Forgive Us Our Cacophony

Hornbook-Raban.pngMany Christians know the model prayer as the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).  Some of us know the words to the Lord’s Prayer by heart.  Sometimes a group of Christians will be asked to pray the Lord’s Prayer together.  Things run smoothly enough until we reach the part about “debts.”  Or “trespasses?” Or  “sins?”  If the group of Christians hasn’t called it ahead of time, we will likely to get a cacophony at this point with everyone saying what they’re familiar with.

First, to clear up some of the language issues.  The New Testament was originally written in Greek.  Debts is the English translation of the Greek word used in Matthew 6:12opheilemata.  It means what’s due.  It suggests something financial.  Jesus provides a further development of forgiving as we have been forgiven in 6:14.  There he uses the word paraptoma which means trespass, transgression, or false step.  Sin is the word used in the parallel passage to the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:4hamartia.

Each of the English words we use there has some connection to language we find in the Greek versions of the prayer and its surrounding interpretation. I find it appropriate that when we get to the word “sin,” we do in fact use many different words for it.  It’s appropriate that we speak about sins with everyone likely to do their own thing.


As for me, I prefer the word “debt.”  Debt speaks of something loaned to me that I should pay back.  I have been given a life and I have misused it–one way to define sin.  I have done my own thing.  God has forgiven me.  I cannot repay God for that grace.  However, I owe God so much more than simple forgiveness of sins.  I owe God my life, all my material possessions, the relationships that are most meaningful to me, opportunities, the capacity of faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of the church, and eternal life.  These all come from God.  They are loaned to me.  When I pray, “Forgive us our debts,” I am praying that God would not demand back from us all that we owe to God.  I am praying for relief.  I am praying for the chance to direct that which God has entrusted to me toward the purposes that God has for me.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow Bread

The word translated “daily” in most of our translations of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has it’s own Wikipedia entry. I am not a Greek scholar, so I won’t try to tease out the details of the word epiousios.  We have few or no uses of the word outside of the New Testament and church writings.  And it either means “daily” or “tomorrow.”   I’ll call the “daily” interpretatiuon the “present” interpretation and the “tomorrow” interpretation as the future.   Since I’m not particularly equipped to assess the Greek–I can read it, I just can’t make cogent arguments about it–I rely on trusted guides.

New Testament scholar Robert Guelich (now decased) has written a hepful commentary on the Sermon on the Mount entitled, The Sermon on the Mount:  A Foundation for Understanding. Guelich evaluates the reasons to interpret the word as present focused (daily) and as future oriented (tomorrow).  Jesus will emphasize the needs not to worry but focus on the day’s activities one day at a time (Matthew 6:25-33) a few verses later.  Context alone should point us to the present interpretation.  It would seem to me also to evoke the Exodus experience of depending on God for the day’s manna and not storing up for tomorrow.  

After examining the legitimacy of this interpretation, Guelich still favors the future oriented interpreation–“Give us today our bread for tomorrow.”  Such an interpretation sees bread as more than the provision of daily needs.  It points to the ultimate feasting that will occur in the Kingdom of God.  He writes, “When praying for one’s needs now, one does so in anticipation of the ‘tomorrow’ of the consummation” (p. 292).  Praying today for tomorrow’s bread is a declaration of trust.  

By praying confidently for tomorrow’s bread, the Disciple sets the agenda for the new day.  As a new day dawns, a prayer for God’s provision has already been lifted and the Disciple can structure the day around pursuing the Kingdom of God.  The bread received becomes a form of sharing with the Lord–a daily Eucharist.  

Que Sera Sewhat?

“When I was just a boy, I’d ask my mother, ‘What will I be?’”  This is one of the songs from my childhood–“Que sera sera”.  It was the Doris Day version which, of course, begins, “When I was just a girl . . . .”  My memory converts it to “boy” because I identified with the song’s longing for clarity and—well—I am a boy.  “What will I be?” becomes “What is God’s will for my life?” once young people—and not so young people—ask it in church.

