The Lord's Prayer Today
Saturday 17th November 2012
We regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer ‘as our Saviour has taught us’. Occasionally, we stop to think about what the prayer might mean. More rarely, a theologian like Marcus Borg tries to determine what the first century Jewish mystic and revolutionary Jesus might have meant by it. But the form of words remains more or less sacrosanct.
Yet the man Jesus was a product of his time and will have spoken the language of his day with its world outlook: when the heaven was above the sky and the gods still walked with men, when knowing a name gave power, when God’s covenant was conditional on good behaviour. For us today, there is no location in the universe for heaven; God cannot be shown to intervene in the world; we believe that God’s grace is unconditionally available. So I have tried to rephrase the prayer in words and thoughts which might express our understanding now.
Our heavenly Father,
We bless you within and without us;
Help us to make your kingdom here on earth;
Give us today the bread we need for body and soul;
Help us when we go our own way to turn back to you,
and to love our neighbour as ourselves;
Test us not, but keep us safe.
The opening phrase conveys that, while God is not our physical parent, we are all in a family relationship with him. I have not been able to find appropriate other words that are location and gender neutral. We are so used to ‘Our Father’ that the idea contrasts with our notion of the God of the Old Testament. That God had a contractual relationship with his people, and misfortune was seen as divine punishment. Sadly, these ideas, which appear elsewhere in the Gospels, still loom large in the liturgy of the Church. However, Geza Vermes has shown that the expression was regularly used in Jewish worship in Jesus’ time.
The second expresses in the words of a Celtic prayer that God is both closer to us than we are to ourselves and also sustains the universe. The expression picks up the idea of gratitude. It also avoids using ‘name’, which tends to convey the idea of a person like us rather than the ultimate mystery that God is. The words ‘hallow’ and ‘bless’ (both derived from Old English, the latter from blood) both mean to make holy and to honour as holy; ‘bless’ is also used to confer or invoke divine favour.
Marcus Borg has shown that the next three sentences express Jesus’ passion for this world, that social justice should prevail, and that people should be free of the fear of starvation and debt enslavement. While I develop the second and third lines somewhat differently, we do well to remember that injustice, famine and debt enslavement are still a reality for many people today, and not only in the third world.
The words: ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done’ suggest that these things will be done by God, whereas God operates through the work of human hands. We have a responsibility to work towards these objectives, which we may achieve by the grace of God. In “Aping Mankind”, Raymond Tallis gives a plausible Darwinian account of the derivation of self-consciousness and intentionality, which led on to the intellectual world which we have created. He is clear that personality cannot be identified with the brain, but somehow exists in the brain in the body. In this nebulous area we sometimes achieve results which we believe to be beyond our capabilities: this is where the idea of grace enters. I discuss the idea of heaven further below.
The phrase that I have added to the ‘bread’ line comes from a sermon long ago: the preacher was expanding on the idea that man does not live by bread alone. We had the good fortune to be evacuated to a place of relative plenty in the country, so this idea stuck in my mind.
As an Anglican, I am accustomed to ‘trespasses’ in the next sentence and find the sentence problematic, first in relation to the parable of the Prodigal Son, second in the light of Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication(NVC), and third for the suggestion in the second part that forgiveness depends on our forgiving. NVC provides a paradigm for communication that avoids judgement: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ I would expect no less from God the Father. So I prefer the image of returning to the right path, which is what repentance means: following the path of Jesus in faith is the heart of Christianity. NVC also requires positive action rather than stopping doing something, hence I prefer to ask for help in following the right path and acting out its social counterpart.
‘Temptation’ has rather different connotations today, but we are all familiar with the multiple tests that are set in our way to any goal. ‘Test us not’ seems a fair translation today, and ‘Keep us safe’ is the positive request. The Jews often emphasised an idea by repeating it in slightly different words.
Heaven has virtually disappeared from my version, which requires some explanation. Jonathan Stedall concludes his long book ‘Where on Earth is Heaven?’ with the words of the medieval mystic Angelus Silesius: ‘Stop, whither are you running? Heaven is in you; if you seek God elsewhere, you will forever miss Him.’ So we are not to look to heaven as our destination, but to find it in the journey of life. This is a common theme. After his exploration of the varieties of Islam, Ziauddin Sardar concludes that paradise is not a destination but a journey. Buddhism calls for mindfulness, attention to the present, which is also the essence of the Alexander Technique. Tolstoy finds that the most important time is now, the most important person the one you are with, and the most important action is to do that person good. So heaven is in the here and now if we could only see it.
This conclusion also has a bearing on the idea of eternal life. Stedall points out that eternity must be qualitatively different from time stretching without end. If heaven is in the here and now, then eternal life must be to live always in the present moment. The fact that this is not at all easy gives the idea additional weight. We are inclined to look back to a mythical Golden Age or to look forward to a time when our present problems will be resolved. The powers that be try to induce us to accept the inequities of this world by promising that they will be rectified in the next. But now is what we have, and we would do well to make a heaven of it.
By Michael Hell