The Lord's Prayer, Praying for a Revolution (Revised Paper)
THE LORD’S PRAYER: Praying for a revolution! (a study by the Revd. Dr. Richard Firth, B.A., M.Th.)
The Gospels present a picture of Jesus as a qualified Rabbi, well educated and versed in the Old Testament scriptures. Rabbis were often itinerants who depended on the hospitality of others, preaching and teaching in synagogues, homes and open air. They gathered bands of disciples who would follow after them in order to learn of them. They taught by rote asking questions which required answers in catechetical style. However Jesus had an originality which other Rabbis did not seem to have. In the passages about the Lord’s Prayer His disciples ask Him a question ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.
Rabbis traditionally used to compose prayers for their disciples to use, hence the reported request of Jesus’ disciples for Him to do the same. It was intended to be a pattern prayer, not one to have a fixed form and to be used by rote as it is today, being said in almost every service of worship across the world, having been translated into nearly ever language under the sun.
There are two versions of the prayer in the Gospels:
Our Father in heaven, may your name be hallowed; your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one. (For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.
Father, may your name be hallowed; your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we too forgive all who have done us wrong. And do not put us to the test.
The above are from the Revised English Bible, the most accurate translation we have at the moment.
Mark, the earliest Gospel, does not include the prayer. If he did know it then he did not regard it as important enough to record it. It is possible that Matthew and Luke knew one another’s versions. Did Matthew expand on Luke or did Luke abbreviate Matthew, we cannot be sure? We may be certain, however, that the story of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer was passed on in the oral tradition for more than 55 years before Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels. There would have been many versions extant in all the churches, of which only these two were eventually recorded. The longer ending of Matthew’s version only appeared in manuscripts of the early second century, possibly because it was a feature of some liturgies. In some liturgies today the priest prays the shorter version and then later in the liturgy the congregation prays the longer version.
We may safely assume that Jesus never intended the same version to be used in every church and at every service. It was meant to be a pattern for praying and also a spur for action, since we cannot pray the prayer without doing something to bring about the desired outcome. We are to pray the Lord’s Prayer sincerely, not merely to say it routinely, to recite it by rote in a habitual and unthinking manner. In essence it is a prayer for a revolution.
The Context: The context in which the prayer is given by Jesus is the Roman occupation of Palestine. Although local rulers were allowed they were puppets, oppression was severe, taxation excessive, law being strictly enforced. The Jews were allowed to practise their own religion as long as it did not conflict with the authority of Rome. The Temple system meant a strict observance of religious law (the Ten Commandments and associated regulations) and an additional system of taxation to maintain the Temple, its rituals and priesthood. Insofar as ordinary people were concerned living was hard and poverty endemic, with debt a social problem. Racial discrimination was enforced, e.g. the Jews had no dealings with neighbouring Samaritans. Racial intermarriage was not encouraged. Male domination was culturally acceptable. Collaborators were commonplace. Against this background we attempt to understand the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional version as a prayer for revolutionary change and what this would involve.
1. The Revolution Begins with Reverence.
Our Father: The use of the word ‘our’ means that the prayer is a corporate prayer and not an individualistic one. It could be the prayer of the community of disciples or the prayer of a common humanity. The use of ‘our’ in this way breaks down barriers of nation, race, class, gender and ability. The word ‘Father’ implies the common origin of humanity by creation. The actual word in Aramaic is ‘Abba’ the intimate word used by a child of its ‘daddy’, reflecting an affectionate feminine side and indicating God’s care for all His/Her children, all earthly creatures and creation itself, a concern for all that He/She has made. If God is our common divine parent then we are all one great human family, sisters and brothers to each other, committed to our mutual welfare. The Creator is transcendent yet imminent, the ‘beyond in the midst of life’ awesome yet intimately near. His/Her love is for all without discrimination, the sun and the rain falling on both good and evil, the just and the unjust alike, and who’s care for creation is such that even the fall of a sparrow is noticed.
Who art in heaven: a phrase which reflects the cosmology of the time. In the Bible the word is used of a physical heaven or heavens and is the place where God dwells. In our time, a few thousand years later with our contemporary knowledge of the universe, it is surely valid to equate the heavens with the cosmos and to affirm that God’s presence is everywhere. He/She is omnipresent love who desires that human life shall become heavenly in quality, that is becoming what His/Her nature desires. Heaven relates to and embraces the earth ‘below’, creation now being regarded as one.
