Better than the Pharisees?

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

I’ve always struggled with this statement of Jesus. Schooled in the evangelical view of salvation by faith (which is actually quite unbiblical — the Bible tells us we are saved by grace through faith, not by faith which can so easily lead to us thinking we are saved by right doctrine), I found this verse smacked too much of what some would call ‘works righteousness’. Becoming an Anabaptist (or rather realizing that I had been one all along) helped me here, since I realized that in James’ words, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’ (James 2:17). But the idea that disciples of Jesus should be more righteous than the Pharisees was still problematic.

We are used to thinking of the Pharisees as hypocrites who did not practise what they preached. But that is to read our own prejudices into the text. In Jesus’ context, the Pharisees were, and saw themselves as, the most faithful believers. They took care to obey every single one of the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. There was even reportedly a sect known as ‘The Bleeding Pharisees’, who walked about with eyes lowered lest they accidentally look at a woman and fall into lust, and who therefore frequently bumped into things, hence the bleeding. And Jesus makes this statement immediately after saying that ‘until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.’ Is Jesus, then, advocating an even stricter adherence to the Jewish law, in all its detail, than that of the Pharisees? Surely such a thing isn’t humanly possible?

A quick glance, both at what Jesus actually did, and at the verses that follow this statement, would disabuse us of this notion. Jesus’ repeated breaking of the Sabbath for the purpose of healing (or even of feeding his followers, see Mark 2:23-8), and his ignoring of the purity laws to touch a haemorrhaging woman or a dead girl (Mark 5:22ff), demonstrates that his attitude to the Jewish law was, to say the least, flexible, if not cavalier. And his statement is embedded in the context of saying that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17) and followed immediately by the series of sayings beginning ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’, in which he moves from the letter of the law — the prohibitions on murder, adultery, unlimited vengeance — to its spirit in our inner attitudes towards others. This is what it means to fulfil the law: to take its intention and bring it to its logical conclusion, to write the law in our hearts and not just on our stone tablets or in our churches (many of which still have the Ten Commandments posted prominently on a wooden board by the altar).

This leads us to a conclusion that I have only recently come to explicitly, though I think I have probably held it unconsciously for a long time. The righteousness of his disciples, the righteousness which is to exceed that of the Pharisees, does not differ from that of the Pharisees in degree, but in kind. The Pharisees and scribes sought a righteousness of purity, a holiness defined in terms of avoiding contamination. What Jesus seeks, by contrast, is a righteousness of compassion, which is greater than the righteousness of purity, and indeed at times will appear to contradict it, as it did in Jesus’ actions. And this is confirmed in the same Gospel, in Matthew 23:23, where Jesus exclaims ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others’. It is a matter of priority: we are to prioritize the welfare of others over our own fear of taint. God, to my knowledge, has never condemned anyone for showing too much compassion.

I fear this message has not yet reached a vast number of Christians and churches. If I were to choose one verse of Scripture that is most ignored in modern conservative Christianity, it would be this: ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). Too often we are the modern Galatians, who having started with the Spirit, are ending with the flesh (Galatians 3:3). We believe we are saved by grace, but we understand sanctification as learning to obey a set of rules, seeking ‘the Christian answer’ on every complex issue of our time, as though the only way we can make sure we stay saved is to find an algorithm for every moral question and stick to it like glue.

Our righteousness can indeed exceed that of the Pharisees, but only if we have a different focus from theirs. Their hypocrisy consisted not in failing to practise what they preached, but in failing to grasp the inner meaning of what they practised. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); let’s be less afraid of sinning, and more motivated to love.

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What glory? Whose power?

For the kingdom, the power and the glory are not ours, for ever and ever, Amen.

