Thursday, August 15, 2019

How Shall We Pray? | Ethical Implications of the Lord's Prayer by Anna Case-Winters

Hapag ng Pag-asa, "Table of Hope" by Joey Velasco


In teaching us to pray "our" Father, the life of prayer is given its communitarian cast. We are all in this together. The very language of the prayer with its plural pronouns throughout draws into a larger circle of concern that is not only personal, but also communal and even global in its full reach. + Anna Case-Winters


The Lord's Prayer is an abridgement of the entire Gospel. + Tertullian, early 200s A.D.  
There may never have been another prayer written that was not already contained in the Pater ("Our Father" or "Lord's Prayer"). + Simone Weil
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. + Marcel Proust


Our Father who art in heaven


This prayer is so very central to our communal life in the church. It should form us in our faith and guide our social/ethical practice, sustaining a new identity and lifestyle. Cyprian has an interesting reflection in this regard,

The Teacher of peace and Master of unity did not wish prayer to be offered individually ... as one would pray only for himself when he prays. We do not pray: "My Father who art in heaven" nor "give me this day my bread," nor does each one ask that only his debt be forgiven him and that he be led not into temptation and that he be delivered from evil for himself alone. Our prayer is public and common, and when we pray we pray not for one but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. + St. Cyprian, The Lord's Prayer, mid-200s A.D.

Also, if we look at Jesus' own use of the "fatherhood" of God, especially here in the Lord's Prayer we may see a bit of a reimagining of the image. An image presumably patriarchal gets turned on its head in a not so subtle way. Class and social standing in patriarchal cultures is determined by who your father is. The children of highborn are given a higher place. Here all are God's children. It is a fundamental equalizing of status. The "our" is not possessive or exclusive as if we have God our own, rather we have been adopted as God's own children.

The first phrase of the prayers moves from the language of intimacy to the language of ultimacy: "Our Father, who art in heaven." From divine immanence likened to the presence and care of a human Father, we shift to divine transcendence, an essential point theologically for Judaism and Christianity. This is no tribal deity, but the God above all gods, the creator of heaven and earth. Heaven is, at best, "the throne of God" and the whole of the earth God's "footstool" (Matthew 5:34-35). As King Solomon in his wisdom declares, at the dedication of the great Temple,"Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27) The allusion to heaven lifts our minds to the God beyond our highest and best constructs and constructions. This opening of the Lord's Prayer spans the theological paradox of immanence and transcendence. God is, on the one hand, really in the world. God is, on the other hand, always more than the world.

Hallowed be thy name


The prayer is God-centered and begins with three petitions that pertain to God as God  the hallowing of God's name, the coming of God's reign, and the fulfillment of God's will on earth. The question posed here will be what "hallows" God's name? To "hallow" is to honor as holy. Ezekiel 36:22-36 provides an interesting glimpse into the meaning of "hallowing God's name." The passage, set in the situation of the exile, begins "I will sanctify my great name," and then describes God's liberation from captors in the exile, a restoration and transformation of God's people. This is a hallowing of God's name.

Thy kingdom come


Matthew's Gospel unfolds the meaning of this mysterious, disturbing, liberative, and transformative power of God's reign in our midst. Praying the Lord's Prayer is a subversive activity. We are in fact praying for the overturning of the present order and the coming of God's reign on earth in its place.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven


The reign of God is large enough to embrace not only things in heaven but even things on earth. With these words we implicitly affirm that God cares about worldly matters. The incarnation is probably the place where we see most clearly that our God is a "down-to-earth" God. In Jesus Christ, God takes on material existence  even flesh  for the work of redemption. Our eschatological hope, expressed as "new creation," includes the renewal of all things. An ethical implication entailed in these central convictions is the calling to love the world as God loves the world. Can we be as "down-to-earth" as God is? What will it look like for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? The well-being of the whole of God's creation  the flourishing of each and all  would seem to be included. The Sermon on the Mount makes explicit an appeal for mercy and justice/righteousness.

