This week I begin a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Most treatments of the Lord’s Prayer take the Lord’s Prayer one line at a time and analyze its content. We have been aided brilliantly by such approaches. However, I would like to take a different approach. I would like to take the approach of looking at the prayer as a whole each week but asking a different question of the prayer. The four questions I ask are:
- Who prays the Lord’s Prayer?
- Who hears the Lord’s Prayer?
- Who receives the blessing of the Lord’s Prayer?
- What is the aim of the Lord’s Prayer?
The first two questions are not really answered with the immediate responses—we do and God. Rather, I’m thinking about the images expressed or implied in the prayer.
This analysis relies heavily on an understanding of metaphor. All theological language about God is metaphoric. When we describe using God we generally do so in relation to ourselves. To call God “Father” for instance, implies that we are God’s children. Technical language isn’t always that helpful in trying to understand things. But, in this case it might be.
In a metaphor, we use one entity to describe an unlike entity. Metaphor scholars will use different terms for these two parts. I tend toward describe that which is being described as the “object” and that which is being used to describe it as the “image.” In the metaphoric beginning of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father,” “God” is the object and “father” is the image.
Technical term #1—polysemy or polysemous (yes, my MS Word is telling me these words aren’t words. “Poly” and “multi” as prefixes mean “many.” “Semy” is a reference to meaning (think semantics). A word has polysemy or is polysemous whenever it conveys multiple meanings. If I use the word “jazz” think of all the different meanings that come into play. It evokes sounds—swing rhythm, brass, piano, bass and drums. It evokes sights—lights, flair. It even evokes a kinesthetic response—tapping toes, bouncing torso, snapping fingers. You could tell someone to “jazz it up” and be talking about the way something sounds, looks or feels. The image in a metaphor has polysemy. It carries with it a lot of different meanings, feelings, and thoughts. It’s an image’s polysemy that makes it powerful.
Technical term #2—multivalence or polyvalence (oh, good, a word MS Word recognizes). Polyvalence is the other side of polysemy. I tend to use the word multivalence instead of polyvalence just to keep my mind straight on the terms. Multivalence means that an image can point to more than one aspect of an object. In the interaction of the object and image that occurs in metaphor some of the meanings carried by an image do not apply to the object (cf. philosopher of language Max Black). If I call a particularly sloppy person a “chicken” (agreed, not a nice thing to call someone), I’m probably not referring to that persons ability to yield eggs. This characteristic of the image is “suppressed” (Max Black’s term) in the making of the metaphor. But in the interaction of image and object, we do not suppress all but one aspect of the image’s polysemy. The power of a metaphor is that we attribute multiple characteristics of the image to the object.
Some metaphors have become so common to us that we do fix one meaning to them. When we do this we call it “flattening” the metaphor. For example, Biblical Scholar Joachim Jermias famously argued that “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer actually stood in place of “Abba” an Aramaic term that is roughly equivalent to “Daddy.” This interpretation has been picked up by many in the decades following. The metaphor “Father” has been “flattened” to refer to an intimacy between Jesus and God and through Jesus’s teaching between us and God.
A Catholic New Testament scholar Robert Karris in a helpful book entitled Prayer and the New Testament, repeatedly reminds readers not to “flatten” the images of the Lord’s Prayer. He surveys the literature and identifies at least four possible exegetical interpretations for father—intimacy, redemption, authority, and refuge. Scholars will argue for one interpretation over another. Karris however suggests that spiritual formation need not be so precise. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Jesus intended to evoke multiple meanings—multivalence—when he chose the images he did in the Lord’s Prayer.
So, my process in answering the first two questions has been to take the images evoked in the Lord’s prayer, reflect upon their polysemy (multiple meanings) and seek to discern the appropriate direction in my own theological reflection and prayer—multivalence.