The Lord’s Prayer: the Kingdom of God’s good pleasure

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Let’s consider what we are asking for when we pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer. As the saying goes, different people really do approach life differently: Some see life, events around them, as a “half-empty glass” and some see it “half-full.” I wonder how life seems to you this morning? As you take a broad view, beyond your own daily encounters, do things seem to be getting better or are things getting worse in human history? This question hasn’t just perplexed our contemporary world. Ancient Greek and later Roman philosophers contributed to the half-empty/half-full debate: world getting worse, getting better? According to Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan (“The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer”), beginning about the mid-second century before Jesus’ birth, Biblical writers came up with a unique version of “glass half-empty or half-full.” They started claiming that the “glass” of human history was actually “cracked” and desperately in need of repair (p. 74). Something about God’s plan for the world had gone seriously awry. Their people were repeatedly under siege or conquered, and in times of peace and self-rule, justice and mercy no longer prevailed in their own land.

Around this time, the Book of Daniel spoke to this need for “world repair.” The book is filled with dreams and visions describing the four preceding empires that had decimated the Jewish people. Depicted as wild beasts, these empires were symbolically portrayed as horrendous creatures rising “up out of the sea,” the ancient mythological origin of watery chaos. The original audiences for this story would have laughed at the way some 21st century Christians take this imagery literally. They knew this was powerful poetic language that personified these seemingly permanent, imperial regimes as bizarre, bloodthirsty and dangerous wild animals. Babylonians who carted the population off into exile, destroying the Temple and Jerusalem. Medes who conquered the Jews upon their return to Palestine, followed by the marauding Persians. And finally Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Greeks, who were so innovatively brutal with their new-fangled weaponry and war tactics that Daniel only calls this beast as hellishly “different” – iron teeth, claws of bronze, trampling, breaking into pieces, devouring the whole earth. (And we give this Bible to children?).

According to Crossan, the author of Daniel is one of the first to articulate this idea that God planned an everlasting kingdom that would be vastly different from these beastly, inhuman and temporary kingdoms: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.” This was to be a fifth kingdom, not time-limited, but everlasting. God’s kingdom or reign was to be personified not by beasts but by a person, the “son of man.” Or, as Crossan describes: “a transcendental Human one who has been entrusted with (the Kingdom) by God, the transcendent Ancient One.” The kingdom will be given to this “son of man” for the benefit of all humans. This is the start of the vision of “tikkun olam,” the Hebrew words for “healing the world” and the Jewish vision of a Messiah who would usher in this reign. And eventually Jesus will use this title, “son of man,” “son of the human one,” to describe his own ministry and purpose.

When we move to Jesus’ time, Israel is under the thumb of a “beast” of proportions that Daniel never could have imagined: the Roman Empire. It is both Daniel’s visions and this new Roman imperialist rule that are the context for Jesus’ self-understanding and the Lord’s Prayer. Our current and treasured divisions between politics and religion are frankly too simplistic to understand their world. Politics and religion were all intertwined. Nor do these contemporary distinctions help us imagine how Jesus envisioned the cracks in the glass being mended, the world being healed. For Jesus, God’s kingdom wasn’t a place (like up in heaven), it was more a verb. God reigns in a different manner than corrupt human rulers.

But what would this look like? Last week we explored the opening parts of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father/Abba, intimate papa, who art in heaven/in the whole universe, hallowed be thy name.” Consider the idea of God being like the head of a large household, the parental leader over a large, multigenerational estate.  John Dominic Crossan suggests that Jesus understood God to be the head Householder, taking loving and just care of everyone, in a worldwide “household” where there was peace and everyone was to have enough. The frail and vulnerable and the needy were to get special attention. So Jesus taught his followers to pray like this: “May your kingdom come and your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.”

What are we asking for when we say to God, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done?” This kingdom language may seem a bit strange for us in this country. Our nation’s founders were very much opposed to any kind of monarchy or absolute rule of a king or queen. We live in and celebrate our participatory democracy.  The Hebrew people in Old Testament times did not have a very good experience of kings and kingdoms either. These were independent tribal clans, constantly on the move with their flocks and families. Years later, after the Jews fled Pharaoh’s oppressive reign in Egypt, they were not too keen on a king with absolute power. They built a community based on their covenant with God: known most intimately with the giving of the Law on Sinai. They understood God to be their leader, and this would distinguish them from other surrounding nations and empires of their day. And within that covenant agreement with this ruling God, the people agreed to follow God’s laws, which taught an unusual sharing of power and resources among the people.

While Israel sometimes ignored these laws, the intent was for as little disparity as possible between the rich and the poor. Given the current debate about income inequality in our nation, particularly as to how this divides along racial lines, we might want to pay particular attention to where Jesus is going with this. The intent of Jewish law was that there be some kind of equity among everyone. Digging through the remains of these ancient communities, archaeologists have discovered that their houses, up until the time of the monarchy period, were pretty much the same modest size. But after the monarchy period starts in 1020 BCE with King Saul, archaeologists have found an increasing array of palatial dwellings (McMansions of the day) as well as hovels (p. 10, Crossan). Eventually later prophets start proclaiming that now Israel looks much like all the other foreign powers through history…power-hungry, vast economic disparity among the people, not caring for the poor and marginalized in their midst. I find there is something chillingly familiar and relevant about this critique.

Jesus was picking up on the prophets’ call for a return to God’s reign, style of ruling, with equity for all. Jesus was not just talking about some interior moral kingdom in our hearts; and this is were we get distracted in our life together as Christians. Paradoxically, he taught that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” an animating force already inside of us. But he also described a world around us in which fairness and justice for everyone must rule. And this world would come about not with violence, like the imperial beasts of Daniel’s time or Rome’s military might. Its power would come through nonviolence and mutual compassion. Jesus gets into trouble and is eventually executed because his preaching is a direct challenge to all kinds of domination systems of his day: systems like the violent, repressive rule of the Roman Empire. And systems of privilege and prestige within his own religious tradition.

Why pray for God’s will to be done? Some Christians will talk about “God’s will for your life” like it is a pre-set blueprint. And it sounds harsh, judgmental, and probably not much fun. We reduce “God’s will” to individual morality, or expand it far enough to say it is “God’s will” that a certain sports event, battle or war has been won for our side. But it is God’s will that the world be healed. In fact, according to Crossan’s research, the word “will” here actually means, “good will or good pleasure.” It is God’s good pleasure, God’s wish or deep yearning, for us to be living differently: in harmony, in fairness and peace. That is God’s will.

The Kingdom of God, God’s will done among God’s people on earth….it is happening and it is not fully happening yet. So pray for it, says Jesus. Pray for it with all your heart. But look out! Part of Jesus’ uniqueness was introducing this different paradigm through which to understand God: God doesn’t swoop in and intervene. God calls us to collaborate with God, partner with God’s good pleasure. And this partnering is going to change us. Jesus invites us to pray ourselves into this transformation of the world and ourselves.

How does this work? We pray it and then we watch for the opportunities to partner with God. And they will pop up. “Kingdom come/will be done” – use this as a breath prayer through the routine of your day, waiting for the elevator or while you’re on hold on the phone, while chopping carrots, pumping gas, sitting in a meeting at work. Then watch for the invitation to collaborate with God’s leveling, healing forces as God heals the world. What will it be? Will we speak up when a word of truth is needed? Will we read the news differently, vote differently? Will we stop complaining about something and find a solution? Will we spend our money in different ways? Will we finally forgive someone this week that has really hurt us? We dare not pray this part of the prayer unless we are willing to be changed, transformed into kingdom-bearers, partners in God’s reign. Amen.