Today’s readings contain the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in the Gospel of Luke. I learned this prayer as a child and pray it almost every day. It has become so routine that I often lose the power of the words contained in that simple prayer.
A few weeks ago, when the version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew was in the daily readings, I had a reflection based on the text from Matthew. Today, with the help of the Irish Jesuits, I will do a similar analysis for the shorter Lucan version.
The text of the Lord’s Prayer should not be seen as just a formula for vocal recitation. It is, rather, a series of statements and petitions in which we affirm our relationship with God, with the people around us and with the world in general. It is a statement of faith and it is, as we shall see, a highly challenging and, therefore, even rather dangerous prayer.
Let us take a brief look at the petitions one by one.
We address God as Father, the source of life and of everything that we have; we have nothing purely of our own. We do not address him as Lord, or Master, or Judge. We do not even call him, the Source of all being, Creator, but by the much more personal term, Father. And St Paul reminds us that this title is meant to be understood on the warmest and most intimate level. He tells us to call God Abba (’) “Papa” – titles used affectionately by young children all over the world. This affectionate form of praying to the Divine is fairly unique among major world religions (and a blasphemy to our Abrahamic cousins the Muslims).
In addressing God as ‘Father’ we are acknowledging that every human person, including myself, is a child of God and therefore that we all belong to one huge family where we are all, in a very real way, brothers and sisters to each other. There is no room here for rejection, or hatred, or prejudice or contempt of any kind based on race, nationality, color of skin, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion, etc. If I am not prepared to accept every single person as a brother or sister, I will have problems even beginning to say this prayer.
2. May your name be held holy:
Other forms are ‘Hallowed be thy name’ or ‘Holy be your name’. Of course, God’s name is holy no matter what we say or think. For the Jews, a name was not simply a label indicating identity. It denoted the whole person. When Moses spoke to God in the burning bush, he needed to know God’s name in order to know who he was. So here we are praying that God himself and not just his name be revered by all. It is not just a prayer for people to avoid irreverent language. In a sense, too, who can make God’s name or God himself “holy?” His holiness in no way depends on us. We make this prayer for our sake more than for his. What we are rather asking for is that God’s holiness be acknowledged by us not only by our words but by the way we live. In other words, it is a prayer that God’s holiness be reflected in our own lives and in the lives of every single person.
3. Your kingdom come:
The Kingdom of God we may understand as a world in which everything that God stands for becomes a reality in the lives of people everywhere – a world that is built on truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, human dignity, peace. We know it is God’s will that such a world should be the shared experience of all but it depends a great deal on our response and co-operation. Some elements of the Kingdom can be found in many places and in many communities but we are only too aware that, for the world at large, the Kingdom is still far from being a reality and much of the blame lies with us. It is the work of the Church and of every single Christian, indeed of every person anywhere – to help people recognize the kingship and lordship of God and to accept it as the key to their present and future happiness. So in saying this invocation we are not only calling on God’s help but reminding ourselves of working with God to make the Kingdom a reality.
4. Give us today our daily bread:
In the second half of the prayer we pray more directly for our own needs. And we begin with present needs. Notice that we ask for today’s bread, food, today’s material needs. Is that what we normally pray for? Or are our anxieties reaching far out into the future? Yet in praying this way we express our trust in a caring God. It is also the acceptance of a challenge by all of us to see that every person has their needs for today supplied. There is no need for worry and anxiety about the future.
There is one little word here that is highly dangerous. It is the word “us”. Who is that “us”? Just me and my immediate family? or my parish? or my neighborhood or my town or my country? All the above plus more; the “us” includes every single person. I am praying, therefore, that every single person have bread to eat today. We know, of course, that there are millions of people (some of them in rich countries) who do not have enough to eat or who suffer from malnutrition and poorly balanced diets. In praying that all of “us” have our daily bread, are we expecting God to drop manna from the skies or are we not reminding ourselves that the feeding of brothers and sisters is our responsibility? If people are hungry or badly fed, it is not God’s doing; human beings are responsible in most cases (outside of natural disasters).
Finally, this petition prayer is not limited to the physical food required to nourish our bodies; it also includes the spiritual food of the Eucharist to nourish our spirits. But in sharing that Bread together we are saying sacramentally that we are a sharing people and we will share our goods and blessings with others, especially those in need. If we turn our Eucharist into an individualistic affair, it becomes a kind of sacrilege.
5. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us:
Is this not an incredibly dangerous prayer to make? We are asking that God’s forgiveness to us be conditional on our readiness to forgive those we perceived to have hurt us in some way. That is a daring thing to do. And forgiveness does not simply mean uttering a few words. Forgiveness in the Scripture always includes reconciliation between offender and offended. In fact, I would go even further and say that the fully Christian person is never offended, cannot be offended. The true Christian has a rock solid sense of their own security and their own inner worth which no other person can take away. When such a person is the recipient of some attack, be it verbal or physical, their first response is to reach out to the attacker with concern and sympathy. It is the attacker who has the problem, not the one attacked. Most of us have a long way to go to reach that level of inner peace. ‘If what you say about me is true, I accept it; if it is false, then it is false. Why should I take offence?’ We are praying to share God’s most beautiful quality – his readiness to forgive not just “seventy time seven times” but indefinitely.
6. Do not subject us to the final test:
Finally, we pray for protection from future trials that might overwhelm us. Trials where we might fail and betray our following of him. It is rare the we are subjected to the major trials that the first disciples faced. However, we are faced with our own trials in our daily lives. Do we really think about God in all of the decisions we make in our daily lives and in how we treat others? The evil one is constantly trying to get us to focus on our own needs and wants and make us forgot that we spiritually connected to a much larger spiritual organism in the Church, all of humanity and all of God’s other creation.
Finally, in addition to simply reciting this prayer in the rapid way we normally do, we could sometimes take it very slowly, one petition at a time and let its meaning sink in. Or we could just take one petition which is particularly meaningful to us at any time and just stay with it until it really becomes part of us.
For many years now, I have been writing God as Godde, because God made us all, women and men, in his image. And the ‘His’ has become so heavy and the norm that women are not seen truly as human being equal to men (equal not meaning the same, by the way).
Much injustice has taken place over the centuries and is still taking place today. My writing Godde and thinking She, Mother, Sister comes to very little and will remain this way until an awareness develops that truly men and women are made in Godde’s image. Godde who is beyond male and female…
Too many crimes against women’s humanity are taking place around the world. I sense that God seen as Father, Man, King, Ruler, Lord is a major reason for women’s weak positions in all world religions and political systems.
I don’t believe God/de, Jesus and the Spirit, all One in the Trinity, ever intended this way. 🙂
Thank you very much for your thoughts. I apologize in advance for the long reply but this is an important topic (likely worthy of at least a separate blogpost if not an entire blog:-).
There is no doubt that the terms “Father”, “His”, etc. has caused and is continuing to cause much injustice, both inside and outside the Church, if one misuses that term. Your use of the term Godde is interesting and gives me something to ponder on. Overall, I believe that the discussions over gender language, while incredibly important to protect against the injustices you mention, also risk missing the unique revelation that Jesus had when he used the term “Abba” (Father). Specifically, Jesus was taking the distant Creator deity and clearly stating that this deity wanted a personal relationship with human that is akin to a parent. That was such a radical concept that the religious authorities of Jesus’ day successfully lobbied the Romans for his execution.
The best analysis that I have seen on this issue is from Luke Timothy Johnson. Dr. Johnson is a favorite theologian of mine, not only because he is a brilliant biblical scholar, but also because he is authentic in taking on both those who want to water down the historical Jesus as nothing more than a great prophet or the Roman hierarchy for the gender abuses you mention.
Several extended excerpts from Dr. Johnson’s wonderful book “The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters” may be helpful.
“In Israel, the designation ‘father’ was used relatively seldom for Yahweh”. Johnson, Luke Timothy (2007-12-18). The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (p. 78). Image. Kindle Edition.
Dr. Johnson then goes on to cite examples from the Hebrew Bible and then contrast those with the uniquely personal language that Jesus uses. He then goes on to expound the difficulties you raise:
“As we have learned it from Jesus, the designation of God as Father seems personal and positive. But is it so for everyone? Many female (and some male) Christians have become increasingly disturbed by the use of gender-exclusive language for God. The creed is a stumbling block for such Christians when it calls God “Father” and not “Mother,” and when it speaks of Jesus as “Son” and as “becoming man.” The concerns raised by such Christians are both real and serious. They arise from the hard experience of women within Christianity: with structures that elevate males above females (patriarchy), attitudes that diminish or destroy the value of women as persons (sexism), and language that tends to reinforce such structures and attitudes.
