The Our Father - Joseph Mattam.

The Our Father: the revolutionary Prayer of the Kingdom

Joseph Mattam, SJ

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          The Our Father, the prayer most commonly used by Christians, is probably the only one taught by Jesus; it is a picture of the Kingdom, the new type of life that Jesus envisaged. To understand this prayer better, we need to look at the introductory and concluding verses in Matthew's version. Jesus begins by saying:  “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases..your Father knows what you need before you ask him." (Matt 6.6-7). And He concludes:”…if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (6.14-15). If this prayer, then, is not a matter of "empty words" to inform God what we need but is a matter of forgiving one another, then I suggest that it  expresses a fourfold relationship: to God, one another, things and to structures. It is both a confession of who we are and a promise to become what we profess to be. Like all prayers of petition, this is the expression of the truth of ourselves and of our commitment to bring about God's rule on earth. This prayer is a programme of life and it expresses the very meaning of Christian life.

Our Father in Heaven

          The first phrase is a summary of the whole prayer. It expresses our relation to God, to one another, to the earth and to the structures. In Jesus' time people considered God as living ‘in heaven'; perhaps by saying that God is ‘heavenly', Jesus distinguishes God  from our earthly parents. Also the term ‘Father' need not be taken in a male sense; it expresses the type of relation we ought to have to our Source whom we may call Father/Mother.  As the rays of the sun depend totally on the sun, we depend on God for our very being and these words affirm that our attitude to God ought to be one of loving obedience and trust, not a relation based on greed, fear or obligation. In fact, we ought to relate to God as children - in loving obedience; we want to pray because we want to be in conscious and intimate communion with our Father/Mother. Besides this affirmation of our relation to God, we affirm that we are all brothers/sisters, owners of the Earth that belongs to the Parent. In our world, with all types of discriminatory relationships based on caste, colour, gender, religion, race and nationality, this is a truly revolutionary statement. As children of the same Parent, we owe each other love and respect. Each has a distinct function in society, but this does not place one above or below the other. There is no superior class or race. Every type of relation that is opposed to this basic truth stands condemned.

          The earth is of God and therefore, is meant for all God’s children; it is not just for a few children or a few nations. For, according to the Bible, human beings and the earth are intimately inter-connected and so, cannot be separated. Any ideology that justifies the accumulation of wealth by some by depriving others of land, house and food is contrary to the faith expressed by these words. Anyone who tries to justify the present system as "God's will" is denying God as Father/Mother of all, an atheist. This profession of who we are is a promise to bring about a new social order where all will share the earth of God as brothers/sisters, without any discrimination.

Holy be Your Name:

          What was confessed and promised in the first phrase is explicated here. It is our privilege as children to keep God's name sacred, revered and respected by all in the way we relate to God, to one another and to the earth. God is not honoured merely by singing God’s praises, or by saying “holy”, or offering worship in the churches and temples, but by God’s children living truly as brothers/sisters, in love and justice. Just as good sons and daughters keep their parents’ name sacred and revered, we honour God when we relate to God and to one another lovingly. If, on the contrary, we build walls of separation among ourselves and if a few of the children enjoy all or most of the wealth of the Parent, while the others are left to starve and die in misery, then we dishonour God’s name. Any form of discrimination on the basis of caste, race, gender, nation and religion is also an insult to the Father's name. The so-called believers in God have been the chief cause of the growth of atheism.

Your Kingdom come, Your Will be done on earth, as in heaven

          What we desire here and commit ourselves to is to actualize God's dream for the earth. When God created this earth, God had great dreams for this "daughter", for all her potentialities, for all that she could become. God certainly would have dreamt this earth to be a place where all God’s children could live happily. The Kingdom of God is not a special place, but the transformation of the present earth and of humans and their relationships. It is the radical re-orientation of our life, a radically new vision of reality. It is a negation of the present as final. The Jewish people spoke of the actualization of the promises of God in terms of the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, which would bring justice to the victims of society.

           This Kingdom does not come through the use of power, but through the revelation of the unconditional love of God. Jesus manifested in his life that the acceptance of this truth, namely belief in God's love, is what liberates him from greed, lust, hatred, fear, poor self-image, legalism and ritualism and enables him to love all. Loving in an unjust world would necessarily mean taking sides with the victims of society; hence we may say that the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed would imply freedom, love and justice. We commit ourselves to create such a society, which whiles it is a gift, is also our task. We have to take sides, we have to decide in favour of the Kingdom of God and give up allegiance to other kingdoms based on prestige, possessions, success and exploitation (see Lk 16.1-10; Lk 14.16-24; Mk 12.28-34). The Kingdom is a gift and at the same time a task, because it is our task to manifest God's love in our effective loving which, in an unjust world, requires `repentance', a change of life, a changed social relationship. Recognizing that God is not paternalistic, but has entrusted the world to us, we will have to work to eliminate the injustices that prevail in our world and create a more humane and a just world where all can live in harmony and truly call God `Father/Mother'. God brings about God’s rule through our loving, our opposition to forces that are contrary to God’s will and dream. So, we pray that God’s will may become a reality on earth. It is not something for the after-life, but for this world of ours.

