In Matthew 6 the Lord’s Prayer stands amidst a series of condemnations of hypocritical piety. Here hypocrites don’t so much say one thing and do another as act for public display and not authentically. Jesus tells his followers to avoid acting like the hypocrites in the synagogues (vs. 2, 5, and 16). He is talking about religious acts, giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. But in regard to prayer he also tells them not to be like the Gentiles (v. 7). So the Lord’s Prayer and its introduction seem to have a little different context than the surrounding material.
Dale Allison stresses that the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew is eschatological or future oriented. The kingdom’s coming and the will of God being done on earth as in heaven will happen at the end. Also the prayer for forgiveness looks to the last judgment and the prayer to avoid testing points to the danger and tribulation of the last days. Even the bread for tomorrow may point forward to the bread of life we will receive in the end time. Allison shows, however, that throughout history Christian interpreters have applied the prayer to the present life of believers.
He brings out some ot the unique features of the prayer in Matthew. For instance, Matthew’s version begins with the address to “Our Father.” It is not a private prayer as if it started “My Father.” Rather it is an expression of the community.
He draws out the parallels to the prayer of Jesus in the garden as he prepares for his crucifixion. In the Lord’s Prayer there is “Our Father”. In Matthew 26:39 he prays “My Father.” In the Lord’s prayer there is, “Your will be done.” In Matthew 26 there is, “Your will be done.” In the Lord’s Prayer there is, “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” In Matthew 26 there is, “Pray that you do not come to the time of trial.”
So Jesus prays his own prayer, although commentators have claimed that Jesus could not have prayed, “Forgive us our debts”, since he was sinless. That brings us to Jesus’ oft stated premise that God’s forgiveness of us logically demands our forgiveness of others. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Divine grace toward us makes no sense apart from our mercy toward others. So Matthew adds the words of 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others their failings, neither will your Father forgive your failings.”
Allison points out that earlier in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus had said to put off the religious act of sacrifice until one has sought reconciliation with the one who has something against you. So this emphasis on forgiveness fits into the theme that religious acts, like giving, praying and fasting must show authenticity, not just outward form. True religion arises out of whole relationships and peace between people.
Jesus does not oppose religion. Here even giving to the poor appears as a religious act more than an act of compassion. Giving, praying, and fasting are things you do as a good Jew. But Jesus calls for you to do all of them out of genuine devotion rather than for show.
Finally, Allison deals with Jesus promising reward for genuine religion. The idea of reward occurs in vs. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16,and 18. Does this make religion mercenary? Isn’t religion really a relationship? And shouldn’t a relationship be for its own sake, rather than reward.
Well, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t seem to have a problem with this. Allison says the Sermon may just have a realistic view of human nature. We expect good behavior to have a reward. Still, he points out that you can’t weigh this reward in a scale. It is not proportionate. It is based on love and will be surprising.