Our Father in Heaven

Until you can answer the question of why we need to pray, you cannot begin to engage with how to pray. I have been making the case that The Lord’s Prayer is much more a theological statement than it is either a magical formula for unleashing the power of God (which I don’t believe it is at all, although this is an unconscious belief that informs much of how Modern Christians think of prayer in general, and thus which we apply to this prayer) or a template for connecting to the God who is the Lover of your soul. As I currently understand it, the purpose of prayer is much less about talking to God and much more about rooting sound theology. That is why, I think, in so many religious traditions, prayer is a repetitive daily ritual. Certainly it would have been for Jesus, being a Jew; it was certainly the case in the early Christian church, where saying the Lord’s Prayer was a part of daily religious expression; and it is the case today, even in Evangelical and Protestant traditions that do not recognise it as such. The danger, of course, with the free-for-all prayer that derives from the “personal-relationship-with-Jesus” tradition is that it cements a theology that is entirely self-derived. We make up our own versions of Christian theology and cement them in our prayers.


Working on the assumption that when Jesus offered the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples he was offering a lesson in theology rather than a magical formula or a love letter to the divine, or attempting to wrest clemency from a wrathful deity, it would be helpful to understand the worldview that frames that theological statement.


I have dealt already with the address, in which Jesus significantly shifts the way we talk to and about God. God becomes, for Jesus, not a master but a parent. And even “parent” does not quite suffice. The Greek manuscripts, I am led to believe, do not attempt to translate Abba. Yet the Greeks have words for “Father”. If Abba remains in the original Aramaic, then it captures something that “Father” does not, and many scholars translate it as something like “daddy”. Even then, the word has cultural connotations that do not neatly translate. The point is, though, that Jesus was taking the monstrous out of our picture of God. More than that, he shifted the liturgical language away from the formalised Hebrew and into the vernacular (Aramaic) – the equivalent of refusing to conduct church services in Latin and insisting that theology becomes accessible to people in their daily lives.


Today I want to explore the clause: “who is in heaven”.


Already, our Evangelical and Protestant paradigms have constructed an entire theology of crime and punishment. We have – by that one little clause – envisaged a God who is obsessed with our moral uprightness, is unswayingly intolerant of our imperfections, and doing a sterling job of restraining Himself (our retributive God, made in our own image, is invariably masculine, whereas the Abba of Jesus contains both the masculine Ab and the feminine ending ba) from smiting us. By projecting ideas of access control on Heaven based on moral purity we have by default created a space for those who do not make the cut (fortunately for us, we always seem to…) and get what is coming to them. But I cannot stress strongly enough that the concept of hell is largely foreign to Jewish thinking. It is entirely absent form the most ancient Jewish texts, where Sheol is simply the grave – a place inhabited by the righteous and the unrighteous alike. When the concept does begin to develop in post-Exilic literature, as a result of the influence of, for example, Babylonian and Hellenistic cultures, it still does not resemble, for most, a place of fiery eternal torment. For most Jewish theologians – both now and in the past – the idea of eternal reward and punishment is foreign. Even for those who do/did believe in a place of punishment, it was envisaged as a place more closely aligned to the Catholic notion of purgatory, where souls are purified, and the pain associated with it is a result of the process of purification – confronting the truths about oneself and the hurt one has caused – rather than being punitively inflicted by a divine torturer.


So when Jesus prays to his “Father in heaven”, it would be absolutely erroneous to interpret “Heaven” as a place that we need to consider as our final hope and reward. It is simply the place where God is. At this point, I could probably take a fairly interesting sideline into Jewish mysticism and the Seven Heavens to illustrate the point that Jewish thinking around the idea of Heaven bears little resemblance to contemporary Christian ideas about Heaven, but for the moment I simply wish to point out that Jesus, as a Jew, did not envisage Heaven in the way Protestants do. Implicit in that recognition is the requirement that we acknowledge that he did not envisage hell in that way either.


