Why The Lord's Prayer Is Bad News For Many Christians

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9–13). 

I’ve been thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew’s version of it anyway. For a long time I believed it was about… I’m not exactly sure what I thought it was about. My Sunday School teacher called it “the model prayer,” by which she meant that when we prayed we were supposed use it as a kind of template. But now that thought is a little scary to me.

I grew up believing that the Lord’s Prayer operated as some kind of celestial code that would… again, I’m not exactly sure what I thought it would do. Suffice it to say, though, I was pretty sure the Lord’s Prayer was important and that it dealt with God and heaven and stuff.

I imagined, for instance, that when I prayed, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I was talking about God’s will being done for my life: that I might marry the right person (who I assumed would be God’s idea of the perfect person, created just for me), or that I’d grow up to have the job God wanted for me to have (which I was certain was some suitably middle class profession that would allow me to support my family and play golf regularly), or that I would be surrounded by “Godly” people (which I thought meant people who didn’t drink or smoke or swear).

I supposed that the “bread” we were asking for was heavenly bread—like Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” So, I thought we were asking for more of Jesus, or something like that. I was sure that it was some kind of heavenly manna that satisfied my inner longing for acceptance, strength, and the ability to refrain from looking at dirty magazines.

When we were praying that God would “forgive us our debts,” I was pretty sure we were talking our personal sins, which were debts that we’d incurred to a God who expected to be paid back—things like drinking, smoking, swearing, and looking at dirty magazines.

And when it came to pleading with God not to “lead us into the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one,” I was taught that that was about my personal temptations, that God would spare me the indignity of even having “debts” (i.e., sins) to forgive in the first place.

As I’ve grown older, it’s become clear to me that the Lord’s Prayer—far from being about stuff “out there” in some diaphanous unbounded ether, or as a prayer about my personal relationship with Jesus—was about the very real and gritty kinds of things that happen right here, where we worry about things like getting grandma’s outrageously expensive medication, or making sure that our LGBTQ kids won’t get beat up and harassed on the school bus, or how our African American friends and neighbors will survive traffic stops, or whether our Muslim coworkers will have their mosques vandalized, or if our Latinx family will wake up to find someone missing, or whether that’s the bill collector on the phone.

When Jesus talks about “kingdom,” he’s always referring to an alternative to the kingdoms of this world, which serve up injustice like flapjacks at a Denny’s brunch blowout. In other words, Jesus is being explicitly political. When he prays about God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus is saying something like, “Empower us to envision what the world would look like, O God, if you were the one sitting in the Oval Office—and then to live accordingly.”

What would the world look like if God were signing executive orders?

Who would healthcare reform cover if Jesus were writing the bill?

How might things be different if the divine were running the Equal Opportunity Employment Agency, or OSHA, or the EPA, or HUD, or the Department of Education?

“Your kingdom come, your will be done” is about living in a world Jesus would recognize as the one he was praying for if he happened to show up in Washington D.C. (or Los Angeles, or Des Moines) in 2017, and not just the world that’s convenient for the people at the top.

That we continue to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is an indictment of our Christianity; it’s an admission that we still live in a world in which the hungry have to cry out to God for bread—presumably because we’ve settled for such a world as inevitable. This kingdom Jesus is praying for God to establish on earth assumes people will have enough to eat, that systems will offer healthcare to everyone, especially for those who need it most but can afford it least, and that children won’t have to live in cars because Walmart doesn’t pay enough to let their parents live anywhere else.

The implication is: What would Christians have to do, as well as what would we no longer put up with, if we actually believed that God’s kingdom required whole wheat and pumpernickel for everybody, and not just individual nourishment for our personal souls, or healthcare for all God’s children, and not just for people born healthy and wealthy enough to afford it, or housing and living wages were the first thing we talked about at budget time, and not the last thing?

To say, “Forgive us our debts,” is to admit that we participate in a society where the poor have to beseech God to wipe out their debts—not debts to a God who obsesses over being paid back for sins, but debts to payday lenders, loansharking credit card companies, predatory student loan holders. What many Christians who claim to love the Bible never stop to consider is that the Bible has overwhelmingly more to say about the latter than the former (e.g., Ex 22:25–27; Lev 25:36–37; Deut 15; Hab 2:6; Amos 2:6–8; Micah 2:1–2; etc.). But to Jesus, the systematic impoverishment of the powerless through extortionary lending rates is precisely what the kingdom of God present “on earth as it is in heaven” is supposed to remedy.

The implication is: What would Christians have to do, as well as what would we no longer put up with, if we actually believed that God’s kingdom required an equitable economic system that was not underwritten by assumptions that it’s the government’s job to assist wealthy people to rationalize their selfishness while confiscating money from the vulnerable?

Finally, when Jesus prays, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one,” he’s most likely praying about actual trials of people with no political or economic pull in front of actual judges—not that we won’t be tempted to cheat on our diets or our taxes or our spouses. These judges, whose reputation in the ancient world for putting a thumb on the scales of justice against the poor and the powerless, has prompted their designation as “evil ones.” The final two petitions in the Lord’s Prayer “vividly request deliverance from suborned legal proceedings before evil judges” (Douglas Oakman, Jesus and the Peasants, 235). Consequently, our continued need to pray this (even though most people who see Jesus as a model don’t realize that’s what they’re praying for) suggests that Christians have gotten too comfortable with a world in which the legal system is rigged against those who can’t defend themselves—which, frankly, brings shame on us.

The implication is: What would Christians have to do, as well as what would we no longer put up with, if we actually believed that God’s kingdom required systems that took the poor into account as the most important people to protect, rather than as speed bumps on the otherwise smooth road the people in power assume rightfully belongs to them?

Christians ought to be careful before praying the Lord’s Prayer. Depending on who you are, it’s as much about judgment as consolation.

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