Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Lord's Prayer: A Politically Subversive Message

Prayer is a tricky concept.  Far too often in spiritual practices, it becomes a magical incantation.  It is treated as a way of giving our wishlist to the big bearded dude in the sky, and if He likes us, He'll reward us by granting our wishes.  But I think that when we examine the things that Jesus said about prayer, we get a completely different picture of what prayer is, and what it is for.

In what was arguably Jesus' most famous sermon, the "Sermon on the Mount", Jesus teaches on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15.  One thing I have learned is that Jesus' messages lose their edge when we lose sight of the historical context he lived in.  So before I get into what Jesus said in this passage, I'd like to try to put it back into its historical context.

Jesus lived in the time of the Roman empire.  This empire was arguably the most tyrannical, violent, "big brother" style, cultish empire the world has ever known.  The whole empire was built on, and kept in line through violence.  The expansion of the empire was brought about by Rome's superior military skill and might, which was something Rome was very proud of.  When a new culture was conquered and made a part of the empire, it wasn't enough that this group had been conquered - they were subsequently humiliated.  The very word that "triumph" comes from - triumphus - indicated a hymn to ritually honor someone.  

A depiction of a Triumphus parade

This word also came to represent an elaborate parade that Rome would enact to honor the military achievement after conquering a new province.  In this parade, there would be floats on which various scenes from the conquest would be reenacted - battles, gruesome executions, destruction of the city, etc.  During this parade, the general would wear a crown of laurel, and a purple toga which was painted with designs that indicated the divinity of the general.  When the general passed by, and the standards of Rome with him, the people were supposed to bow down and worship him and the standards, showing their surrender.  The triumphus was a way to humiliate and demoralize the newly conquered people.  Along with this, the Roman emperor was addressed with terms that indicated divinity - he was actually referred to as the son of a god - and he expected to be worshiped as one. 

In the time Jesus lived in, there was a systemic economic inequality in the Roman empire.  Rome would tax the empire, and conquered cultures were to pay tributes to the empire on top of this, and all of these riches were used to improve the elaborate cities that were a prized trophy of the heart of the empire.  The rich grew richer off of these taxes and tributes, and the buildings grew bigger and more ornate, but the towns and villages outside were being bled dry, and starvation was rampant outside of these cities.  On top of this, in order to control the areas that were not directly part of Rome, the imperial government would appoint local governments to enforce Roman control.  In Israel, where Jesus lived, the government was enforced through the puppet king Herod, and through the religious institution of the Pharisees.  Herod would tax the provinces of Israel on top of the Roman tax and tribute, and the Pharisaical religion would demand tithes in order for people to gain access to God.  All of this added up to great economical stress for the Jews of Jesus' day.  

And if you live in America, like myself, you might be interested to know that our country has more in common with Rome than you might think.  For example, it's interesting to consider America's imperial global military reach, the number of foreign regimes America has toppled, and that studies have indicated that inequality in America today may be worse than the inequality in the Roman empire.

When we put Jesus' teaching on prayer in this context, I think this illuminates some sharp contrasts to the authority structures and religious practices Jesus' audience were used to.  And I think that this also highlights the incredibly politically subversive nature of this message (this ties in with the Biblical themes of social justice).  The fact that Jesus challenged the authority structures of his day is extremely important in order to understand his message - and this should be obvious to anyone who understands what a crucifixion is, as it was reserved for the political enemies of the empire.  Rome did not just crucify anyone.  Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents; the terrorists; the insurrectionists who had undermined the imperial structures and authority.  Crucifixion was used to make a point.

So within this context, I wanted to take the message of Matthew 6:5-15 piece by piece and highlight the controversial and challenging nature of what Jesus is saying in this section of his sermon.

The first line of this section in verse 5 reads:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
In this verse, Jesus is directly undermining the authority and integrity of the religious leaders.  The Pharisees would commonly pray in public areas, loud enough for everyone to hear.  And the Pharisees were well known for their legalistic knowledge of and practice of the religious code - they were known for piety, which they equated with goodness.  But Jesus is saying "don't be like them", and he calls them "hypocrites".  This word has become a well-known insult in modern times, but it wasn't an insult in Jesus' day - he made it into one.  The word comes from the Greek word hypokrisis, which means to act out, and was used when talking about plays and actors.  Greek actors would commonly play multiple roles, and in order to show when they were stepping out of one role into another, they would don masks which represented each character.

By calling the religious leaders "hypocrites", Jesus is saying that their belief is not sincere.  He's saying that their practice of praying in public betrays an insincerity in their belief - this is like a way to reinforce their shaky belief system amidst the skepticism.  And Jesus says that the only reward they will get from this practice is the fact that they have been seen.

Jesus then states what we should do instead in verse 6:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Jesus is demonstrating that prayer is meant to be an intimate, relational act - only shared between the individual and the Father.  In order to ensure that prayer is genuine, it should not require the reinforcement of an audience.  This is still challenging to the modern culture, where all too often the pious religious elite are fighting to enforce public acts of piety in our schools.

Verse 7 is challenging as well:
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

Don't try to impress God (or other people listening to your prayer) with your vocabulary!  Don't try to impress anyone with your eloquence!  That's not what prayer is about!  And the next verse totally overthrows the "magical incantation" view of prayer:
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
If God knows what you need before you ask, what's the point of presenting your wish list?  There is no point!  Because that's not what prayer is for!  To pray without an attempt at eloquence, and to pray in secret, is to open one's heart to Love, as God is love (I John 4:8, 16).  Prayer is not about changing God, as love cannot be changed.  Prayer is about changing me.  In "Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer", Richard Rohr writes:
Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence.
And this Presence can be enjoyed no matter where you are or what you are doing!  You don't have to enact pious ceremony to be aware of and enjoy the Presence - the Presence can be felt and enjoyed while gazing on a flower, or smelling a warm biscuit, or while sweating on your morning jog.

