A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 11:1-13

11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.

11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

A Question or Two:

  • Does it matter that Matthew and Luke have Jesus teach differing versions of the same prayer, and that these versions are (somewhat) different from the Lord’s Prayer that Christians pray in church?
  • Does it matter that this prayer strongly resembles Kaddish?
  • What might we all be mourning?

Some Longer Reflections:

Before we look at the details of this scene, we need to stop and observe a moment of silence in the presence of what this thing has become.  This is “The Lord’s Prayer.”  It is prayed by Christians all over the world, probably constantly.  It is prayed so widely and so steadily because it is from “the Lord.”  This is not just another piece of religious practice that could have come from anywhere; this prayer purports to come from Jesus himself.

The Lord’s Prayer(s)

Of course, we will have to stop also to notice that this prayer from Jesus comes to us in two rather different forms (from Matthew and from Luke) and that it has grown a doxology at the end that comes from neither gospel, though later manuscripts of Matthew have been altered to include the doxology that surely grew up in the midst of Christian worship.  Thus worship sometimes precedes Scripture, which also precedes worship.

But we will get to that.  For right now, just stop silently and pay attention to the prayer that Jesus taught, the prayer that comes to us from the Lord, the one that came to us from God.

First of all, notice how Jewish this prayer is.

That should not be a surprise, since Jesus is Jewish, and since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but notice how VERY Jewish this prayer is.

It begins with the Sanctifying of God’s Name.  Many Jewish prayers devote energy to this act of “hallowing,” and stories of Jewish martyrs often include mention of living and dying for the Sanctification of the Name, but it may be most important to notice that Kaddish, in particular, also begins by calling for the Sanctification of God’s Name.  “May it be made great and may it be made holy, your marvelous Name.”  Jews pray this prayer at the death of a loved one, but you have heard it if you have attended Sabbath services with almost any Jewish congregation.  Because this is the prayer for the anniversary of a death, Kaddish is prayed weekly, as well.

And it is not just the “hallowing” of God’s Name that makes this prayer Jewish.  As a Jewish friend and colleague has pointed out to me, if it weren’t for the centuries of anti-Semitic theology and violence carried out by Christians in the name of Jesus, the entire prayer would fit nicely into Jewish life, without modification.  It is a deeply Jewish prayer.

Next, notice how impatient this prayer is.

When Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s “kingdom” will come, it is clear that we are to pray for a basic change in how things run.  If God’s kingdom were already here, we would not be told to pray for it.  And if things were just fine as they are, we would not pray for a change.  And the change is basic, radical, and thoroughgoing.  This is a prayer for radical regime change.

It is therefore never a prayer that simply baptizes any ideological position, or chooses one side over against another.

This is difficult.  “Kingdom” language, historically, has been attractive to rigid ideologues, to sub-groups who find themselves in conflict with the dominant culture.  It is easy enough to identify groups that have done this: the Posse Comitatus in Tigerton, Wisconsin; the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; the Sicarii who took refuge on Masada.  There are many more.  Zealots in every century love to imagine the coming of the kingdom they are willing to kill for.  All such ideologues claim an exclusive alliance with the Kingdom that God is bringing into being.  The kingdom, they imagine, will wipe away their opponents.  God’s coming will make it clear that they, and they alone, have been right all along.  It is easy enough to view these groups as oddities, as extremists, and even as enemies.  They often are.

But they are not the only ones to claim alliance with God’s coming Kingdom.  Any time we pray this prayer and imagine that we know how the Kingdom will come we join the oddities, the extremists, and even the enemies.  That is the danger of the Lord’s Prayer.  When we pray it earnestly, we run the risk of becoming rigid ideologues who are awaiting their own kingdom, not the Reign of God.

In that vein, we would do well to listen as we pray for real change in the world, or when we yearn for the institution of social justice and societal change.  These prayers and yearnings come from some of the kindest and most earnest people that I know.  I share their prayers and their yearnings.  In the midst of our current conflicts, with law enforcement officers being murdered and also committing murder, such prayers and yearnings are widely shared.  And it is impossible for me to imagine that God does not share our reaction to the cycle of murders.

But the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray for the Reign of God, which will unsettle all parties, all ideologies, all who are committed to their righteousness.

That does not mean that we can have no idea about right and wrong in the midst of God’s Creation.  That would be a pernicious idea, indeed.  But it does mean that we ought to expect that God’s Reign will run deeper than we can imagine.  It does mean that our examination, for instance, of the role played by privilege in the current conflicts must cut deeply.  This is true no matter which subgroup you come from.  And it means that the need to listen is incumbent upon all of us, and not just some of us.  One of the defining characteristics of ideologues and extremists is that they are convinced that no one has listened to them, and that they therefore must be done listening to others.  Whatever the “Reign of God” might be, it will unsettle us all.  If it did not, it would just be another rigid ideology.

We ought also notice how practical this prayer is.

It prays for bread, daily.  The God to whom we are taught to pray is figured as being involved in sustaining our strength.  The Prayer recognizes that hunger is real, and persistent.  We would not be taught to pray for bread if all of us were adequately fed.  Real prayer, therefore, does not float off into the spiritual stratosphere.  It concerns itself with real people who need real food for their children.

The next petition continues the practicality of the previous petition.  We do not live together without offending each other, and that means that we cannot work together without forgiving each other.  This God to whom we pray is also involved in sustaining our community, because God is called upon to forgive us since we already forgive each other.  The argument of this petition, however, is surprising.  God is to follow the pattern we have already set up, forgiving as we forgive.  Why put things in this order?  Perhaps the point is that God is learning how to be part of human community, a delayed consequence of the Incarnation, perhaps?  Perhaps.  But the opposite is just as likely.  Perhaps God enters the petition in this way because we are quite capable of managing human communities under normal circumstances, forgiving and being forgiven and getting on with our tasks, but extraordinary tensions and conflicts reveal deeper offenses, hurts that we don’t dare address, or even understand how to begin addressing.  The current conflicts will require mending of complex wrongs, and perhaps bringing God into the business signifies this complexity.  The repair that is needed operates on the level of the re-creating of the world.

The petition that we be spared from trial makes more sense the more I consider the challenges of the current moment.

There is no life without trial.  But the earth-shaking trials of the present moment are tests that will shake us and change us.  It is an honest person and a community with integrity that prays for rescue from such trials.

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