Either question—“what will I be?” or “What is God’s will for my life?”—is natural, unavoidable, and unanswerable.  We cannot be too hard on ourselves for asking them and shouldn’t be dismissive of those who continue to ask them.  However, these questions are evidence of lives folded in on themselves.   The questions are asked with a desire for clarity and personal identity more than they are asked out of devotion to God’s will. My early years’ obsession with knowing “God’s will for my life” reveals a history entrenched in individualistic self-assessment.  I believe Jesus’s Model Prayer (Matthew 6:5-9)—when it is prayed with sincerity–unfolds the life folded in on itself.

When we pray, “Your Will Be Done” (Matthew 6:10b) we are not so much praying for God to reveal God’s will to us as individuals.  We are praying for God’s will to be done throughout the world.  It is a prayer for God’s ultimate will to be accomplished far more than it is a prayer for individual discernment to be made.  When we pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying for the complete alignment of our world and all its structures to align with the ends God has imagined for them.  This part of the prayer is the prayerful expression of Jesus’s earlier command, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

So, take time to imagine “heaven” and what it is like.  It is a place where sorrow comes to an end.  It is a place where knowledge is consumed by knowing.  It is a place where wars cease, death and all death’s agents are no more, where hunger is alleviated, diseased are cured, hunger, thirst, vulnerability, and prisons both real and imagined are eliminated.  If that is what we imagine heaven to be, then the prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” commits us to work for such a world.

Somewhere along the line, I internalized a quotation from George Bernard Shaw—who was supposed to be an agnostic.  I’ve looked several times for it in print and have not been successful.  I don’t think that dilutes its truth any more.  “Do not say of poverty and illness that they are the will of God.  Say rather in solemn scriptural tones that they are damnable things and that you have come to put an end to them, because you are the will of God.”

Your Kingdom Come

The Kingdom of God was one of the central teachings Jesus offered.  The Kingdom of God is not an other-worldly paradise to which afterlives are directed.  The Kingdom of God is the in-breaking of God’s reign and rule within the world.  The Kingdom of God rules in our hearts.  It is personal.  Yet it is also political.  

When Jesus was asked about taxes, he asked for a coin.  “Whose image is on the coin?” Jesus asked.  “Caesar,” the people responded.  “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.”  The earth is the Lord’s and we bear God’s image.  The Kingdom reclaims us and lives within us.  

Oh My God!

Almost every time I direct someone to speak from the pulpit, I get the sense that our understanding of holiness is more intuitive than it is defined.  In the sanctuary of the church I serve, we have a pulpit and lectern.  A pulpit is a big wooden speaker stand.  A lectern is a slightly smaller (but still big) wooden speaker stand that also has a Bible on it.  Lectern suggests lectio or reading.  It’s where the Bible is read.  For years, everyone but the preacher worked from the lectern–the song leader, the worship leader, the soloist, etc.  It never made a lot of sense to me.  I grew up in a church that only had a pulpit.  If you needed to speak from a microphone, you spoke at the pulpit.  So, I carried this same sense in with me.  When people need to speak at a funeral, or make an announcement, or lead in worship in some way, I suggest they speak at the pulpit if it’s closest.  It’s closer to the piano and organ so it makes more sense for soloists to sing from there.   

People have been repeatedly resistant to my suggestion that they speak from the pulpit.  They have an intuition that the pulpit is somehow holy.  They sense–because people have said this to me–that they are “not worthy” to speak there.  If only they knew how unworthy the regular occupant of that pulpit truly is.  Here’s the thing, I suspect they only understand it in negative terms.  The pulpit is holy and they are not.  I suspect that they don’t think of it in positive terms–of what makes a person worthy to stand in the pulpit.  

I use this by way of analogy concerning the name of God.  The first part of the Lord’s prayer says, “Hallowed be thy name.”  “Holy is God’s name.”  God’s name should be revered, set apart and honored.  If I were asked, “how do we do this?” my first response would be in the negative.  We  do NOT use the Lord’s name in vain.  We do not say, “Oh My God,” when we are surprised. Or “Jesus Christ” when we are angry.  Or “Good Lord” when we are frustrated.  We ought not use God’s name for unholy purposes. For that matter, Christians  should quit using the Hebrew name for God so loosely.   I do wish we were less flippant and less vulgar with our use of God’s name, but does that go far enough?  

