Search This Blog

Monday, March 9, 2015

Revisiting the Lord's Prayer

Continuing my personal perspective on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as they appear in the scriptural texts of the first week of Lent, I want to move on to how it is that Jesus instructs his disciples to pray. After the exhortation from the Sermon on the Mount about praying in private on Ash Wednesday, and Jesus's long desert retreat described so tersely on the first Sunday of Lent in the gospel of Mark, the next time prayer explicitly appears is in the liturgy of Tuesday in the first week of Lent. The gospel is set off by the famous passage from Isaiah 55, which in the context of today's scriptures seems to be saying, in God's words, "My word goes out and does what I say it will do. You might try doing the same thing!" Of course, that takes Isaiah out of context, but the liturgy routinely does that. And then the psalm uses some verses from Psalm 34 to make the case that God hears the cries of the poor, of those who cry out to him with broken hearts. This all prepares us to hear another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, this one about not multiplying words, and then Jesus's exhortation to pray this way:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

The Lord's prayer is so familiar to us that its meaning is easily lost in that familiarity, and so I'm grateful for footnotes in bibles and books that lend chapters to the words and verses from a time, language, and culture so utterly unfamiliar to us. Taking the time to hear the Lord's prayer anew, and spend a little effort peeling away at the layers of familiarity and looking under the words can give us a new appreciation for the text.

A few weeks ago, Terry and I spent a day at a local church experiencing a day-long seminar with the renowned pastor and inspirational evangelist Brian McLaren. He began the day with what I felt was a unique prayer. He led us through the Lord's prayer, chanted on a single note, rising in pitch up the scale from do to sol diatonically and then back to do. He invited us to add harmony as we did the a cappella chanting. As the group warmed to what was happening, the prayer got more expansive, deep and beautiful, as we sang it, and then repeated it, and sang it again at the end of the session.

Brian spent some time exegetizing the petitions of the prayer in a simple but meaningful way. Most of this would not have been news to anyone who has done some bible study, and perhaps some was necessarily simplified, because there aren't any simple ways to translate, or understand what has been translated, in the lines we most often say as "lead us not into temptation" and "deliver us from evil." The meaning of "trespasses" is debated too, and the prayer means different things depending on how you translate the words, of course. But if we come at it from the perspective of Jesus's listeners and first disciples, Jewish peasants living in a conquered nation in a faith tradition mediated by a privileged temple cult, we can get a handle on at least one possible consistent meaning that emerges from the text. This was Brian's paraphrased translation:

Our Father, 
above us and all around us,
May your unspeakable Name be revered.
Here to earth, may your kingdom come.
Here on earth, may your will be done as it is in heaven.
Give us today our bread for today.
And forgive us our wrongs as we forgive those who wrong us.
Lead us away from the time of trial.
But liberate us from the evil.
For the kingdom is yours and yours alone,
And the power is yours and yours alone,
And the glory is yours and yours alone.
Amen.

This may give us a good jumping-off point to talk about the meanings of the individual lines.

John Dominic Crossan, in his highly readable and (by me) recommended little book on the Our Father entitled The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer, tells us a couple of things about the first lines. First of all, it's the very way that God is addressed that should arrest our attention. Naming God in some way will always imply a relationship, but by calling God "Our Father" we name a relationship not just with God but with everyone who prays the prayer. Crossan goes to some length about the use of "Father," and, understanding that we hear gender bias in the word, prefers to spend some time demonstrating from historical documents that what is behind the name "Father" is not gender but the role of the father in the household of Mediterranean peasants, that is, to be the keeper of the household, the one who sees that it is justly run. By doing so, he opens up the possibility, indeed, he documents the reality, of women contemporary to Jesus and the early church who did the same, owned property, oversaw the commerce of the family, and so on. By concentrating on this aspect of the meaning of "father," we are able to see the intention of thus naming God: God is head of a household, and what God wants is the mutual care and harmony among the children. The oft-repeated folk wisdom that abba, the word behind the Greek word for father, was unique to Jesus is not really true; Abba was a word frequently used in first and second century Judaism by rabbis to speak of God.

"In heaven" is literally "in the heavens," that is, metaphorically, "who dwells beyond us, yet we are present to one another." The next phrase McLaren translates to mean "may all (people) hallow your name," though many see the passive voice in the phrase to be a circumlocution in which it is God who is the agent; that is, "make your name blessed by all." As for me, I'm not certain at all whether it is the unknowable or "unspeakable" name of God that is to be "hallowed," but rather the name "our Father," which, for this God, is unique and requires a response on earth as in heaven. Crossan's book cited above puts it this way: "It simply means that heaven is in great shape – earth is where the problems are." But "hallowed by thy name" may also wonderfully refer to the liberating name of God that was spoken to Moses, unknowable, but active in the world on behalf of slaves and the beaten-down; active, however, with in a different kind of "kingdom," one that builds upon the justice that arises from the love that brothers and sisters of "our Father" show to one another. The prayer reflects Jesus, the prophet of the reign of God: this world matters, the world belongs to God, and God is going to make it right with our collaboration with distributive justice.