Give us this day our daily bread


One of the hopes for the messianic age was that there would once again be manna from heaven. The early church, both Eastern and Western, also understood this petition as a prayer for the "blessing of the messianic banquet, when all God's people will sit down together, with enough food for all."

According to the World Food Programme, one person in seven goes to bed hungry every night and will not have enough food to be healthy. One in four children in developing countries is underweight. Hunger is the number one health risk in the world today, killing more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. The statistics are not improving; in fact hunger has been on the rise for the last decade. Yet statistics reveal that there is sufficient food. "There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life. It is not possible to pray this prayer with this petition and withhold bread from the hungry. A commitment to sharing bread is implicit in the act of praying this prayer.

To pray in this way is to acknowledge our own need as well. Anguish and expectation infuses the prayer. It challenges our self-sufficiency and arrogance. In a sense, we all petition as needy, hungry, vulnerable people. We did not bring ourselves into this world. Neither can we sustain ourselves. All of us are born into a state of complete dependence on others for care and provision. We are "born needy" and having nothing that we have not received. This petition recognizes that this is how it is with us. In our relationship with God, it is all the more so. It is God who has made us and not we ourselves (Psalm 100:3). "Absolute dependence" is the way it is in our relationship with God whether we see that or not. We approach God with our hands open to receive. In this regard, we are all on the same footing before God when we offer this prayer  regardless of social, political, or economic status.

The meaning of the prayer is, however, significantly shaped by our situations. For those praying from situations of poverty this is clearly a prayer about survival. Prayed in situations of prosperity, the petition may have additional implications. When we who have more than we need pray for daily bread, this becomes a disruptive prayer. We constrain our ordinary expectations for "more than enough" if we pray this prayer from the heart. As John Calvin cautioned, "those who, not content with daily bread but panting after countless things with unbridled desire, or sated with their abundance, or carefree in their piled-up riches, supplicate God with this prayer are but mocking him." In this petition there is an implicit critique of habits of greedy hoarding. We no longer ask to have more than we need. As with the manna in the wilderness, we are called to trust that God will provide on a daily basis  "morning by morning" (Exodus 16). Gregory of Nyssa also pointed out the irrationality of praying this petition while seeking our bread at the expense of others. We cannot pray this prayer when we are "wedded to our own security or prosperity." It may be that the unjust distribution of resources means that some do have daily bread while others hoard it. The wealthy may eat of the bread of injustice, acquired through "loans, interest, debt, high prices, limiting supply, taxes or tariffs" shortchanging workers and pursuing profit while depriving persons. We may get our daily bread in ways that defraud others of theirs. "All that we acquire through harming another belongs to another."

Perhaps it is no accident that the petition for forgiveness and deliverance from evil follows close upon the prayer for daily bread. The hunger of masses of people in a world of abundance is a sin. The shortage of food is not due to any shortage of God's generosity and gracious provision for our need. It does not have anything to do with any failing in the fecundity of the earth. It has to do with structures of injustice and temptations of greed and patterns of consumption that destroy rich and poor alike. These are evils from which we all need to be delivered. Disciples are called to a ministry of feeding hungry people. Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat" (Matthew 14:16). To pray "give us this day our daily bread" is to commit ourselves to ensure that all of us have bread.

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors


God's forgiveness comes first and makes it possible (and necessary) for us to forgive others. The cautions in vv. 14-15 do not mean that God's grace is conditional; rather they remind us not to presume upon God's grace. God's grace is free but it is not "cheap."

Asking for forgiveness and acknowledging debt are difficult things in our culture. We spend much of our time trying to prove ourselves to be in the right, not needing forgiveness. Furthermore, can we pray, "forgive us our debts" while taking such care to establish that we do not really own anyone anything  that we are "self-made" people? When we ask for forgiveness, we have given up all claim to being right or self-sufficient. We have acknowledged a debt to God and to others, admitting that we stand in need of reconciliation and restoration in our relationships. Our readiness to come before God is connected with our readiness to ask forgiveness. In the Sermon on the Mount we are charged, "When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).