There is no Scripture reference for this, even when it’s not in my ‘reversed’ version. That’s because it isn’t in Scripture, in either Matthew’s or Luke’s version of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, when they asked him to teach them to pray. Matthew follows the prayer with a reminder that God’s forgiveness of us is conditional on our forgiveness of others, while Luke follows it up with a parable on persistent asking (Luke 11:5). The first occurrence of this doxology, or short hymn of praise, at the end of the Lord’s prayer is in the Didache, a body of Christian teaching widely thought to be first century. Both biblical versions of the prayer simply end with a plea to be delivered from ‘the evil one’.

There is nothing necessarily wrong in adding a tidy ending to a prayer if you feel it lacks one. I do worry, however, about putting words into the mouth of Jesus that are not in the Gospels. You may argue that there is scholarly doubt about many of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and I certainly find it hard to believe that many of the long discourses recorded in the Gospel of John are verbatim from Jesus himself, rather than John’s gloss on what he heard Jesus say. (The Sermon on the Mount, or Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’, are a rather different case as they are probably drawn from often-repeated teaching, expressed in memorable and quasi-poetic form.). However that’s a discussion beyond my theological paygrade or the scope of this blog.

What I want to say about this tidy ending, however, and the reason I am including it at the end of this series, is that to me, it doesn’t feel in the same spirit as the rest of the prayer. Basically, the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer about power and glory. It is a prayer about need, about poverty, about weakness and vulnerability. It is admittedly a prayer about the kingdom, which appears early in its seven petitions, but when we look at Jesus’ other, extensive teaching about the Kingdom of God, I think we learn that in that kingdom, all earthly power relations are reversed and all earthly glory brought low (as they are in the Magnificat, Mary’s radical song from which Jesus surely learned much of his spiritual viewpoint).

Which is why I have carefully reversed the ending of this prayer. When we pray ‘the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours’, we reinforce a vision of a God of majesty, authority, splendour. And all too easily, we can imagine that following such a God will bring us the same advantages. But this is not the God we see in Jesus: in him we see a self-emptying God (see Philippians 2:1-11), a God who for our sake renounces power and glory, and who brings a Kingdom that undermines all our preconceived ideas of what it means to be a King. ‘It shall not be so among you.’ By reversing the doxology, I want to say that we too, are to be fashioned, in our walk with Jesus, into people who can renounce power over others, who can live without reputation, and most importantly who know that the Kingdom of God is God’s project, not ours. We can join in with it, certainly, but we cannot bring it about.

So here’s a modest proposal: how about we try, just for a while, praying this prayer just as it is written in Scripture, without its final flourish, simply ending on ‘deliver us from evil’. I wonder what impact that might have on how we pray it, and indeed how we live it?

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Lord, save us!

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13).

In my Mennonite church, we used a modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer where the first line of this verse was rendered as ‘Save us from the time of trial’. I don’t know which is more accurate, but I liked that version as it didn’t imply that times of trial were something that God brought us to; rather, that it was life which would inevitably bring us trials, and that we were asking, not that God would take them away, but that we would be brought out of them still whole. In fact, if we read it together with the second half, the suggestion is that it is ‘the evil one’ who brings trials, though perhaps with the permission of God; and this chimes with the role of Satan as portrayed in the first chapters of Job, as an instrument of God whose role is to be the accuser, the ‘counsel for the prosecution’ in the courtroom of our lives. Incidentally, this means that when we accuse or condemn our fellow Christians, or indeed any fellow human being, we are doing the work of Satan; a thought to ponder.

Whichever translation we choose, both are still better than ‘Do not lead us into temptation’. The letter of James, possibly written by Jesus’ brother, and certainly the closest epistle to the teaching of Jesus himself, makes it clear that ‘No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and.. tempts no one’ (James 1:13). This part of Jesus’ prayer is more about undeserved suffering than it is about sin and its enticements.

