“Our Father”: A Manifesto

Proper 12C / Ordinary 17C / Pentecost +10
28, 2013

Hosea 1:2-20

Psalm 85

Luke 11:1-13

“Manifesto” (from Merriam-Webster): a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer …

Since roughly the 18th Century (coinciding with the ready availability of printed literature), intellectuals and philosophers have occasionally felt it necessary to articulate a particular worldview – often in opposition to an existing worldview – in order to broadly publicize it and clarify the intent of the author(s) or movement in question.  The appearance of a manifesto generally means that there is some sort of burgeoning social movement taking place, for better or for worse.  Below are some well- (and not-so-well-) known manifestos that have cropped up over the last two hundred or so years:

Guy Fawkes, the symbol of "hacktivists"

Guy Fawkes, the symbol of “hacktivists”

Lords-PrayerThe “Our Father” – often the first prayer learned by devout Christian children – is not commonly listed with the above manifestos.  However, for its time, the prayer was a very bold political and economic declaration – one that could easily get the people who uttered it arrested.  John Dominic Crossan says of the Lord’s Prayer that “[It] is , for me, both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope.  It is revolutionary, because it presumes and proclaims the radical vision of justice that is the core of Israel’s blblical tradition.  It is a hymn, because it presumes and produces poetic techniques that are the core of Israel’s biblical poetry” (2010.  The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer).  How could one of the most cherished Christian prayers possibly be a political/economic manifesto?  Let’s look at some of the passages below.

Thy Kingdom ComeAfter the introductory appeal to “[Our] Father”, and the declaration of the holiness of the God of Israel’s name, the first statement of the prayer is “Your Kingdom come” (Luke 11:2).  In the context of the Roman empire,  loyalty to the realm was unquestioned.  By the time the Lukan Gospel had been written, Jerusalem had already been crushed by the Roman army.  By saying “Your Kingdom come,” the Lukan author was implicitly adding, “and not Rome’s”.  Calling for the end of Roman rule and stirring up rebellion was punishable by death – by crucifixion.  Crossan maintains that this statement still has revolutionary relevance today: “It intends to present a specific alternative option to the imperialism that has been for so long the normalcy on earth” (ibid.)

BreadIn the Lukan version of the “Our Father,” the phrase “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (which appears in the more spiritualized Matthean version) is, interestingly enough, omitted.  The Lukan author is far more concerned with practical matters on earth, as apparent by the next statement “Give us each day our daily bread” (vv.3).  The anti-hunger advocacy group Bread for the World has pointed out that a commitment to a Kingdom where our daily bread is provided (not just mine) means a concrete commitment to end hunger in a world of inequality.  In the story of the Loaves and the Fishes, “While the disciples look at so many people who need to be fed and see only scarcity,  Jesus knows that what they have will be sufficient for him to feed the multitude.  As Christians in a nation of plenty, how often do we still only see scarcity?  Do we truly believe God is going to provide what we need—and enough for us to share with others?” (“God Sees Abundance in Our World“).  Hunger is just as much a function of inequality in our world as it was in Luke’s.

DebtThe next statement, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,” (vv.4) places the focus squarely on the economic practice of debt.  While it is tempting to read this verse as a reference to sins only (with debt as a metaphor for sin), crushing debt was a reality and preoccupation of First Century Jesus-followers.  Those Jesus-followers who worshiped in the Temple were not only subject to Roman taxes, but they were also subject to the Temple tax.  When a landowner was unable to pay (typically) his taxes, he would often give up his home, becoming a tenant farmer.  If his inability to pay debt continued, he or his family might end up as debt slaves.  Under Mosaic law, the seventh or Sabbath year was designated as the year that all Hebrew debt slaves would be set free and all debts forgiven (Deuteronomy 15).

forgiveWhat would a world look like that was characterized by regular debt forgiveness?  It is hard to say.  The result might be economic disaster, as investors pull out of the economy in response to their inability to collect on debts indefinitely.  Then again, the result might be a world where nations are finally free to invest in their own citizens’ well-being instead of having to repay crushing external debt.

The point here is that a vision of a debt-free world was central to the notion of justice in Mosaic law, and it was central to Luke’s presentation of the Our Father.  When we say the “Our Father”, are we just mumbling through a rote prayer that we were taught as children, or are we at least thinking about aligning ourselves with a Kingdom no longer ruled by imperial powers, where daily bread is provided for, and where all debts have been forgiven?  The First Century Christians prayed this prayer, aloud, and it cost many of them their lives as a result (the final verse “and save us from the time of trial” (vv.4) gives witness to that reality).  Are we, too, willing to declare Our Father’s manifesto, both in prayer and in action?

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