Hallowed be thy name: In Jewish theology the name of God also included the knowledge of the nature of God, especially as revealed to Moses: ‘I am that I am’, the mysterious name which expresses numinous quality and which is to be ‘hallowed’ that is, revered, honoured, respected, not taken in vain. And this is to be the case in the whole of human living. If He/She is the ‘beyond in the midst of life’ then the whole of our lives is enhanced beyond measure. So the Lord’s Prayer begins by centring our thoughts upon God, as loving Father/Parent. One who is closer to us than the air we breathe, yet one whom we revere, awesomely. The revolution begins with reverence.
2. The Revolution needs Idealism.
Thy kingdom come: The ‘Kingdom of God’ is the central message of Jesus (Mark 1.14 etc.). He said that the kingdom is near to us and invited us to change the set of our minds and enter into it. The kingdom or realm of God, to use a gender neutral word, is made real wherever God’s rule of love operates. It is not confined to any territory or national boundary. The ministry of Jesus personified the kingdom in action. Jesus’ exposition of the kingdom consisted of three elements. i) Formal teaching as in the Sermon on the Mount, which was not necessarily an actual occasion but a summary collection of remembered sayings often re-interpreting the Law and the ‘traditions’. (‘You have heard it said….but I say unto you’) ii) Stories with a hard hitting content, e.g. The Good Samaritan, The Workers in the Vineyard, etc. iii) Encounters, especially with non-Jews, e.g. the woman at the well, the Syropheonician woman, the Roman Centurion, etc. The Kingdom has two essential laws, to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The Kingdom is inclusive in nature and its subjects practise justice, freedom and peace especially prioritising the poor, the marginalised, the sick, the stranger, the hungry and thirsty, the rejected, the oppressed, the different, those of other races, those with varied abilities. Although the Kingdom is here in part, it is still yet to come in the fullest sense.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven: This raises the question as to what is God’s will, presumably that, in light of the previous phrase, the Kingdom should come. We cannot avoid the link between this phrase and the prayer of Jesus in the Garden, that the cup of suffering be taken away and that God’s will not His be done. Is God’s will permissive or determinative? Bearing in mind that the gift of freedom to the human will is unrestricted by any divine constraint, there has always been debate as to whether or not Jesus’ death was part of some great eternal plan, or whether it happened as a result of purely human decisions. Be that as it may we would believe that it is God’s will that, based on love, the earth should be at peace, that ‘shalom’ which is the complete wholeness of people in body, mind and spirit living together in society. ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ implies the realisation of the ideal community of the Kingdom in worldly life, thus giving lie to the accusation that we believe in ‘pie in the sky when we die’! The Book of Revelation ends with the vision of the eternal city which comes from heaven to earth giving us a picture of a community in which war, disease and suffering are no more and where the green trees of healing and peace grow and flourish. It is a city community in which God’s will is entirely done and His/Her rule is complete in every way. Love reigns supreme and justice is realised. Life is all in harmony and dreams are fulfilled. We are reminded also of the Psalmists word ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. By virtue of the act of creation itself God is the owner of earth and humans have a stewardship of the planet. The ideal is that of realising the presence of the Kingdom of God in the world and so achieving a revolution.
3. The Revolution Leads to Results.
Give us this day our daily bread: The meaning is ‘give us day by day our daily bread’ with echoes of the story of the manna in the wilderness when its provision was on a daily basis. ‘Give us’ implies that whatever is provided is to be shared in equal proportion for the day. The implication is that we should be satisfied with what we have in the present and not to store up for the future. In the Gospel story the farmer who did so died that very night! The sharing of the bread as a human necessity means that no one would go in need. The earth’s larders do provide sufficient for its population at the present moment, the issue is one of distribution and fairer sharing. The nature of the earth is programmed in such a way that humankind may cultivate it in order to provide necessary sustenance. God may be the source of all things but, no magic being involved, it is through human labour that our daily needs are provided for, farmers, producers, distributors, retailers, and domestic preparation all serve to put our food on the table. Issues raised here are those of mutual interdependence, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, the sustainability or otherwise of the mushrooming earth’s population, the unfair distribution of the world’s wealth, the obesity crisis, the rise and rise of the need for food banks, to live simply that others may simply live, etc. Some scholars have interpreted this phrase as referring to the Eucharist, and the daily provision of our spiritual bread, but this is unlikely, and merely an indication of the tendency to ‘spiritualise’. What is intended is that the practical outcomes of the revolution should be achieved.
