The last of our so called ‘summer’ series – summer because the narrative lectionary that we are following, like so much of our Church year, originates in Northern climes – is a series of weeks looking at perhaps the most famous words of Jesus: the Lord’s Prayer.
So for the next four weeks, we’ll be hearing the same, very short, gospel reading each week – these couple of verses from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray.
Luke chapter 11 starts “He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
Even before we get into the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ response, there are already a few things we might notice from the way this question is asked. The disciples have been watching Jesus pray – and clearly this is no novelty to them. They’ve noticed that he prays. That it is part of who he is, how he lives, how he operates. I think we can assume – from his criticism of the Pharisees for their ostentatious prayer – that prayer was not something he made a big show of; but those who were close to him knew that he prayed. And not just as part of public worship, not just in the synagogue or in the temple, but in, as our reading has it “a certain place”, or, as we might say, nowhere in particular.
Jesus was known, by those who really knew him, as a man who prayed. And I, personally, find that immediately and deeply challenging. Because I’m guessing that if the people closest to me did some sort of 360 degree review of my life, and came up with a list of descriptors of who I am, I really doubt that “person of prayer” would be near the top of their list. If it was on the list at all.
And if for a moment I were to think – ‘ah, but that was Jesus, he didn’t expect us to pray as he did’, well, then I’m confronted by the fact that when the disciple asked Jesus ‘teach us to pray’, he didn’t answer the question with a question, or with a story, or an obscure but deeply profound red herring, as he so often seemed to do. No, when Jesus was asked ‘teach us to pray’, he did just that. When you compare it with his frequent redirection of questions asked of him, the very fact that he responded as he did is a simple validation of the request; before we even look at his answer, he has already said to us “yes, how to pray, that’s a good question, that’s the sort of question I want you to ask”.
Prayer matters to Jesus. Being a person of prayer is a good thing.
But that’s just the fact of Jesus’ reply. What about it’s content?
Well that, we’re going to take a few weeks to unpack. But let’s begin with just that opening line “Father, may your holy name be honoured”.
We’ve said it, or words like it, so often, that I’m sure we miss most of what’s going on in this one line.
Because the strange thing is, no one bit of this line is novel. Jesus tells us to pray to God as Father – with intimacy of a family relationship, claiming a closeness, and more; claiming in fact, a right, an inheritance, a status as the child of God. But Jesus wasn’t the first to pray like this, or the first to teach other to do so. It was a rich and active part of the tradition of the prophets within the Jewish faith to refer to God “father”. To recognise God’s relationship to the people as that of a loving, protective, parent. The prophet Isaiah, trusting in God’s faithfulness, wrote “Yet, O Lord, you are our father”; Jeremiah declared God’s word “I have become a Father to Israel”; Malachi asked “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?”
To speak of God as Father was not a new idea in the Jewish tradition. And nor, of course, was to pray that God’s name be hallowed – made holy, set apart, kept pure, special. That idea runs through the Old Testament scriptures.
No, to say “our Father” was no novelty, nor to say “hallowed be your name”. But to say them both, together?
You see, the thing was, the Jewish tradition that named God as father was a tradition of contemplation, a tradition that celebrated the closeness of God to God’s people. It was a tradition carried in the mystics.
But the tradition that declared the holiness of God’s name was a tradition of law, of purity, of separation, of the unapproachable greatness of God; a tradition carried by the Pharisees.
And, as Kipling said, “never the twain shall meet”.
Those who recognised God as parent, and those who recognised God as holy, other, unapproachable, did not – how can I say – did not see eye to eye. Was God approachable, a loving parent, or transcendent, the holy one.
But Jesus, in one phrase, claims both traditions, both truths:
“Father, may your holy name be hallowed”.
Father – hallowed. The intimately close is also the unimaginably different divine.
And if that weren’t enough, his very next words threw another tradition into the mix: “your kingdom come”.
And we’re really used to spiritualising those words “the Kingdom of God”, making them about our personal relationship, to God, our recognition of God as king of our lives – but if you read the way Jesus used them, and if you reflect even for a moment on the time and place and culture – a nation, who identified themselves with God, but who were under the control, the power, of a foreign, pagan emperor – to hear the words “the Kingdom of God” was inevitably to hear “of God, not of Caesar”; the Kingdom of God was a deeply political declaration.
And that’s certainly how it was used by those of Jesus’ day who most passionately sought the political kingdom of God’s people, who sought (and fought) for justice, for freedom, for self determination, apart from the rule of Rome. The zealots, those who took up arms against Rome and all of its collaborators, they used the language of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of our father David, the Kingdom of Israel.
And in the opening words of his prayer, Jesus claimed that tradition too.
If you’ve been at St. John’s for a while you’ll probably have heard me speak before about the social-religious-political movements that made up first century Judaism. Four major strands: the Essene, monastics, the people of the dead sea scrolls, those who carried the mystic tradition, the language of God as Father. The Pharisees, conservative even sometimes to the point of legalistic, passionate about the holiness of God and the deep, profound, rightness of living according to the Torah, the way of God, even at great personal cost. The zealots, political revolutionaries, committed to God’s rule here and now, to the overthrow of the injustice of Rome in favour of a social structure in which the widow, the fatherless, the poor would find shelter and safety.
To these three, Jesus speaks in the opening words of his prayer: “Father – hallowed one – your kingdom come”. The fourth group – the Saducees, the masters of real-politick, the ones who collaborated with Rome in the name of peace, who accepted the status-quo as inevitable and right, and found ways to make it work for them; they got nothing from these words. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that they were the ones who, in the end, would see to it that Jesus was crucified.
But the other three groups – the mystics, the religious conservatives and the political revolutionaries – they were all welcomed into the opening words of Jesus’ prayer: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”
So today, I take from these words great challenge, and great hope. Challenge – because I hear the importance that Jesus placed on prayer, the priority it had in his life, the eagerness with which he taught his friends to pray, and I see that terribly poorly reflected in my life of checklists and action items and busyness.
But hope, because in these words I see something that draws together three great and often disparate strands of our faith: the spiritual wisdom and closeness to God held in trust by the mystics; the resistance to the cult of the spirit of the age that is carried in the knowledge of the unchanging holiness of God, held in the traditions of our faith; and the never ceasing agitation to fight against injustice, to challenge systems of oppression, to rediscover the cutting edge of the words of Jesus that is championed by movements of radical Christian faith.
Three strands which each have a powerful contribution to make to Church and to the world, which seem so often to be set against each other, but which in Jesus’ words are drawn together, affirmed together, blended into something far more than the sum of their parts.
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.