Most of us raised Christian have memorized one version or another of the Lord’s Prayer, or the Pater Noster. A version appears in two Gospels, Matthew and Luke.
The most popular version goes:
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.
This sounds almost mundane. It is overused without any real thought being put into it; but there is also a great deal that has been lost on us because our hearing is not attuned to what it said to Jesus’ band of Jewish followers in Roman Palestine.
Let’s take this prayer apart and hold the components up to a long-distant light.
“Our Father” obviously speaks to us of a male parent, albeit a cosmic one. This is a little unsettling to us, because we have raised a couple of questions about this gendered kinship. Why a male God? This is a fair question. And there is the simple biological question: If God is more than human, more even than mere material, and in need of no physical anatomy, what need does God have of a sexual assignment? This is also a fair question, to us.
We have to understand, however, that the idea of God – then and now – can only be approximated in language. We agree now with the ancients that God is incomprehensible, or else God could not be God. But the ancient Hebrews, from whom Jesus was descended, of whom he was one, and to whom he constantly referred, did not share our ideas about science, about objectivity, or about ideas like church-state separation. These ideas did not emerge among people, as we understand them, until much later in history. So we can’t rightly make demands of the past based on the ideas of the present. More importantly, however, we still find God incomprehensible, and we are still forced to represent God the way God has always been represented – through a story.
That story is the story we can read today in the Hebrew Bible. When that story was written, it was written for a group of pastoral nomads trying to find a home in the world. “Father” was the person these patriarchal nomadic people understood to be a provider. In their attempt to capture the idea of God, a unitary being responsible for the world that provided life, it is not surprising that this figure was represented as a patriarchal parent.
But it is still not so simple. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and in Aramaic what he said was not “Our Father,” but ‘Abwoon.” When this term is traced back, through its actual Hebrew antecedents, it begins as a genderless term that means something akin to “blessed with children.” The patriarchal inferences came later. The original term connoted a creative life source, even a cosmic womb.
Moreover, when Jesus spoke this word, “Abwoon,” he and his contemporaries used this term as a call to prayer. It was telling those within earshot, stop what you are doing and turn your thoughts and hearts to the one who made you.
“Abwoon,” Jesus prayed, “who is in heaven” – a spiritual realm over, under, around, and through material existence. Attend all who hear to the essence that precedes and constitutes your existence. Then he declares, “hallowed be thy name.” So what is God’s name?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, speaking on an interfaith panel on the environment, hosted at Duke University in April 2009, talked at length about God’s name. God is written, he explained to the audience, in the Hebrew as YHWH, some people pronouncing this Yahweh.
Among observant Jews, this name is not spoken aloud in accordance with the Torah. But Rabbi Waskow pointed out that the name in Hebrew is written without vowels.
In Genesis, in its original language, the word spirit does not signify a ghost. It means breath. Earth, or soil, was enlivened with breath… life. Human beings are dust, given God’s breath.
In the early Christian church of the first two centuries, not only did they see themselves as Jews or converts to the Jewish sect of Jesus, these followers greeted each other with the conspirato kiss. They kissed each other briefly on the mouth, exchanging breath. They were exchanging the holy spirit. The word “inspire” today, means both to be taken by a spirit and to inhale.
Rabbi Waskow went on to explain, he demonstrated actually into the amplified microphone, the sound that YHWH makes when pronounced without vowels and spoken in a whisper – not said aloud. The word is stretched here, as he did, to make his point. Whisper it: YHHHWWWHHH. It is the wind. It is a breath. The name of God is the Breath of Life.
“Hallowed be your name” comes to mean “hallowed is the Breath of Life.”
“God who is in heaven, hallowed is your name…”
“Your kingdom come,” Jesus continued.
Jesus’ led a real movement. It was called the “kingdom movement.” But there was an irony when Jesus used this term, because for every one of that time – and most of us, for that matter – a kingdom is a place ruled over by a despot, using violence when necessary to preserve that power. Yet in the same passage of Mark where Jesus teaches his prayer, he has made a claim that peacemakers are blessed, and that the meek – not the powerful – shall inherit the earth, or humanity’s home provided by God.
