Thursday, April 03, 2014

Part XVI Matthew – Did Jesus Teach Us to Pray the Lord’s Prayer?

by John Shelby Spong

If it is true, as I have suggested, that Jesus never preached the Sermon on the Mount then we immediately have to face other startling implications. That conclusion would raise questions about the authenticity of “The Lord’s Prayer,” which is first introduced into the developing Christian tradition in Matthew as part of the Sermon on the Mount. If the Lord’s Prayer turns out to be Matthew’s creation, would it still be proper for us to say: “And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say,” which are the words by which this prayer is liturgically introduced? So we turn now to look at the Lord’s Prayer.

I begin with some facts. There is no mention of a prayer taught to the disciples by Jesus in any Christian writing before Matthew introduces it in the 9th decade. If this prayer carried the imprimatur of Jesus himself, would his followers have gone that long ignoring this directive? Paul, who wrote all of his epistles between the years 51 and 64, never alludes to what we call today “the Lord’s Prayer.” If the claim made for this prayer that it came directly from Jesus were historically accurate, would Paul have declined to reference it in any way? These questions become even more provocative when we recognize that Mark, the earliest gospel, usually dated about 72 CE and on which Matthew leaned so heavily, also does not include any reference to this prayer. To make this biblical analysis complete we need to note that when John, the last gospel to be written, appeared near the end if the first century, there was once again no reference to a prayer that Jesus had taught his disciples to pray. Did this final gospel writer do this because he knew it was not authentic? Most people are simply not aware of these biblical facts.

In Matthew’s gospel, the Lord’s Prayer is introduced as part of his commentary on the Fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be satisfied.” For the Jews “righteousness” was a synonym for God’s kingdom. To “hunger for righteousness,” therefore, meant to hunger for the coming of the kingdom of God. That identification would be one with which the Jews were thoroughly familiar. The prophet Isaiah referred to Israel as “God’s Vineyard,” where “righteousness,” that is God’s kingdom, is to be established. Later this same prophet writes: “God shows himself present and holy” in the manifestation of “righteousness.”

Matthew first introduces the word “righteousness” in his story of Jesus’ baptism. John, viewing himself as secondary to Jesus, objects to his baptizing Jesus saying: “I have need to be baptized of you.” Jesus responds to this by saying that his baptism is a necessary step in “fulfilling all righteousness,” that is, as a means of establishing the kingdom of God. Later, but still in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew portrays Jesus as exhorting his followers not to be anxious about what they are to eat, to drink or to wear, insisting that they spend their every moment seeking God’s kingdom and its “righteousness.” “Righteousness” is a word that the deeply Jewish Paul uses frequently and every time he uses it, it refers to the kingdom of God. So when Matthew has Jesus say: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” he is referring to those who live in anticipation of the kingdom of God and who prepare themselves for that kingdoms arrival by fasting, praying and studying the Torah.

In Matthew’s mind the kingdom is present and becomes visible when God’s righteousness is lived out or when God’s presence is seen in human life.

The earliest Christian prayer recorded in the New Testament is not the Lord’s Prayer, but a prayer for Jesus to come again. Paul closes the first epistle to the Corinthians with the words, “Our Lord, come.” The book of Revelation ends with Jesus promising to come soon and the prayer of the people in response is “Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.” It is with this understanding that Matthew introduces the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount along with a discussion on prayer itself.

The Lord’s Prayer thus serves as an example of the things about which he has been speaking. Matthew has Jesus begin by describing the proper prayer attitude. Jesus is portrayed as exhorting his followers to observe a proper tradition when praying. Prayers for the kingdom are not to be done for show, so they should not be uttered on street corners, but in the privacy of one’s own room. Prayer should not be the stringing together of pious phrases and empty words. God, Jesus reminds his hearers in the Sermon, knows their needs before they ask. Prayer is thus not the activity of reminding God as to what it is that God can do for you. That is when in the Sermon Matthew has Jesus say “Pray then like this” and the words of the Lord’s Prayer follow.

