I find prayer difficult, I will admit. But I suspect it is because for too long I have misunderstood its point. For much of my life, prayer functioned as a mechanism to try to get the universe to work in my favour, all the while trying to concede that if it didn’t work out, God would not be to blame. Looking back, prayer has – for me, and I suspect many others – functioned as a way to defend to myself a way of thinking about God that I was aware, on some level, was deeply flawed. What surprises me about this now is that even then I had some sort of understanding that prayer was about theology. I just misunderstood the benefits of prayer.
I have since come to see that prayer is important not so much because of the desired outcomes of it; rather, it is important because we are shaped by the process. After all, as we think, so we are. If God mandates prayer, I do not believe it is because it is one more thing Hen needs to check off on Hens list of holy activities we need to complete if we wish to defer smiting. God is not a bureaucrat, and it is tragic that our theology has turned Hen into one. No, God mandates prayer because in Hens perfect love Hen understands that we need it to live abundantly, and by that I do not mean God giving in to our whims if we happen to stumble on to the magic formula. Prayer is important. But we need to understand why it is. I do not believe it is because Jesus is our bestest buddy in the whole world and we can only call ourselves buddies if we talk a lot. I believe the value of prayer lies in the fact that it both expresses and gives shape to our theologies. And theology, in turn, impacts on how we live, how we treat others, what we value. In other words, prayer gives birth to life.
When Jesus’s disciples asked him to teach them to pray, they got a lesson in theology that is simultaneously challenging and comforting. And it starts with the address: “Our Father”.
If Michael Hardin is correct – and I have engaged enough with his work to know that he invariably is – then there are only thirteen references to God as Father throughout the Old Testament. Jesus, however, constantly refers to God as Father. When Jesus insists on calling God “Father”, he is making a radical theological statement.
At this point I need to point out that I do not believe that this is sufficient grounds to infer that God is masculine. Jesus is human and operates within a very definite social context. “Father” is a perfectly appropriate socio-cultural conception of God, given Jesus’s location in a patriarchal culture. Jesus and all of his audience would have conceived of God in the masculine, because that is how power was configured in that society and conceptions of God always represent our own conceptions of power. It is why many Christians today insist on seeing Jesus as a white, no doubt English-speaking, European. I do not believe that one can infer from Jesus’s statement that God is objectively male, only that his society would have viewed God as male.
Far more important is the way of relating to God that the title “Father” implies. Titles matter. They tell us how we are expected to relate. To understand the significance of “Father”, it is useful to look at how the other common Jewish prayers – the ones that Jesus and his disciples would have prayed daily, and to which I am convinced Jesus was inviting a comparison – begin. The first of these, the Shema, starts: “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”. On this, I simply want to note that contained here is a strong precedent for prayer to be a statement of faith. This is, after all, the pivotal faith statement in Judaism, and the prayer is not merely a dialogue with God. It is also a dialogue with self. The second prayer, the weekday Amidah, opens with the words: “My Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.” Notice that in both cases – as is common throughout the Jewish holy texts – God is referred to as “God” or “Lord”. The implicit relationship is that of a master and servant. By telling people to understand God differently, as a parent instead of as a master, Jesus is provoking a profound theological shift.
A master-servant relationship is one where the healthiness of the relationship is determined by the obedience of the servant. Indeed, this is the kind of relationship that most of us assume we are in when it comes our relationship with God. As a result, we obsess over holiness codes and purity. In the same way, the title habitually given to God by Jesus’s Jewish audience, “Lord”, would have had a profound influence on how they understood what it meant for them to be faithful to God’s covenant with Israel.
By calling God “Father”, Jesus shifts how we understand what the expectations on each of the parties in the relationship are. He challenges how we ought to measure the healthiness of the relationship. I would hope that it is obvious that a parent-child relationship is fundamentally different from a master-servant one. For one thing, in a master-servant relationship the primary obligation for maintaining the stability of the relationship rests with the servant. As long as the servant remains obedient, even if the master is a tyrant, the relationship can function to meet its ends. In a parent-child relationship, however, the primary responsibility for creating and sustaining a healthy relationship rests with the parent. All the child really needs to do is trust; for the relationship to flourish, the parent needs to earn that trust. In a master-servant relationship, the relationship is a means to some other end determined by the master, where the master is the primary beneficiary, the servant only incidentally so. In a parent-child relationship, the relationship is an end in itself. In a healthy parent-child relationship, everyone benefits. Let me put Jesus’s challenge another way: God’s primary desire is not our obedience, it is the restoration of healthy, loving relationships because broken relationships always diminish quality of life. And the responsibility for that is all God’s (notice, by contrast, where the implied responsibility lies in both the Shema and the Amidah). How God goes about that is a topic for another day.
The second aspect of the opening of The Lord’s Prayer is the pronoun “Our”. There is an entire theological treatise in that one word alone. Where the Amidah refers to “My Lord”, Jesus advocates we pray to “Our Father”. And I am convinced it is a very deliberate contrast. This is not about me, my personal holiness, my individual salvation. This is not a theology that has a place for the “personal Jesus” lie perpetuated in the modern church. This is a theology that recognises that a healthy relationship with God is only possible within the context of a healthy relationship with others. It is a theology that centres on community, not on self. It is a theology that forbids bigotry, sexism, or homophobia. It is a theology that forbids exclusion – whether on the basis of social class, culture, race, gender, or religion. Who do you think Jesus included in his “Our”? He already answered that in the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Our” is not limited to the Jews; it includes all of those we would regard as unclean and godless. “Our” is humanity.
One of the major questions that the various Judaic groups of Jesus’s time were trying to answer was: What does it mean to be the people of God? In turn, this meant addressing issues like: Who is in? Who is out? What is required of us to stay ‘in’? They answered this in different ways. For some it meant careful and unbending adherence to the Torah – especially the laws pertaining to diet, the Sabbath, or relationships with Gentiles. For some it meant a zealous militancy to retake the land God had given. For some it centred on the legitimacy of the temple. The Lord’s prayer speaks to all of these.
The Lord’s Prayer, even in its opening, posed a profound challenge to the prevalent theologies of Jesus’s day, even as it challenges the neo-Calvinist theology that saturates the modern Western church. “Our Father”, not “My Lord” means that God is not a tyrannical overlord who handpicks the choir to sing His praises in some otherworldly ego-fest, and who burns the rest to a crisp. God is a parent, and one who takes seriously the responsibility of doing what it takes to create a loving family atmosphere, because only then can each individual find fulfilment. Our obedience, then, is not a life-or-death prerequisite for satisfying God’s demands for holiness and to avoid God’s wrath; rather, personal holiness (not stealing, lying, murdering, honouring others, taking time off work) is a quality-of-life-or-death decision that serves to nurture a community where people – others and ourselves –are respected and valued. The relationship is the end goal, not obedience. Only then do we become what we were created to be. Only then can we live – not simply exist – in community. Because – think about it – we are only truly every content when our relationships are whole. Only then can God’s Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.