"Give us this day our daily bread" - the word "daily" here is an unusual word that can have the meaning of "every day," but, especially in the context of this prayer and its expectation of eschatological fulfillment now, may also mean "tomorrow's." In other words (again remember the audience of Mediterranean peasants, most of whom live in a subsistence economy), "give us today tomorrow's bread," or "take away the worry and stress we feel about feeding ourselves and our children beyond this meal. I think this translation is more cogent, don't you?

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The word for "trespass" here is the same as the word for "debt." Indeed, some English translations of the Lord's prayer have translated the phrase with the word as "debt" as long as we can remember. In the context described already, in a social environment where one of the greatest fears was debt that led to servitude, a prayer for jubilee release from debt (nodding again to the Exodus and the Torah) seems to me a genuinely reasonable alternative way to understand the phrase. However the phrase is translated, it harkens back to the foundational image of God as householder in which we are all children of the family, and asks for us to be released from debts "as we release the debts of those indebted to us." In fact, another reading of the phrase is, "Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we have forgiven those indebted to us." This, while earnestly hoped for, may be even harder to say out loud!

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." This phrase is perhaps the most difficult to parse. It may be seen eschatologically, for late first century Christians, to refer to the "great tribulation" mentioned in apocalyptic literature. In other words, it prays "Don't bring us to the choice between you and death, to a choice beyond our strength, but keep us away from every kind of destructive force." Crossan goes a step further, and sees it as a prayer to be delivered from a decision that Jesus himself had to make: Do not bring us to the place where we might be tempted to use violence to against others; deliver us from that perilous choice of betraying our choice for peace and justice by doing violence to those who disagree. While I tend to agree with Crossan, I think both ways of seeing the final phrase of the Lord's prayer open up the meaning beyond the rather domesticated meaning of "temptation" we often imagine.

On a website called "readthespirit.com", I discovered this meditative prayer based on some of Crossan's insights, and while it doesn't lend itself to public prayer very well, maybe you will find it useful to contemplate:

God, I’m suddenly seeing our world in new ways! We’ve somehow made this world, Your Household, into such an unjust place! I’m only waking up to this, today, and it’s making me turn back to prayer. 
It’s because I’m losing my home. What a devastating shock! I never imagined this could happen! Now, I’m suddenly so painfully aware that, in your world, every family should have a safe shelter. I never saw it this clearly before, but you’re the God who created a world in which every family should be able to have a safe home somewhere. 
I’m not asking for special favors. I don’t even want that big old house back. I don’t know what we were thinking when we bought such a huge place, anyway. I can survive even the loss of that home. I can move in with others. Millions of people are doing it around the world. Maybe billions. 
I’m seeing our world in new ways, God. And, now, my prayer is getting down to the real heart of the matter: I need to feed my family today. I’m a hard worker. But I’m suddenly aware that not everyone in this world can even hope to get enough to survive another day. We all need to feed our families today, God. 
And, tomorrow? I need to hope that tomorrow it’s possible to survive this crushing debt that my family faces. There are probably millions like me, praying this same way today. Maybe billions are praying this: Food for today, freedom from crushing debt tomorrow.
I’m seeing our world in new ways, God. I understand the anger so many are feeling. I understand the temptation to turn these prayers for justice into something dangerous—into violence, even into war to protect what we think belongs to us. Don’t let me go there, God. Don’t let me contribute to the violence even in small ways. 
I’m seeing the world in new ways, God. It’s Your Household. In Your Household, I don’t need more than others. I just need enough for myself and my family. We can’t do all this alone. But, because you are the head of this great Household, we know that there is enough—if we pray together in Your Spirit and we summon Your Household to be what it should be. 
I’m seeing our world in new ways, God. And I’m praying in new ways, too.
(© 2010 readthespirit.com)

So, after all that, I'm including this link to a short slideshow I created as a prayer for a presentation I gave. It is my paraphrase of the prayer after Crossan, McLaren, and other readings. At the presentation, I used the idea that Brian McLaren had to which I referred at the beginning of this blog post, and had our intrepid little band of Catholics change it up and down the five-note scale twice. No one ventured into harmony, though maybe next week we might try it. For this video, I just used a clip from Terry's interpretation of "The Deer's Cry," which is available on her GIA recording, Family Resemblance.  




Have a joyful Lent, everyone!