The Lord’s Prayer. We say it every week. It can get to feeling pretty tame after all that repetition, though, like the fuzzy pajamas you turn to on a stormy night.
But there’s actually more going on with it than we usually stop to consider.
Of course, we say Matthew’s version of it. The one in our Gospel from Luke today is a bit more streamlined, a bit sparer. Even so, the textual history of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer suggests it’s much closer to Matthew’s than it might initially appear.
But the major difference between Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer and Luke’s has less to do with the content than with the location.
What do I mean?
Remember where the Lord’s Prayer happens in Matthew?
Chapter 6—part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was just getting the ministry shuttle revved up in Matthew. He’d been baptized, gone out into the wilderness to be tempted—then he started his ministry in Galilee, called the first disciples. Next thing you know, Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount—complete with the prayer he taught his disciples to pray—what we call, the Lord’s Prayer.
But where doest the Lord’s Prayer show up in Luke?
Chapter 11. Quite a bit later. In Luke, Jesus has already predicted his crucifixion. In fact, way back in chapter 9, Luke tells us, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (v. 51). That is to say, Jesus has passed out of the early, idyllic honeymoon phase of ministry into that part of his ministry that will ultimately cost him his life.
Almost immediately after he sets his face to go to Jerusalem, he sends out the seventy to prepare the way for him.Remember what he told them as they went? “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road” (10:3-4).
While they’re on their way to Jerusalem, after explaining how difficult their mission is, Jesus is asked by the disciples to teach them to pray; which he does by giving them this prayer template, then launching into a discourse on prayer.
Now, if you read this prayer in light of the journey they’re taking, and the hardships they’ll encounter because they’re following Jesus, the place Jesus will ultimately end up, the prayer begins to look a little different.
My fourth grade Sunday school teacher called it “the model prayer,” by which she meant, I think, that when we prayed we were supposed use it as a template for speaking to the Almighty. But now, as an adult, that thought seems a little scary to me.
I grew up believing that the Lord’s Prayer operated as some kind of celestial code that would...I’m not exactly sure what I thought it would do. Suffice it to say, though, I was pretty sure the Lord’s Prayer was important and that it dealt with God and heaven and stuff.
I imagined, for instance, that when I prayed, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” I was talking about God’s will being done for my life: that I might marry the right person (who I assumed would be God’s idea of the perfect person, created just for me), or that I’d grow up to have the job God wanted me to have (which I was certain was some suitably middle-class profession that would allow me to support my family and play golf on Saturdays), or that I would be surrounded by “godly” people (which I thought meant people who didn’t drink or smoke or swear).
I supposed that the “bread” we were asking for was heavenly bread—as in how Jesus said: “I am the bread of life.” So, I thought we were asking for more of Jesus, or something like that. I was sure that it was some kind of divine manna that satisfied my inner longing for acceptance, strength, and the ability to refrain from terrorizing my brothers and sister.
When we were praying that God would “forgive as we forgive those indebted to us,” I was pretty sure we were talking about our personal sins, which were debts that we’d incurred to a God who expected to be paid back—things such as drinking, smoking, swearing, and looking at dirty magazines.
And when it came to pleading with God not to “bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one,” I was taught that that was about my personal temptations, that God would spare me the indignity of even having “debts” (i.e., sins) to forgive in the first place.
As I’ve grown older, it’s become clear to me that the Lord’s Prayer—far from being about stuff “out there” in some gauzy unbounded ether, or as a prayer about my personal relationship with Jesus—was about the very real and gritty kinds of things that happen right here, where we worry about things such as getting grandma’s outrageously expensive medication, or making sure that our LGBTQ kids won’t get beat up and harassed on the school bus, or how our African American friends and neighbors will survive traffic stops, or whether our Muslim coworkers will have their mosques vandalized, or if our Latinx family will wake up to find someone missing, or whether that’s the bill collector on the phone.
Prayer, as I understand it now, is done just as much on our feet as on our knees. Prayer asks, not just that we feel properly disposed toward the world, but that we actively work to bring healing and reconciliation to the world. It isn’t an escape from the messiness of the world; it’s a full-on belly-flop into the very messy heart of it. Prayer is a commitment, not to abdicate responsibility (even to God) for the awfulness we find in the world, but to embrace our responsibility as the very people God has placed in this time and in this place to confront the awfulness.
