White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Plagiarizing the Lord's Prayer

Published Tuesday, November 1, 2011 By John J. Bombaro

Ben Franklin’s oft-repeated motto, “Remember that time is money,” stands in need of a serious twentieth-century upgrade. Today, text is money. Intellectual property rights are the new cash cow, not the time clock. It’s a shame Jesus didn’t have a financial advisor to counsel him on such matters. If only he would have trademarked John 3:16! 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 inspired (!) sermonic material, Jesus forfeits all, instructing every disciple to plagiarize the Lord’s Prayer. (1)

The Messiah had a very good reason for us to take this prayer upon our lips and entrench it within our hearts through overlearning: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). And so, there is a divine expectation that we converse and commune with God, but we do not and cannot pray as we ought since we are’as Luther put it’always a sinner and constantly sinning in thought, word, and deed, even while justified in this life by Jesus’ imputed righteousness. Therefore Christ must redeem us and fulfill even the “law of prayer” on our behalf. He not only fulfills the law of prayer and wins for us the Holy Spirit who makes intercession for us, he also bequeaths to us the perfect prayer as an availing entreaty to our heavenly Father.

Fabricating a prayer as one “ought” is an impossible task. Christians feel, in a visceral as well as cognitive way, the insufficiency of their prayers’that is our “always a sinner” nature. 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 work 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.

Originality vs. Plagiarism

The gift of the Lord’s Prayer frees Christians from the unrealistic expectation of posturing a strong faith and spiritual answers when people seek words of comfort and hope. The reality is that more times than not the words aren’t there. We are usually at a loss regarding 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 certain and true. Instead of fabricating something snappy to garner God’s attention, Jesus would have us lose all such originality and simply plagiarize.

The call of Christ, then, is to think differently from the way we usually think about prayer: originality isn’t necessarily a virtue, and plagiarizing isn’t necessarily a vice. Move from the propensity toward sinful subjectivity and enter into the realm of divine objectivity by taking license to steal, at the behest of the Lord himself.

Jesus steers us into the sphere of communing with our heavenly Father through prayer that is not based on anything we could or would fabricate, precisely because our creative prayers are the product of sinful hearts. 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, and our own truncated and anthropocentric vision of reality; and Jesus more than anyone understood the hearts of men (cf. John 2:25). Consequently, when our hearts and minds are the fountainhead of prayer, the conversation with God starts off on bad footing.

But there is another source’untainted, vital, and true. That source is God. More specifically, it’s God as revealed in the Bible. We could get even more specific in that it is God revealed in his Son, Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh. When we say that God is the source for our prayers, we need to understand that our prayers need to be plagiarized prayers. We need to be praying for what God wants us to pray’that is, what we ought to pray. That means taking the words of the Way, the Truth, and the Life and putting them into our mouths.

The Actual Content of Your Prayers

The good prayer is not that far removed from the good sermon. A good preacher plagiarizes. There is no need to come up with something avant garde, because what the minister of the Word does is reiterate news’good news. In fact, this news was something that God himself first said and then generated an apostolic corps to rehearse time and again. And it will continually be reiterated’hopefully many times verbatim’because the Lord permits no copyright on the content of the holy gospel. It’s free for the taking, free for the telling, and left to the public domain of preaching and professing. The same could be said for catechesis (which means “to sound again”). Good catechumens copycat the catechism. In reiterating the Word of God, catechumens say that which is certain and true.

Now apply the same to prayer. Jesus has given us the words of prayer “to sound again.” It is no accident that Luther included the Lord’s Prayer as the third chief part of the catechism’the Lord has made it a constitutive element in basic discipleship: “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:1-2). Indeed, receiving, owning, and implementing Christ’s catechesis on prayer sets disciples in their proper place: it is enough that disciples be as their master.

