Thursday, October 30, 2008

Jesus Calls Us to Pray for Bread for Today and the Coming Day

Most of us do not relate directly to Jesus’ statement in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread”, for we live in a society in which we only need to drive to the market and pick up bread when we need it. Even though half of the world’s population lives on less than one dollar per day, leaving billions of people struggling for daily bread, those of us who have our needs met cannot fully identify with Jesus’ statement. So how might we understand these words of Jesus’ prayer, and more importantly, how do we live them?

First, we need to understand that bread was a staple of the first century diet, and calling on God to provide bread each day was an expression of one’s faith in God as the Abba-Father who provides. This image is reminiscent of God providing manna in the wilderness for the people of Israel, and is also reflective of Jesus feeding the multitudes from only five loaves of bread.

In Jesus’ day, due to mass poverty, people survived on day to day bread. Praying that daily bread would be provided each day was an expression of one’s dependence on God for life and that which sustains life. Through this short statement in Jesus’ model prayer, Jesus was calling his disciples to pray for physical bread as an act of faith in God as their provider.

Yet, we cannot read this part of the prayer without thinking of the symbolic nature of bread. Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life, and in his feeding bread to the multitudes, Jesus was symbolically offering them more than physical nourishment. Indeed, in his institution of the Lord’s Supper he re-interpreted the traditional bread of the Passover as symbolic of his own body that would be broken for humanity. Thus, although bread does mean bread in the sense of the physical provisions for nourishment, it also refers metaphorically to Jesus and his work of giving spiritual life to those who partake of him.

But if we understand the Lord’s Prayer as having an eschatological focus, that is, it is attentive to the majesty of God who will come as king, then we have no choice but to read this statement as having some sort of eschatological focus. But how should we understand this eschatological meaning? The answer lies again in the understanding of bread as a metaphor.

As I have already stated, bread was a staple of life and would have been a part of meals, particularly banquets. Such banquets would be celebrations to which the host would invite his honored guests to celebrate with him, and in doing so he would provide the best feast he could. The guests gathered around the table would be important people, for in a patron-client based society, part of having such a banquet would be to associate oneself with powerful individuals who could be influential on behalf of the host. Thus a host would choose his table fellowship carefully.

But when we look at the life of Jesus, we find something completely out of the ordinary when it comes to the people with whom he broke bread. His invitations to dine were given to the outcasts of his society; the lame and blind, the tax collectors and sinners, the helpless and the women. No one can doubt his association with these folks on the margins of society, and no one can doubt the theological significance of Jesus welcoming the disrepute of the social world.

But if we understand Jesus’ instruction for his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to mean more than just the provision of real bread, then we might take Jesus’ words as also expressing the immediate expectation of the great banquet to come when the kingdom of God becomes a fulfilled reality.

Indeed, the statement can be translated, “Give us today our bread for the coming day.” This reading does not neglect seeing bread as that which is needed today for sustenance. More significantly, it sees today’s bread as symbolic of the bread believers will eat in God’s coming banquet. In that day, the tables will be turned, as those who will be welcomed to the feast will not be the influential, wealthy, and powerful of the world. The guests will be those forgotten by the world. Jesus will break bread in the eschatological banquet and share with those oppressed by the social structures of the world.

So, how do we who live in a world where bread is plentiful, pray this portion of the prayer? First, we pray the prayer as an expression of our dependence on God for the basic needs of life; as a demonstration of our trust in God. Second, we pray for our spiritual nourishment through our relationship with Jesus, the bread of life who feeds us the bread of God’s word. But we also pray that the final banquet of God would come when all those who have suffered under the injustice of the world will be welcomed to break bread in the kingdom of God.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Expresses a Longing for the Fulfillment of God’s Kingdom

The idea of God as king has a long and rich history throughout the life of ancient Israel. God as ruler over the creation is an expression not only of God’s sovereignty over creation, but also of God’s care over the world. In the New Testament, the idea of the kingdom of God is central to the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus was unwaveringly focused on the biblical idea of God as king, and in his coming, Jesus announced the arrival of God’s active rule.

Yet, in the prayer that Jesus gives his disciples, he commanded them to petition God for God’s kingdom to come: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The problem in understanding this portion of the Lord’s Prayer centers on two fundamental questions. First, is the kingdom of God a present reality or a future expectation? Second, is the kingdom of God primarily a theological power forced onto a passive world by God, or is it an ethical charge to humans to participate in the coming of God’s rule through discipleship?

