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Friday, July 26, 2013

Grokking the "our" in "Our Father" C17O


If you’re under 40, you’re probably wondering what “grokking” means - for the answer to that, you’ll have to go back into my formative years and get a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein’s classic from the day when hippies were hip.

For the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear a rich combination of readings, particularly the first reading and gospel combination. Jesus’s teaching on prayer really strikes me, mostly because since we last heard these readings I've had the opportunity to read Dom Crossan's little book The Greatest Prayer, about the Our Father. For me, the meaning of Jesus’s teaching us to pray with the words “thy kingdom come” took on a new force, and that his prayer included petitions that echoed a peasant’s two greatest concerns, bread and debt, was particularly striking. Here are my little thoughts on the prayer itself:

Our Father...both the “our” and the “Father” are revelatory. The whole prayer is voiced as though prayed by a community, so that even when an individual is praying it, s/he is praying as part of the family. (In Luke’s text, there is no “our” before “father,” but the rest of the prayer is still first person plural.) That, it seems to me, is the first sign both of its genius and its truth. And the second is like it: Jesus’s use of “Father,” abba, while not unique in first-century Judaism, was not common, either. It seems to be a deliberate choice by Jesus, to choose “father” as the image for God among his disciples, rather than emperor, king, or judge This ought to be a tremendous relief for the believer. A father is bound by honor to look after the family, and the implied relationship of love is even better. Crossan goes to great lengths to assure us that the essence of meaning in the term is not so much a male figure as the head of a household, one which some women held, even in Judea.

Hallowed be your name. I hear this as a relational statement. God is God alone, and only God is holy. The statement is an act of reverence for the name of God which is paradoxical: God cannot be named, yet gives a name, like the bush that is both burning and unconsumed. Crossan takes us back to the Exodus and to Leviticus 19 to try to determine what the content is of "holy" or "hallowed" in relationship to God. "You must be holy as I am holy," says the Lord to Moses, and then he goes on to talk about justice to the poor, hospitality to aliens, and care for the blind and weak. 

Your kingdom come. This seems so “Jesus” to me! The reign of God is, in the words of Crossan and Borg, the passion of Christ, the thing for which he was willing to sacrifice his life. It is a statement of fidelity and allegiance: there can be only one king. It must be God, and other fidelities and other kings must give way. In a world where other powers appear to hold sway, we continue to pray “thy kingdom come.” "Your will be done on earth as in heaven" is the meaning of "your kingdom come."

Give us today our daily bread. This is the first of the two requests in the language of Jewish peasants. In the occupation economy of the Roman vassal state, eking out enough sustenance for the day’s bread for the family was a constant source of labor and worry. The prayer makes of God’s bounty our justice. It is also a prayer of peasant hope, "give us today the bread we need for tomorrow." Since the earth and all that is in it belongs to God, there is enough for everyone every day. The prayer of Jesus is that, in the "kingdom come" of God, where God's will is done on earth, that bread which is already available is available to everyone every day.

...and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us. Now the matter of debt surfaces; and the prayer is meant to catch in the voice and take away our breath. In the economy of the reign of God, debts are freely forgiven by all, starting with God. We are called to live in that economy of love, participating in divine eradication of debt. The kingdom of God, which we just prayed will come soon, is characterized by the forgiveness of debt, as is symbolized in the sabbath year and jubilee traditions (Leviticus 25).

..and do not subject us to the final test. In the context of what I’ve been reading, it seems to me that this petition is about coming face-to-face with the threat of the empire as it reacts to the perceived threat of the Jesus movement, whether that empire is Rome, Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, or any other power that rules by violence and economic tribute systems. As so many have discovered, empires do not tolerate even non-violent revolutions, and the “final test” is the moment when the believer is staring down the barrel of a gun, being blindfolded by a death squad, or threatened with loss of work, home, or family because of one’s faith. Many were subjected to the final test in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, and many thousands or even millions more since then. Another way of seeing the "final test" is the test of self-defense by violence, to which many Christians, including the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, were put in the decades following the death of Jesus. The gospel vision is love of enemies, "put away your sword," and the admonition to "flee to the mountains" rather than fight to defend the city against Rome were all part of this gospel trajectory.

For me, the comfort and strength of this prayer is the expressed solidarity of “our.” Is the “our” and “us” the community of believers? The baptized? People of good will? Everybody? I believe it’s all of us, by virtue of creation, but even more so by the proclaimed advent of the reign of God made present in Christ. We aren’t aware, all of us, that we are an “us.” That is the meaning of evangelization. A world in which all of  us realize we are an “us” and act like it, act like we are brothers and sisters, children of one hallowed Father, is a reality worth praying for. Sifting out the implications of this prayer, and living by them, is a Christian's life work in community with everyone who is part of the household of God.