Should the Lord’s Prayer advert have been allowed in cinemas because it was trivial? Has its staying-power been the result of its triviality, or its impact?

In the recent debate over the banning of the showing in cinemas of the advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer, there was double-edged support offered in its favour from an unexpected quarter: a prayer was just a trivial matter, and so should not offend anyone. But it was gathered into gospels and a contemporary church manual, the Didache, which has been around for close on 2000 years. Much effort and courage has been devoted to passing it on to us. Its form and content had impact during the early church so it is worth seeing if we can sharpen how we use it now.

The Wording

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13, NIV

We are used to the version in Matthew, and there are a few lines omitted in Luke’s version (in red). A notable difference is that Luke omits: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. But Luke did think this to be very important and uses part of it in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done

Luke 22:41-42, NIV

It is not so surprising that key sayings of Jesus appear in different places in the gospels. One on hand they were written a few decades after the event, but also times were different then. It was not just a case of announcing something on Facebook and getting 10,000 hits. No, Jesus travelled from village to village (in the main), and the sayings would have been used in different contexts.

The Structure

Matthew had woven Jesus’ words in poetic Greek that would help be remembered, and, like a good song, stand the test of time. Our English versions mask that but here are 3 rhyming lines written with the structure of the Greek, as laid out by John Dominic Crossan:

Be hallowed the name of you.

Be come the kingdom of you.

Be done the will of you
as in heaven, so on earth.

“The Greatest Prayer”, John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins e-books

The Greek structure of the prayer makes the pivot point all the more obvious; the prayer switches from the divine in the first half, and the human in the second half.

The Message

Let us look at just a few of the phrases in the prayer and think about how some of the lines might have been received.

Our father:

I remember discussions in my youth as to whether the image that Jesus had about is Father was that of a strict Victorian stereotype, or a more gentle, “modern” parent, although I am not sure that film representations 1950s Newcastle show it as modern. But Jesus’ audience knew nothing about 20th or 21st century Britain, and to relate to this audience, Jesus would have to use their own image of a good Father. That would be someone who had to take care of the orderly and caring running of a large extended family – think of Abraham travelling with all his entourage. The care and responsibilities of the father figure the extended far beyond the immediate next of kin and include unmarried sisters, dependants, slaves, animals, tools. This is a very green image: the well run household is a microcosm of a well run world – caring for the world and everyone and everything in it.

Your kingdom come:

Our image of a kingdom implies borders and boundaries, and probably this phrase is concerned with the quality and values of the King. We can pick up the characteristics God’s way of ruling in Isaiah 2 or Micah 4:

He’ll establish justice in the rabble of nations
and settle disputes in faraway places.

They’ll trade in their swords for shovels,
their spears for rakes and hoes.

Nations will quit fighting each other,
quit learning how to kill one another.

Each man will sit under his own shade tree,
each woman in safety will tend her own garden.

Micah 4:3-4, The Message

In a land governed by the empire of Rome, that would be a fervent prayer.

Your will be done:

This needs our collaboration. In this regard, Desmond Tutu retweeted St Augustine when he said:

“God, without us, will not: as we, without God, cannot.”

As in heaven, so on Earth:

This is the turning point in the prayer – what was said above is as in heaven, and the consequences of that on earth are set out below.

Give us this day our daily bread:

The plea was that on this very day, that they would receive what they needed to live on. In a time and place when about 97% were poor, this prayer was keenly felt. The ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, would like to be King of all the Jews, like his father. But he had been allocated just two provinces, Galilee and Perea. To gain favour with the Emperor, Tiberius, Herod Agrippa had a city built: Tiberias, was in the Emperor’s honour. He also aimed to gain favour by increasing tax revenue, – including with efficient fishing and this was a threat to traditional local fishermen.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors:

This was also the prayer of the have-nots (the majority): not to enter debt. There was a risk of being thrown out of the household, ending up in slavery.  Then the best your might hope for would be that a sabbath year might be enacted:

If any of your people – Hebrew men or women – sell themselves to you and serve you for six years, in the seventh year you much let them go free.

Deut 15:12, NIV

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one:

Jesus’ message was very much one of God’s justice and love. He grew up in the aftermath of a violent revolt after Herod’s death. It was violently quashed by the Romans in 4BC. One temptation that worried Jesus was that people would respond to Roman rule violently.  Consider his dismissal of the third temptation, to rule the world. The world comprised the Roman Empire, and overthrowing that would require much violence. Jesus would see this as an example of evil, as adversarial to God, his Father. Actions on earth should be as in heaven.

It is interesting that in the great revolution in 66 AD, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, Sepphoris (4 miles from Nazareth), the capital of the Province of Galilee and other towns in Galilee did not join the revolt. Indeed, there were coins minted in the city calling it City of Peace. Just perhaps, that was an echo of Jesus’ ministry.

What is the impact now?

We are free to accept or reject being collaborators with God in following his will, to care for the great household of this world and the huge spectrum of people in it.

If we, as individuals and part of our society, allow people not to have their daily bread, not to be free from real or effective slavery, then not to collaborate with God on this mission of service is not without its consequences. The migrants fleeing to Europe come from lands  in which Western countries have left their marks.

What debt do we owe others in this world: those whose land may flood because we burn the materials of ancient sunlight (fossil fuels), releasing that energy to warm and expand our oceans? Do we have debts to pay? Is it a sin if we ignore that?

What are the big temptations now. What seem to be obvious (easy) responses? Do we sent migrants home? Is this caring for the weakest members of God’s household? Do we dig up and burn every easy fossil fuel source, rather than face more difficult pathways? Will there be consequences if we accept the temptations of barriers and burning?

The oddest thing said about the Lord’s Prayer in the furore over the banning of the advert in cinemas was this just before Christmas – was that the Lord’s Prayer was trivial. It hit at the heart of people’s lives, their key needs, their pressing temptations. That has not changed now – if we think of what are the needs in the world, and of our own calling to be Jesus’ disciples, that prayer challenges us to the core, but it provides us with the strength from Jesus’ Father – the God of righteousness and justice.