Give us this day our daily bread:

          Jesus expresses the reality of the Kingdom in terms of bread for all, forgiveness, mutual protection and creation of structures that are helpful for all. Jesus tells us that God is interested in our basic necessities of life: food, (clothes, shelter), forgiveness and protection. He tells us that the first requirement of the Kingdom is that all have "bread". "You give them something to eat", Jesus told His disciples when people were found without food; He did not tell them to pray to God instead. We note also that the first thing mentioned in the last judgment is: I was hungry…(Matt 25.31ff).When Jesus tells us that the Father feeds the birds of the air, we know that God does so through their efforts; so, much more truly we ought to realize that God does not do things instead of us; the earth has been entrusted to God’s children who will have to care for it, develop it and make it good for all. Hence, our prayer for bread is a reminder for us to share our bread, to provide bread for all through our caring, sharing and creating structures that help such a distribution; so that, what was said of the first Christians be true of all: "There was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4.34). Just as God gives us life through our parents, God provides for all God’s children through what we do for ourselves and others.

          Jesus also reminds us by the use of the word daily that what is required is not a system of hoarding and accumulation. In today’s world, the capitalistic system of competition and hoarding is considered to be just and necessary. But even in the OT, when people were given the manna, they were told not to hoard for the morrow. Jesus spoke strongly against hoarding (Lk 12.16-21), about the dangers of wealth (Lk 16.19-31; Mk 10.25) and insisted on sharing (Mt 5.42). The early Christians too thought that it was possible, though their experiment lasted only for a short while. This hint of Jesus, at least, invites us to look for alternative patterns. "Give us our daily bread", then, is a promise to share the earth and its produce with all, a promise not to hoard at the cost of another; it is against the luxuries of any type when even one person remains hungry and unfed, without clothes and shelter.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

          The Jews believed that only God could forgive sins: "Who can  forgive sins but God alone?" (Lk 5.21) hence in this petition alone is the human responsibility explicated. Jesus makes it explicit that even what is so exclusively God's privilege is now carried out through us. Almost like an after-thought, to emphasize the centrality of this theme, Jesus concludes the prayer by repeating the message of this petition. We need to forgive others in order to experience God's forgiveness. It is not a condition on God's part, but a condition for us to experience God’s forgiving, unconditional love. God continues to love us even when we turn away from God. Hence, this petition is not a matter of conditions for obtaining God’s forgiveness, but is a call for us to become like God in our relation to one another. This petition explicates that our inter-personal relationship ought to be characterized by unconditional love, for forgiveness is another name for unconditional love. Jesus places forgiveness on an equal footing with our need for food. 

          In our world, people are so much governed by various forms of conditioning and hence, act from prejudice, partial or wrong information received, from their need to protect themselves, from fear, from the illusion of improving others etc; but their actions can be harmful; these can be misunderstood by others. Due to such misunderstandings, judgment and blame follow. Hence there arises the continual need for forgiveness, as Jesus Himself says: "seventy times seven" (Matt 18.22). Misunderstanding and judgments create Towers of Babel, walls of separation. Understanding and forgiveness create new channels of communication. Mutual forgiveness and love are to be the characteristics of Jesus' disciples (Jn 13.35.

          While the sacrament of reconciliation is very necessary for the Church to continue as a community of brothers and sisters, the understanding of that sacrament in the past has perhaps done harm to this more fundamental teaching of Jesus on mutual forgiveness. When a person forgives another, both benefit by that action; perhaps the one who forgives is the first beneficiary of that action, for by his/her non-forgiveness, he/she does harm to own self.

Lead us not into temptation

          The temptation is against the values of the Kingdom, namely, of sharing and forgiving. This petition then is a promise to live by the values of the Kingdom, by not hoarding but sharing, by not hating and creating walls of separation but by forgiving. To share, to let go of one's own interest and forgive, as well as to live according to the values of Jesus is difficult in a world where `worldly values' reign supreme; where possessing, hoarding, grabbing, dominating and having power over others are considered to be the most important thing - the means of being regarded as someone. By having more and more one gives the illusion of being happier and thus tempts others too to follow that path of grabbing and accumulating.

Deliver us from evil:

          The last part of the petition speaks of mutual protection. In Jesus' time, the apocalyptic world-view held that all evil came from Satan and hence, Jesus claimed, "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you" (Lk 11.20). Given this world-view, He was undoing the power structures that kept people enslaved in one form or another. The prayer then is aimed at the removal of the power structures that enslave and dehumanize. It is too simplistic today to say that demons are keeping people enslaved.  The political, economic, social and religious structures on the one hand, and  the internal structures of greed, hatred, lust, fear and poor self- image, on the other hand dehumanize and enslave people today. One may also understand the petition in a general sense as referring to the need of mutual protection. God protects us through what we do for ourselves; we have to make it possible for all to live without fear. Hence, the prayer becomes a promise to create structures that help the well-being of all and also to help to free people from the internal unhealthy structures of greed etc: a call to personal conversion and to work for a better and more humane social structure, which is already implied in the earlier petition : "Your Kingdom come".

Conclusion

          This prayer of the Kingdom, then, proposes to us the manifold relationships that make up our life: inter-personal relations characterized by unconditional love; relation to things characterized by not hoarding, but sharing; and finally, creating structures that help all to live fearlessly and be beneficial to all. Through these threefold relations, we express our relation to God as Father/Mother, we honour God’s name, we bring about His/Her Kingdom on earth and we carry out His/Her will on earth. The loving relation to God is manifested precisely in the way we relate to one another, to things and to structures. In other words, when we truly love one another, we share our bread, we protect one another and we create conditions that are helpful to all. The goal of our life on earth is that we love as God loves. When we see this prayer as demanding such a serious commitment, we understand why in introducing this prayer at the Eucharist, the priests usually say,  "We make bold to say Our Father". We do need courage to say this prayer if we mean what we say, namely, a promise to God and to one another to make real God’s dream for us and for the earth.
         

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