The original atheists: Lk 11:1-4
Really, the Lord’s prayer is an atheist’s prayer. And for several reasons. The first is that it is not principally a prayer asking God to do lots of stuff for us. It functions more in the way that creeds do.
Lots of Christian traditions today recite 'creeds', stating the things they believe. Some of the creeds are centuries old, originally designed to squeeze diverse Christian communities into a religious uniform so they could serve the Roman Empire. Other statements of faith were thought up last week to put onto the church website. Jesus did not feel the need for creed writing. The way that people in his day identified themselves as a people was with the common use of a prayer.
So, the prayer was not principally about asking God to do stuff or trying to change God’s mind. It is a prayer that committed those who prayed it to a particular way of being. Jesus' disciples came to ask him for such a community-defining prayer, and his response has become known as the Lord's Prayer.
Of course, there’s always a dispute about what translation of the Lord’s Prayer we should use – but the fact is, to me, it makes little difference, because the Lord’s prayer has been so distorted by over-familiarity, by lack of historical understanding and by its being pressed into the service of Henry VIII.
In fact, the bit at the end, For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory… that is called the doxology, and is not part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. It is, however, part of the prayer that the Tudors instituted and required be taught throughout all English churches. And it seems to me that the bit at the end, has the effect of changing all that goes before it. Because… if the Kingdom is God’s, and Henry VIII is God’s direct representative on earth – or at least in England – then, in effect, stating “Mine is the kingdom…” It was a great move, because throughout England, this community-defining prayer celebrates the gods and kings of the age, instead of holding them to account.
So - here’s my translation of the original.
Our Father in the skies,
Let your name be made holy,
Let your kingly reign begin,
Let your will be done throughout the land, as it is in heaven.
Give us today, enough bread for today.
Don't hold us to account for our debts, as we likewise don't hold our debtors to account.,
Don't lead us into the trial.
But deliver us from the evil one.
Above all, this is a prayer that shapes the community that prays it.
By praying this prayer, the community of disciples will find themselves becoming atheist. In fact, the word atheism really has Christian origins: the early Christians were accused of atheism by the Romans, because they refused to worship the recognised gods of the age – they were godless, an atheist community.
This is made clear, in the first instance, by addressing YHWH as 'Our Father in the skies'. On the one hand, it confers upon the group as a whole, their status as the Son of God (a name for the true Israel, as God’s representative on earth) Who else can address God as father? It is not Henry VIII that is God’s representative on earth – it is the community of people who live out this prayer. On the other hand, by praying to a Father in the skies, this YHWH is clearly not addressed as a tribal deity, a God who is ‘on our side’ and who protects our lands.
Geological research has shown that agricultural people groups tended to worship a God of the soil, the ground beneath their feet, which yielded all it needed to survive. However, like nomadic peoples even today, Jesus affirms the identity of a god whose domain is the sky, not the soil. The people are not rooted to the promised ‘land’, because this is a God ‘in heaven’. This is no tribal deity, and by praying to such a God, his supporters are compelled to reject tribalism – to reject their obsession with land ownership.
Atheism is encouraged as the prayer continues, ‘hallowed be thy name’. According to their scriptures, God's name is either sanctified or shamed by the behaviour of those who claim to represent him. Anyone praying this prayer and addressing YHWH as ‘father’, thereby claim the status of God’s representatives in this land, with the capacity to drag his name through the dirt or to sanctify his name by their lives.
By seeking for YHWH's name to be made holy, those who pray this way thereby commit themselves to a life of holiness. Whatever virtues holiness may embody, at root it entails a capacity to engage with 'otherness', that is with the xenos, the stranger – the one who stands over against us.
And yet tribalism is associated for many, with the prayer ‘thy kingdom come’, i.e., let your kingly reign begin. That could only happen, so it was widely assumed, when the Roman emperor’s reign over the promised land has ended. But the logic of this prayer is rather different. The coming of YHWH’s reign is not described militarily, but rather by fulfilling the purposes of YHWH throughout the land, as well as in the sky, or in Shakespearian, ‘Thy will be done.’
In case his supporters jump to the conclusion that YHWH’s will must be to expel the foreigners, the prayer goes on to explain the divine will in terms of justice for the downtrodden rather than revenge upon the guilty. ‘Give us this day, our daily bread’.
It would be impossible to hear those words without being drawn back to the story of Moses leading his people through the desert, where each day bread was said to have rained down from heaven. But only enough bread for that day, as though Moses worked for Prêt-A-Manger. By telling his disciples 'give us today, enough bread for today', The role of a Lord, a king, or an emperor – is to provide people with bread. By recognising YHWH as bread-giver, they are making themselves his royal subjects. So, by refusing to pray to any gods for bread, and seek it instead from an invisible father, the people who pray this prayer make themselves atheist.
So too, by praying 'our' daily bread, they commit themselves to solidarity with those who do not have daily bread. Another example of deep identification with the 'other'.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors: Those who sin against this people at the moment, are the Romans. By not holding them to account for the injustice they inflict upon the people of Israel, Israel finds its own sins forgiven, its own liberation. Obsession with revenge against those who sin against us, whilst continuing to seek forgiveness in the temple, is the perfect example of hypocritical xenophobia. Again, Jesus displaces it by locating the liberty he brings as part of the fruit of xenophilia – forgiving those indebted to us.
Lead us not into the time of trial. The stubborn refusal to abandon Israel's headlong drive into self-destructive rebellion against Rome, will inevitably bring upon Jerusalem the worst kinds of trials imaginable. That dreaded time of trial would come within a generation, as the Roman military machine descended upon Jerusalem. Those who pray this ‘Lord’s Prayer’, who identify themselves as children of God and who seek for his kingly reign to begin, will want nothing at all to do with Israel’s suicidal drive for national independence.
Hence, the closing call to be delivered from evil, is a call to escape the consequences of Israel’s own evil and the evils that will be inflicted upon it by the Romans. It is also, a prayer to be freed from becoming unwitting perpetrators of evil in the world, as they seek to make YHWH’s name holy.
So this is an atheist prayer – because by praying it, we are actually making major promises and claims about ourselves. We are claiming to be a people who do not worship the gods of the age. People who cannot be relied upon to submit to the expectations of our day… not because we are rebellious – but because by praying this prayer, we commit ourselves to a God who is turning the world upside down.
An invisible God, whose kingdom and power and glory are not symbolised in earthly form in Hampton Court or Windsor castle, but whose kingdom and power and glory are to be found in blood and sweat and tears. And what kind of God is that? A God whose glory is revealed in suffering, and self-giving love, in abandonment on a humiliating execution stake? What kind of God shows little interest in seizing power to change the world – but instead, sacrifices himself – giving himself over to death – death on a cross?
The people who pray this prayer are not seeking to rise to the heights of Kingship, sieze power, and glorify God with the generosity that ensues. The people who pray this prayer commit themselves to becoming common, powerless and inglorious. What kind of God are they likely to embody? No wonder they are called ‘atheists’.
By God’s grace, make us ever-more true atheists, so that the real beauty of Christ shines clearly through Christ’s beautiful people. That is the life to which we are invited at this supper – and to which we commit with this prayer.