In fact, on the question of the afterlife, the Torah is largely silent (which in itself should give us pause for thought). And while there existed several schools of thought in Jesus’ day about what the afterlife might entail, the focus of Jewish theology was not on the afterlife; it was on the here and now. When we read Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees as a condemnation of their trying to win their way into heaven through their deeds, we are fundamentally misunderstanding Jewish thinking. No Jew tries to live in obedience to Torah because they are trying to win divine favour and get into Heaven; they live in obedience to Torah because it is the way to connect to God now. I really like the way that Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz puts it:

“Following God’s will by fulfilling His commandments in this physical world connects us to God spiritually (the root of the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is “tzavta” which literally means “to connect”), refines the physical world, and proclaims the glory of God — that He exists everywhere. This is our mission while on earth”. (http://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/belief-in-heaven-is-fundamental-to-judaism/)


Can I paraphrase that? When we obey God’s commandments, we connect spiritually to God and help bring the world we live in closer to the perfection that God intended. And when earth looks like Heaven – when our actions are motivated by love and forgiveness, not violence or self-justification or bigotry – that is when we proclaim the glory of God, because that is when God is most evident. The primary theological question we need to answer is not “How do I get into Heaven?” but “How do I bring Heaven to earth?” That is why Jesus’s prayer continues as it does: “May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. It is why Jesus stresses that all of the Laws of the Torah can be summed up in the command to love God and to love one another (two commands which he suggests are exactly alike: to love God is to love one another; to love one another is to love God); it is why Jesus stresses not merely loving those who are like us, but loving our enemies, forgiving those who persecute us. It is the only way to lasting peace; the only way earth and Heaven can align.


When it comes to the afterlife, traditional Jewish thought does contain the idea of the Olam Ha-Ba, when the Messiah will initiate a new world order, and the righteous dead will be resurrected to live in a perfected world of peace and prosperity that their righteousness has been part of creating. To that end, Torah observance has nothing to do with obtaining access to Heaven; it is a means of aligning earth with Heaven, of bringing Heaven to earth. The gospel, then, is not that God will restrain Himself from frying us if we manage to say the right prayer and hold the right theology. The central message of the gospels is not that God was going to incinerate us but chose to brutalise Jesus instead (is that even good news?!) The gospel is that Olam Ha-Ba is come. God’s Messiah has inaugurated a new world order where our righteousness – our sacrificial love, our commitment to non-violence, our defense of the vulnerable and the marginalised – will help create a perfected world of peace and prosperity. Jesus has unmasked the injustices of our justice systems, he has exposed the pathetic justifications we give for exploiting others. The cross stands as God’s rejection of blood justice, of political and cultural imperialism, of our scapegoating tendencies. Jesus triumphed over our sin on the cross by refusing to acknowledge as legitimate the mechanisms we devised to murder him, but equally by refusing to participate in tit-for-tat justice that seeks blood for blood. The cross is a gruesome unveiling of the fact that our ways of relating to one another do not work, and so long as we use religion and piety and power as excuses for violence towards others, heaven will not come on earth.


But now we know the way (the early Christians did not call what they practiced “Christianity”; they called it “The Way”); by laying down his life voluntarily – by refusing to blame and accuse (“Nobody takes it [my life] from me; I lay it down of my own accord” – John 10:18) and by forgiving his own murderers on the basis that they “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), Jesus showed us how to relate so that we bring Heaven to earth. Certainly the early church, who renounced all violence and never retaliated when they were persecuted, who sold what they had, lived in community and ministered to those marginalised by society, had a very clear picture of what it meant to commit to bringing about the new world order in the here and now. Somewhere along the line we lost that. But God has already resurrected righteous Jesus as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” – the promise that Hens reign has come, that a process has begun that cannot be undone, and the Christian hope is that we will all one day be resurrected with him. Until then, there is the work of bringing Heaven to earth.

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