That Christ would put the words of prayer into our mouths is in good keeping with Old Testament precedence. The Psalms are self-presenting 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’the prayer of the Lord as your prayer to the Lord’may not make you a master pray-er. It is likely that you will be no more eloquent than you are now, but you will be able to pray in a godly fashion something that is true, something according to God’s will, something purposed toward the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. You will be praying what God desires to hear. Again, this is the disciple’s confidence: praying the Word of God back to God allows you to say that which is most certain and true’nothing doubting.

The Premier Prayer

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 God’s name is holy? 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. His words turn the focus from us to the God who is there. The Lord’s Prayer says, “Concern yourself with my words, my will, rather than your own and say back to me what I have already said to you. In other words, be ye catechized and you shall be worshiping me in Spirit and in truth.”

The great thing about this is that he knows what we truly need, and so his Word in the Lord’s Prayer is really his best care for us. When we take God’s words and make them our own, we actually are praying for what’s best for ourselves.

The Liturgy

You might have heard the Latin saying that as you pray so you believe’lex orandi, lex credenda (loosely translated, “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief” or “as you pray, so you believe”). This maxim helps when it comes to understanding what we should pray, how we should pray, what words we should use, and from where those words ought to be derived. The prayers of the church’what the church prays‘forms confession, profession, and proclamation. Doctrine flows from doxology.

This brings us back to plagiarism. If we pray what God has given us to pray, then we will be praying in line with his will, his wisdom, and (at least in this respect) be worshiping in Spirit and in truth. This has been both the beauty and the necessity of the Divine Liturgy: it protects parishioners from the whims of the minister and the minister from the whims of the parishioners. The liturgy says back to God that which is most certain and true, and this is because in the liturgy we have the Word of God suffusing every dimension of the biblical Mass, including prayer. As we gather for worship, the liturgy forms our prayer life, focusing on God, receiving what he has to give us, and responding to him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving by saying back to him what he has said to us. In this respect even the Divine Service is catechetical and therefore a constitutive element in disciple-making. No prayer could be more appropriate for the assembly of disciples than the Lord’s Prayer that entreats “Our Father” for “our daily bread” and a half dozen more petitions in every case in the plural. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of the church.

The Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer among many within the liturgy. It is the prayer, truly best prayed in the context of God giving to us what he most desires to give’the Son to his bride the church in Word and Sacrament. In the Lord’s Prayer, then, both the will and the reason of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are known to us, for us.

How Our Lord Teaches Us to Pray

Though we know it by rote through overlearning, we can never exhaust the theology of the Lord’s Prayer. It therefore retains deep endless value and profound meaningfulness throughout our lives. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re not just repeating what he has given us to say; we are actually praying. More precisely, we are praying what he wants us to pray’his will, not ours; for his reasons, not ours.

The Lord’s Prayer is to be plagiarized, not adapted. Jesus didn’t say experiment with this model. He said, “Pray this…” Don’t just say it, pray it. Believe it. Take it to heart. Meditate upon it and take refuge in it.

You know the Father’s name is holy and that it is holy among you because of Christ and his cross. So pray it.

You know his kingdom comes and that it has come to you in the incarnate Son of God and by the Holy Spirit. So pray it.

You know that the Father’s will is perfect and holy and that it is done among you because of great redemption accomplished by Jesus the Son. So pray it.

You know that God gives you your daily bread and that he gives it to you out of his great love, which was supremely manifested when he gave you the Bread of Life on the cross and now in the Eucharist. So pray it.

You know the Father forgives you of your sins and helps you forgive others theirs and that he forgives you because he has separated you from your sins as far as the east is from the west in forsaking his only begotten Son. So pray it.

You know God does not lead you into temptation and that he guards you in the time of temptation because your Lord himself has endured temptation beyond what you have experienced and has overcome temptation, sin, the devil, and death. So pray it.

You know that God delivers you from evil and that it is so because he already delivered you from the punishment you deserve, delivering his own Son over to make atonement and be the propitiation. So pray it.

You know that his is the kingdom, power, and glory forever and ever and that it is so because Jesus rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and reigns on high forever. So pray it.

You know it’s all true, and so you say “Amen.”

