The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer (after the introduction) is perhaps the most difficult to understand. We know what the other petitions mean when they ask for things like daily bread or forgiveness or help in times of temptation. These are things we might pray for on our own anyway. But what does it mean to pray “Hallowed be thy name?” That’s not the kind of phrase we normally use in our personal prayers. Martin Luther asks in the Large Catechism, “Isn’t God and His name holy in and of itself? What can our poor prayers add to that?” Why is this odd petition even included in this most perfect prayer?
In the catechism Luther brings the meaning down to earth. Certainly God’s name is holy in heaven, Luther says, but it is on earth where it needs to be honored and respected and hallowed far more than what it is. How many times, Luther asks, don’t we hear God’s holy name used in a very unholy way, with all the cursing and swearing we hear every day? This petition is not for God’s sake, but for our sake, Luther says. We are praying, in other words, that we may keep God’s name holy; that we may live our lives in such a way that it brings honor, and not dishonor and disgrace, to God’s name. We are CHRISTians, we bear Christ’s name, and when we live our lives in ways contrary to God’s will for us, we dishonor that holy name of God. In this petition, says Luther, we are praying that God give us the faith and the strength to live our lives in ways that will bring honor to the name of the God we believe in.
Saley is an immigrant I met several years ago. Saley grew up in Cambodia which is 99% Buddhist. His entire family and all of his friends were Buddhist. But Saley became a Christian. Why? Because he saw how the Christian missionaries in his country served the poor and the downtrodden. He would say to his friends and family, “We don’t even help our own people like these Christians help them.” He said to me, “I wanted to know the God that inspired those missionaires to leave their home and family to come to my country and help my people.”
God’s name was honored by the work of those missionaries. Saley saw that and became a believer. That’s what can happen when God’s name is hallowed. That’s how the early Christians were able to spread his message to all the world. In an otherwise corrupt and dying Roman society, Christians stood out as people of courage, faith, conviction, hope, and unselfish service to others. God’s name was hallowed among them, and others wanted to know this God.
But this does not happen when the actions of believers dishonor God’s name by their lives and actions.
Mahatma Gandhi was born a Hindu. However, he would not accept the injustices of the Hindu caste system. Instead, he admired Jesus Christ above all others. In his desire to identify with the poor, Gandhi had few possessions. He owned only one book– the New Testament. Yet, Gandhi refused to become a Christian. He said he would not become a Christian because of the Christians he knew. When Gandhi lived in South Africa, he was persecuted by ‘good Christians’ because of his dark skin. When he returned to his native India, the Christian British were in control of his country, and they opposed all of Gandhi’s efforts to bring peace and freedom and independence to his people. Gandhi, the Hindu who did not believe in Jesus as Lord, wanted to live by Jesus’ principles of forgiveness and love of their enemies and peaceful resistance. The British, who did believe in Jesus, responded with oppression and violence. God’s name was not honored or hallowed by the Christian British in India, and a great opportunity for evangelism and mission was lost.
We bring honor or dishonor to God’s name by how we live.
Mohandis Gandhi (1869-1948) as a young lawyer in South Africa
Ezekiel 39:7 — (God says), “‘I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned, and the nations will know that I the Lord am the Holy One in Israel.”
Matthew 6:9 — (Jesus said), “This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
Matthew 5:16 — (Jesus said), “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Philippians 1:27a — Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
The First Petition and explanation from Martin Luther’s Small Cathechism, 1529:
Hallowed be Thy name.
What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.
How is God’s name kept holy?
God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!