It is of course true that times of suffering can tip us towards sinful thinking and behaviour: to misdirected anger, resentment, self-pity, self-serving. Perhaps this is especially true if we don’t expect to have any suffering in our life as Christians. If our theology tells us, as the devil tells Jesus in the desert, that ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’, then when trials come, we will have no spiritual resources to deal with them, and our faith will founder (Satan is of course quoting Scripture at Jesus here, but using a very dodgy hermeneutic…). This is why I am grateful that the Mennonites, among many other gifts they offer, have a theology of suffering which so many churches lack (just try to think of one hymn, apart from ‘O Love that wilt not let me go’, that deals with human suffering). I sometimes wonder whether the reason for this is that Mennonites and other Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants; if they hadn’t had a theology of suffering, how would they have survived? (I learned recently that while Protestants tended to beheading of heretics, Catholics instead burned them; interpret that how you will!) If there is a promise of Jesus that we can be quite sure has been fulfilled over and over, it is this: ‘In this world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33, NIV).

And so, right at the end of his model prayer, no doubt intended to be memorised, Jesus adds a plea that we may be saved from, or if not from, then through, pain and sorrow. It is a plea he made himself, in the garden the night before his trial. And it was not answered, or rather it was answered with a ‘No’. It had to be. And it may be answered the same way for us, as we are, to use Paul’s mysterious but intriguing phrase, ‘completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’ (Colossians 1:24). But we must still make the plea, because we are human, and because asking to be spared is part of an honest relationship with God. ‘Sin is behovely’ [necessary] said Julian of Norwich (and in ‘sin’ she included suffering, not seeing a distinction between those two effects of the Fall), ‘but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’. For that we pray.

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As I… so you…

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48)

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36)

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34)

As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21b)

Yes, I know. It’s been over four years. And I still haven’t finished the Lord’s Prayer. Well, a few things happened. There was Brexit, which threw everyone (at least everyone I know). Then in the autumn of 2016 I started a two year part time MA in Writing Poetry. Then in early 2017, just as I was really enjoying that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. Fortunately, it was entirely separate from the first time sixteen years earlier, but it was on both sides, with three totally different tumours, all of which needed surgery. After struggling on with the course through brain surgery (they found a lesion on my brain lining which needed investigating, but turned out as expected to be harmless), then a double mastectomy, I decided when chemotherapy loomed that I really needed to defer for a year. Barely recovered, I resumed the MA in summer 2018, and finished in September 2019, graduating in December with distinction. Meanwhile, I was invited to contribute regularly to a theology blog (The Thinking Faith Project, https://www.princeodoemena.com/) and so this one was relegated again. Now here I am, in lockdown, having run out of work, and ready to blog again. Thank you for your patience, anyone who kept the link…

This post was always going to be a digression into thinking about chiasmus. You’ve probably worked out from the examples above that it’s a literary device used to make poetry or oratory memorable and striking, as well as to drive home teaching. It balances two phrases, which may be opposites or equivalents; in a sense, all of Hebrew poetry as we encounter it in the prophets and Wisdom literature, is based on chiasmus (as, often, is Anglo-Saxon poetry which I studied in my first degree). Jesus uses it frequently, and these are perhaps the best known instances.

Let’s start with the first. I’m not a scholar of biblical languages, but I believe there is no word in the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, that is equivalent to Matthew’s Greek word here translated as ‘perfect’. Even the Greek does not necessarily mean ‘flawless’, as in ‘this cream will give you perfect skin’. It means something more like ‘whole, ‘mature’, ‘complete’; and is related to the Greek for ‘aim’ or ‘goal’. We might render it as ‘be wholeheartedly for God, as God is wholeheartedly for you’. Or ‘be all out for God, as God is all out for you’.

Luke’s use of ‘merciful’ may be nearer to what Jesus actually said, since both Matthew and Luke place this command in the context of Jesus’ teaching of enemy love. We are to love even our enemies, as God loves God’s enemies: ‘While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:10).