First, Jesus surely saw his coming as the incarnation of God’s rule in the world. He announced that the kingdom of God was near to the creation that was under the power of chaos, and he demonstrated through his power over evil that he was bringing about God’s rule on the earth. So, it is clear that Jesus saw the kingdom of God as a present reality that was active in the world.

However, his command that his disciples pray that God’s kingdom would come certainly seems to suggest that the kingdom either had not come in him, or it had not be fully realized in Jesus’ incarnation. Indeed, while Jesus did announce the arrival of the kingdom, and while he also understood that in some way this kingdom was being fulfilled in him, the reality is that the fullness of God’s kingdom was not experienced in Jesus’ life on earth. The kingdom of God was already present in Jesus, but it has not yet become a full reality in the world’s experience.

We know this because we continue to long for the day of redemption in which God will bring about the new heaven and new earth, and the powers of evil will be vanquished by the God who rules justly and who will establish justice for all. Thus, while the present reality of the kingdom of God was experienced in Jesus’ preaching and miracles as signs of God’s rule, the fullness of God’s kingly power over the world remains a future expectation for a creation that longs for the day of redemption.

The second question concerning Jesus’ command for the disciples to petition God to send forth the kingdom of God is whether the rule of God is solely dependent on God’s actions, or does it have anything to do with the ethics of discipleship? In other words, does the creation wait passively for God’s rule to reach its completion, or do humans who seek to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship participate in God’s coming rule?

The answer to this question must be both. First, the coming of God’s kingdom into the world is indeed dependent on God’s actions. This is the reason Jesus calls his followers to pray that the kingdom of God would come. Moreover, the kingdom comes from God and is alien to the world both in its power and in its ethics. Yet, in offering an adjacent statement to the petition for God’s kingdom to come, “Your will be done,” Jesus indicates that the kingdom of God must have ethical implications for humanity.

Jesus said very clearly, “The kingdom of God is in you” (Luke 17:21). Certainly Jesus could have meant that the kingdom was among those around him in his presence among them. But I think, given that so much of Jesus’ ethical teachings focused on how to live under the rule of God, especially those we find in the Sermon on the Mount, that a faithful response to the coming of God’s kingdom through our discipleship means that we participate in the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

This does not mean that the final realization of God’s kingdom is totally up to human efforts. We still pray and long for the future realization of the completeness of God’s just rule in the world. But it does mean that as citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to love and bring the peace and justice of God to a world lost from God by doing the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Calls Us to Revere God’s Name in Word and Deed

It is well known by many who are familiar with ancient Judaism that the covenant name of God found in the Hebrew Bible, transliterated as Yahweh, was never spoken by Jews. Certainly this was one application of the commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (Ex 20:7).

But the practice also demonstrates the extent to which ancient Hebrews went in making sure that references to God were reverent and worshipful. Indeed, even in contemporary usage, many Jewish theologians, when writing about God, inscribe the term as G-d. The purpose is to ensure that God’s name is not defaced and that homage and honor are given to God’s name.

In response to his disciple’s request for him to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers to them what becomes known as the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer opens by addressing God with a term of intimacy, Abba-Father, through which the one who prays kneels before a God who is close to and cares for humanity.

Yet, in offering them an intimate name by which they should address God, Jesus does not domesticate the name or person of God to the extent that we relate to God in exactly the same way that we relate to finite humans. In fact, Jesus is clear to include right after the prescription to call God Abba-Father, statements that express the transcendence of God’s being and the holiness of God’s name.

Although the image of God as Father works very well to express the intimate relationship humanity has with God, the Abba addressed in prayer is not wholly similar to a human father, but transcends human existence and finiteness. Jesus’ reference to God as living in heaven may have been a literal place in the minds of ancients, but we might more fully understand the reference as expressing the breadth of God’s transcendence as one who exists outside of human space and time. While God can act in time and space, specifically through acts of wonder and, for Christians, in the person of Jesus, God, unlike humans, lives in eternal existence outside the finiteness of time and space.

Yet, what exactly does the next petition of the payer, “Hallowed be your name”, mean? To answer this we need to consider the type of statement this is, and then we need to define what “hallowed” and “name” might mean. From there we can gather an understanding of Jesus’ meaning and how it affects our own praying of the Lord’s Prayer.

