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Critiquing Christians: The Lord’s Prayer

Critiquing Christians: the Lord’s Prayer, a Founders Warning

The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most recited and well known prayers worldwide. Yet, it is probably the least understood. We speak it so freely and frequently in Western society, but do we understand its historical message. As a child, I memorized the prayer, but not until college did I ask for its meaning. What is the “kingdom” all about? Is “hallowed” no more than a vague feeling cosmic importance? It was this prayer that led me to question the Gospel’s demands of me. Was the Gospel simply a call for private moral forgiveness of the soul by God, which plays outs as a numbers game of winners and losers, of heaven or hell, a Monty Python stereotype of religion? This was hardly a satisfactory answer. Even a causal reading of the Gospel writings tells a broader story. What does the Lord’s Prayer teach in its historical, grammatical and literal setting?

A Prescription for Evil

The prayer was Christ’s instructions on how to pray. For the writer Matthew, he places it after Christ’s teaching of Gospel in the Gospel’s most concentrate form, the Sermon on the Mount, in contrast on how not to pray. Luke puts it later in his writings as a direct response to the disciples request on how to pray. Either way, it was a common prayer often repeated by Jesus in his teaching on how to pray. For Jesus, this prayer was a summary of good news in the most personable forms, a petition for forgiveness. Its movement from the sanctification of God’s name, the kingdom come, daily bread, forgiveness of debt, temptation, and its final doxology (although later added) was a well developed prescription for the evil within man and society. As a prayer, it later became the church’s most focused institutionalized mission statements governing those who want to claim His name. But what do these elements mean and what is the critique and caution?

The Historical Setting

To understand the prayer, we must take a quick journey back to the historical context it was written in. There is no better person then the writer Luke who sets the stage. Luke’s preamble in his first four chapters is obsessed to inform us that the mission of Jesus will be a Gospel of good news to the poor and of setting captives free. The prayer is foreshadowed by:

  • the foretelling of the birth of John (message of personal righteousness),
  • the angel Gabriel’s message of a messiah (a liberating King from the House of David),
  • Mary’s Magnificent proclaiming the scattering of rulers and the proud,
  • Zacharias’s prophecy at John’s birth for deliverance from subjugation,
  • Luke’s notes about census, taxation, the message of peace among men to the shepherds,
  • Simenon’s proclamation of international reform,
  • John the Baptist call for social repentance (honest taxation and wealth distribution),
  • the temptation of Jesus to seek power through conventional politics, and
  • Finally in Jesus own words launching himself into public to “preach the gospel to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives … to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord,” (Jubilee).

This message of social reform linked to money and debt is unmistakable and dominates Luke’s preamble. Luke, as the writer, makes no attempt to correct their perceptions of the coming liberation as though they were mistaking a spiritual kingdom for an earthly one. Even Matthew, in locating the prayer after the Sermon on the Mount, links the prayer to social and spiritual reform, not to mention the parables that following directly addressing the topic of monetary debt and wealth distribution.

Private Morality or Public Debt?

But what was this oppression and captivity? The quick answer is moral sin, but we limit our understanding and loose the historical meaning if we stop here. Subjugation to the Jews came in the form of Roman occupation, and Jewish pain was felt in the excessive taxation by Rome, particularly the large scale building projects of Herod the Great. Like all effective forms of empire, it required collaborators on the ground to collect taxes to fund regional development and Rome. For the Romans in Jerusalem, collaboration was provided by the Jewish priesthood and temple built by Herod for the Jewish hierarchy. The temple function was more the just religion, it was bank, the Jewish judicial and mediator of Roman policy. In effect, the temple functioned as both the “IRS” and courts of Rome in Jerusalem. In the class structure that Judaism became as the elite and privileged priesthood (i.e. the blessed) verses the struggling working class, debt was the common instrument for tax collection and the resulting bankruptcy of many who could not pay their bills into slavery. Rome’s appetite for taxes reduced the common family to Maslow’s struggle for basic needs. Such were the times and the penetrating focus of the Lord ’s Prayer.

In this short prayer, Jesus walks his listeners them through a check list, like the one you start saying “yes” to until you get to the part that you want to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” First he calls for God’s name to be sanctified. Most of us would easily concede this point. The text literally says, “Let your name be sanctified…” The verb “hollowed” or literally “to sanctify,” in its original form, is not a call to the adoration of the holiness of God, but rather an exhortation that God be sanctified by His people (agiasthato – 3 p. sing. 1 aor. pass. imper). Sanctifying is something that is done to God’s name. Give all that has been done in God’s name, sanctifying His name, or setting it apart from all the injustice, evil, or even just bad religion is a starting point for the renewal of good faith in society. Thus, the following words, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” makes sense. No problem here. Jesus’ comment about God’s will be done here, as it is in heaven, is something every believer would agree to as well. As most Christians and Jews believe that God is good, it’s a general enough statement that gets the positive approval. We can easily bring together these two points, clearing or redeeming His Name and looking for the goodness of God in this world.

Bread, Money, and Debt – Temptation or Salvation

The next statement, “give us our daily bread,” begins to be more specific, but in an appealing way. Yes, we want to eat, especially in such financially constrained and taxation heavy society. So bread, as a representation of the most basic of the needs in that time, is that substance of “lunch” that we all need. But, implicit in the lunch is commerce and money, and like the saying goes, there is no free lunch. Food is a good thing, and a daily struggle which we can’t imagine in our modern 1st world countries. It’s the link between eating and commerce which take us to his next line and the core of the matter, “sanctifying” God’s name and His Kingdom on earth.