Finally John, in the farewell discourses and the resurrection appearances, bases Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ on God’s love for us expressed in Christ, and draws a parallel between Jesus’ mission to us and our mission to the world. Learning to fulfil this mission is a lifelong task: some call it sanctification, the Orthodox call it ‘theosis’, or becoming divine, for which there is real scriptural justification. I call it simply ‘salvation’ a word which in its biblical use is far broader and carries far more weight than a one-off event or decision, encompassing wholeness for individuals, society and creation. It is always a process: ‘And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47b)

Some Christian traditions, who read Jesus through Paul read through Luther, are not very good at teaching this aspect of faith; in the last twenty-eight years, Anabaptism has offered me a new perspective, in which we are not saved by good works, but we are very much saved for good works, which proceed from our response to God’s love in Christ. This is where the importance of chiasmus comes in: our love for God, for God’s people, for neighbour and enemy, is the syntactical balance for God’s love for us. Another chiasmus: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us’ (1John 4:10).

This last takes us to another important point. The love, the ‘tikkun olam’ or ‘repairing the world’ as orthodox Judaism puts it, that we are to offer is not a matter of making supreme efforts to be better. Rather, the repeated chiasmus Jesus uses indicates that any love we may engender is always a response to God’s love for us as demonstrated in Jesus — it is, to borrow the title of Thomas à Kempis’ famous work, an ‘imitation of Christ’.

Why this long digression from the Lord’s prayer? I think it is partly because, as I said in my last post four years ago, I struggle with this forgiveness thing. Jesus’ use of chiasmus in his model prayer reminds me that any mercy I show, any grace I extend to others, is based on my own understanding and contemplation of God’s grace and mercy to me – not understood in an intellectual fashion as an abstract transaction allowing remission of sins, but experienced daily as I catch myself wronging both God and neighbour, and yet finding that none of this diminishes God’s love for me one iota.

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Debts paid and unpaid

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  (Matthew 6:12)

It’s no accident that it’s taken me nearly nine months to get back to this blog and especially this verse. Yes, a lot of hard things have happened in the last few months, and I have also started writing for a group blog which has had to take priority, but essentially I think I’ve been avoiding this verse of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

As a child I was always losing things, leaving my school satchel on the bus (no doubt because I didn’t really want to do homework), mislaying coats and so on. My mother used to say I had a good forgettory. I think as I progress not half slowly enough into old age (I’ve got my state pension since last writing here), I’m getting that good forgettory back. Or perhaps I never lost it. At any rate, I am only too aware that I don’t have a good forgivery. (Neither did my mother, as it happens, which may well be the reason that I both find it hard to feel forgiven, and to forgive.)

Are forgiving and forgetting the same, or at least conjoined twins? I’m not sure. The Bible tells us God forgets our sins as well as forgiving them; for us in relation to others, it may be a little harder. Some things, like genocide, should never be forgotten even if as individuals we forgive them.

Not long ago a member of our church asked particularly to use the version of the prayer above, which uses ‘debts’ instead of ‘sins’ or ‘trespasses’. I think he asked partly because as a freelance film critic, he does have personal debts, so it is a category that makes more sense to him than the often abused word ‘sins’. Nowadays a ‘sin’ might just mean a sneaky cream cake when you’re on a diet, or be a word used to attract punters in London’s Soho. Debt, however, is a burden familiar to all too many in our society, especially when benefits claimants are arbitrarily sanctioned, left with no money even for food, and forced to borrow from loan sharks with interest rates running rapidly into  percentages of thousands.

Debts are also closely related to ‘dues’ and ‘duties’, concepts I have been thinking about lately. If I fail to give someone a service, a gesture or a loving action that is due to them (or indeed if I take from them without ever giving back) I owe them, am indebted to them. If they let me off that debt, I may feel free in a concrete way. What do we ‘owe’ to God, to Jesus? On one level, nothing: as one rather dreadful chorus says, ‘the price is paid’ (are you like me tempted to sing ‘the price is right’?). On another, we owe God everything: our whole lives. And yet God demands nothing: whatever we give, God treats as a gift, like a good parent accepting a gift from a child even though it was bought with money the parent gave them in the first place.

