The Lord's Prayer Revisited

In February 2005, Friends Journal published an article by Paul Buckley, "Owning the Lord’s Prayer," in which he offered his rewording of it in an attempt to make the prayer his own, and then invited the reader to do likewise. Since then Friends Journal has published several responses from readers in the Forum (two letters in April 2005, p. 47; one in May, pp. 4-5, and one in June, p. 42.) Here is another, more detailed response. Paul’s original article may be viewed in full in the archives of back issues on the Friends Journal website, —Eds.

Some time ago I undertook an in-depth study of the Lord’s Prayer, for much the same reasons as Paul Buckley: I wanted something that meant more to me. The deeper I got, the more complicated—and rich—everything got. Possible meanings branched off endlessly, and each permutation of meanings struck my soul like a gong hit in its sweet spot. I had to include each one. This destroys the refreshing terseness that was probably part of Jesus’ point. (The Amidah prayer, which was probably in use in some form at Jesus’ time, covers many of the same issues but in much more flowery language.) In exchange, however, I have something that speaks directly to my soul. When I pray it, taking a minute or so for each line, I feel that God and I have truly communicated.

Although I have tried to put the Lord’s Prayer into my own words, I necessarily have to begin with the words Jesus used: spoken in Aramaic, recorded in Greek, and read by me in English. The metaphors that shaped Jesus’ mind included angels, devils, benign monarchs, and a patriarchal God who had a lot less respect for the laws of physics than the God most of us grew up with. In general I have tried to find other metaphors; but there is an image I use with impunity: the Kingdom of God. Sexist and hierarchical though it may be, when I use it I feel like part of a community that transcends time, all united to bring it into being.

Beyond any problems of grammar or vocabulary, however, this is the prayer of a peasant 2,000 years ago who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from and who lived under the boot-heel of the biggest empire in the world. I am overfed, overeducated, and live in the boot-heel of the biggest empire in the world. I have tried to bridge that gap by trying to get into Jesus’ head, to find the thoughts that were behind his words, so that I could imagine what he would say to us under such vastly different circumstances.

Our Father in Heaven

The "in Heaven" part is not in Luke’s version, and it is a phrase that Matthew adds frequently—concerned, I suppose, that otherwise we might not get the reference. The "father" is famously the word Abba that Aramaic-speaking children used to address their fathers, but adults used it as well. While many ancient Jewish prayers begin with a formal "Our father," Jesus is unusual in using the more direct and thus more intimate "Father" in many places throughout the New Testament.

Although it is often implied that people need to address God in the context of an earthly relationship with which they have good associations, that has not been my experience. I have a good relationship with my father, but as a young adult, I had a tense one with my mother. God was my surrogate mother.

Be all that as it may, however, when I hear this line it just sounds like saying someone’s name before starting an important discussion, to ensure that they are listening.

When I pray alone, I address God my usual way: Mama.

When I have used this prayer with others, I remove gender from the equation altogether with:

Hey God, I know you are listening.

Hallowed be thy name

In Jesus’ time, the name of God was equivalent to the person of God. Here we are asking that God’s name and thus God’s self will be treated as holy. As with other petitions of the prayer, the grammar is ambiguous. Although it is unlikely to be a simple assertion that "we here think you are special," it could be if one added the implication that we will act accordingly (see Isaiah 29:23). After all, the modern Hebrew term for "martyrdom" translates literally as "sanctification of the Name." It could also be asking God to earn our respect by acting more Godlike, which would link it to the next line.

I have different ways of translating this line, depending on how bossy I feel:

We will restore the honor of your name by doing your will.
May your name regain the respect it deserves.
We look forward to the time when the holiness
Of God’s being will be universally acknowledged.
We need you to act like a God;
Stop letting evil persist.

Holiness has the additional meaning of "set apart." At first I rebelled against the idea of segregating God from the rest of reality, but then I remembered suggestions to dedicate time for prayer, so that it does not get crowded out of our busy lives. This was a "separation" I could handle.

We make space for you in our lives and,
Together with others,
Work to make space for you in the world.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.

In my mind, this whole phrase is one part with one meaning. For the ancients, heaven was a separate realm where God was more visibly in charge and things worked the way they were supposed to. I don’t have to believe that heaven is "up" to wish that things were more like that around here. As is common for Jewish prayers, Jesus began with only-by-the-power-of-God matters and then moved on to issues on a more human scale.

This has the same grammar problem as the last. Was Jesus asking God to get serious, to live up to God’s hype? That we humans start living under the rules of the Kingdom of God previous to God’s action? That God somehow make us do that? Or perhaps there is no implied agent, just a statement that we hope it happens soon.

The later petitions, however, are explicitly command tense, and the prayer is followed in Luke with parables instructing us to hector God into giving us what we need, so it seems likely that this line has the same tone. This makes me squirm, partly because it seems rude, but mostly because the God I believe in is not omnipotent, and I feel ridiculous demanding that The Force swoop down with a Shazzam, demanding the impossible—but then, Jesus wanted to thrust us out of our comfort zones. I have compromised with:

Make manifest to the world a vision of your perfect future,
So that all may begin to work for its realization.

Give us this day our daily bread

I worked on this for quite a while before I finally decided to drop any mention of bread. I have rarely had any concern about where my next meal was coming from and I don’t want to waste God’s time on it. I didn’t want to ignore that side of things altogether; simple solidarity with the modern equivalent to Jesus’ real audience would forbid it. Also Jesus (directly after the prayer, in Matthew) urged us not to worry about what we will eat or wear, but to seek the Kingdom of God and all those things will be given to us also; so it feels right to keep God in the picture of my material well-being.

