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)
When we pray as Jesus taught us, our petitions speak to the politics of the day, whatever the day it is and wherever we happen to be. This is so, if for no other reason, because we pray that God’s Kingdom would come to our here and now world (Matt. 6:10). We are praying for fuller realization of the very Kingdom Jesus declared to be “near” or “at hand,” or presently among us in our midst (e.g., Matt. 4:17; see Luke 17:21). Further, our Jesus-led praying asks for the King’s will to be done in today’s world as it is in today’s Heaven (Matt. 6:10). That is, we plead for Heaven’s way to become more and more present and prevailing with and through us, in and for the world around us.
Whether in the first or the 21st century, these prayer requests convey profound political implications and, when answered, powerfully shape our lives in relation to the politics of the day, whatever the government. In these posts, 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. Although I am no expert, 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. I contend that praying with our Lord distinguishes us from and yet draws toward engaging with the politics of our day. Let me contiunue to suggest how.
Jesus names the God to whom we pray and whose Kingdom we seek, “Father.” While this seems commonplace today, it was extraordinary in Jesus’ day. Within the Old Testament the prayers of the people seldom name God “Father.” Likewise, prior to Jesus the prayers of Second Temple Jews addressed God as “Lord, King of the Universe, the Blessed One,” among other titles, but scarcely ever as “Father.” Jesus, however, constantly names the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who appeared to Moses, who anointed Kings and summoned Prophets, “Father.” He does so 17 times within the Sermon on the Mount where we find this prayer (Matt. 5-7), and 24 other times throughout the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. The other Gospels confirm that this was simply the way Jesus understood and conversed with “God.” When you pray, Jesus says, call God “Father … .”
For many people this feels off-putting, either because human fathers have often abandoned or abused their children or because they object to the patriarchal way the ancient and modern world has been shaped. Either way, the assumption that God is like a father is for them a non-starter. I will return to this important point.
To address God in this way reveals God in a new light, which Jesus then elaborates in his teaching, preaching, healing, and ministering among the people of his day. In fact, as the Gospel of John asserts, Jesus makes the God who mere humans cannot otherwise see or understand fully and finally known (John 1:18). Jesus not only calls God “Father;” he fills in the content of “F-A-T-H-E-R” through his words, deeds, and accomplishments.
How does Jesus fill in the content of “F-A-T-H-E-R” as he leads us to pray? To begin, he calls upon “F-A-T-H-E-R in the heavens.” We moderns typically take this to mean that God is “up there” in Heaven, and we are “down here” on earth. “In the heavens” signals the distance and gulf between God and us. But that is not the way ancient people thought about “the heavens.” For them “the heavens” denoted the air and atmosphere immediately around us which extends as far as the eye can see, and then beyond. “The heavens” surrounding us reach beyond us to the planets and stars, and beyond them to all unseen realities and realms. When Jesus calls the God who made it all and filled it all “F-A-T-H-E-R in the heavens,” he identifies God as bigger and beyond us and all, yet as near and present to us as the air we breathe. The “F-A-T-H-E-R in the heavens” brings the enormity and capacities of the Creator-Sustainer-God as near as the breath we just took!
How else does Jesus fill in the content of “F-A-T-H-E-R” as he leads us to pray? From the sermon that surrounds the prayer we learn that: “F-A-T-H-E-R—God,” so big yet so near, gives reliably and indiscriminately. “F-A-T-H-E-R” causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall upon all, whatever their moral character and whether they know it, acknowledge it, or appreciate it (Matt. 5:45). Which implies that “F-A-T-H-E-R” is good to all. At least, to all who value growing and harvesting things, and eating from time to time, or every day.
“F-A-T-H-E-R—God” cares (see Matt. 6:8; 6:26, 30). Your “F-A-T-H-E-R” knows what you need; you don’t have to convince God that your needs are legitimate and pressing, or that you are worthy to have them met. Jesus makes clear it’s not about being worthy or establishing enough credit to merit care. In fact, there’s nothing we could do to make “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” care more or less than the “F-A-T-H-E-R” ever and always cares.