If I think of God’s forgiveness in this way, might it help me to forgive others? Since my relationship with God is pure gift, both on God’s part and on mine, can my relationships with others then partake of the same character? If I think of them as owing me nothing, and of myself as owing them everything – for the debt of love is total – will I be better able to let go of grudges and resentments? It’s worth a try. I might even start forgetting.

 

 

 

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Who needs bread?

Give us this day our daily bread Matthew 6:11

This is the line that makes this a prayer to be used by the poor. We rich, and I include myself and most people reading this, generally know where our next meal is coming from. We may have other forms of poverty: loneliness, isolation, low self esteem; we may wonder, as I did in my long years of unwanted singleness, where the next hug is coming from, or where the next affirmation is coming from, or where the next human contact of any kind is coming from. The abused woman may wonder when the next few days without being hit is coming; the over-pushed child, when the next break from schoolwork is coming – even though they may not lack food. And it is valid to pray this prayer as one of those people: ‘Lord, give me this day my daily conversation, even if it’s only at the supermarket checkout, or on the phone’.

But Jesus made it quite clear with this sentence that he expected his disciples to be insecure enough to need to pray for their next meal. He expected the poor and the marginalized to follow him, and he expected any rich and secure people who followed, to set themselves alongside the poor and marginalized by giving up their privileges. How do we dare to pray this prayer when we are entirely confident of our daily bread? I’m not sure if I do. I want to pray ‘Give them – the developing world, foodbank Britain – their daily bread’ but if I do, I am afraid of hearing ‘That’s your job’.

Incidentally, the word here translated ‘daily’ is a ‘hapax legomenon’, a word that only occurs this once in Scripture, and is unknown elsewhere in Greek literature; consequently we don’t know its exact meaning. It could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘just enough’ bread, rather than ‘daily’. This raises an interesting possibility: that we are not to pray for ‘abundant’ or ‘too much’ bread, but only what we need each day, to keep us depending on God’s provision. Should we, in fact, perhaps be praying ‘Help us to give away our surplus bread’?

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A cry for change

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heav
en. Matthew 6:10

What would it mean for God’s kingdom to come? How would we know? Ultimately, it would mean the fulfilment of that bit of ‘realized eschatology’ in Revelation 11:15: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah’; and it would be characterized by the visible, tangible presence of peace, justice, wellbeing and harmony throughout the earth, as described in Isaiah 2:2-4 and 65:17ff. Weapons would be turned into tools, there would be economic prosperity for all (which does not mean money, but enough food, shelter, clothing and everything else that makes us human), there would be no more infant mortality, disability or tragically short lives.

But is that what we are asked to pray for daily, when we know that this final transformation may be decades, centuries, millennia away? How could we ever see our prayer answered in our lifetime? (for I don’t believe, as many do and many before them have wrongly done, that we can tell for sure when ‘the end is nigh’) Perhaps, instead, or as well, this is a prayer not so much for the future as for the present. It is a prayer of longing for the ‘things that make for peace’ to show themselves here and now, in our relationships, our work, our cultural expression; longing that we may see glimpses of a Kingdom  that is not just ahead but among us now – hidden, to be sure, and  easily missed, but nevertheless already present.

Which brings us to the second half of the verse. Until a few years ago I always read ‘Your will be done’ as a kind of resigned submission, even fatalism; an acknowledgement that ultimately we have little power over the course of our lives, and that as Christians we are meant to ask for God’s will, not our own will, to be done. This  can even make this plea feel a bit resentful; secretly I would like my own will to be done, but for the sake of being ‘a good Christian’ I will accept that God’s will is what must be done.

Then I heard around 20,000 people proclaim it together in a field at the Greenbelt Festival. And suddenly I heard it not as a pious wish, but as a desperate cry, an anguished plea for a different world. Our world is full of violence, inequality, deprivation, oppression, sickness, greed, exploitation. In the face of all this, why would we not want God’s will to be done? For God’s will, as we know if we read the Bible properly, is for ‘shalom’, the flourishing of all, the end of all the ills we live with daily. And God’s will is not for a few to experience this, but that none should perish but all receive salvation – and by salvation I mean not an exit ticket from hell, but eternal wholeness.

