Plagiarizing Jesus: The Gift of the Lord's Prayer
The Lord’s prayer is a prayer in perfect accord with the will of God, and Jesus gifts it to us to plagiarize at will.
Ben Franklin’s oft-repeated motto, “Remember that time is money,” requires a serious upgrade. Today, text is money. Intellectual property (IP) rights are the new cash cow, not the time clock. It seems a shame that Jesus didn’t have a financial advisor to counsel him on such matters. If he would have only trademarked John 3:16 or monetized himself as an “influencer” and cashed in on his public image and words! Think of what kind of financial legacy he could have bequeathed the church from the royalties gathered by the protected use of the Golden Rule. But, alas, so far from retaining the intellectual property rights to his best material, Jesus forfeits all, instructing every disciple to plagiarize, even the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus had an excellent reason to cultivate generations of serial plagiarizers. His disciples are to be plagiarizers, but with this one significant difference: because he gives his Word as a sheer gift, there is no violation of the second, seventh, eighth or tenth commandments. Violation of the commandments happens when we intentionally take someone else’s documented material and claim it as our own, purposing to deceive others as we steal, cheat, and lie amidst our covetousness of another’s intellectual property. That has nothing to do with the kind of plagiarism our Lord encourages, especially with the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus forfeits all, instructing every disciple to plagiarize, even the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Good Shepherd intends for us to take this prayer upon our lips and entrench it within our hearts through over-learning because “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). It’s because we don’t have the words that he gives us the words themselves to shore up our confidence that our heavenly Father hears us, indeed, clearly hears us amidst our ignorance, inability, and inarticulateness.
Plagiarizing Jesus’ prayer assuages several troubling dynamics for everyone who finds themselves failingly sinful and yet also declared righteous before God. First, there is a divine expectation that we converse and commune with God. Jesus gets at this when he says, as a statement of fact, “When you pray …” (Luke 11:2). Note that he didn’t say, “If you pray” or “Should you like to pray.” No, the disciples of Jesus will be praying. It’s expected. But then the second dynamic, the troubling one, namely that we do not and cannot pray as we ought because we are constantly sinning in thought, word, and deed, even while justified in this life on account of Jesus’ righteousness and blood atonement. What then is the solution to the prayer dilemma? Christ must fulfill even the lex orandi (“the rule of prayer”) on our behalf.
Jesus not only fulfills the law of prayer and wins for us the Holy Spirit who, with the Son, ever makes intercession for us (Rom. 8:26; Rom. 8:34; 1 John 2:1; Heb. 7:25), but he also bequeaths to us the perfect prayer as an availing entreaty to our heavenly Father. Jesus covers all the bases for us when it comes to prayer so that we may know we are the children of God and he hears us: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). The Lord’s prayer is a prayer in perfect accord with the will of God, and Jesus gifts it to us to plagiarize at will.
Fabricating a prayer as one “ought” is an impossible task because it falls under the domain of the law. It is something you ought to do — that is, it is a divine expectation that must be fulfilled. Now consider what the standard is for serving God: Perfection. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). What are we required to do in terms of the law? All of it and not only outwardly but inwardly as a disposition of the heart: “You shall therefore love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Praying as we ought, then, is utterly impossible under the law.
Thanks be to God that Christ has liberated us from even the “oughtness” of prayer and, with his own words, has transformed our ignorant stammering into a soul-satisfying communing with God through the plagiarized words of that Word made flesh.
This is why every Christian feels, in a visceral as well as cognitive way, the insufficiency of their prayers. That is our simul iustus nature, as Luther put it. Our words are failing and ill-suited because we so often live by sight and not by faith. Our approach to the Holy One is undeniably contrived and ill-mannered; our speech muddled and imprecise. But thanks be to God that Christ has liberated us from even the “oughtness” of prayer and, with his own words, has transformed our ignorant stammering into a soul-satisfying communing with God through the plagiarized words of that Word made flesh. In gifting us with the perfect prayer that perfectly accords with the will of God, Jesus has turned our imperfect prayers from the point of failing condemnation into a sweet gift of the gospel, from an exercise in insecurity to one of confident security. By plagiarizing the prayer, Jesus gave to his disciples.
It was once said that it is really the “Disciples’ Prayer” because disciples are to be the ones praying it. But this misses the point of the gospel. Jesus prayed this prayer first, taking prayer as an institution that once underscored human failure and insufficiency, fulfilling it himself for “the prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). Christ our righteousness (Rom. 3:26), then transferred prayer to us as an instance of pure gospel. In this way, it is the Lord’s Prayer. And, now, it is ours to plagiarize when we pray so that we may be sure that whatever else we may have prayed, it is bound up with a prayer that undoubtedly accords with the will of God and, what is more, is a prayer tethered to the availing mediation of Christ Jesus.
*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.