“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13, NRSV)
This may be the most familiar prayer in all of Christianity. Most of us know it by heart and may be in the habit of reciting it frequently. I wonder sometimes if its familiarity has caused us to stop listening to the words we are saying in the prayer. Do we really understand for what we are praying?
After greeting God with respect we begin a short litany of things that we ask of God. May God’s kingdom come; may God’s will be done on earth just as it is in heaven; give us what we need each day; forgive us; and protect us. Sounds simple enough and just a little self-centered. But, since Jesus actually taught us this prayer, I am willing to bet that there is more to it than our simple reading.
“Your kingdom come” sounds a lot like something that is yet to be, something we are to wait for. Yet, we hear Jesus saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:13-14). Which is it – is the kingdom of God “now” or “not yet”? The answer is yes, God’s kingdom is both present and to come. When we ask for God’s kingdom to come we need to understand our role in making this happen. We are asking God to enable us to live in that kingdom now and forever – this is a huge responsibility.
In her book, The Misunderstood Jew, Rabbi Amy Levine suggests: “The kingdom is not, for the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, a piece of real estate for the single saved soul; it is a communal vision of what could be and what should be. It is a vision of a time when all debts are forgiven, when we stop judging others, when we not only wear our traditions on our sleeve, but also hold them in our hearts and minds and enact them with all our strength.”[i]
God’s kingdom is much more than the hoped-for end-times that seems to have taken over much of Christian thought and media coverage lately. It is about the way we behave right now, in this world.
God does not have a magic wand to wave that will suddenly change the way people think and the way we treat one another. That is up to us. If we want God’s will to be done on earth just as it is done in heaven, then we need to spend more time trying to understand God’s will and putting it into practice. God is not going to make us stop doing our will and start doing God’s will like turning a faucet on or off. God expects us to choose to do that.
If we really mean that we ask God to provide our “daily bread,” then we need to stop being so greedy and make sure that we are satisfied with what God gives us and that we are sure others have access to their “daily bread” as well. When we pray for forgiveness we add the qualifier – “as we also have forgiven.” That sounds like a risky prayer unless you are certain that you have already forgiven everyone who has ever hurt you. The part about protecting us from evil should not be viewed as asking to be spared from all adversity. John Wesley taught that this was asking God to provide us a way to avoid the temptations of this world and live into God’s kingdom. It carries with it the choice to accept God’s way or another way.
It seems to me that this is a very complex prayer in which we are making some very challenging commitments to God. We need to be careful praying familiar prayers without much thought to what we are saying. My guess is that God will take us at our word and expect us to live up to the things for which we pray.
Praying for God’s kingdom,
[i] Levine, Amy-Jill, THE MISUNDERSTOOD JEW: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., © 2006, Page 51.