“The kingdom of God” was a claim that put a God who hated injustice – a theme throughout the Jewish prophetic tradition of which Jesus was a part – above the earthly powers, both the kingdom of Herod and the empire of Rome.
We see this irony, this political parody, on display during Palm Sunday when Jesus led a march through Jerusalem, himself proclaimed king and perched on a donkey colt, a provocative act that parodied the Roman show-of-force march that was taking place simultaneously in the same city. It was political satire of the most dangerous kind, and its result is now widely known.
The kingdom of the meek is placed over and above the warlike one, the power of the Breath of Life over the power enforced by the fear of death.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…”
On Earth! Wait a minute! Most of us tend to think that the kingdom of heaven comes after death, in the spiritual realm of heaven, but this says “Your will be done on earth… Your kingdom come on earth… as it is in heaven.”
This raises a question about this Kingdom of God on earth. How do we make this Kingdom of God on earth? What do we do?
Well, we get some basic instructions.
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
More than once, Jesus exhorts his followers to quit worrying about the future. Worry is tantamount to a lack of faith. A daily portion of bread is enough: not more, just enough. Jesus exhorts his disciples again and again not to worry about tomorrow, to have faith that God will provide, and to be satisfied with enough. Not more. Enough.
There is a very readable book on faith called, “Longing for Enough in a Culture of More,” by Paul Escanilla. This term “daily bread” is a reference from the Hebrew Scriptures, as is much of what Jesus is reported to have said. Theologian Ched Myers once said that “abundance is the divine gift, and self-limitation is the appropriate response.”
“Forgive us our trespasses.” The actual, original term is not trespasses, but “debts.” In Aramaic, sin and debt are the same word.
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
During Jesus’ time, as now, debt was a means for taking people’s land. The Bible contains prohibitions against usury, and calls debt-servitude a state of sin.
Jesus and his contemporaries understood something about debt, because as pious Jews, they knew that usury was against the law as written in Leviticus. In fact, old Jewish law required a periodic leveling of the economy through a practice called Jubilee. Jubilee was general debt forgiveness every seven years, no longer practiced in Jesus’ time, but a practice Jesus was calling for again in this passage of his prayer. Not only every seven years, but every seven times seven, 49, marked the Jubilee year in which all land that had been accumulated and lost was returned to its original families.
Jesus’ kingdom-movement was a Jubilee movement, or a jubilary movement.
Debt was the instrument of oppression used against Palestinian peasants – which Jesus and his own family were, un-landed and forced to work as tektons (often translated as carpenters), manual wage-laborers, quite probably at Herod Antipas’ pyramidal ego-project of urbanizing Sepphoris, not four miles from Nazareth. Through debt, the land of the peasants was appropriated, and the landless peasants forced to work for bare survival wages in the city.
Holding someone in debt is sin, and the state of debt distracts and diverts us from the contemplation and enjoyment of God’s creation – Sabbath. Debt forces people to break the commandment to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Debt is a sin, because it creates the temptation – among the poor – to fail in the observance of Sabbath, to steal, and to covet that which is not theirs.
Understanding the jubilary import of this prayer, then, we can understand why the very next phrase is, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Jesus observed all around him that there is no greater temptation to violate the law than poverty; and there was no greater provocation to sin than grinding people down with debt.
So how does this apply to us, and to the extreme emphasis Jesus put on forgiving those who did sin? Think of it as you think of how you might pray your gratitude.
One of our prayers of gratitude every day ought to be thankfulness for the absence of temptation.
Jesus suggested that when we judge a poor person for breaking the law, we forget what Anatole France later summed up by writing: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread.”
We might consider praying our thanks every day for all the ways in which we have been immunized against temptation, for all the ways in which virtue this very day comes easy. Then we might show a little more understanding for those who have not been so “virtuous.”
Forgive our sins against God in the same measure we forgive those of sins against us. Forgive our debts in the same measure we forgive the debts of others.