The Politics of The Lord’s Prayer I

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Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.Thy kingdom come.
  Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

(Matt. 6:9-13 KJV)

Overview: How Political?

When you read the title, perhaps you wondered how the prayer Jesus taught his disciples could ever be “political?”  Wouldn’t “politics” (certainly “politics” as usual!) corrupt the prayer?  And, even if the prayer has “political” implications, how could we take the prayer and “go political” with it?  Wouldn’t this violate the spiritual intent of Jesus who taught us to pray in this way?

I understand the questions and share some of the concerns behind them.  Given our current moment in the U.S., I share the sensitivity of many when scripture and prayer are put to partisan use and thus, in my view, profaned.  As, for example, using this prayer to support a political party and its platform.  Our sensitivities, however, could cause us to miss important facets of Jesus’ guidance for prayer, as rooted in His message and ministry as our Messiah and Lord. 

So, let’s start there.  Jesus offers what came to be called “The Lord’s Prayer” as a model or pattern for our praying as His disciples.  It was not a random teaching on prayer.  It was a vital expression of worship and daily life-response for those who had begun walking with Jesus.  And, of course, their worship and life-responses were to be rooted in His message and ministry.  When viewed in this way, I note that the pattern for prayer Jesus gave does indeed reflect a certain kind of “politics.”  In several posts, I want to explain what I mean and what kind of “politics” I see.

To begin, by “politics” I refer to the functions and structures associated with governing a country or realm, with special focus on power and status and the roles they play in governance.  I am not a political scientist and certainly no expert in forms of government or political process.  But in my lay understanding politics always speaks to how the life of a people is ordered and organized, by whom and for whom it is ordered and organized, and how power and people interact within that order.  

Reading this pattern for prayer for Jesus’ students (apprentices who are walking with the Master learning a way of life—his way), he identifies the God to whom we pray as “our Father” who is “in the heavens,” whose “name” we seek to “hallow,” and whose “Kingdom” we pray would come!  At the end of the prayer, in the traditional form of the prayer we use, we ascribe to God, our Father in the heavens, “the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever,” (vv. 10, 13 respectively).

Each of these phrases draws our attention and invites reflection, which I will share in coming posts.  But for now, note this: In teaching us how to pray, Jesus leads us to pray for the Kingdom of God to come, and for the kind of life that is normative for people who live in God’s Kingdom.  We will see what that kind of life entails, but I want first to note the “political” nature of praying in this way.

Simply to say or think about a “kingdom,” of whatever kind, draws us into a political-space. Kingdoms are governments that are organized under a king who orders life in the realm to be a certain way.  (The italics reflect the general definition of “politics” above).  Thus, to pray for kingdom-come is to pray for a political reality, and at least implicitly it is sometimes to pray against other political realities.

In the model Jesus has given us we pray for the Kingdom where God is King, as the alternate to other kingdoms and kings.  In fact, we are praying that God’s Kingdom would be established within the present world that is filled with and dominated by those other kingdoms and power structures. In Jesus’ day that included the “kingdoms” of Herod and his family, of the Jewish Temple authorities, and, above all, of Caesar’s Household.   

It is important that we appreciate this prayer for kingdom-come properly.  It is common to assume Jesus is guiding us to pray for a kingdom that is “spiritual,” unlike the governments around his disciples that are “secular” or merely “this worldly.”  But to put it this way is misleading.  God’s kingdom is indeed spiritual, but that does not mean it is other-worldly.  Rather, it means that God’s Kingdom (the ultimately spiritual one) is coming to this-worldly expression.  Which, in turn, suggests that what God wants, the way God organizes life in the realm, is to be the same on earth as it is in the heavens.  In other words, following the pattern, Jesus’ disciples pray for God to organize God’s Government in their world—at least among them—as an alternative to the other governments around them.   

