The Pope's First Jesus Book– Chapter Five— The Lord's Prayer

The exposition by the Pope on the Lord’s Prayer in Chapter  Five is about as lengthy as the whole rest of the exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (pp. 128-68), and here we see the Pope wearing a more pastoral hat, so to speak.   After dealing with Jesus’ warnings about how not to pray (ostentatiously drawing attention to yourself,  verbosely, again drawing attention to yourself), the Pope reminds us that Jesus is teaching us to pray as he prayed ( a fact we can see in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane). The Pope also rightly emphasizes that in a sense the Lord’s Prayer is ordered as the Ten Commandments are ordered in terms of priorities— a focus on God first, then on the human dilemma and difficulties.  Just as the ten commandments are something of an exposition of what love of God and love of neighbor with whole heart looks like, so too the Lord’s prayer.    The Pope chooses to follow the more well known Matthean form of the prayer and stresses it is a communal prayer— ‘our Father’.  While this is true,  what we know about Matthew is that he turns things into more communal and public discourse— for example at Jesus’ baptism he has  God say ‘This is my Beloved Son’  whereas Mark has the personal communication  ‘You are my Beloved….’   I suspect Matthew has done the same to this prayer so  it may be recited like other Jewish prayers, corporately.    What is interesting, and paradoxical about the Pope’s approach to this verbal prayer is that he says that prayer really is being in silent inward communion with God, which is then nourished with Words.  The communion precedes the articulation and expression (130).    One wonders sometimes if he is talking about the elenchos   the assurance or quite confidence the believer has that God is in their lives.   The Pope sees rote prayers as a hedge against narcissism, where our prayers just become all about us, and this is a good insight.

On p. 135 he begins the exposition of the various petitions (three ‘thou’ petitions focused on God, four ‘we’ petitions focused on us).   As the Lord’s prayer begins with the petition Father, we are reminded that it is through Jesus that we have the relationship re-established with God such that we dare to address God as Father.  And what we learn along the way is that the great gift that God gives us is not merely salvation, but Himself— God is the gift that God bestows, a gift which keeps on giving.  The Pope thus  says that what prayer is really all about is our coming to realize—“God’s desire to offer us the gift of himself….the one thing necessary.”  (p. 137).   When we ask Jesus to show us the Father, he shows us himself.   We must be drawn into Christ in order to be drawn into God, for he is the image of the Father, and we are being recreated in his image.

On pp. 139-41 we have an interesting discussion of whether it is appropriate to call God mother.  The Pope acknowledges there is maternal imagery, and womb imagery applied to Yahweh in the OT (Is. 66.13 and 49.15), but he stresses that an image or metaphor describing one aspect of God’s way of relating to us is one thing, a naming is another, and God is not named, titled, or addressed as Mother in the Bible and we are bound by the forms of address to God found in the Bible.   He makes the point that in the pagan world when a deity was called ‘goddess’ or mother, this always implied a pantheistic situation.  There had also to be a Father god in such systems and more to the point usually such language involved pantheism, banishing the distinction between God and creation which the Bible insists on.  Surprisingly the Pope says nothing about why Jesus would not call God Mother namely  he had a human mother and furthermore,  God was his sole Father, and so we follow the prayer language of Jesus.     Human fatherhood derives from God’s fatherhood  (see Ephes. 3.14-15), not by anthropological projection the opposite of this.   There is even the injunction for us to call no man ‘Father’ on earth because we have one heavenly Father (Mt.23.9) which raises the interesting question as to why the Pope allows himself or other priests to be called Father.

On p. 142 he turns to ‘hallowed be thy name’.    One of the key insights here is that a name establishes a relationship,  and a basis for calling or invocation.  YHWH is a name that is in fact not a name, but perhaps an abbreviation of ‘eyeh  asher eyeh’— I will be what I will be.   God’s character is revealed through God’s deeds.   Christ manifests God’s name, his true nature to humankind  (John 17.6)  The Pope takes the second petition of the prayer to mean an asking of God to take charge of the sanctifying of his own name,  since humans misuse it, co-opt it, use it for manipulation.

On p. 145 we turn to the petition ‘thy kingdom come’.  On the one hand what this means is may your reign show up in my life.   It means let us be yours.   But the Pope should have gone on to say, that God’s dominion is much bigger and broader than the interior life of believers— it involves the future reclaiming of the earth for himself, so it is not just all about his lordship in us.

The next petition (pp. 147ff.) reminds that God has a will for the earth, and its not being done perfectly as it is in heaven.  Earth, says the Pope, can give a glimpse of, or be a little bit of heaven  when God’s will is done on earth.  If we ask where if anywhere do we see the will of God perfectly revealed and done on earth, the Pope’s answer, correctly, is in Jesus.  This is why he came (Heb. 10.5ff; John 4.34).  The Pope stresses that Jesus himself is heaven on earth, and as we draw close to him  (and imitate him)  God’s will for our lives is done in our lives.