First, the statement is an appeal asking God to make God’s name hallowed, and thus, in praying this petition, the one who prays recognizes a world that disregards the name of God. Second, the hallowing of God’s name is the hallowing of God’s character as God. Again, the statement assumes a world apart from God, and the petitioner is called to ask God to make God’s character hallowed in the world.
But what about the term “hallowed”? More modern English translations attempt to help us understand the term by translating the statement, “Make your name holy.” While this helps, it does not fully capture the meaning and importance of the petition.

There may be a double meaning to the phrase. One meaning is theological in the sense that ultimately it is God who makes God’s name holy. This idea is expressed through the use of the passive verb, which hides God as the subject of the verb; another practice by ancient Jews to honor the name of God. Thus making God’s name holy can only be accomplished by God. While the fulfillment of this petition will not be achieved until the completion of eschatological time, the prayer does voice the desire of all believers who long for the day that injustice and evil will be vanquished by the holy character of God.

A second meaning, however, is an ethical one. The prayer is a petition that God’s name be revered in and through the faithful living of the followers of Christ. For sure we should not take the Lord’s name in vain in our speech, but more importantly, the prayer calls us to venerate the name of God in our discipleship. Through our discipleship we bear witness to the holy name of God to those who do not know God or who disregard the name of God. And in hallowing God’s name through our living in imitation of Christ, we bring God’s rule of justice into the world, foreshadowing the coming of God’s kingdom.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Expresses God’s Intimate Relationship with Humanity

Each Lord’s Day Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer. While it is unfortunate that this practice has been removed from many congregational worship services, the words of the prayer are familiar to many believers, to the point that they can recite the prayer word for word.

Yet, despite our acquaintance with the prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray, we may not have grasped both the meaning and significance of the words of the prayer. Over the next few weeks, I will be offering a reading of the Lord’s Prayer that seeks to capture the essence of Jesus’ statements and how these remain powerful words for our own lives of discipleship.

Before addressing the specifics of the prayer, however, we need to have an understanding of why Jesus offers this particular prayer to his disciples. While Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, we should not assume that they did not know how to pray before they met Jesus. As Jews, they would have offered regular and faithful prayers to God.

So when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it is not because they did not know how to pray. Rather, they asked because they recognized Jesus to be the one sent from God, and they understood that they needed to have a new focus for their prayers. Thus, they were concerned that they pray rightly for God’s coming kingdom. In answer to their request, Jesus gave them the prayer we find in Luke 11:1-4, and in a different version, in Matthew 6:9-13. Matthew’s version will be the primary focus of my discussions.

The prayer begins with the well-known address to God as “Our Father.” These words do not constitute a formal address to a distant unknown God, but an intimate appeal to a God who is near to us and who cares for us. Jesus teaches us to pray in this way, because he himself prayed this way. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, and in his prayers to God he called God Abba. This was a common way for Hebrew children to refer to their fathers, and it served as a term of intimacy, signifying the close relationship a child had with her father.

We need to be careful with this term, however, for two reasons. First, while popular views have suggested that this term Abba is equivalent to our use of the term daddy, and some Christians have practiced addressing God in this way, Abba is probably not exactly equivalent to our term daddy and we need to be cautious in how we address God.

Second, we must not suppose that the use of Father or Abba in reference to God assumes that God’s characteristics are exclusively masculine, or that referring to God in male terms supports any ideas of male superiority over women in either nature or practice. Indeed, while the scriptures do use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to God, there are scriptural images that reflect God’s femininity. Still, the term Abba does help us see the intimate relationship Jesus was defining between the disciples and God.

Why does Jesus instruct us to refer to God as our Abba? The simple answer is that it reflects Jesus’ own practice of prayer and intimacy before God. The Gospels are replete with references to Jesus’ intimacy with God, beginning at the event of his baptism and continuing through to the intimate moments in the garden just before Jesus’ arrest, where, according to Mark, Jesus calls out to God using the term Abba. This intimate relationship, however, is also extended to Jesus’ followers as they are welcomed into the new family of God, over which God is the loving and caring Abba.

