Knowing a Prayer Backwards + Forwards
by Matthew R. Smith
I am a self-diagnosed dyslectic:
I am a terrible speller, slow reader,
I am always inverting letters and numbers, and it seems like
I am always getting things backwards;
but I am not complaining,
these problems also have there pluses and perks.
It is helpful to read scripture, philosophy, poetry,
theology, and other scholarly writing, slowly...
(and these are all genres I enjoy),
and sometimes I find that by turning things around
I can see things in new, important and meaningful ways.
The Lord's Prayer is a good example, it is
so central to the Christian faith, and repeated
so many times throughout the life of a Christian,
that I think all Christians would say they know that prayer
"backwards and forwards"...
but have you ever actually read the prayer backwards?
I think such an exercise is beneficial,
but before I explain why,
I have to turn you around and take you back in time,
back to the "Old" Testament (which would have
been the primary Sacred Scriptures for Jesus and the first disciples),
the book of Exodus takes central stage in the story of
the Hebrew people and the Jewish faith.
It is in the story of the book of Exodus we read:
that Moses encounters God in the burning bush,
that Moses receives the Ten Commandments
(the core teachings of the faith),
that Moses leads an enslaved people to freedom.
It is in the book of Exodus that an oppressed, estranged and persecuted
people are freed from bondage and formed into a people
under God's direction in search for the promised land.
The Exodus experience lays at the heart of the Jewish faith.
Could it be that, just as The Last Supper is a recapitulation of
the Passover (also part of Exodus), that the Lord's Prayer is
a recapitulation, a retelling, a re-imagining of the whole Exodus
Exodus and the Lord's Prayer
Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was a Rabbi.
Jesus was steeped in Scripture (the "Old" Testament).
Jesus would have used the Hebrew Scripture just as Christians focus on the
New Testament. When Jesus prayed, the stories of the Sacred Scripture
would have been part of his religious world view. The Exodus experience
would have been part of his "religious DNA." To get inside the Lord's
Prayer, to pray as Jesus did, we need to think like a Jew, we need to
think like a Rabbi.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL
Who ends a prayer with the word "evil"? Jesus did.
Evil is a reality that most people would rather ignore (or mask),
but every time we pray the Our Father
we are asking to escape (and really be free of) this reality.
Is there evil in your life which you need deliverance from?
If you can not answer that question, then this prayer might not speak
strongly to you just now.
If you were a slave, if you were in bondage, if you were persecuted, if you did not have enough to eat,
if you were controlled and your life was not your own (of if you love someone who is suffering in this way)
then I think a prayer for deliverance would be more meaningful to you.
Israel, the promised land, was occupied
and ruled by the Roman Empire when Jesus
first taught the disciples how to pray.
The story of Exodus is the story of deliverance
from the evil of slavery in Egypt.
Exodus means "exit"... to leave.
The Hebrew people left evil and learned to
walk with God.
LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION
As miraculous as it was for the Hebrew people to get out of Egypt,
perhaps the bigger miracle is that they did not go back on their of their own free will.
The wandering in the wilderness was difficult, even harder than being a slave
in some ways. Even Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.
The Hebrew people found their time in the desert filled with temptation,
and many times they gave into their desires.
At one point they worshiped other gods so that they might once again
have some of the comforts they once enjoyed.
FORGIVE US OUR DEBT AS WE FORGIVE OTHERS
The road from slavery to liberty was difficult and crooked;
they got lost and turned from God from time to time and needed forgiveness.
Because the Hebrew people were redeemed slaves, making sure other
people would not befall the same fate became part of their ethic.
Forgiveness of debt is expounded upon in the book of Leviticus
in the concept of Jubilee.
If we ask God to free us, we must be willing to free others.
Much of the world is in bondage and servitude today due to third world debt.
The Lord's Prayer is also a prayer of liberation.
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD
While the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness God
gave them mana from heaven each day. A key way that the Hebrew
people made it to the promised land was they learned to rely on God
for their needs.
YOUR WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
Freedom from Pharaoh did not mean the Hebrew people were free to
do what ever they wanted. The Exodus story is also about receiving the
Ten Commandments. Pharaoh's laws brought slavery and death, God's
laws bring true freedom and life. In the last decade there has been a
lot of talk about "regime change" whether it be Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan or
Iraq. The Exodus story is about regime change too... this time God is in charge.
YOUR KINGDOM COME
The hope of the freed people of Egypt was to find the promised land.
They sought Jerusalem "the abode of peace"... they sought to return to Eden
where once again there would be harmony and peace with God, neighbor and nature.
HALLOWED BE THE NAME
Among the Ten Commandment, the first four speak of the priority of God in life.
The third commandment specifically warns against the misuse of God's name.
This line of the Lord's Prayer also evokes the Epiphany, Moses' encounter
with God in the burning bush, where Moses learns the divine name as
he stands on holy ground.
OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
God is both transcendent, beyond our realm of understand and also intimately related to us,
and cares for us, like a loving parent. God, according to the
Exodus story, hears the cry of the poor and intervenes in history bringing justice
and peace. God saves.
Now let's look at the Lord's prayer forward again.
The name "Jesus" means "Yahweh saves" or "God saves." When we pray the "Our Father" we become like our Savior, we are acknowledging that we are a child of God, like the Son of God, who seeks to bring the whole world to freedom, liberation and salvation.
Thanks for listening as I turned things upside down.
Sometimes by going backwards (like going on a retreat), it can help us to move forward.
In going back and seeing the importance of Exodus I believe we
can see the Lord's Prayer as a call for a new liberation
in our hearts and the world.
Further Reading: [I thought I may have been on to an original idea
so I googled "Exodus and the Lord's Prayer" and found someone beat
me to the idea over ten years ago... here is a very good paper].