Only two of the three synoptic evangelists hand down the prayer of Jesus in a largely consistent form. That which is missing in Mark, the major source used by Luke and Matthew, would have been found in Q, the second common source from which both authors drew. Luke also hands down the occasion of the prayer’s inception. One of Jesus’ disciples asks him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1).
John the Baptist delivered a prayer—which we could call the “John Prayer”—that could gather into a community the disciples who followed the desert preacher and at the same time encapsulate his central doctrine. Jesus responds without further ado to the request of the disciples, who seek a corresponding “Jesus Prayer”: “And he said to them, ‘when you pray, say . . .’” (Lk 11:2).
There is no reason to call into question this “Sitz im Leben.” This prayer that Jesus now formulates for his disciples will also prove to be exactly what the disciples asked for: it comprises the essence of his teaching, and it founds community among his disciples.
Matthew offers a different introduction to the prayer. Here, Jesus initially criticizes the public prayers of the hypocrites, who place themselves on street corners in order to be seen by the people. He goes on to say:
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father . . .”1
The last thought of this introduction, according to which the Father already “knows what you need before you ask him,” marks in advance the plane on which the prayer of Jesus moves—or, to be precise, will not move. While the heathens plead with many words for the satisfaction of their concrete necessities—what they need—the petitions that Jesus subsequently provides aim at something else. The Father already knows what one needs—for example, food for today—before one asks. This is why one need not ask him for this. The disciples should pray differently. To pray in the words that Jesus taught us is to ask for something other than the “everyday.”
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1. Mt 6:7–9.