Here’s the punch line. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those are indebted to us.” Yes, the word is debt, monetary debt in the original Greek and not the generic word “sin” as we commonly learned in Sunday school (Kittle, Theological Dictionary, Vol V, 1977, p.559ff). Over time, the term debt became to mean moral debt to God. However, both the preamble (ie noted above) and post amble of the content (ie Matt 18 – the unforgiving servant, Luke 7 – the two debtor, etc.) and Jesus’ own qualification of the term (“those that are indebted to us” ie money) link the word to its obvious historical meaning, monetary debt .

The logic Jesus develops between bread and debt may be a bit disturbing. Debt is something that his Jewish audience was very familiar with, similar to the subprime crises of today, but much more widespread. As mentioned, debt was the instrument of subjugation by the Romans (i.e. taxes), a common form of enslavement in business dealings (i.e. entire families who fall victim to it judicial precedence) and a necessary means to eat and prosper for whole communities. However, it had a terrible underbelly. Penalties were swift and harsh, no chapter 11 or 7 laws here. The reality of bread, health and prosperity, unfortunately, was tied to debt and abusive bondage unless you were a Roman citizen or part of the Jewish priestly class. These modes of economic abuse from the highest levels of society were front and center issues for the common man. As such, our Lord’s Prayer strikes with precision at the aliments of society and for some. This prayer was not for the weak of wallet. Can you say Jubilee? Are there any bankers reading this?

Of course, history later began to interpret this prayer as just sin and not debt, watering down its original message, but if we roll back the clock to the moment, the meaning is socially insightful. Being honest to the text incorporates monitory debt and what it means to say “hallow be your name.” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Are there debts in heaven or structures of monetary subjugation? Maybe that’s the point.

God’s kingdom has much to do with the forgiveness of debt, and particularly those forms of debt that become socially destructive (not all debt is bad). The focus on debt is an important part of what it means to be Christian and to pray as a Christian. God forgives me, I forgive others. Well, maybe. But what if no one owes me anything? Perhaps this question is too narrow. The better question in the spirit of the prayer is, can I though my own means set another free? What and where are the monetary structures of abuse and bondage where the forgiveness of debt can set another free? And, can I do something about it? Are we slothful or vigilant in this matter? Is the hand that is able to set free cut off from the arm and unable to act?

The Culture of Consumption vs. the Common Good

Perhaps a social commentary from none other than the late Pope John Paul II may help us understand this prayer. Pope John Paul II insight in his Papacy was a critique of western values and capitalism, what he called the culture of death and consumerism. We won’t touch on the culture of death, but the excess of capitalism are consumerism and individualism, culture that is obsessed with “having” and not “being.” In other words, the owning and collecting of possession with no understanding on what it means to have so much. Being, the habit of one’s heart and mind in community, trumps the pursuit of the material or consumption. The Pope’s struggle and justified pessimism is, will our individualism to consume compel us to seek the common good? Individualism, unfortunately, is not a call to set the captives of free. No Jubilee here, just lots of toys. God and His kingdom exist when community and its forces of liberation trump the neurotic excess of individual priorities, when we become more concerned about our neighbor then our own skin. Can you say, “God help me!”

Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German theologian who was executed for his role to assonate Hitler in WWII, understood this kingdom principle with painful clarity. In his paper on “Sanctorum Communio,” the communion of saints, he sees the absence of Christ in the church because of a lack of community, or what he calls the divided Christ between class societies. No Kingdom come here. It is only within true community where the rich know the poor, an undivided Christ, that the gospel and Christ are revealed, where the bonds of oppression can be identified and address. Bonheoffer’s initial solution, in Nazi Germany, was to start the Confessing Church, a body of Christian pastors who opposed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Ironically, in what was one of Hitler’s first act against the Jews, he took away their ability to eat bread, not directly, but with the breaking of glass, he shuts down their ability to engage in commerce. The Jews became a people in debt and bondage.

One can think of many examples today of bondage, from the economic slavery in India and Asia, of children sold to settle debts usually for health issues into the sex slave trade, and of how the slave trade, human trafficking, is at its peak in human history. There is bondage in the lack of capital preventing families or communities from accessing working funds to pay for simple machinery or farm animals that could sustain them. Small capital injections by our standards can bring enormous freedom in a 3rd world. There are too many modern day examples that can be written here. You can fill in the blank. No one owes you money? We’re not off the hook. “Thy kingdom come” is a mission for the pursuit to set captive free. However, the question remains, will consumerism and individualism save the day? Or, are the values of “Sanctorum Communio” the communion of saints, a more effect means to break human bondage?

Evil’s Nemesis

Our prayer is not done. “And deliver us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” What is the axis of evil here? Perhaps it is the combination of consumerism, individualism and those structures, companies and institutions that perpetuate bondage and violence the through free markets. “Fair Trade,” in the coffee business, although not perfect, highlights the practice of unfair trade and our temptation to evil. Yes, Adam Smith was right when he stated that markets, or the invisible hand, make the most efficient economies. He also warned of the excesses of the market. Profit is a good thing, but is it tempered by other values? Who said profit was the end game alone? What about liberation?

One last final thought. The Lord’s Prayer is not a critique of Capitalism or America. It critiques Christians, how WE should pray, those who claim Christ’s name, in whatever society or time we find ourselves, Rome or modern America. Perhaps, in the spirit of the prayer, it can be a contract with God governing our own actions in the world of commerce. Saint Augustine called the prayer the terrible petition. Bertrand Russell, the French Philosopher, commented that the values of Sermon on the Mount were great ideals, but of little use as Christians in general do not practice them, a penetrating observation on his part. It’s not easy to claim His name, especially when to hallow his Name on earth means to forgive and fight abusive monetary debts.


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