Plagiarism of this kind comes with no fine or record. In fact, to take this from Jesus only liberates us from the tyranny and restlessness of perpetual innovativeness that emerge from our harmful wants and desires as we pray for what we know not. The Lord’s Prayer in the mouth of the church, then, is truth that sets us free to be honest with the Lord, serviceable to his kingdom, and in our proper place within the cosmic order’namely, as catechumens, disciples of Jesus the Christ.

God Plagiarizing Himself

The Word of God teaches us that it plagiarizes itself. Everywhere in the Gospels, whether in the wilderness temptations or on the cross of Golgotha, God incarnate submitted himself to his own Word inscripturated, and thus we can be in no better position than to do the same. This is an enormous consolation when you cannot think of what to say. Don’t worry about the need for spontaneity and creativity. Let the prayer the Lord has taught us take you to that which is most certain and true, because this prayer is what Jesus himself would and did pray.

The First and Foremost Prayer

Martin Luther said that “nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and drum into his ears our prayer that he may give, preserve, and increase in us faith and obedience.” (2) What better to drum into his ears than his own words? Luther believed so strongly in this that it made its way into his Large Catechism:

We should be moved and drawn to prayer. For in addition to this commandment and promise, God expects us and He Himself arranges the words and form of prayer for us. He places them on our lips for how and what we should pray, so that we may see how heartily He pities us in our distress, and we may never doubt that such prayer is pleasing to Him and shall certainly be answered. This [the Lord’s Prayer] is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, “I have prayed, but who knows if it pleases Him or whether I have hit upon the right proportions and form?” Therefore, there is no nobler prayer to be found upon earth than the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it daily, because it has this excellent testimony, that God loves to hear it. We ought not to surrender this for all the riches of the world. (3)

Psalm 51:15 gives us a good practical theology of prayer: “O Lord, open my lips.” He opens our lips with his very words, words that cannot be exhausted, just as our need to pray them cannot be exhausted. Luther put it like this: “[In the Lord’s Prayer] is included in seven successive articles, or petitions, every need that never ceases to apply to us. Each is so great that it ought to drive us to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer all our lives.” (4)

The Lord’s Prayer cannot be outgrown, rendered redundant, or denominated as outmoded. One simply cannot come to the point where this prayer has been mastered or where it is merely a didactic device, if for no other reason than it entreats the Lord for forgiveness, for necessities of life, for the prospering of the kingdom of God in the here and now in hope of the not yet. While the Lord’s Prayer is simple, it encompasses all of prayer’adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. Even if it were just a simple thing, there would be nothing greater in praying to God than what he has given us in this prayer if for no other reason than the sufficiency of Scripture begets the sufficiency of this prayer, so that it can be said that the Word made flesh gave this Word for those in the flesh that our flesh may be conformed to this Word.

All Theology Is Plagiarism

In Ephesians 3:12, St. Paul encourages the baptized to come with “boldness” before the throne of God. Before Paul, Jesus himself instructed his disciples to take great boldness as a plagiarizer of prayer. Approach the throne of the great King telling him what he said, what he loves to hear, what he knows to be his good and perfect will. If you have ever wondered whether God answers your prayers, then wonder no more. By praying to him what he has given you to pray, you are assured he not only hears but answers your prayers according to his good and perfect will.

From what Jesus teaches and practices, it appears that all our orthodoxy and orthopraxy should be the product of pure, unmitigated plagiarism. This is what keeps our communing with God in profession, praxis, and prayer most certain and true. So choose this day from whom you will steal. As for me and my household, we will plagiarize the Lord.

  • John J. Bombaro


1 [ Back ] The substance of this article is adapted from Rev. Paul Willweber's "All Theology is Plagiarism" paper presented at the Catechism Convocation on the Lord's Prayer at Trinity Lutheran Church, Whittier, California (April 2010). Willweber is the parish minister at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in San Diego.
2 [ Back ] T. G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959; reprint 2000), 420.
3 [ Back ] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia, 2005), 410.
4 [ Back ] McCain, 412.