When Jesus talks about God’s “kingdom,” he’s always referring to an alternative to the kingdoms of this world, which serve up injustice like flapjacks at a Denny’s brunch blowout. In other words, Jesus is being explicitly political. When he prays about God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus is saying something to the effect of, “Empower us to envision what the world would look like, O God, if you were the one sitting in the Oval Office— and then to live accordingly.”
We’re invited to imagine:
• What would the world look like if God were signing executive orders? • Who would healthcare reform cover if Jesus were writing the bill? • How might things be different if the Divine were running the Equal Opportunity Employment Agency, or OSHA, or the EPA, or HUD, or the Department of Education? • What would our tax system look like? And who would benefit most from it? • Would the rich, in virtue of their riches, continue to have unfettered access, while the poor have no voice?
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done,” is about living in a world Jesus would recognize as the one he was praying for—if he happened to show up in Washington, D.C. (or Los Angeles, or the corner of Bardstown Road and Douglass Boulevard), next Tuesday, and not just the world that’s convenient for the people at the top.
That we continue to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is an indictment of Christianity; it’s an admission that we still live in a world in which the hungry have to cry out to God for a crust of bread—presumably because the bread we do have doesn’t seem to find its way to those who need it most, and because we’ve settled for such a world as inevitable. This kingdom Jesus is praying for God to establish on earth assumes people will have enough to eat, that systems will offer healthcare to everyone—especially for those who need it most but can afford it least—and that children won’t have to live in cars because Walmart doesn’t pay enough to let their parents live anywhere else.
The question is: What would Christians have to do—as well as, What would we no longer put up with?—if we believed God’s reign required whole wheat and pumpernickel for everybody, and not just nourishment for our individual souls, or required healthcare for all God’s children, and not just for people born healthy and wealthy enough to afford it—or, if affordable housing and living wages were the first things we talked about at budget time, and not the last?
Continuing on...to say, “Forgive us our debts,” is to admit that we participate in a society in which the poor have to beseech God to extricate them from their hopeless indebtedness—not debts to a God who obsesses over being paid back for sins, but debts to payday lenders, loansharking credit card companies, predatory student loan holders, and crooked mortgage brokers. What many Christians who claim to love the Bible never stop to consider is that the Bible Jesus used has overwhelmingly more to say about the latter than the former (e.g., Ex. 22:25–27; Lev. 25:36–37; Deut. 15; Hab. 2:6; Am. 2:6–8; Mic. 2:1–2; etc.). To Jesus, the systematic impoverishment of the powerless through extortionary lending rates is precisely what the kingdom of God present “on earth as it is in heaven” is supposed to remedy.
The next question is: What would Christians have to do—as well as, What would we no longer put up with?—if we actually believed that God’s kingdom required an equitable economic system that was not underwritten by assumptions that it’s the government’s job to assist the wealthy in rationalizing their selfishness, while simultaneously confiscating money from the poor to help subsidize the selfishness of those who already have so much?
Finally, when Jesus prays, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one,” he’s most likely praying about actual trials of actual people with no political or economic pull, in front of actual judges—not that we won’t be tempted to cheat on our diets or our taxes or our spouses. These judges’ reputation in the ancient world for putting a thumb on the scales of justice against the poor and the powerless prompted their designation as “evil ones.” The final two petitions in the Lord’s Prayer “vividly request deliverance from suborned legal proceedings before evil judges.”
Consequently, our continued need to pray this (even though most people who see Jesus as a model don’t realize that’s what they’re praying for) suggests that Christians have gotten too comfortable with a world in which the legal system is rigged against those who can’t defend themselves—which, frankly, brings shame on us.
So, we have to ask: What would Christians have to do—as well as, What would we no longer put up with?—if we actually believed that God’s kingdom required justice systems that took the poor into account as the most important people to protect, rather than as speed bumps on the otherwise smooth autobahn the people in power assume rightfully belongs to them?
Christians ought to be careful before praying the Lord’s Prayer. Depending on who we are, it’s as much about judgment as consolation.
“But, that’s not the prayer I remember. That’s sounds totally different.”
I know. But this is the prayer the world needs us to pray—not only on Sunday during communion, but every day. Indeed, this is a prayer that must be prayed as much on our feet as on our knees.
The world’s counting on it.