We should not be murmuring this prayer quietly and decently, we should be screaming it from the rooftops, yelling it at a God who appears not to be listening, desperate that our pain be heard. And desperate that it be answered, not ‘in heaven’, in some amorphous distant and future state, but right here ‘on earth’, where women, men and children suffer at the hands of the powerful, where people live with unimaginable hunger or grief or limitation.  ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ is a scream of anger and desperation, and that is how we should pray it.

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In whose name?

Hallowed be your name Matthew 6:9b

All right, all right. I know. I start a new series and then disappear for two and a half months. What can I say? There’s blogging, and then there’s life. And without life, what would there be to blog about?

Anyway, here I am now. And I want to talk about swearing. You see, most Christians appear to think this line of the Lord’s Prayer is about blaspheming. And yes, I did use to cringe a bit when my Austrian Jewish mother came out with ‘Jesus Maria!’ (pronounced ‘YESsus MaREEa’) or ‘Oh Christ!’. Funnily enough I didn’t mind so much when she simply said ‘Oh God’ – it felt more generic, somehow. But since she died, I’ve become quite a swearer myself. I have to restrain myself in polite company (mainly Christians) and I try not to use nicknames for female body parts as curses (but sometimes four letter words are just so punchy and satisfying…).

The thing is, Jesus didn’t actually say anything about this kind of swearing at all. When he commanded us to ‘Swear not at all’, he wasn’t talking about posting ‘OMG’ or ‘Jesus wept’. What he was attacking was the idea that by invoking our children’s lives, or our grandmother’s honour (or dare I say by placing our hand on a Bible or a Qur’an?) we were somehow demonstrating that we were telling truth at that moment, whatever we might do at any other time. Instead he told us to speak truth at all times, which would mean we never needed an oath. That’s why traditionally, Quakers and Mennonites refuse to swear oaths in court, instead simply affirming that we are bearing true witness – which we aspire to do at all times, not just in a witness box.

So when Jesus prayed that his Father’s name be hallowed, he can’t possibly have been talking about swearing. That is not what ‘taking God’s name in vain’ means at all. Rather, it surely means using God’s name to put an imprimatur on our own enterprises, whether they conform to the will of God or not. So when a nuclear submarine, a means of wiping out thousands of people bearing God’s image, is called ‘Corpus Christi’ and blessed by a chaplain, that is taking God’s name in vain. That is God’s name not being hallowed. And when a country that has become rich from slavery, as ours did, is called a ‘Christian nation’, that is taking God’s name in vain, and God’s name not being hallowed. And when, as I read recently, a well known ex-patriate Christian, who has not lived in the UK for decades and knows nothing about the effect of the last government’s policies on the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable, pronounces that the Conservative victory in the recent election was ‘supernatural’ – that is taking God’s name in vain, and that is God’s name not being hallowed. To take God’s name and attach it to something that is clearly nothing to do with the agenda of the Prince of Peace, that hinders rather than furthers the Kingdom of God – that is blasphemy.

I believe that when Jesus prayed that God’s name be hallowed, he was asking that it should only be used in connection with God’s purposes – to create a new heavens and new earth, to bring about the peaceable Kingdom – and that it should never be brought into disrepute by being used to justify cruelty, oppression or hate. That is hallowing God’s name: to use it only as a label for enterprises that actually bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind. And I want to echo Jesus’ prayer that we should only use it that way.

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Our divine parent

‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven’ Matthew 6:9

For some time I’ve been meaning to write a short series on what we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, so a couple of weeks into Lent seems as good a time to start as any.

