What the Lord’s Prayer really means.
It’s an odd thing about the Lord’s Prayer. Almost any religion could endorse it, or so it seems at first.
- let heaven be the ideal for earthly governance
- let there be enough food for all, and let all be free of crippling debt
- forgive each other and God will forgive you
- spare us from the temptation of evil.
It was first spoken by a Jew to a Jewish audience, but it has become a Christian prayer, though there is nothing particularly Christian about it. It became a Christian prayer because it is attributed to Jesus.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)
The good householder
The Greek word used for father is abba (αββα), and while it is sometimes seen as equivalent to “daddy,” this is misleading, for there are other Greek diminutives for daddy, such as pappas (παππας). The term abba is best interpreted as the head of the Jewish household. God is the head of household earth, just as the father is the head of the family in the world Jesus was addressing.
The roles enacted by God as head of the earthly household correspond to those of the head of the family household: To help create life; to protect the members of the household; and to equitably provide for the household.
What horrifies the biblical conscience in all those cases is the inequality that destroys the integrity of the household and therefore dishonors the Householder. In what sort of household are some members exploited by others? (Crossan, p 43)
Your kingdom come, your will be done
It must have sounded absurd to those who heard him for Christ to suggest that God’s kingdom has already arrived. Tiberius was emperor in Rome, and almost 98% of the population were peasants barely surviving on what they could grow. Rome taxed any surplus to support its extravagance. The aristocrats were small in number, but they controlled the military. Peasant revolt was fruitless (Herzog).
What Christ meant is that while you have been waiting for God in the image of a mighty Davidic warrior to set you free, God has been waiting for you. Waiting for what? Not revolt, but waiting for you to understand. Paulo Freire wrote a book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he sought to teach the underclass the reality of their situation, for many oppressed people internalize the values of their oppressors, even if they are unaware of it. For example, if their oppressors are violent, then the only response can be violence.
In asserting that God’s kingdom has arrived, Jesus means that the oppressed can live the values of the kingdom, even if they must do so in the shadow of their oppressors. The values of the Jewish householder listed above are the way people can live in God’s kingdom now.
The ideal that Jesus taught in his parables and speeches, and exemplified in the sacrifice of his life, was non-violent resistance to violent authority. Jesus died not as a sacrifice for the sins of man (substitutionary atonement), but so that he might exemplify with his life what non-violent resistance means. Jesus died to maintain the integrity of his life.
The death of the nonviolent Jesus as the revelation of God’s nonviolent character is a sacrifice (a making sacred) that atones for our sin of escalatory violence. (Crossan, p 144)
It began with Cain and Abel, and continued in the systems of oppression then (Rome), and today.
The petitions, as they are called, are found in the second half of the prayer. They elaborate on what “thy kingdom come” means in practical terms.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Not only that there be enough to eat for today, but that we need not worry about where our next meal is coming from. That’s what “daily bread” (ἐπιούσιος) means. Recall the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14). The disciples want to send crowd away, because there is not enough to feed them. Jesus appears to turn two fish and five loaves of bread into enough food to feed 5,000, with much left over. But if you consider the way Jesus organized the distribution, seating the crowd in groups of 50 or 100, it is as though Jesus were saying that manna comes not from heaven, but from what is already present among us all, if only you will distribute it fairly among yourselves. A group of 5,000 couldn’t do that; smaller groups could.
“Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” The Greek (ophelilema) does not mean transgressions, even though that is the usual metaphorical interpretation. If we understand something of the Judean peasants’ plight, then real debt makes sense too.
Hundreds of years before Christ, debts had become monetized in Canaan. This meant that peasants no longer paid their taxes with a portion of their crop, but from the money earned when the crop was sold. This put them at the mercy of the market. It also meant that debts could be carried over from year to year, leaving the peasant in perpetual debt. Most importantly, it meant that peasants who could not pay could be kicked off their land, to the economic advantage to the landowner. For the peasant farmer, debt was no metaphor, but the heaviest burden he carried.
We miss something important when debt becomes mere metaphor. We forget that poor peasants were Jesus’ audience, and that a fair and just society, on earth as it is in heaven, would mean the abolition of accumulated debt.
“Lead us not into temptation.” The Greek word for temptation is πειρασμόν, which Strong’s Concordance tells us can also be rendered as a trial or test, but this is not an issue that can be settled by analyzing the Greek. The specific temptation Christ has in mind, according to Crossan (pp 167-168), is the temptation to use violence in response to violence.
In the kingdom there is no violence. The closest people can come to the kingdom on this earth is to respond to systemic violence with non-violent civil disobedience. This is what Jesus did, telling the disciples to sheathe their swords when he was arrested by Roman soldiers, and healing the ear of one of the soldiers who had been attacked by Simon Peter (Luke 22:49-51).
The greatest temptation of Rome’s systemic violence was to respond in kind. It would have been fruitless, but Jesus is not making a strategic claim. His claim is that the kingdom is a place of peace, and avoiding the temptation of violence is the way we begin to realize God’s kingdom on earth (Crossan, p 168).
Every act that Christ takes from this point forward is an act of civil disobedience, allowing himself to be crucified without resistance, but also without attempting to prove his innocence of the charge that he claims to be king of the Jews. Of that he is innocent, but he is not innocent of attempting to found another kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, on this earth. Eventually it would render all earthly kingdoms obsolete.
Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer as part of a criticism of Pharisees who make a big deal out of praying in public, going on and on. Instead, go into your room, close the door, and pray (Matthew 6:1-8). But that’s actually a little misleading. The Lord’s Prayer does not say give me my daily bread, forgive me my debts. In every case where we might expect the Lord’s prayer to say me, it says us. The Greek word for us is hemon (ἡμῶν). Give us our daily bread, it says. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation. Just as the kingdom of God is a collective project, so too is the Lord’s Prayer. It is about us, that we might be strengthened so as to help found the kingdom of God on earth, nothing that one man or woman can do.
This is my 100th post on godblog.org
John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer. HarperOne, 2010. [Crossan is helpful, and I draw upon him]
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 4th edition, 2018.
William Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Nicholas Perrin, The Kingdom of God. Zondervan, 2019.