Thus, when we approach God our Abba in prayer, we address a God who both cares for us and who has the power to change the world. We pray to a living and loving God, who is not remote from humanity’s pain, but who, in the incarnation of Jesus, is God with us. When we approach God with authentic prayers, we come before a God who desires to hear our concerns because God is our Abba, and we kneel to a God who is able to meet our concerns because our Abba is God.

Thus, the God we approach in prayer is both intimate and transcendent, and the prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray expresses intimate communication between the God who is close with us as our Abba, and who is at the same time transcendent above creation as holy God.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christians Must Reassess a Belief in Divinely Sanctioned Violence

For all of the good that religion does in our world through the generous acts of people from all faiths, much attention has been given over the last few years to evil acts performed in the name of religion. Yet, no single religion monopolizes evil done from religious conviction, as Westerners tend to think. Christian history demonstrates that the Christian religion has often been used as a pretext for supporting demeaning attitudes and violent acts against others.

At the pinnacle of the Medieval Church, Christians slaughtered Muslims, persecuted Jews, and tortured “heretics” all in the name of God. During WWII, one of Hitler’s reasons for exterminating millions of Jews was that, in his mind, the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. Since the birth of the modern State of Israel, conservative Christians have mostly supported Israel’s oppression of Palestinians because of a misguided apocalyptic theology. And Christian faith is frequently a basis for intolerance and subjugation of people because of gender, race, or sexual orientation.

Is Christianity a religion that legitimizes intolerance, subjugation, and violence, or is it a faith of tolerance, equality, and peace? More importantly, what does the Bible say about violence and oppression, and how do we solve the theological conundrum that views the Christian faith as a peaceful religion when parts of scripture sanction oppression and violence?

To answer these questions, we need to consider why the Bible might authorize intolerance and violence, and then we need to propose how to read the Bible from a critical position that recognizes that not every part of the canon exhibits normative patterns of behavior and values.

An exhaustive discussion of how the Bible legitimizes oppression and violence would take a more extensive investigation than I can offer here, but a good place to begin is with Ancient Israel’s war against the people of Canaan. While the Hebrew Bible tells the story of God ordering and giving Israel violent victory over their enemies, we need to consider that these stories were expressed from a backward looking theological interpretation.

This was not an uncommon way of viewing victories in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one’s victory over one’s enemies was always the victory of one’s god over the gods of one’s enemy. This means that when we read the stories of the Bible, we need to think critically about these narratives and question whether or not God actually gave authorization for this violent conquering of the land. If we do not, we run the risk of forming a theology that legitimizes religious intolerance, subjugation, and violence.

Yet, since these stories are included in what the church has affirmed as the Word of God, how do we handle a canon of scripture that at times sanctions demeaning attitudes and violent acts toward others, but at other times calls us to promote peace, love, and justice in our world?

First, every text of the Bible must be understood within the norms of its original context, and thus the initial commands and behaviors offered in particular texts do not necessarily apply equally to the contemporary world. Indeed, forcing certain “principles to live by” from some of these texts will only lead to misguided theology.

A case in point is the way some biblical texts seem to place females in inferior positions to males. The society of the first century viewed women as inferior to men, and thus the biblical commands that limit the rights of women reflect the society at large, even if theological reasons are given for supporting male authority over women.

However, as the rights of women have progressed in the modern world, these particular biblical texts should no longer be normative for how we see the roles of women in the family, society or the church. This way of reading could also apply to the way that we view other marginalized populations in the modern world.

Second, we must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will. The Bible was not written by God, but was written by historically situation humans who were seeking to understand God, humanity, and the world. Thus, those passages of scripture that picture God as one who legitimizes demeaning attitudes and violence must be assessed in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all human life. A faithful reading of the Bible must give careful attention to the original meaning of a biblical passage, but such readings must also give preference to those texts that testify most clearly to the God who is discovered in Jesus.

Finally, we must recall that scripture points to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Christianity is a christocentric religion that views Jesus as the full revelation of the unseen God. Early Christians understood Jesus in light of promises found in the Hebrew Bible and they reread the Hebrew Bible in light of their experience of Jesus. Thus, the words and deeds of Christ serve as the interpretative filter through which we understand all scripture.

From a Christian point of view, Jesus’ authority has primacy over other portions of the Christian Bible. Scripture’s normative message of God’s desire to love and redeem all humanity calls us to repent of our intolerance and violence toward others, and opens our hearts and minds to authentically love our friends and enemies through acts of peace and generosity, not oppression and violence.