On p. 150ff. we find the discussion of the ‘daily bread’  petition,  a petition which implies we have a right to ask for the necessities of life from God.   The Pope stresses the word ‘our’ in this petition— we are not merely praying give us today my daily bread, but rather ours— we are praying for bread for others as well.    It can be taken to mean that Jesus is reminding us we must be the vehicles feeding  the starving (Mk. 6.37).   The Pope points out the great rarity of the word epiousios  which Origen says occurs nowhere else in Greek literature, and suggests could be coined by the Evangelist.   It has been translated ‘daily’  (and in any case the petition ‘give us today’  implies a daily asking, and perhaps also the poverty that requires living day by day, necessitating the daily asking).   The Pope suggests the translation ‘for tomorrow’  the bread for tomorrow, which could suggest an eschatological reference  (the messianic banquet where all hungers will be satiated?)  but the Pope, following many church fathers sees here an allusion to the coming Eucharist, and Christ’s giving of himself to us.  This I think the original audience could not possibly have understood or conceived.   One of the interesting features of this book is to see who the Pope relies on in his exposition, and in terms of the church fathers, he turns to Cyprian quite a good deal, and Origen as well.   Interesting.   Not considered is the possibility that ‘give us today, the bread for tomorrow’ is indeed the petition of the needy person made so that he can feed his family in the morning, before he goes out to work in the fields again. 

As the Pope says on pp. 157ff.  this ‘forgiveness’ petition presupposes a world full of sin against both God and neighbor, and it is meant to make clear that the only appropriate response to sin against one’s self is forgiveness not retaliation.  The reason for the conjunction of the two parts of this petition is “forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one who is himself  forgiving” (p. 157).

The Pope stresses the costliness of forgiveness. Among other things it means the forgiver has to give up his or her right to take revenge.  It means he must overcome the hurt and pain caused by the sin against him or her.   It means a turning one’s back on the past.   For the forgiven it involves the overcoming of guilt and shame, among other things, and the good faith effort at reconciliation.

In reflecting on ‘lead us not into temptation’  (pp. 160ff.)  the Pope reflects on Job  and reminds that God will allow us to be tempted, and tried, and tested, but the story of Job suggests, only within certain bounds.   He makes the useful and usual distinction between a trial and a temptation.   The petition then in turn is a plea to God to remember our frailty and asking not to be tempted past one’s power to endure,  not to give the Devil carte blanche in the tempting process,  all the while realizing that through trials our character can be strengthened.    The Pope thinks the petition is general and can mean either deliver us from evil in general, or from the Evil One, or likely both since they are connected.  As such it is seen as the positive side of the previous petition  What this petition reflects however is that we need to beware of ever saying  “God would not allow that to happen to me, his faithful follower”. Go back and read Job again.  There is a mystery to what God allows and leads us to and delivers us from and the neat formulae of the health and wealth Gospel do not come to grips with these mysteries but rather trivialize them.  God did not promise us a rose garden without thorns,  a life without trials,  a body without disease,  a life without difficulties,  accomplishment without hard work,  redemption without a price.   The Pope concludes this discussion by saying the last petition bring us back to the cry for God’s will to be done on earth and in our lives.

Finding Jesus— Begins Sunday Night at 9 P.M. on CNN
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 4
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
  • Kwesi Adarkwa

    Excellent analysis, Ben. I wonder, though – it is often said that God will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

    1. The ability to bear trials seems to vary widely among us. What could this mean?

    2. In the case of Job, we usually focus on the Job himself. What about his sons and daughters that were killed simply for the purpose of testing Job? Isn’t that an injustice?

    Thanks, Ben

    PS: I loved the comment about ‘Fathers’ in the Catholic church. Hit the nail on the head there, you did!

  • Chip

    Slightly off-topic, but a book recommendation on the same subject that most of us evangelicals don’t know about: Life of Christ by the late Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Pope Benedict’s book is wonderful, but largely aimed (IMHO) toward the head; in contrast, Sheen, who by his own testimony wrote his book during a dark night of the soul, goes for the heart. It is profoundly moving and can seriously deepen your walk with Christ. Sheen rattles off insights on almost every page that astound. I would say that at most 15 percent of the book covers controversial theological topics that will cause serious difficulties for Protestants. It was so deep and rich that it took me two years of nearly-daily devotional reading to get through it. It’s been five years since I finished it, but it still leaves a mark. Only the (thankfully relatively few) references to Communism date this book, which was published in the 1950s.

    Ben, I appreciated your visit to Truro Church last month!

  • Steve Rhodes

    Hi Dr. Witherington,

    I appreciate your blog entries. You didn’t say (or I missed it) how you feel about calling God “mother.” Do you agree with the pope on that?

    Steve Rhodes

  • Percival

    Regarding epiousios, Aramaic targums would indicate the word could mean something like “enough”. Indeed, this is what my Arabic Bible says.

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