Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bread and Debt

Luke 11:1-4

The version of “the Lord’s prayer” in Luke is the one that is included in the Revised Common LectionaryMatthew’s version is skipped.  Perhaps it is skipped because Matthew’s version is closest to the “Our Father” that is prayed in nearly all Christian denominations.  The Elves include Luke’s version in a series of readings for Proper 12 of Year C that appear to relate to how God answers prayer (Luke 11:5-13).  As we shall see over the next two weeks, Luke’s parable about “the friend at midnight,” the “ask, seek, knock” aphorism, and the “bread/stone fish/snake” dichotomies have little if anything to do with Jesus’s original prayers about bread, debt, and adversity.

The NRSV translation of Luke’s form is:

        Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.

The Jesus Seminar Scholars suggest that when verses from both Matthew and Luke are combined, the prayer that probably appeared in Q was:

        Abba [Daddy], your name be revered.  Impose your imperial rule.  Provide us with the bread we need for the day; Forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.  And please don’t subject us to test after test.  The Five Gospels, p. 327.

What has been known as “the Lord’s prayer” for nearly two millennia was probably never prayed by Jesus in any form that appears, whether in Q, Matthew or Luke.  Instead, the prayer consists of a collection of individual prayer fragments that may have been public prayers, or prayer-like aphorisms that Jesus said, on the order of “God forbid!” or “God only knows!” or “God’ll get you for that!”  The intent was to nudge listeners into changing their attitudes, joining the Way, and ushering in the realm of God.  In a 1998 essay published in The Fourth R, Jesus Seminar Fellow Hal Taussig discussed Jesus’s prayer in detail (“Behind and Before the Lord’s Prayer,” May-June 1998).  One of Taussig’s more provocative statements is, “[T]hese prayers . . . were wise-cracking prayers which pushed those who said them to re-examine themselves.”  I would also suggest that Jesus’s prayers were the opposite of petitions (desperate or trivial) to an interventionist god, and far removed from the pious mantra used to open 21st century church committee meetings or finish off the Sunday pastoral prayer.

The first phrase, “Daddy, your name be revered,” sounds shocking to 21st Century notions of holy propriety; for 1st Century Jews who were prohibited from speaking the name of God, it must have bordered on blasphemy.  Next comes the request to “Impose your imperial rule.”  That means God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s.  The next two phrases were seriously modified by Luke.  First, Luke’s version asks for God to provide bread each day.  The Q version – closer to what Jesus probably would have said – asks only for the bread needed for the day:  today; now.  But the kicker in the Q version is eliminated by Luke.  The Q people prayed, “forgive our debts to the extent we forgive those in debt to us.”  Luke says, “forgive us our sins because [for] we ourselves  forgive everyone indebted to us.”  Luke’s pious community is off the hook.  Finally, the last prayer fragment whines: “And please don’t subject us to test after test.”

To address deity as “Abba” – “Daddy” – presumes a partnership, not a hierarchical order of power.  To then ask for forgiveness of debt to the extent that the one praying forgives debt owed presumes active participation, not passive acceptance of whatever “God’s will” might turn out to be.  In other words, Jesus’s prayers are an illustration of the Covenant relationship demonstrated in the stories of the Jewish people throughout the Old Testament.

In the most recent edition of The Fourth R (Vol 23, No. 5, May-June 2010), Jack A. Hill explores the relationship of contemporary American culture with what he calls “the Divine Domain.”  He lays out three aspects of a “culture of fear” in the United States: 1) fear of personal non-existence; 2) fear of diversity; and 3) fear of transformative innovation.  He speaks of “evolutionary amnesia,” which is the root for a prevailing fear of death, and cuts us off from a realization of our commonality and profound relationship with the natural world.  He relates two stories of people who survived shipwreck in the open sea because dolphins came to their rescue.  He says, “we have forgotten what it feels like to greet the morning breeze as a friend, to be kept safe in the womb of the ocean, to be warmly regarded by the birds . . . .”  These are experiences of what might be called “enchantment.”  For a few years before the turn of the 21st Century, there was some discussion of the need for “re-enchantment” of corporate life.  Perhaps even a reclaiming of the root meaning of the word “religion”: the realignment of human spirit with the divine realms, i.e., a return to Covenant.  We must assume that is the kind of relationship Jesus had with God’s realm – God’s world.  This relationship is reflected in his prayers.

This is not misty-eyed, romantic, “spirituality.”  Jesus’s prayer suggests a non-violent alternative to oppression under the Roman empire.  If one lives in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, then there is no reason to be worried about having bread for the day.  Forgiving debt means declining to participate in the normal economic systems.  Finally, God does not need to test people who are already participating in the Kingdom.  Mark’s story about Jesus and the Devil comes to mind (Mark 1:12-13).

Eckhart Tolle is a popular, contemporary “spiritual teacher.” He has written two books that are categorized by under “Health, Body, and Mind.”  They combine a variety of western “Zen” or “Buddhism” and generalized Christian traditionalism.  But the basic message both in The Power of Now and A New Earth is the quest for what Tich Nat Han calls mindfulness, and what these commentaries would call “Covenant,” and what Jack A. Hill described above as “Divine Domain.”  Tolle writes:
        The mind is more comfortable in a landscaped park because it has been planned through thought:  it has not grown organically.  There is an order here that the mind can understand.  In the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.  It is beyond the mental categories of good and bad.  You cannot understand it through thought, but you can sense it when you let go of thought, become still and alert, and don’t try to understand or explain.  Only then can you be aware of the sacredness of the forest.  As soon as you sense the hidden harmony, that sacredness, you realize you are not separate from it, and when you realize that, you become a conscious participant in it.  In this way, nature can help you become realigned with the wholeness of life.  A New Earth (Penguin, 2006) p. 196.

This experience leaves no room or role for an interventionist “god” who is outside of ourselves and the world in which we live.  The relationship is more intimate than even a concept like “Daddy” can reach.  “Mama” may come closer.  A petition for food or debt relief or forgiveness becomes meaningless in such a context, where there is no boundary between me and the divine.  If there is no boundary, then there is no greater or lesser transformational power than my own.  But while this hidden harmony, this sacred space, is a place to gather strength, it is not a place where I can hide.  To live in that divine domain (as Hill describes it) requires mindful action.  The struggle is always to find our way into that divine domain, or as Jesus put it, to find the treasure that is hidden in the field, or mixed like leaven into the flour.  The joke is that we are already there – all we have to do is open our eyes and look and listen.

Jesus’s prayer makes that clear: God’s sacred space is holy, and that holy realm rules.  We have what we need for now – indeed there is no other time than now.  And there is no debt, so long as we do not hold debt ourselves.  Finally, there is no demand for perfection, no trial, no test, unless – to stretch Tolle’s metaphor – we fail to see the forest because of the trees.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Just one point from the perspective of New Testament scholarship/Aramaic language. "Abba" is simply the word in Aramaic for "the father". It doesn't have the connotations of the English word "daddy". Presumably it was distinctive in Jesus' time because it was in the vernacular, spoken language of people rather than Hebrew.