“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Recently a friend posted this question on facebook:
What does it look like when the Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven”?
This is a question Christians often find difficult to answer. In the tradition I hail from (Charismatic/Pentecostal), it usually sends us into speculative reveries about “heaven”, or worse, about bringing the “power” of God into our lives to combat the devil.
But – typical of ancient Jewish rhetorical forms – the question inherently posed is answered by the prayer itself: The “kingdom” (or God’s will) will come “on earth as it is in heaven”:
- When there is daily bread for everyone (v11),
- When the practice of forgiveness routinely breaks the cycle of retribution (v12), and
- When people faithfully do what is right because evil no longer makes sense (v13).
Very simply, Jesus’ prayer evokes a life of goodness for all. Set within the context of a prayer, Jesus names goodness and shows that it springs from an overall posture of reliance upon God.
It helps to know that, like much of what Jesus said, his prayer is an echo of the great eschatological passages in Isaiah like 2:1-5 and 65:17-25. The future hope Jewish prophets spoke of was a redeemed earth, finally free of the evil caused by foolishness and vanity. Look at how Isaiah describes this great end-times hope in Chapter 65:
20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
23 They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.
What’s being depicted here is a good life on earth, involving the joy of birth, the blessing of a long life, the dignity of work, the pleasure of eating, and the love of family and community. We see true peace, in the Jewish sense of shalom; completeness.
Now, it is patently obvious to me that these passages (both in Matthew and Isaiah) are about down-to-earth problems and down-to-earth solutions; not earth-bound problems we escape by flying away to an ethereal plane of existence, or “spiritual” problems combatted by the genuflections of a voodoo Christianity. Yet that is often what Christians have in mind when they speak of “heaven” and “the kingdom” and it tends to imprison us in abstract conversations and ridiculous theatrics.
Meanwhile, a couple thousand years later, the earth is still groaning for this good future to become a present reality.
It’s time to grow up. As long as the religious concept of evil remains limited to the personification of a mythical creature and our ability to imagine better possibilities remains limited to a mythical place, we will be forever relegated to the individualized realm of dualistic pietism.
We must follow Christ and the prophets in moving beyond our childish metaphors and concretely name evil for what it really is – starvation, exploitation, exclusion, vengeance, violence, and the like – so we can name goodness for what it really is: equality, provision, peace, and so forth.
Moving toward the reality of such things is extremely difficult, but not impossible. Not only is there is no theological impediment to God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven”, it is, in fact, our theological imperative to cooperate with this effort, inaugurated by Christ in earnest over 2000 years ago. It will not happen except through us.
That is what the Lord’s prayer is really about. We don’t pray so God will do something for us, we pray so God will do something to us. We don’t pray to pass responsibility on to an invisible other, we pray for the stuff that will get us off our knees and cause us to roll up our sleeves.
The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer to end all prayers because in it, Jesus not only teaches his disciples how to pray, but how to stop praying.
The Lord’s Prayer is not a protective charm. It’s not about magic, voodoo, or “spiritual mapping.” It’s about naming the concrete goodness of God, discovering a gift of faith for that goodness, and then bringing that goodness into reality by the sheer political will that such a gift empowers.