Jesus did not say, “Thy name be unstained by unworthy usage.”  Jesus said it positively–You name be hallowed.  It’s one of three statements direct at God–God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will are prayed for in the intitial three petitions of the prayer.  So, what might it mean to speak positively of God’s name? 

Sometimes the best use of the Lord’s prayer is as an outline for longer prayers.  This is how many have understood the model prayer.  Among the prayers attributed to St. Francis of Assissi, there’s a prayer that used the Lord’s prayer as an outline or structure.  For “Hallowed be your name,” Francis prayed, “May our knowledge of you become ever clearer that we may know the bredth of your blessings, the length of your promises, the height of your majesty, and the depth of your judgments.”  

Charles de Foucauld lived at the end of the nineteenth and early part of the 20th century.  He converted to Christianity after his service in the military.  He tried monastic life, but eventually became a hermit in Algeria.  He used the Lord’s prayer as an outline of prayer.  He expaned on “Hallowed be thy name” in the following way, “what is it, Lord, that I am expressing in these words?  I am expressing the whole object of my desires, the whole aim and purpose of my life.  I want to hallow your name in all my thoughts, words and actions.  And this means that I want to imitate your Son, Jesus, since he hallowed your name in every thought, word and action.”  These are expansive not restrictive ways to understand the hallowing of God’s name.

Hallowing the name of the Lord means more than avoiding negative, forbidable uses of God’s name.  It certainly means that.  “Oh my God” should begin a prayer not end a surprise.  Yet, hallowing God’s name also involves the deep reflection on what makes the name of God so special–God’s grace, God’s creativity, God’s authority, and God’s love. And it means to express that to God in meaningful ways.  

I Think We’re Alone Now

American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah believed that unbalanced individualism was problematic. Bellah co-authored the national bestseller Habits of the Heart along with three other social scientists in the mid-1980s. The book was an examination of Americans’ beliefs in individualism and their commitment to one another. There has always existed an important tension in American life between the assertion of the self and the magnetic pull of collaboration. Yet, he said this tension seemed to be getting out of balance.

Today, thirty years later, the rampant individualism of American culture has only grown.  We have become increasingly dependent on and isolated from each other.  This is reflected in prayer lives where the primary focus on is on the individual.  

Individualism isn’t bad.   After all didn’t Jesus focus on the individual? The ground covered in the Sermon on the Mount thus far sure seems to suggest it. He’s talked about the words individual people say about other people, and conflicts between two people, and the thoughts in our heads, and the lusts of our . . . hearts, and the attention of our minds. These are individual concerns. And then he teaches about prayer—When you pray, he says, go into your closet alone! Individual! And pray to your father in secret! Individualized individualism! And your father who hears in secret will reward you in full. Individualized, individual, individualism. So of course, in this isolated state the first words Jesus teaches Disciples to use in prayer are “Our” and “Father.” Not “I” or “Me” or “My” or “Mine.” Or any word that focuses on the individual. Rather, alone in a solitary place of prayer, the pray-er is instructed to remember the connections to others—the word “our” and the covenant with God—“Father.” 

The prayer begins: Our Father in Heaven. God’s nearness and God’s transcendence combined together. Jesus prayed and likely taught his Disciples to pray, “Abba.” Abba expressed the deepest intimacy and closeness. Abba is Aramaic word for “Daddy.” Yet, the prayer also adds “in heaven.” The pray-er of the prayer acknowledges that God: dwells within perfection, operates from a place where all is as it should be, envisions a world God’s will is completely done. Our Father in heaven

Prayer of the Heart

The teachings contained in the sermon on the mount feel like they are straightforward commands that are meant to be obeyed. Take for example Take Jesus’s teaching on Praying found in Matthew 6:5-8. Jesus gives simple dos and do nots. Do not pray to be seen. Do pray in secret. Do not heap up empty phrases. Do pray according to Jesus’s model. As straightforward as these commands seem, I’d like to suggest that Jesus wasn’t trying to lay down a set of commands that could be rigidly observed. He was reaching for something else.  