What strikes me most about this model for prayer that Jesus gave us, is the opening word ‘Our’. We talk of ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus/God’, a phrase that never appears in Scripture (the first hearers of Jesus or the Gospels and Epistles would not even have known the meaning of the word ‘relationship’, nor probably the word ‘personal’). But this is unashamedly a communal prayer. We have a parent (the emphasis is surely on the parenthood rather than the gender of the parent) in heaven. Where is that? Dallas Willard has pointed out in The Divine Conspiracy that the people of this time would have conceived of seven heavens, the first one being the air around us. So you could paraphrase as ‘our joint parent who is as close as the air we breathe’. This is a long way from ‘be near me Lord Jesus, look down from the sky’!

Having a joint parent, of course, makes us all siblings, with reciprocal obligations to each other. My only biological sibling, my older brother, let go of his own life forty years ago (I won’t say he ‘took his life’, because what he was actually doing was rejecting it, not taking it). I was unmarried till my 36th birthday, and lived in fear of what life would be like when my parents died and there was no one in the world who had an obligation to look after me (only one grandparent was alive when I was born, she lived in Vienna and died when I was 12, and I had no known cousins except some second cousins in Hungary). One day I was reading my Bible (I no longer remember what part) and read the verse ‘The Lord is my redeemer’. In a footnote, my Bible told me that the word used for ‘redeemer’ meant ‘kinsman-redeemer’, the person who was obliged to support you financially and socially, the role Boaz had in relation to Ruth. What a comforting discovery, to know that God was my closest relative – my ‘man-bap’ (father/mother) to borrow the phrase used of the Indian army in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels (in that case, patronisingly, but here protectively).

And here in this prayer of Jesus, we are all made into each other’s ‘kinsman-redeemer’, with a duty of care for each other, and all under the umbrella of the most loving parent, whatever gender (or none) you conceive that parent to be. Do we acknowledge this connectedness when we recite this prayer in church? We should.

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Sorry, Henri, I don’t agree

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4: 16-18, NIV)

There’s a new hermeneutic about. It’s called ‘I don’t think this means what you think it means’. I’ve noticed it popping up online, though usually in relation to misuse of language, rather than to biblical passages. I may indeed be the first to apply it to the Bible. On the other hand, it may just be a new version of the good old ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, which is always worth trying out.

Be that as it may, I received an email recently from the Henri Nouwen Society, to whose daily reflections I subscribe, and it was on the above passage. Here’s what the late great Henri Nouwen had to say on it:

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things-the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on-will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.

All the great spiritual leaders in history were people of hope. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day all lived with a promise in their hearts that guided them toward the future without the need to know exactly what it would look like. Let’s live with hope.

Now it’s not exactly that I disagree with Nouwen here. There is a difference between optimism and hope, and it does have to do with trusting in God’s intention to fulfil God’s promises. But where I find what he has said inadequate, is this: he associates optimism with an expectation that things will get better in concrete terms: the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation. Yet when he turns to hope, he associates it with some abstract condition called ‘true freedom’. By so doing, he implies that true hope, hope in the fulfilment of God’s promises, has nothing to do with ‘the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation’.

Yet if you look at the people he cites as examples of true hope, their hope had absolutely everything to do with conditions in this concrete world. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day (I don’t know enough about Rumi to say) all spoke out about their hope for a transformed world where human relationships, the economy, the political situation would be changed for the better (and the weather too, insofar as climate change is a justice issue…). The fulfilment of God’s promises has enormous relevance to all these areas, not just to some afterlife where something undefined called ‘true freedom’ reigns.

So Henri Nouwen, much as I love your work, I do not think this passage means what you think it means. The ‘things that are unseen’ are not to do with some ‘spiritual realm’ detached from concrete conditions in this world. What Paul meant by ‘what is unseen’, I believe, is precisely the justice, peace, equality, food and shelter for all, that we do not yet see in this world, but which we will see on ‘the Day of the Lord’. The ‘unseen’ does not pertain to some heaven far away, but to this very material world, which God so loved that he gave his Son. The only difference between the optimist and those with hope, is that those with hope know that God’s transformation of the world is assured.

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