Jesus moves on to teach a specific prayer we call "The Lord's Prayer", and it's a very subversive message, if you keep in mind the historical culture.  It starts in verse 9:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name
This statement expresses a desire to keep the name of God holy.  Again, we lose so much of the meaning behind this concept because we don't understand the historical culture, and the importance of a name in that culture.  In this culture, a name stood for reputation and the spirit of a person.  To do something in the name of another person was to act in a way worthy of that person's reputation.  I have written more on this concept in a post titled "Praying in Jesus' Name".  

To keep the name of the Father holy meant to act in a way that showed His influence on you.  Too often, we take the commandment not to take the Lord's name in vain to mean "don't say 'oh my God'".  But that's such a shallow interpretation.  I think Brennan Manning shows the deeper meaning of this command in the following quote:
The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
Keeping the name of God holy is more about how you live than being legalistic about what you say.

Moving to verse 10, Jesus prays:
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Here's where it gets politically subversive and dangerous.  "Your kingdom come" - as opposed to Caesar's.  "Your will be done" - as opposed to Caesar's.  This is a defiant prayer - an opposition to tyranny and oppression of the weak by the strong.  And the next phrase is still challenging to us today - it highlights one of the problems of modern Evangelical Christianity.  Evangelical Christianity all too often makes faith about "my own personal salvation", or "my ticket to heaven".  But the Jews didn't believe in the Platonic concept of Heaven as a realm up in the clouds with pearly gates that we "go to" when we die.  The Jews believed in resurrection of the body.  The idea that Christianity is about how we can get to "Heaven" makes it all about figuring out the minimal requirements one must meet in order to get your ticket to "Heaven", and who cares about the state of things on earth?  But Jesus prays for God's will "on earth".  Jesus prays that God's kingdom would be established "on earth".  What would such a kingdom - built upon the principle that God loves all people and shows no favoritism (Romans 2:11) - look like?

The next statement in verse 11 was challenging then, and is still challenging now:
Give us today our daily bread.
In a culture of stark inequality, this statement meant different things depending on who was hearing it.  To the poor, this prayer indicated that God does care about your physical state.  God does desire your health and well-being.  To the poor - who struggled each day for their bread - this part of the prayer was comforting.

But if you were rich, this statement was challenging, and probably not a welcome addition to the prayer Jesus taught.  To the rich, asking to receive your daily bread was in contrast to receiving enough bread every day to provide lavish meals for years.  Asking for my daily bread contrasts the American dream of making enough money every day to live in an enormous mansion, and the ability to constantly update to the latest technological fad, and wear the most expensive designer clothes, and drive the fastest car.

In the next verse, Jesus states:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
In this period of history, it was customary to work for a person you were indebted to.  Debt and slavery were one and the same thing - if you owed me a debt in that culture, I owned you until the debt had been paid off.  In modern times, debt can still be very much synonymous with slavery, but it is much more subtle.  In the statement above, Jesus is pointing out that every person owes debts, whether physical or spiritual.  And he is challenging his audience to forgive the debts that people owe them - because if you want to experience forgiveness, you need to extend forgiveness.  This statement of the forgiveness of debts also references the year of Jubilee, which I have written about in another post.  Again, Jesus is demonstrating that God is concerned with physical issues.  He is concerned about the crushing weight of economic debt.  And God wants His people to practice the forgiveness of debts - both physical and spiritual.

Jesus then says, in verse 13:
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
The first request - lead us not into temptation - shows that the spirit of a loving God would not teach us to purposefully seek out situations which will tempt us to act unlovingly.  Love teaches us how to withstand temptation, and we don't need to avoid other people in order to be loving - no, love would compel us to seek other people who need to be shown love!  But living in love does not mean deliberately seeking out situations which will be difficult for us.

And when Jesus says to deliver us from the evil one - I think it is good to consider the various ways "the evil one" is referred to, and their literal meanings.  "Ha-satan" literally means "the accuser", and "devil" comes from "diabolos" which literally means to slander or to accuse falsely.  In this prayer, Jesus teaches us that being in touch with the spirit of God means to desire to be free from attitudes that would lead us to accuse and slander others.  And love does that - love avoids accusation and slander, which cause conflict.  

In some versions, verse 13 goes on to say:
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Once again, this is a defiant, politically subversive statement.  If the kingdom, power, and glory belong to the Father, then they are not Caesar's.  And since Caesar was always looking for ways to demonstrate his power and glory, and to establish and protect his kingdom, this kind of statement would have been considered treasonous.

Jesus ends his message on prayer by stating in verses 14-15:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
To experience forgiveness, one must release animosity towards others.  You can't truly experience forgiveness if you are holding on to your sense of vengeance, or your sense that the world owes you one.  To experience the love of the Father, you have to release these things, and then you will realize that they were always worthless - they only held you back from experiencing the goodness of life.


  1. Outstanding.Just the right amount of back-story and truly concise and potent points and insights that you shared.
    I'm going to post this widely on the net -- it deserves a wide audience and I hope it helps people come to new understandings about the counter-cultural radicality of our faith. I'll simply add the - "Amen." Amen came to English from Latin, which got it from Greek, which got it from Aramaic, which got it from Hebrew (though Aramaic may have had it as well before it became the standard language of the Jewish people a few centuries before Christ). It means "it's confirmed, it's certain" - and conveys the Beatles "Let it be" and Capt. Jean Luc Picard's "Make it so."

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity

    1. Thank you so much, Roger - I'm deeply honored!