it to us. Just like with all the other conditions necessary for salvation (perfect repentance, perfect faith, perfect works, perfect satisfaction, perfect righteousness, perfect love, and perfect belief), Jesus fulfills the law of prayer with the perfect prayer, and then bequeaths it to the Church as her possession, to plagiarize at will.
But the gift of the Lord’s Prayer also frees us from the unrealistic expectation of posturing a strong faith and spiritual answers when people seek words of comfort and hope or, indeed, when we need them ourselves. The reality is that more times than not, the right words aren’t there. We usually are at a loss of what to say to God on behalf of another person or, alternatively, to God himself regarding the fulfillment of his purposes in the world. The Lord’s Prayer frees us from the tyranny of spiritual creativity and allows us to rest in the confidence of something utterly certain and true. Instead of fabricating something snappy or super spiritual to garner God’s attention (or with whom or for whom we pray), Jesus would have us lose all such originality and simply plagiarize.
The call of Christ, then, is to think differently from the way that we usually think about prayer: Originality isn’t necessarily a virtue, and plagiarizing isn’t necessarily a vice.
Jesus steers us into the sphere of communing with our heavenly Father through prayer based not on anything we could or would fabricate, precisely because our creative prayers are the product of ignorant, sinful hearts, even while on the path of christification/sanctification. He may have been thinking in the category of Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Our prayers naturally arise out of our own desires, as well as our own truncated vision of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus, more than anyone, understood the hearts of men (John 2:25). Saint Paul laments this almost schizophrenic condition in Romans 7 where our beliefs, desires, and actions rarely align with the way of godliness, while Luther described it as an implacable affliction: incurvatus en se (curved in on one’s self).
Originality isn’t necessarily a virtue, and plagiarizing isn’t necessarily a vice.
But there is another source for prayer — untainted, vital, and true.
That source is Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh for us and for our salvation. He gives us the words. In this way, we say to God what is most certain and true. So, Jesus instructs us by essentially saying, “When you pray, use these words that I give you because they are most certain and true, leaving you with no doubt that our Father in heaven hears you.”
A good prayer is not far removed from a good sermon. A good preacher plagiarizes content, albeit with proper attribution, just like with the Lord’s Prayer. The same could be said for catechesis (which means “to sound again”). Good catechumens copy the catechism. A few years ago, author Jonathan Fisk tellingly titled a book on the catechetical learning, Echo!, since that is what happens between the catechist and catechumen: an echoing of the foundational truths of our holy faith. In other words, we plagiarize the Word and the sacraments when we confess them as our own. A good plagiarist makes a good confirmand, and a good confirmand is a good catechetical plagiarist.
It is no accident that Luther included the Lord’s Prayer as the third chief part of the catechism — the Lord Jesus has made it a constitutive element in basic discipleship: “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:1-2). And we echo truth, truth sanctioned and heard by God our Father.
Using the words of Scripture as your prayer, weaving them throughout prayers, and modeling your prayer in their form will infuse your prayer life with words of truth.
That Christ would put the words of prayer into our mouths stands in good keeping with Old Testament precedence—the Psalms self-present as the “Prayer Book” of the Bible. And yet there is a sense in which it can be said that all of Scripture serves as a rich source from which to embezzle words for prayer. Using the words of Scripture as your prayer, weaving them throughout prayers, and modeling your prayer in their form will infuse your prayer life with words of truth. Indeed, even employing the prayer of the Lord as your prayer to the Lord may not make you a master pray-er. Doing so may not make you more eloquent than you are now or garner the humble appreciation of those with whom you pray, but you certainly will be able to pray in a godly fashion something that is true, something according to God’s will, something that jives with our deepest needs, something purposed toward the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
So why did Jesus, in the prayer he gave us to pray include the petitions he did? Why did he have us pray, for example, “Hallowed be Thy name”? Don’t we already know that His name is holy? Luther seemed to think so, saying, “God’s Name is certainly holy in itself” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, 20).
We don’t make it holy, but Jesus has given us this petition because we need to say it. We need to say it because we need to say to him what he has said to us, for our benefit, for our understanding, for our conformity to the reality of things, including who God is, what he desires to do in the world, and what are our greatest needs. Praying the Word of God back to God carries didactic import. It teaches us. Yes, Jesus, “teach us to pray” and teach us through prayer. Hence the ancient dictum of Prosper of Aquitaine, lex orandi, lex credendi, “the rule of what is prayed is the rule of what is believed.” “Teach us to pray” is tantamount to “teach us in prayer.” This is why Luther completes his response to the First Petition by stating: “God’s Name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.”
Jesus gave us this prayer also to turn the focus from us to the God who is there. In essence, the Lord’s Prayer says that we should concern ourselves with Christ’s words and will that perfectly align with the Father and the Spirit rather than our own words and will. Say back to me, the Lord, what I have already said to you. In other words, when Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer, he says, “be ye catechized,” with the Lord’s Prayer itself being our catechism.
The great thing about this is that our Savior knows what we truly need, and so his Word in the Lord’s Prayer really is his best care for us. So, as our Master Catechist and Good Shepherd, he says, “When you pray, say this.” It’s food for our soul and fuel for the kingdom. When we take God’s words and make them our own, we actually are praying for what’s best for ourselves, for our neighbors, and all within the context of God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
*The substance of this article is adapted from Rev. Paul Willweber’s “All Theology is Plagiarism” paper presented at the (25 April) 2010 Catechism Convocation on the Lord’s Prayer at Trinity Lutheran Church, Whittier, CA. Willweber is the parish minister at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in San Diego.