As we are more rooted in Christ, we come to share in God's loving nature and are less and less able to withhold forgiveness  that is a "power" we give up. Forgiveness is, in a way, a giving up of power. We come to recognize that we really cannot live without the other and the word of mercy and the healing of what has been wounded. Neither the forgiver nor the forgiven acquires the power that simply cuts off the past and leaves us alone to face the future: both have discovered that their past, with all its shadows and injuries, is now what makes it imperative to be reconciled so that they may live more fully from and with each other. To forgive heals some of the damage as it releases the one forgiving from imprisonment in malice and resentment and desire for retaliation. Anne Lamott quipped that, "Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die."

The petition, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" has global dimensions as well as personal and communal dimensions. The word translated "forgive" (aphesis) is the same word used in the Septuagint for the jubilee year, which called for a forgiveness of debts (Leviticus 25:8-55) and restoration of the land to families who had, through debt, become dispossessed. This was to be a protection for those who fell on hard times. The practice allowed for a restoration that put things right and also limited the aggrandizement of the rich and powerful in accumulating the rightful inheritance of others. There was an economic "reset" button that allowed respite and a restoration for the poor of the land. ... A test of disicpleship is in the willingness to reorder possessions toward the dispossessed. 

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil


Discerning what temptation might mean in this context is to consider the petition in the context of the prayer itself and its earlier petitions. There is temptation to doubt whether God's reign will come and God's will be done on earth. When will that be? What is the delay? Where is God? What is God waiting for? There is temptation to doubt whether we may really receive the grace of God's forgiveness. There is temptation to withhold forgiveness from others even thought it is incumbent upon us as forgiven sinners. It is a temptation to doubt the presence and power of God to "deliver us from evil." There is the temptation, in the face of these doubts, to succumb to the present order, to be coopted by it.

This petition includes a plea that we be delivered from evil. There are two "evils" from which we need deliverance: the evil we experience and the evil we do. Prayer does not ask that we never experience evil; that would be praying to live in some other world than this world we live in. The prayer is rather that we may be delivered. We pray that we may be upheld by God's presence and power in such a way that those things that would undo us cannot undo us. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou are with me ... " (Psalm 23:4).

"Jesus says, 'You cannot serve God and wealth,' and 'Love your enemies ... ' (Matthew 6:24, 5:44). Greed and violence are evils that are destructive in our lives, our communities, and our world. Devotion to wealth and hatred of enemies are evils from which the followers of Jesus must pray to be delivered (Miroslav Volf).

Among the many temptations we face, there remains a temptation to privatize and personalize the petitions of this prayer. When we do this, the prayer does not impinge upon us with its ethical implications or its wider horizon (i.e. global problems of hunger and the debt crisis). There is the temptation to pray this prayer mindlessly, as an empty religious ritual, without feeling its world-shaking power and its implicit requirement to realign our lives for the work of overcoming all that stands in the way of God's just and life-giving reign.

+ Excerpts from Matthew: A Theological Commentary by Anna Case-Winters, pgs. 106-122


Tampa Underground Network Values

Previous posts on the Lord's Prayer:

Simply Good News | Praying the Good News of the Lord's Prayer by N.T. Wright 
The Divine Conspiracy | The Grandest Prayer of All is the Lord's Prayer by Dallas Willard 
Our Father | Reflections on the Lord's Prayer by Pope Francis

Next post: The Lord's Prayer | God's Will on Earth in Us and through Us as it is in Heaven by Stanley Hauerwas

Soli Jesu gloria.

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

Email Pastor Mike | Website | Visit Us | Support Us | Facebook Us

No comments:

Post a Comment