4. The Revolution Concerns Relationships.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: The word ‘trespasses’ is more literally translated ‘debts’, or ‘sins’, meaning ‘what is owed’ or ‘wrongdoing’. To do wrong to others is to be ‘in their debt’, debt being a familiar concept to poorer people at the time. To use the word ‘trespasses’ itself implies wrongly intruding upon what rightfully belongs to another. If the meaning is that of material debt then issues of how money is accrued or lent to others are raised. No more than a fair interest should be expected when loans are made. Extortion is plainly wrong. ‘Debt’ could also be used in a moral or religious sense in that wrongdoing to others puts us in their debt, or with regard to God failure to give the worship and obedience due to Him/Her. In either case to put things right requires an act of penitence, forgiveness and hence a restoration of relationships.
The idea of God expecting moral demands upon us arises from the development of the concept of ‘ethical monotheism’ in the Old Testament. In the Gospels wrongdoing is thought of as transgression against the two great commandments of love implying that forgiveness is to be sought from both God and others. It is worth noting that God’s forgiveness was understood to part of His/Her nature in Old Testament times, and was not something transactionally achieved by Jesus’ death upon the cross. Jesus exercised the prerogative of forgiveness during His ministry well before the crucifixion. But we note here that divine forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others the wrongs done to us. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation is exemplified by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and subsequently in Northern Ireland. The restoration of human relationships through mutual forgiveness is an important element in the revolution.
5. The Revolution Involves Resisting Evil.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: The sense is rather that in time of trial, testing or temptation God will lead us through. In the struggle to survive, which is the nature of life, we are constantly being tested. Moral choices both great and small confront us on a daily basis. There are two sources of temptation one from within ourselves with the propensity to self concern and, secondly, from the world at large with all its allurements. As the Temptation of Jesus story shows us, there is nothing wrong with temptation or testing itself, but yielding to it is. A more extreme interpretation of this phrase is that of not being led into a time of suffering, persecution or even martyrdom because of Christian allegiance and the desire to be delivered from such. The reality is, however, that bad things often happen to good people, and in such times, strangely, strength to come through them seems to be available, to both believer and unbeliever alike. There is no dichotomy between the human spirit and the divine spirit. Resisting evil in the world is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and there is much to be resisted in the materialistic world around us; greed, gratification, consumerism, acquisitiveness, living for the moment heedless of future consequences, profligacy, unquestioning acceptance of subtle propaganda, reversal of ethical values, abuse of technology, corruption, distortion of truth, the undermining of social mores. The Christian disciple needs to be alert to temptation in all its forms so that evil is resisted.
6. The Revolution Begins and Ends with God.
For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen: This concluding doxology to the prayer is not part of the original Gospel of St. Matthew. It was added by a scribe in the early second century of the Church being an extract from a developed liturgy, possibly because it was thought to be an appropriate way to end the prayer. It could be based on the traditional Jewish response in worship found in 1 Chronicles 29.11. It is an affirmation that the kingdom is God’s, the power to realise it is God’s and the glory of God is to be seen in its coming. But perhaps with a little too much triumphalism for our taste today! However that may be William Barclay comments, ‘In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to bring the whole of life to the whole of God and to bring the whole of God to the whole of life’.
Conclusion: The disciples entreated Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. He gave them a pattern prayer that was not filled with pious devotional phrases. It was a prayer for a revolution, beginning with reverence for God and idealism on which to focus the mind. It continued with the express desire that each member of the human race would have enough to live on, and that relationships would be restored through mutual forgiveness. Then it asks that the source of evil from within and without us may be resisted. In conclusion it affirms the durability of the Kingdom of God. We go on praying the Lord’s Prayer with faith and hope and confidence that one day the answer will come and the revolution occurs.
Postscript: A Contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer:Postscript: A Contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our loving Creator, your presence fills the cosmos. May your nature be revered. May your rule be realised on earth as you desire it to be. May we enjoy today the food that we need. Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we forgive those who have wronged us. May we overcome in times of trial and be delivered from evil. For you have authority, power and glory forever and ever, Amen.