Luke 18:9-14 contains a story that both pertains to this teaching and leads me to believe that Jesus was seeking something other than adherence to a new set of commands. Jesus told a story about the two men who went into the Synagogue to pray. One man stood in the center of the Synagogue praying, “Lord I thank you that you have not made me like one of these tax collectors.” Tax collectors being considered bad people in those days. The other man in the story was, in fact, a tax collector. He stood off to the side, in the shadows as it were and prayed. “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus said—it’s the second prayer that justified the pray-er not the first. Both men were externally observing the requirements to be in prayer. They differed in their attitudes.  One had a relationship with God in which righteousness was dependent on the actions of the pray-er.  The other had a relationship with God in which righteousness was dependent on the forgiveness of God. 

I believe that Jesus sought to introduce a new way of relating to God. He wanted to work from the inside out to change the nature of a person’s motives and actions so that they would want what God wants, they would acknowledge their daily dependence on God, and they would make God’s kingdom their highest priority. This meant coming into a dynamic relationship with God.  

In this dynamic relationship with God, things cannot be boiled down easily into do’s and don’ts. Rather, it is at its core a change of heart.  

Generosity in the Front; Arrogance in the Back

Here’s the scene I saw in a convenience store near my house:  Man behind the counter was waiting on customers, but was distracted by technology that wasn’t working.  Woman trying to purchase groceries with what appeared to be some form of assistance–for some reason it wasn’t working.  Another man standing off to the side watching the interactions seeming to get angrier by the minute.  I was a few people back in line and I was making some horrible judgments about the man who seemed to be getting frustrated.  I misinterpreted his anger as the racist anger of someone either objecting to the woman on assistance or the immigrant store clerk.  I did nothing to help.  I stood there with a dumb look on my face worried that the man’s racism would erupt.

Then the man pulled some money out of his back pocket.  He paid for the woman’s groceries and told her not to worry about it.  Then he told the man behind the counter to complete our transactions and then to close the store.  He was apparently the owner or manager.  The look of anger was neither at the employee–whom he spoke to with respect–nor with the woman–whose groceries he paid for out of his own pocket.  His frustration was with the technology that wasn’t working for anyone.

I thought about this experience recently when I read Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 6:2-4.  Jesus warned against offering alms with fanfare and attention drawn to the giver.   Perhaps he saw the diapers and milk she was purchasing and was genuinely moved.  Perhaps it was just the easiest way to keep the register balanced and accelerate the transactions.  I do not know.  This man was not offering his act of generosity to be seen by me or anyone else.   However, oddly this man’s act was a light shining on me.  I don’t mean that in some sort of happy light sort of way.  His light shone directly on my judgmental attitude and lack of initiative to help.

When Jesus told his Disciples to avoid giving in order to be seen.  I do not believe he meant that all gifts should be anonymous.  Rather, he was saying, all gifts should be done only to please “your father.”  This is a phrase Jesus will use with each of the three acts of piety he identifies in Matthew 6 (6:4; 6:6 and 6:18).   The focus of the Disciples should be on their God as the perform their acts of piety.

This explains his repeated use of the term hypocrite (6:2, 6:5, 6:16).  Originally the term meant actor–someone who appeared on stage in a manner contrary to their real identity.  He was suggesting that these are people who have an outward action that moves one way, but an internal spirit that moves a different way.  They direct their alms to others, their prayers to God, and their devotion to obedience, but their motivations remain self-serving.  This divided self is the epitome of seeking to serve to masters.  In this case it is God and self.  Later it will be God and money.  Either way, it is duplicity and it drains the act of almsgiving of its inherent rewards.  Generosity–as Jesus envisions it–blesses the receiver and the giver whenever the giver’s heart is in line with their actions.


When Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, he was introducing the fourth major section of the Sermon on the Mount. 

  1.  He began with the beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12.
  2. The Salt and Light Admonition 5:13-16.
  3.  The teachings concerning Interpretation of Old Testament righteousness. 

What follows are instructions on three forms of piety: almsgiving (6:2-4); prayer (6:5-15); and fasting (6:16-18). Each of these acts of religious devotion are to be done “in secret.”

