A Post-Memorial Day Reflection on the Lord’s Prayer

Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4

Memorial Day always elicits in me a sense of profound gratitude mixed with deep sorrow, the sentiments appropriate for prayerful contrition.  Wars are tragic, irrefutable evidence of human courage and human evil.  Memorial Day calls for gratitude and repentance.  The Lord’s Prayer came to my mind repeatedly Monday.  This blog will offer a brief reflection on why that may have been so.

Our Father, who art in heaven…In the contemporary atmosphere of nationalism and tribalism, it is significant to me that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the first person plural:  we, us, our.  God is not my private deity, nor a national patron.  To pray “Our Father” acknowledges that God created all of humanity in God’s image, that those who die or suffer permanent injury on both sides of any conflict bear the image of God, and that the phrase “collateral damage” – the most insidious expression in the English language – attempts to mask – or to sanitize – the death of innocents.  Even when necessary, modern warfare intrinsically implicates even those on the “right” side of the conflict in tragic acts of senseless violence.

Hallowed be thy name…In the context of war, against the biblical background that one’s name represents one’s reputation, honor, and status, and in view of the Decalog’s admonition against using God’s name “lightly” or “falsely” (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11), to pray that God’s name be set apart as holy is to acknowledge the danger of identifying personal or national interests with God’s will.  It may have been in the interests of the United States to acquire Texas and beyond by force, but I doubt that God cared about boundaries on a map.  As my college Greek professor, Vernon Davidson (of blessed memory) used to warn his fledgling theologians, we should be careful about stamping God’s name on something we want to do as if thereby to validate it.

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…The petition concerning God’s name opens directly into the next.  It is easy, of course, to ask that God’s will be done, but the fulfillment of the request is difficult to recognize.  Furthermore, if it is sometimes difficult to discern God’s will in one’s personal life, how much more is it difficult to know God’s will on the level of national affairs, on the level of war?  My layperson’s understanding of the causes and outcomes of World War I (the Great War, the War to End All Wars), suggests that it did not involve some grand philosophical or ideological struggle between forces of good and evil.  Instead, it grew out of petty international rivalries and territorial disputes.  It was about the balance of power, not right and wrong.  Still, both sides in the conflict claimed that they were enacting God’s will.  To paraphrase Paul (Phil 3:19), human beings and nations often seek to baptize their appetites as God’s will.  Looking back, I doubt that God had a favorite in WWI any more than God will favor one team over the other in next year’s Superbowl.

Give us this day our daily bread…Jesus taught his disciples to pray for sufficiency, not excess.  The stories about manna in the wilderness (see Exod 16:11-36) echo through this petition, as do Jesus’ parable about the man who built barns and filled them against any future want only to die in the night and never use the bounty, and Jesus teaching about the birds of the air and the lilies of field (Matt 6:25-34).  All of these texts speak to the human tendency to horde, to avarice and concupiscence.  We never (that that we) have enough.  In international affairs, human beings also tend to view every issue as a zero-sum matter.  My needs and wants must be met, even if at the expense of yours.  Some win; some lose.  The concept of Manifest Destiny drove the United States to acquire half a continent, “from sea to shining sea,” by displacing and subjugating whole nation. The rationales for wars currently underway poorly mask the thirst for oil.  If the predictions of the climatologists prove out, the shortage of water will soon replace energy sources as the driver of international conflict.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the negation of the urge to secure ourselves at the costs of others.

Forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us…Either translation of this petition reflects an aspect of the Greek;  both are necessary to get the full impact.  Again, Old Testament texts echo through, in this case those dealing with the remission of debt in the Sabbath and Jubilee years (see, for example, Deut 15:1-11).  Over time, of course, the economic image became a metaphor for sin.  Jesus probably meant both.  Regardless, the petition establishes a proportional relationship between the petitioners’ capacities to be forgiven and the active forgiveness of others.  It grows logically out of the preceding idea.  Selfishness motivates greed and acquisition; it also motivates the determination to settle scores, to protect one’s self against one’s enemies rather than to forgive and make peace.  In the context of warfare, forgiveness would mean seeking mutuality rather than insisting upon one’s “rights.”

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…Jesus knew the real world.  It is fraught with trial and evil; it is home to the likes of Hitler and Isis.  They are certainly evil, but in what sense is evil a temptation?  Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness sounds through this petition.  In that experience, the “Evil One” (τοῦ πονηροῦ, v 13) tempted Jesus to be other than he was called to be, specifically, to use the tools and techniques of worldly power rather than those of the Suffering Servant.  Evil always presents the temptation to “fight fire with fire” and, thus, to resort to the behaviors and practices one seeks to resist.  “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matt 26:52).

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever…The final clause of the versoin of the Lord’s Prayer common in liturgy does not appear in many of the oldest, most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament.  It seems to be a scribal addition taken from 1 Chron 29:11.  Nonetheless, the scribe responsible for inserting it seems to have well understood the spirit of Jesus’ model prayer.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom and will, to prayer for sufficiency only, to prayer forgiveness instead of retribution, and to pray to be spared the temptation to engage evil on its terms.  All the this final petition rests on the notions that God’s will matters, that God provides, that greed and self-preservation run counter to Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, and that the tactics employed by evil have no place in the kingdom of God.  Thus, the prayer can rightly conclude with the ascription of dominion, (true) power, and glory to God.  In the context of international relations, one thinks of Deuteronomy’s warning that Israel’s kings should not build massive armies (Deut 17:16), of Isaiah’s admonition that Ahaz refrain from power politics in the crisis involving Rezon and Pekah because YHWH would protect Jerusalem (Isa 7:4), and of the beautiful, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit…” (Zech 4:6, NRSV).  When kings have armies, they use them, often foolishly, unnecessarily, rashly.

Lord, hasten the coming of the day when swords become plowshares.  In the meanwhile, may your people truly be peacemakers.  May they seek first the kingdom brought by the Prince of Peace and may their quest at least dampen the martial spirit of this world.  Amen.