THE LORD’S PRAYER IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The Lord’s Prayer is a universal Christian prayer. It is said in every corporate worship service worldwide and is used in the personal devotions of millions of people. Recently, I began to be aware that the prayer is so familiar I was saying it without thinking what it meant, and I wondered if other people have the same experience. The result of my thinking and wondering is this article.
The Lord’s Prayer is so called because it is attributed to Jesus. However, there seems to be a consensus among many scholars that Jesus is not the source of the prayer. Some regard the prayer as a modification of the Kaddish, a prayer regularly used in Jewish synagogues. Others maintain that the earliest form of the prayer was composed by a community of Galileans known as the Q people between the years 40-65 C.E Their version of the Lord’s Prayer went something like this: “Abba/Father, Your name be revered, Let your basileia/kingdom/reign come. Give us the bread we need for today. And forgive us our debts to the extent that we forgive those who are in debt to us. And please don’t subject us to test after test.” Another version is found in the Didache, a collection of Christian teachings from around the year 100. The two versions most familiar are found in the Gospels, one in Matthew 6:9-13 and the other in Luke 11:2-4. The Matthew version of the Lord’s Prayer is probably the most familiar one used by Christians, both corporately and individually.
The prayer begins with an address to “Our Father in heaven.” which indicates that it is a prayer of a community of faith and normally used corporately. When it is used individually, the “Our Father” affirms that the person is involved with a community of shared faith. “Hallowed be Your name,” which is found in many
prayers that Galilean Jews said regularly, is an affirmation that God’s name be revered as holy.
The heart of the prayer is a series of petitions to God to do what Jesus proclaimed. The first words that Jesus spoke when he began his public ministry in Galilee were, “The time has come: the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mk. 1:14). The first petition of the prayer is “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The people of Palestine knew from experience about kings and kingdoms. In 63 B.C. the country had been conquered by the legions of the Roman empire/kingdom whose emperor/king was Caesar. If there was any question about his status he was called “the Son of God” and his image was on the coins of the realm. In the time of Jesus, Palestine was ruled by a client king, loyal to Caesar, named Herod Antipas. The people of Palestine lived in a kingdom that had been imposed upon them and maintained by violence.
The phrase Kingdom of God is not found in the Hebrew Bible. But one can find the seed of its meaning there for understanding how Jesus used it. When the tribes of Israel were liberated from slavery in Egypt and entered the “promise land,” Yahweh initiated a covenant with his people that Yahweh would be their God and they would be his people, obeying his will of justice and compassion. In the language of the day God would be their king and they would be his subjects. For a thousand years the tribes resisted the reign and rule of kings like those who dominated their neighboring people because they thought it would violate the covenant they had made with their God. However, in the 11th century B.C.E, in order to unite the confederacy of tribes in resisting the invasion of the Philistines, a king was chosen and anointed by Samuel. Saul was the first king of Israel, beginning a succession of kings which endured until the time of Jesus. Over the centuries, the kings consistently failed to honor the covenant with God to establish a just social order. In response to this failure, the prophets, beginning with Amos, spoke judgment against
the kings and offered a vision of an ideal king, an anointed one, who would come from God some day in the future to establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Since Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God had already started, in the context of the kingdom of Caesar and Herod, that had obvious political connotations. It would evoke a vision of a political order where God ruled – “your will be done” –your will of justice, not the will of Caesar and Herod.
The next petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread.” Roman rule had brought prosperity to Palestine. The land, however, which was the basis of an agricultural economy, was owned by a small group of urban ruling elite, perhaps ten percent of the population. They received about two thirds of their income from rent for land and taxation. Ninety percent of the population was rural peasants who worked small family plots, used land rented from the elite or were day laborers. They received about one third of the income from their agricultural production. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Those who lived at a subsistence level and suffered from economic exploitation petitioned God for economic justice.
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Not only did the peasants have a difficult time producing enough for their own needs, they were often forced into indebtedness when they could not pay the rent for the land or the taxes levied. When they could not pay their debt they could lose their land. Moreover, unpaid debt could result in imprisonment or being sold into indentured servitude. This petition resonates with the Sabbatical year regulations in the Code of Holiness found in Leviticus 25. In the seventh year the land “rests” and recovers from its exploitation and debts are forgiven. The purpose of the cancellation of debts was to help provide food for the landless peasants and offer a fresh start…
“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” To pray to God not to lead us into temptation sounds strange to modern ears, but people in the time of Jesus thought God was in some sense responsible for good and evil. There is the familiar story of Jesus being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1-11) One cannot know if this petition is general or specific. But in the historical context of the Lord’s Prayer, at the conclusion of the petitions, it would appear to be specific. If the Kingdom of God is “upon you” and the will of God is being done, change is in the wind. The kingdom of Caesar is being subverted and replaced by the Kingdom of God. When Caesar, Herod and their colleagues discovered this, there would be swift and deadly reaction. In confronting this force one could be tempted to either accept the status quo of political domination and economic exploitation or join those who were responding with violence. If this interpretation is accepted these two temptations must be avoided. The “evil one” in the petition is probably Caesar. For the prayer concludes with declaring to God, “For Yours in the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen
Kings and kingdoms are archaic words in our world. If we pray the Lord’s Prayer and understand its subversive meaning as described above, is it still relevant to our world? Walter Wink has paraphrased the Kingdom of God as “God’s Domination Free Order.” He writes, “Where is God’s reign? Where ever domination is overcome, people freed, the soul fed, God’s reality is known. When is God’s reign? When ever people turn from the idols of power and wealth and fame to the governance of God in a society of equals. What is God’s reign? It is the transformation of the Domination System into a non-violent, humane, ecologically sustainable, livable environment fashioned to enable people to grow and grow well.”(1) Given the basic human drives for security, status and achievement, The Domination Free Order of justice and compassion proclaimed, taught and lived by Jesus exists as a vision in tension with every political, economic and social order of every society.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, corporately or as individuals, it is well to remember that Jesus lived the affirmations and petitions of the prayer and was crucified by the Domination Order of his time.
(1) Walter Wink, When The Powers Fall, p. 10