On Prayer, 4

Last time I didn’t get beyond Jesus’ address in The Lord’s Prayer, but I did promise to take apart the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s time to redeem the promise.

In more traditional versions, Jesus next invokes God’s Kingdom. Now, it is a very common thing for Jesus to speak of the Kingdom of God. That made sense because in his time almost the only form of government was some form of monarchy. On the other hand it has always struck my ears as an unfortunate metaphor in an age when we think the most appropriate from of government is democracy rather than monarchy. The issue for us, then, is how to understand that metaphor in a way that makes sense in our culture.

I think Jesus is pointing us to a time when people actually followed God’s Law, which, for him was Torah (Talmud not yet having been written and compiled.) Few of us outside of the Jewish community, though, feel at all compelled to follow Torah. So, again, how can we understand this language? Well, Jesus also tells us elsewhere what he thought the core, the essence of Torah is: Love of God and love of neighbor. And these, he believed, were essentially the same thing since one cannot simultaneously love God and fail to love one’s neighbor.

Suppose we were to adopt love of God and love of neighbor as the essential standard for all of our behavior. Suppose we were to adopt this as our rule, if you will. (I use the word “rule” in the sense of “The Rule of St. Benedict”.) Then our rule would then, by Jesus’ lights, be God’s rule, God’s standard and guide to living a good and upright life. And this is why I have used the word “rule” rather than “Kingdom” in my paraphrase.

To understand the rest of the prayer, we have to consider the matter of punctuation. Ancient texts often had either no or rather ambiguous punctuation. The result of this is that there are often multiple ways of reading the same text, and these readings are not always compatible, something that can sometimes drive scholars screaming from the room. The usual way of reconstructing the prayer in modern English makes the final three sentences petitions and this turns the whole thing into a petitionary prayer.

But just a few sentences previously, Jesus had told us that petitionary prayer is unnecessary since God knows what we need before we ask for it. Petition, then, is pointless, simply verbiage. So why would he now teach us to pray using a petitionary prayer. That doesn’t seem to me to make much sense.

So what are these three sentences about? Well, in the English, the subject in not stated but understood. The subject is the pronoun “you”, and look what happens when the pronoun is stated. The petitions become descriptions. These are things that You, God, do for us. “You give us the necessities of life. Your forgiveness of our sins, our shortcomings, is the model for our forgiving one another. And far from tempting us into evil and wrong-doing, following your Rule protects and shields us from evil.” In short it turns the prayer into a prayer of thanksgiving.

Finally, I have left out the usual closing, “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.” That is because there is no reason at all to think that Jesus ever said that. The oldest version of the prayer that contains those words dates to only the fourth century CE, several hundred years after these Gospels were written, and there are older manuscripts that do not contain them. In short, those words appear to be add-ons. I don’t much like them, because I fail to see why God needs our praise.

Here then, is The Lords’ Prayer as I understand it. First my simple paraphrase:

Our Father in Heaven, You whose name is Holy, may your rule become as manifest on earth as it is in heaven. You give us our daily bread; you provide forgiveness and teach us to forgive; you do not us lead into temptation, but rather you deliver us from evil.

And second my interpreted version:

God, who stands to us as loving and gentle as Abba, living within and around us as Spirit to spirit, may we adopt your Rule as the Rule of our lives. You give us the necessities of life. Your forgiveness of our sins, our shortcomings, is the model for our forgiving one another. And far from tempting us into evil and wrong-doing, following your Rule protects and shields us from evil.

And this, I think, is the manner in which Jesus taught us to pray. The true Lord’s Prayer is not in the words of the mouth but in the words of the heart. Or so I think.

1 thought on “On Prayer, 4

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