Our theme this month on the Godspace Community Blog is “listening to the life of Jesus”. As Christine Sine and I reflected on this theme we both had favorite authors we thought fit well, and so this month we have two “Featured Authors”, Kenneth Bailey and N.T. Wright.
Today I want to share a reflective review of N.T. Wright’s book, The Lord and His Prayer. Wright opens up “The Lord’s Prayer” by looking at what it must have meant for the disciples who first heard it. Taking the prayer line by line, Wright puts the words squarely in their historical context. But his purpose is not to leave them there. Wright brings the past forward into our present, drawing us into God’s future and our future with Him. While the prayer reveals to us the purposes of God in Christ, it also shows us our intended relationship to those purposes and offers a clear and grace-filled invitation to enter into the Kingdom purposes of God.
Our Father: I easily grasp these words and find comfort and love. Here is a God who is not far off in some distant heaven but rather one who, in love and grace, draws near to me. But I also resonate with Wright’s words, “It is no doubt true, here as elsewhere, that the end of all our striving will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” and “But it will take full Christian maturity to understand…what those words really mean.” (p.12). At once there is a peace in the presence of Father, but there is also a mystery I do not fully understand. The God of the entire universe calls me Child and invites me to call him Father. At the very beginning of this prayer, for me, is a sense of invitation into the mystery and love of God.
Thy Kingdom Come: Perhaps one of the reasons I so enjoyed this book is that it touches on several central features of my own beliefs. God’s Kingdom is coming, has come, and is present right now. Wright demonstrates how Jesus lived out this coming kingdom in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 40-55). But unlike many people occupying seats in the church on Sunday, Jesus didn’t call us to rest on his laurels. Jesus calls us to step out in faith and continue the work of ushering in the Kingdom. For many this is limited purely to evangelism, and when it does take on a more social tone, it’s often centered on the agendas of the political right or political left. But for Jesus the Kingdom of God was not right or left; it was central. He would not allow his Kingdom-focus to be sidetracked by the zealots, even though their message contained some truths of God’s Kingdom. Nor would he side with the Pharisees, even though their heart was to preserve the truths of the Law without compromise. Jesus was not willing to compromise, but he was also unwilling to place law above love.
For Jesus, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done” meant following the heavenly leader and exposing the deceptions and confusion clouding the thinking of all political and religious parties. “Thy Kingdom” means God’s Kingdom, not ours. To pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” means to relinquish my hold on “reality” with all the various and assorted assumptions it contains and allow God’s Kingdom to reign in my mind as well as my heart, then walk out the door and live it!
Wright continues this idea of not just saying the prayer but living into it as he approaches the issue of daily needs. “Give us this day…” Our daily needs are important to God. Wright correctly states that, “…the promise of the Kingdom includes those needs, and doesn’t look down on them sneeringly as somehow second-rate.” (p. 43) God cares about us and intends for us to live in this world, a world created by God; therefore our daily needs are needs created in us by God and we look to Him to meet those needs.
But going beyond this very personal request, Wright challenges us to realize the deeper need of the world. To pray this prayer and not be aware of the millions around the world in need is to miss the whole focus of the prayer itself – “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”. If this is indeed our prayer then we must not only support causes of those in need but also empathetically enter into that need with the love and grace of God. It’s too easy to send money. It’s quite another thing to befriend the poor, the orphaned, and those in prison.
Wright ties these ideas together in the Eucharist/Communion as we come together to share at the Lord’s Table. Jesus is the Bread of Life, not just for me but for the whole world. To bring in my mind and heart a brother or sister in need to the table of the Lord should be a natural thing. Jesus gave himself “for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). When I receive the bread and cup I must remember this tremendous gift is not just for me but for those still imprisoned in darkness, longing for the light.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. This is a terrifying line. Jesus is teaching us to ask God to forgive us in the same way that we forgive others. If it wasn’t obvious earlier in the prayer, it is now; we are not just praying to God, but through our prayer we are also committing to becoming part of the answer to this prayer as it’s prayed by our neighbors. “Forgive me God, but forgive me in the same way, to the same degree, that I forgive those around me.” I am, in effect, praying, “forgive me to the extent that I enter into your kingdom purposes here on earth.” I am accountable for my actions! When I pray in this way I’m saying that yes, grace is free, but once I received it, I enter into a whole new reality – the reality of God’s Kingdom, with all its joys and responsibilities.
I cannot end without mentioning Wright’s inclusion of “Jubilee” in this prayer. All that is prayed speaks to the Jubilee of God – canceling of debts, forgiveness, return to the family land. Each phrase speaks of how this Jubilee is lived out through the power and presence of God in our lives.
Jubilee means that I can no longer really speak of “my faith” but rather “Our Faith”. While very personal, God’s Kingdom purposes are intended for the whole world. To ignore the fullness of this prayer by making it merely a personal petition flies in the face of Jubilee and our connectedness to others. Ultimately, to truly know God as “Father” is to fully embrace God’s purposes for us and the entire world. Jubilee indeed sets us free by turning the world right side-up, making God central rather than living with humankind at the center and God as our servant.
For me, this prayer and this book is a perfect way to begin the month “Listening to the life of Jesus.” To understand Jesus’ prayer more fully, both in the context in which he taught it and as it applies in our lives and world today, draws us to the heart of Jesus. Once there, we must decide how we will respond.