‘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.