Jesus assures: “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” knows, hears, and responds to the needs of the children. Period. Who of you gives a stone when the children ask for bread, or a snake when they ask for fish (Matt. 7:9-10)? How much more reliably and consistently your “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” gives out of goodness and generosity because “F-A-T-H-E-R” cares?
Indeed, Jesus teaches and demonstrates throughout his ministry that “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” is merciful and compassionate, understanding and gracious, as well as patient and forbearing. In this sermon he sums up by saying “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” is “perfect,” by which he meant boundless and limitless in lovingkindness and mercy (Matt. 5:48). “F-A-T-H-E-R” is perfect as in “prodigal,” which means lavish to a fault, prone to spend as if there were no tomorrow and no end to resources.
Finally, we learn that “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” spends all to love the beloved—the world and its peoples, all the way to the cross, and then beyond. The “F-A-T-H-E-R” we call on in our Jesus-led praying loves and cherishes the children so much, caring so much, that the children are free to live care-free lives, because they know and trust their “F-A-T-H-E-R.”
As I’ve noted, for many it is off-putting and a non-starter to call God “F-A-T-H-E-R.” That the supreme being in the universe should be compared to a father inspires dread, even terror. Their painful human experiences have taught them to expect fathers to disappoint, abandon, and abuse them. Sadly, such lessons have been common throughout human history, including Jesus’ day. Even so, Jesus names God “F-A-T-H-E-R” and then lives a life through word and deed that reveals who “F-A-T-H-E-R” is, how “F-A-T-H-E-R” relates to the children, and why. And through the lens of Jesus’ word and deed, “F-A-T-H-E-R” turns out to be the ultimate provider and protector, and the consummate caregiver. “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” in the heavens draws as near to us as the air we breathe with kindness, care, generosity, mercy, and love.
Jesus reveals “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” as the model and mentor for all others with responsibility for little ones, not just for the men we call father, also for the women we call mother. God is not male or female. “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” is the source and center for everything the children need for the life they were made to live, participating in and contributing to the Kingdom of their “F-A-T-H-E-R—God.”
Likewise, I suggest that Jesus also reveals “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” as the model and mentor for all others with responsibility for governing. Indeed, according to Jesus, “the Governance of the Heavens” has been inaugurated on earth. Its population consists of “the children” who call God “F-A-T-H-E-R,” whatever their chronological age, and are learning to live in F-A-T-H-E-R—God’s realm in a “F-A-T-H-E-R—God way.” And, from now on, “the Governance of the Heavens” becomes the measure and standard against which all other governments are to be understood and appreciated, assessed and critiqued, altered and amended, and thus affirmed or judged.
In my view, the political weight of all of this is massive. We pray for a Kingdom whose King is the world’s ultimate Caregiver, without rival or peer. This King gives reliably and indiscriminately what is good; indeed, the King gives all … to the cross and beyond. The platform of this King and the culture of this Kingdom prioritizes and provides for such caregiving. This is the governance humans need and “Heaven” establishes on earth!
Of course, no government functions this way, not in the past and not now. Arguably, no merely human government could function this way. Even so, how human governments do and can function must not diminish the political point and impact of the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. The prayer reveals what we most desperately need: The Government that traces its origins and essential operations not to earth but to Heaven. The Government NOT of earth YET on earth, as in the Heavens. On earth because in Jesus “F-A-T-H-E-R—God” has come to stay, and to rule!
We can make government an idol and expect from it what it cannot give. That would be an overt form of idolatry. Or we can seek for a government that seems best to approximate the government we truly need and then seek to improve it. That can be a noble undertaking, but often leads to covert forms of idolatry. Or we can be the community of Jesus-followers who pray for the Government of God, of “F-A-T-H-E-R—God,” to indwell them and through them to effect change in their world.
In posts to follow, as we continue to pray with Jesus, I will draw out the nature of this change and its political impact.