When disciples of Jesus pray as their Lord taught them, they are seeking to bring the whole of their lives, individually and communally, into line with the very Kingdom Jesus regularly preached, taught, and demonstrated.  Within Matthew’s gospel, where the traditional form of this prayer appears, Jesus began his public ministry by announcing the presence of the Kingdom of the Heavens (Matt. 4:17).  In some sense, God’s Government was being uniquely established in Jesus’ ministry.  Therefore, he called people to turn (repent) from other ways of life, including allegiances that rival the King and the Kingdom of the Heavens, and to follow a new life in companionship with Jesus.    

Here’s the point: The Kingdom of the Heavens for which Jesus teaches us to pray is established and functioning in this world.  It is “other-worldly” in terms of its origin and nature, but not in terms of its presence and operation.  It is “other-worldly” in terms of its strategies, methods, and goals, but not in terms of its benefits and blessings.  The Kingdom for which we pray anticipates a way of life that corresponds to the King’s wisdom and power in ordering our lives as individuals, as friends and family, and as clans, tribes, and people-groups.  And to varying degrees the King’s wisdom and power to live in such ways contrast and conflict with all other forms of government. 

This was how people in Jesus’ day understood Jesus and his movement.  When Jesus fed the thousands, some wanted to make him King.  When Jesus cast out the demons, some realized God’s Kingdom stood before them in liberating power.  When Jesus insisted on understanding Sabbath in unorthodox ways the teachers and leaders of the people bristled at the authority he assumed and felt threatened.  And when Jesus forgave people their sins, welcomed strangers and outcasts to his table, and offered mercy instead of judgment, many got the message: Jesus was acting as though he were some kind of … Messiah or King, as the Lord their God was King!

And when Jesus was betrayed, tried, condemned and executed on a cross the official charge was that Jesus himself claimed to be King of the Jews.  This was a serious charge.  Rome reserved crucifixion for people who rebelled against the Empire.  Would-be Messiahs and their followers had died on crosses by the thousands in recent memory.  The Roman Governor and the Jewish Sanhedrim did not believe the claim that Jesus was Messiah or King, at least not as they understood those titles.  But they both recognized Jesus’ movement was threatening to their respective status quos.  Thus, that Friday afternoon by-passers who saw the three crosses on the hill just outside Jerusalem understood clearly that one kingdom was demonstrating its superiority over another.  For, as everyone knew, the one who dies is not king, despite all claims to the contrary.  Unless, they and we are wrong about the government we most need, the only One who offers it, and the only way to receive it.

The Lord’s Prayer presupposes the Kingdom Jesus has already established in the history of our world.  A Kingdom from Heaven; and from the one true Lord and God of all.  A Kingdom that rivals all others, that calls for one and all to stop short and turn its way, to the King’s way, and embrace a life under the King’s authority and, as we find out, generosity.

All of this is fraught with political dynamic and consequence.  Jesus teaches us to pray that the Kingdom whose coming he inaugurated would, in fact, become more and more the way life is organized in this here and now world.  It is to pray the gap between how it is in the heavens and how it is on earth would close, particularly in the place on earth where we are.  And, as we will see, Jesus leads us to pray that his understanding of the most high God’s ordering of life, his provisions of life (economy), his way of righting the wrongs of the world (righteousness and justice), and his way of protecting and promoting the wellbeing of us all (protection and defense) would prevail over all people everywhere.

Whatever form of government we may have, whatever its leadership structure, however economies are organized, however citizens find provision and protection—Jesus’ followers are learning a way of life in the Father’s Kingdom that claims their full and final allegiance, that shapes their identity, signals their vocation, and assures their destiny.  And all of it begins in the present world and ends only when the heavens and the earth are new again.  

 

Questions for Reflection

What do you think of these “political” aspects or features of the Lord’s Prayer?

 

How might the Kingdom of God—present and active now—clarify, limit, and guide our participation and responses to the other governing authorities where we live?

 

What connections do you see between praying for Kingdom-come and living from day to day as disciples of Jesus, our Messiah-King?

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    I believe the connection between kingdom-come praying and day-to-day living as followers of Christ is to pray for all to come to know Him, for through his people/his followers, His Spirit is the “kingdom come” on earth and how His will is done.

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