Lent, Day 19 — Prayer

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way:
Our Father in [the heavens],
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in [the heavens].
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 6:7-13 NRSV)

1)    Don’t be like them. In this sermon, there are two groups of people Jesus tells his followers not to imitate: religious hypocrites and Gentiles. Jesus already showed us how hypocrites behave. They perform their religion for social approval.

2)    Jesus’s words about Gentiles are rooted in his Jewish identity, because God had chosen to reveal God’s self as a liberating, life-transforming God. Gentiles (that would be us), like the Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians, lived in fear of capricious, fickle gods. If a god fell in love with a mortal, the mortal would likely get crossways with another god and get turned into a tree or bird or cow. If the gods decided they didn’t like you, you might spend seven years trying to get home (like Ulysses). If you said your child was smart or pretty, you’d better hope the gods didn’t get jealous and smite them with something. Nothing you did was ever good enough for the gods, so it was best to fly under their radar and not draw attention to yourself. If you did choose to pray, you had to convince them to hear you. “You don’t need to filibuster the Source of the Universe,” Jesus says.

3)    In contrast, God (who Jesus indicates is already present in your secret place and your innermost self) already knows what you need.

4)    There have been whole books written on this prayer, so I will not break down all of its elements. I’ll just mention a few of its big parts. First, hear how God’s will is done “in the heavens.” This is why people do astrology, because the stars and planets move according to God’s will. A star appeared to herald Jesus’s own birth, according to Matthew. “God’s will done in the heavens” is not about a mystery realm in the afterlife. People literally believed God was ordering the movements of the cosmos. This is a plea for life to be made predictable and in right relationship. It is a call for justice. (And this is why I keep pointing out that we should translate this phrase as “the heavens”.)

5)    Daily bread is a reference to manna in the Hebrew Bible. This is about teaching us to live in the moment, with what we need for today. Jesus will revisit this theme when he talks about money and worry.

6)    Debts. Debt was rampant in the first century, and it held people in poverty. Jesus uses debt forgiveness in his parables. The difference between “forgiving sins” and “forgiving debts” is that debt forgiveness is revolutionary and systemic. There is a reason predatory lending, medical debt, education debt, and climate debt are in our news so much today. I’ve chosen to use the NRSV today, because it says “debt” instead of “trespass” or “sin.”

7)    Save us from the time of trial. The Pope recently told Roman Catholics to use this phrase instead of “lead us not into temptation.” It even made the news! I think it is high time. God doesn’t tempt us with sin. Tests and trials, on the other hand, are certainly in the Hebrew Bible.

8)    I think these word changes help us hear that God’s activity is less about sin management and getting our souls into heaven, and more about God’s saving activity with us here on this planet. “Your will done on earth as in the heavens.”

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