I have often asked Christian people some version of this question, “What is the most widely known or popular verse of scripture?” Their answers invariable include the 23rd Psalm, the Beatitudes, or John 3:16. But they miss the mark, in my judgment, and by a wide margin. The answer is, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of Jesus, as recorded in both the gospels of Matthew (in the Sermon on the Mount) and Luke.
This prayer, some 70 words in the most common English edition, is the most widely known, frequently memorized, and often repeated portion of Scripture—more than that—collection of words in the history of human culture.
This is quite a claim, and although I cannot prove its accuracy, I can give you compelling reasons to think it just might be true.
The Prayer, known widely as the Our Father, is included in the worship services of most Christians around the world, every Sunday and every day. Orthodox, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and other liturgical communions include it in their stated order of worship. This accounts for the vast majority of Christians around the world.
Not many Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and other Free Church Christians (including Baptists, my own tradition) routinely pray this prayer when they gather to worship. These groups pushed out such memorized and recited prayers and opted for more free-form or extemporaneous (even spontaneous) prayers. (I will have more to say about this in a later meditation.)
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the two billion Christians include this Prayer in their worship on a weekly or daily basis; and this has been the reality since the first century. The earliest Christian document not included of the New Testament is called the Didache, which means “teaching”, and this circular gives explicit directions about the use of the Prayer:
“Pray thus: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, as in heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the evil one, for yours is the power and the glory forever.’ Pray thus three times a day.”
In addition, consider the Rosary. This string of beads developed during the Middle Ages as a guide to prayer. Roman Catholics especially utilize it, fingering the beads one at a time, with each section of beads recalling a specific episode in the life of Jesus, which is to be remembered while praying the Prayer of Jesus and the Hail Mary. The full Rosary contains 20 life events, known as Mysteries, with five prayed each day, accompanied by the Prayer of Jesus. In other words, each time the Rosary is prayed, the Prayer of Jesus is recited five times. And millions of people do this every day, often several times during the day. How many times the Prayer of Jesus is prayed through the Rosary is hard to estimate. But it is a lot!
Added to these are the many times the Prayer is sung at public events, like weddings, or inserted into movie scripts or songs and other literary pieces. It functions as the quintessential Christian text, signifying in a very few words all that our faith asserts or implies. It is the cultural cipher for Christ.
For two millennia, among Christians who now claim two billion adherents (although many of them, of course, are non-practicing), this simple Prayer has been the most common expression of the faith.
There are two other religious texts that rival the Prayer of Jesus for primacy in this category of popularity.
The first is another Christians text, one that Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Protestants would never suggest: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.” These are the words from the gospel of Luke, and they are embedded in the religious consciousness especially of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians.
The Hail Mary is prayed ten times during the Rosary for each time the Prayer of Jesus is prayed, which equates to 50 times during a daily, five-mystery exercise. Plus, it is incorporated in many other pietistic expressions of Christian faith, especially associated with the veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The use of the Hail Mary is not nearly as old as the Prayer of Jesus, dating from the Middle Ages. It is widely avoided among Evangelical, Protestant, and Pentecostal Christians, except for the Anglicans.
Another text that competes with the Prayer of Jesus is the Muslim confession of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” It is included in the five daily prayers, which in turn constitute one of the five pillars of Islam. In addition, it is prayed at birth, at death, at conversion, and at other times.
Considering that there are more than one billion Muslims in the world and that Muslims have been repeating these words since the seventh century, it is fair to say that this collection of 11 words (in English) is one of the most frequently recited sayings in human history.
Even with these two alternate claimants to popularity, I hold forth my case that the Prayer of Jesus is the most widely known, often memorized, and frequently recited collection of words in the history of human culture. This is but one measure of its popularity, influence, and significance; it should give us a fresh sense of its importance, not just in the Christian community but also in the wider human community.