Speaking of God in exclusively male terms therefore seems to many contemporary Christians the supreme example of using language in a way hurtful to women. First, it projects on God human male qualities that are then regarded as “divine,” reinforcing the arrangements of society that favor men by according them status and authority greater than that accorded women. As Mary Daly says succinctly, “If God is male, then the male is God.” Second, and perhaps equally important, it strongly implies that human female qualities cannot be ascribed to God, just as leadership within human societies should be denied to women.” [Editors Note: I left off some of the more controversial quotes from this section if only to encourage you to read the book:-)]
Johnson, Luke Timothy (2007-12-18). The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (pp. 82-83). Image. Kindle Edition.
Dr. Johnson then proceeds to discuss several potential solutions to the problems and concludes that the best one is to
“supplement male language about God with female language, is the best. It has the advantage of preserving the sense of God as person. It reminds us that when we call God “Father” we do not mean that God is male. It is supported by passages in Scripture that speak freely of God in terms of female imagery. It expresses the fact that God is as much female as God is male, since God cannot be either female or male in the way that humans are male or female, since God is Spirit rather than body. And finally, it does not displace the specific symbolism of the biblical witness, which speaks of God as “Father” and “Son” as well as “Spirit.”
Johnson, Luke Timothy (2007-12-18). The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (p. 84). Image. Kindle Edition.
However, Dr. Johnson very acutely recognizes the challenges of implementing this approach; specifically balancing the need for theological accuracy and minimizing gender injustice with the needs of tradition; specifically, as Dr. Johnson is acutely aware from his experiences with the Jesus Seminar, that given the lack of theological training among most Christians there is a risk that moving too quickly from tradition that would cause them to lose faith in core revelations:
“There remains the question, however, of when and where such supplementary language about God should be used. I strongly oppose the growing practice of producing “gender-inclusive” translations of Scripture as well as of liturgical prayer, and would resist as well any attempts to modify the traditional language of the creed. These instruments of revelation, prayer, and profession are too fragile to survive such revisions. Revisions often make things only worse. For example, such revisions pay little attention to the requirement that every generation serve the genuine needs of those who come after it. Enlightened people in the pew today may understand what they mean by beginning the Lord’s Prayer with the words “Our Father-Mother,” but Christians three generations from now may not, and may not be in a position to, pray and profess in the manner that all Christians before them had done. It is a form of generational narcissism to change texts to suit one’s own needs.
The appropriate settings for using supplementary female language for God, I suggest, are in theological discussions, in groups meeting for informal worship, in the reading of Scripture by those who know the appropriate ways to render the original languages in nonexclusive ways, and in every form of individual prayer:
“Three final comments on this difficult subject may be appropriate. The first is the simple reminder that just as male language has been used to reinforce patriarchal structures to the diminishment of women, so has the actual human reality of fatherhood often been a powerful and beneficent reality for men themselves, for women, and above all, for children. By no means do all men or women find praying to God as Father an obstacle to true piety or psychological growth, because in their experience, their father maturely embraced and embodied the role of father. Calling God “Father” works well for them.
The second observation is another reminder, that Christian language about God as Father is not simply a projection from the human experience of fatherhood, still less from the patriarchal structures of society. The Christian understanding of God as Father is based on the way humans experienced God as creator, protector, and redeemer in the story of Israel, in the way Jesus bore witness to God as his Father, and in the way in which, moved by the experience of the Holy Spirit in their lives, Christians also have come to know God as their Father. We do not call God Father because of our male parent. Rather, as Paul says in Ephesians 3:14, we come to understand all fathering because of the way God is Father: “For this reason [the way God has acted in the world through Christ] I bow my knees before the Father (pater), from whom all fatherhood (patria) in heaven and on earth takes its name.”
Finally, we must also remember that all positive language about God must undergo the negative or apophatic reading I spoke of in the last chapter. We must say that God is “Father,” but we must also say that God is not Father as we understand fatherhood, lest we simply and uncritically project human maleness on God. So we must use other names for God (including female ones) to remind ourselves that no single name adequately captures the fullness of God, even the one used by Jesus himself.
To think otherwise would be to limit God’s own capacity to reveal Godself in ways beyond our control. Even when we, with great joy, call upon God as our Father, we must remember that before the mystery of God, all language must eventually fall away, and worship must fall silent to be true.”
Johnson, Luke Timothy (2007-12-18). The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (pp. 84-86). Image. Kindle Edition.
You can argue whether Dr. Johnson strikes the right balance but I believe he at least identifies the correct issues. I would sincerely welcome your insights as you have both much greater life experience and theological training in this area than I have.
I have just found your wonderful reply. It will take me a while to read it well and respond. So please bear with me. I will need some time.
Many thanks. I very much like Luke T. Johnson and have read him as well.
I will get back to you soon.