My thoughts on this were helped by a conversation with my meeting’s graveyard committee clerk, who has vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder from all the old gravestones for children. He sees healthcare as the modern equivalent of Jesus’ concern for access to basic food.

This line presents a major translation difficulty. With most words in the Greek Gospels, we can pin down the meaning by comparing many uses of the word both in and out of the Gospels. Not so with the word usually translated as "daily," which church fathers were arguing about almost as soon as Luke and Matthew were written. My favorite interpretation is "the bread of tomorrow," in the manna-like sense of "the bread we are going to eat when the Kingdom comes and we sit down at God’s table," which Jesus was continually pre-enacting.

The idea of asking for a sample of the Kingdom of God upfront spoke to me, since hope is as rare and precious now as in Jesus’ time. As the overall focus of this prayer is the coming of the Kingdom, it isn’t a stretch to involve this line as well. The concerns need not be in opposition: if everyone has enough to eat, that probably means the Kingdom of God has arrived.

Provide for our human needs
And strengthen us with regular glimpses
Of a world made in your image.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

This is literally, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." In Aramaic, the word "debt" was used as a synonym for sin, but since bankruptcy and foreclosure were endemic in that time and place, Jesus likely also meant it literally. I had to struggle to make this meaningful to me. If my house were in fact being foreclosed on, my hesitation to ask God for material things would surely and properly evaporate, but this is not the case.

Broadening our focus, however, I began to catch a glimpse of something very meaningful. As a citizen of the Empire, I owe debts to all sorts of unsavory institutions, from the U.S. Army to the New York Stock Exchange, working to maintain my lifestyle—a lifestyle that I don’t want but can’t seem to break out of. These soul-sucking entanglements of modern society keep us from doing what God has in mind for us, and this is definitely something worth praying about.

Support us in our struggles against obligations to oppressive institutions that destroy the Spirit,
As we struggle to avoid behaviors that would ensnare others in their grasp.

The debt issue not withstanding, there is a lot of run-of-the-mill forgiveness with which I could definitely use God’s help.

Help us to feel open-hearted love for others and to forgive their failures and false steps,

So that we can release the guilt and resentment that bind us, and begin our relationships anew.

Only then will we be able to receive love and forgiveness from you and from others.

The "open-hearted love" and "relationship anew" lines here have nothing to do with my linguistic or historical research. They are simply there because I know that that is the only way I can hope to ever feel love of neighbor for all the obstinate people in my life, as is the slight restatement of the causal relationship.

And lead us not into temptation (or lead us not into the time of trial)
But deliver us from evil (or the Evil One)

With all these possibilities listed in the footnotes of most Bibles, the list of possible translations for this line is accordingly longer. To see what Jesus may have meant by "the time of trial," look at Exodus. God is forever testing the wanderers’ faith, and they fail every single time, choosing apostasy over the Covenant. Whether this says more about God’s learning curve or that of the Israelites I really couldn’t say.

Sympathy for the ancient worldview is especially crucial for this line. Many times in the first books of the Bible, God is assumed to be responsible for some truly horrible things. God’s omnipotence was paramount in the psychology of the time, even when this interfered with God’s goodness. This had come into question by Jesus’ time, but not nearly so much as today.

Some people take comfort in the fact that the Greek word for sin is the same word used for missing the mark in archery, but "sin" makes the most sense to me as "an action that hinders rather than fosters the enactment of the Kingdom of God." As a translation of the usual interpretation—a request for assistance in resisting temptation to sins of the flesh, abuse of power, etc., with which I could use as much help as anyone else—I came up with:

Free us from our attraction to
Sin and unrighteousness.
Be a light shining on our paths, that we may choose
The way of righteousness,
And especially that we may correctly understand
Your will and vision.

But I felt that this did not exhaust the meaning of the line. For me, this line links back to "thy kingdom come." We aren’t asking for a delay in the Kingdom, just some help getting through the lead-up to it, either by strengthening our spines or by granting us the sort of exemption given to the Israelites in the last plague (Exodus 12). Even the Bible, with its Shazzam theology, does not imagine those who benefit from the present oppressive order politely stepping aside and the world being instantly restored to the conditions of the Garden of Eden. No, recreating the world in God’s image is going to be a long and dangerous slog, with the forces of darkness desperately struggling to hold on to power. Interestingly, the word translated as "trial" can also mean "despair." And so I also pray:

Hold back the collapse of civilization while we,
With others, work to make it unnecessary.
And if it should come in our lifetime
Keep us from being swept out to sea,
But keep us doing your work,
Even when it seems hopeless, or in the face of persecution.

For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, forever and ever.

It is very doubtful that these are actually Jesus’ words, but it is such a lovely sentiment that I can’t bring myself to care.

For this last bit, I have settled upon a feminist (Ima is "mama") and universalist (Olam is "world" or "universe") adaptation of Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear O Israel, YHWH is God, YHWH is one." (Alternative monikers for God could be Shikhena—the holy spirit, literally, "she who dwells among us"—or the traditional "Adonai," Lord.)

In my words it is:

We acknowledge your supreme claim over all that is.
You are our only leader.
Shema Olam, Ima Elohenu, Ima Ekhad.

Alicia Parks

Alicia Parks is a second-semester graduate student at Boston University School of Theology studying to do—she writes—"rabble-rousing disguised as adult religious education." She is a longtime attender of Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting. She occasionally attends Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.), and is also exploring Judaism.