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Teaching a Barber to Pray

BarberPeter the Barber is one of the most interesting figures in church history. He was not like so many others–of whom we have accounts in the annals of church history–a theological giant. He did not start any charitable organization or initiate a movement to liberate an oppressed people. He was Martin Luther’s barber (and, apparently was quit committed to the bowl cut!). In 1535, Luther wrote his instructive little book, A Simple Way to Prayer, at Peter’s request. Luther wasted no time in helping his friend. He set out in four simple sections some of his most profound thoughts on prayer. Luther gave general instruction on prayer, together with a short exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed.

Although Luther’s Simple Way to Pray is full of simple, clear, and direct instructions to help us learn to pray as we ought, there are two sections in particular that I have always found to be of great importance. The first is found in Luther’s exposition of the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Luther wrote,

“Then say: ‘Dear Lord God, Father, do not call us into judgment, for in your presence no one is righteous. Please do not condemn us for being ungrateful for all of your unspeakable goodness—both spiritual and physical—and for our daily blunders and sins—which are more than we know or mark (Psalm 19:12). Furthermore, do not consider how good or bad we have been, but look upon us with your infinite compassion, bestowed upon us by Christ, your beloved Son. Forgive also all our enemies and all those who have harmed us or done us an injustice, even as we forgive them from the heart. For they do themselves irreparable harm when they vent their anger against us. We gain nothing by their ruin. Rather, we would rather see them blessed with us. Amen.”

Then, toward the end of the work, we find Luther appealing to an analogy drawn for Peter’s own occupation. This is contextualization of truth at its finest. Luther wrote,

“He who prays must be like a good, industrious barber who has to keep his mind and eyes precisely upon his razor and hair and know whether to cut or trim, lest by too much gabbing or looking about aimlessly, he slashes someone’s mouth or nose, or worse, someone’s throat. Thus every job, if it is to be done well, demands the full attention of one’s mind and members.”

The section on the petition “forgive us our debts” is particularly important because not long after Luther wrote this little book of his barber, Peter had a great fall. A preface to a 2017 publication of A Simple Way to Pray explains what happened:

“Peter the Barber, whose family name was Beskendorf, become intoxicated at a family gathering in his son-in-law’s home on the Saturday before Easter, March 27, 1535. On that occasion Peter tried to prove a boast of his son-in-law Dietrich, a mercenary soldier. Dietrich had bragged that he was impervious to sword strokes and thus had survived unscathed the many battles in which he had been engaged. Evidently, to substantiate or test his son-in-law’s boast, Peter, inebriated, stabbed him in the chest. This stabbing cost Dietrich his life and Peter his house and goods, in addition to his citizenship. Because of Luther’s pleas and those of the elector’s Chancellor, Franz Burkhard, and because the public found it regrettable that the old man was found guilty by the court, Peter was banished instead of sentenced to death. He found refuge as an exile in Dessau.”

While we cannot be sure, we can speculate that Peter found Luther’s instruction about praying for forgiveness to be a great comfort to him after this tragic incident. As Mark Earngey explains,

“Perhaps Peter treasured Luther’s words then, more than ever?  One particular sentence of Luther’s prayers would have spoken volumes into his sad situation: “… in thy mercy, grant us a blessed departure from this vale of sorrows so that in the face of death we do not become fearful or despondent but in firm faith commit our souls into thy hands.”

Regardless of Peter’s outcome, Luther did his barber-––and us––a great service in writing the extremely practical and spiritually beneficial work, A Simple Way to Pray.