It is quite clearly a prayer for the kingdom of God to come in human history. This prayer begins by addressing itself to the One who is beyond all limits, for that is what “heaven” means. Heaven for the Jews was never a “place” located above the sky, but an expression of the limitlessness of God. God’s kingdom is not a physical realm, but an experience of God’s presence, a moment in which the life of God becomes visible in another. This prayer then moves on to express our yearning to be sustained until that day when the kingdom arrives. “Give us this day our daily bread” and “do not bring us to the test” or into temptation that we cannot overcome lest we miss the kingdom’s arrival. In this prayer Jesus has been cast in the role of the messiah who inaugurates that kingdom, which is an understanding of Jesus that surely was not fully worked out until well after the defining experience of crucifixion and resurrection, through which the followers of Jesus had to walk.

Thus it becomes obvious that the Lord’s Prayer was a prayer developed by the church, the followers of Jesus, after they came to the conclusion that in his life they had seen divinity through the lens of the human and they had seen life overcoming death. Jesus was thus a glimpse of what the kingdom of God was like, but it would not be known in all its fullness until Jesus came again at the end of the age. So what we call the Lord’s Prayer was created as a prayer to be prayed by those who lived between the first coming of Jesus, when the kingdom was glimpsed and his second coming, when God’s kingdom would be established in all its fullness.

To complete the biblical analysis of the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer we need to recognize that there is a second version of this prayer in the gospel of Luke. It is recognizably similar, but not identical. It is shorter and a bit truncated. It reads as follows:

“Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” That is Luke’s version in its entirety.

When we confront these two obviously similar, but not identical versions of the same prayer we are driven back once again into the debate about the Q hypothesis. Do these two versions of the Lord’s Prayer reflect a common tradition that would have been present in an earlier, now lost source of Jesus’ sayings to which both Matthew and Luke had access? Or is Luke editing out the deeply Jewish elements of this prayer, which he had acquired from Matthew, in order to appeal to his more cosmopolitan and less Jewish audience?

Increasingly I am convinced it is the latter. Luke’s community was made up primarily of dispersed Jews, who were increasingly adapting to a Gentile world, along with Gentile proselytes, who had been drawn to the non-cultic, ethical monotheism of Judaism. They would have had little interest in Matthew’s rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, which was written to give Christian content to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the 24 hour vigil ceremony designed to recall Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah as God’s greatest gift to the Jewish people. Luke reflected a later and far more Gentile phase of the life of the Christian Church. He understood God’s greatest gift to God’s people to be, not the Torah which the Jews celebrated fifty days after Passover at their Pentecost, but the coming of the Holy Spirit and the growth of the Christian Church which the Christians celebrated fifty days after Easter at their Pentecost.

For Luke it was the growth of Christianity not the second coming of Jesus that would be the means by which the Kingdom of God was to arrive on earth. So Luke has edited out the cultic elements of Matthew’s gospel and he adapted the Lord’s Prayer to fit his understanding and his circumstances. It is worth noting that the Fourth Gospel, written even later than Luke, is quite specific in stating that when the raised Christ breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples on the evening of Easter Day that this was the “second coming” of Jesus. Perhaps that is why the Lord’s Prayer does not appear in the Fourth Gospel since a prayer for God’s Kingdom to come did not seem appropriate after the Holy Spirit had already come at Christian Pentecost.

So if Jesus never composed the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” and did not enjoin these words on his disciples, does this prayer then have no value for us? That is not our conclusion, but it does mean that this prayer must be understood in an entirely different way.

“Our Father who art in heaven” means that God cannot be limited by human creeds, doctrines or dogmas. It means that we must seek to define the holy beyond the theistic definitions we have for so long used uncritically. “Hallowed be thy name” means that the ultimate, the holy, the mystical, the ineffable can never be captured in human words. “Thy Kingdom come” means that our eyes must be trained to see the divine inside the human. It means that the kingdom of God comes when we are empowered to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that we are capable of being. It means that the work of the kingdom of God is the work of enhancing human wholeness that occurs when the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap and the mute sing and when all demeaning human prejudices die. That is when the kingdom of God dawns and when God’s righteousness is revealed.

So we pray – Come, Lord Jesus, establish the realm of God in each one of us. Show us what it means to be human and what it means to be Christian for they are one and the same.

Sola Scriptura?


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