There’s potential here for conflict. Jesus said, “do your good works so that people see them and glorify your father in heaven.” Now, he seems to be saying—do your religious stuff in private. Jesus said, if you’re giving your gift at the altar and you remember a grievance someone has with you—go be reconciled before you come back to give your gift. Is it just me or do some of these teachings seem to be contradictory. On the one hand, Jesus seems to be saying get other people involved in your faith journey, live your life so that it is a visible testimony of God at work in you. And on the other hand he says—don’t give so others see you, don’t pray so others hear you, don’t fast so that others experience your pain. 

Perhaps the contradiction is resolved by looking at type of activity. Maybe religious piety should not be practiced visibly, but good works can. But I suspect that Jesus didn’t want an established rule. Jesus understood that our motives and our witness matter. Whether we are to display faith for the purpose of witness or hide faith for the sake of humility is a decision to be made in the moment as God guides.  I do not believe that Jesus wants us to replace one set of prescribed regulations for another. He wants us to replace the regulations with relationship. 

Jesus and Piety

Jesus began the fourth major section of the Sermon on the Mount by discussing religious practices or piety. NOTE:   the first three sections 1. being the beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12; 2. the Salt and Light Admonition 5:13-16 and 3. the teachings concerning fulfilling the law and the prophets 5:17-48.

By religious practices or piety, I mean ritual practices a person or community of faith enacts that are identified with a particular religion or religious tradition.  In terms of individual practices, we have the things I normally place under the heading of “Discipleship.”  These would include: daily prayer, devotional reading of scripture, Bible study, tithing, service, fasting and similar practices of personal piety.

In terms of community practices, we have weekly worship, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, infant dedication, ordination, anointing with oil, footwashing, weddings, funerals, and solemn assembly.  Somewhere between the personal acts of piety and the corporate acts of worship, there are somewhat ritualized forms of interpersonal and small group religious practices like spiritual friendship, pastoral conversation, confession and reconciliation, and hospitality.

Christians must regularly confront the question of how important any one of these or all of these might be.  There are places where Jesus seemed to really push against them.  Within the Decalogue (Exodus 20), for example, there are six commands that relate ethical behavior and ethical treatment: keeping Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), parental obedience (Exodus 20:12), prohibitions against murder (Exodus 20:13), adultery (Exodus 20:14), theft (Exodus 20:15), false witness (Exodus 20:16) and coveting (Exodus 20:17).  Through the ethical teachings contained in Matthew, Jesus reaffirmed the importance of each of these except keeping Sabbath.

Parental Obedience—Matthew 15:1-9
Murder—Matthew 5:21-26
Adultery—Matthew 5:27-30
Theft—Matthew 15:10-20
False Witness—Matthew 5:33-37
Coveting—Matthew 5:27-30

Matthew 12:1-8 suggests that Jesus did not teach his Disciples to observe Sabbath—the most salient religious practice of his religious tradition.  Jesus and his Disciples were plucking grain and eating on the Sabbath.  They were criticized by Pharisees.  Jesus’s rebuke of the criticism evokes the story of David and his men eating consecrated bread at a time of heightened need.  In a radical claim of authority, Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).  Given the apparent hostility toward religious practices that Jesus seemed to have displayed Christians can be pulled toward two responses.

  1. To say that Jesus did not think that religious practices mattered.  The only thing that matters is ethics—being just in dealings, serving others, etc.
  2. To say that religious practices should be abandoned in favor of a more internalized spirituality.

Beware anytime a minister sets up two ends of a continuum.  They usually want to hang some clothes somewhere between the two poles.  Such is the case here.  I would contend that Jesus did not abandon religious practices of his tradition, he gave them a specific place in the valuation of priorities and he identified their purpose.

First, Jesus identified their place within a valuation of priorities.  Sorry, I don’t have better language for this.  In the dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus quoted a combination of Hosea 6:6 and Micah 6:6.  His refutation of his critiques revolved around the greater importance of mercy and compassion over ritual adherence.  Saying that service and justice is more important than ritual is not the same as saying that ritual is unimportant.

Second, in the verses that follow our focus verse today, Jesus identifies three practices—alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  For each of these, he says that people of faith ought not do these to be seen.  Rather, he does say they should be done.  And they should be done for the purpose of devoting the interior space of a person’s life to the Lord’s reign.