Does anything trivialize prayer more than praying for a parking spot? Doesn’t “Lord help me find a car park close to the shopping centre entry” really mean “Lord make someone else walk further”? Does it not represent the triumph of a religion that sees God as the great deliverer of consumer comfort? Or is it in fact the opposite, the sign of trust in a loving God who is concerned for every detail of our lives? If, as Jesus said, God counts the hairs on our head and that no sparrow dies apart from his will, maybe we should be praying for car spaces? Maybe God is focused on details as seemingly trivial as this?
Fortunately, Jesus taught us what to pray.
This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘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.’
What would this prayer have meant when it was first taught?
One of the first rules of thumb when interpreting Scripture is to ask how would the people to whom this was originally spoken have understood it? So how would the prayer of Jesus have been understood by first century Palestinian peasants?
In first century Palestine peasant farmers made up 80-90% of the population and were under severe pressure. The Roman occupying forces imposed a heavy tax burden that was driving small land holders into poverty. Unable to meet the demands of Rome, increasing numbers of farmers were forced to borrow from wealthy Israelites, who would then greedily foreclose when repayments fell short. This way a wealthy elite were amassing large and profitable landholdings while poor farmers were losing their land, forcing them into a precarious existence as tenant farmers or day labourers. A tenant farmer had to distribute a portion of the yield back to the landowner, squeezing the farmer even further, while day labourers were at the bottom of the earnings heap and only earned income on the days they could work. To top it off the wealthy would often then refuse to pay the wages the workers had earned and commit violence and even murder against them with impunity.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (James 5:1-5)
The hunger, disease and marginalisation that were the common experience of the peasantry flew in the face of the laws God gave to Israel, which were designed to create a just, equitable and safe community. To prevent people losing their land and going hungry loans were to be offered interest free and the outstanding amount forgiven every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15). If a household did lose their land it was to be returned free of charge in the year of Jubilee, which occured every fifty years. The landless were also invited to share in the harvest and to keep what they harvested for themselves (Leviticus 19:9 and 23:23). Needless to say, few people observed these laws.
Over the top of this layer of poverty and economic injustice was the constant threat of violence from the occupying power, Rome. Almost all Jesus’ hearers would have vivid memories of the razed villages and crucified countrymen that marked Rome’s merciless response to opposition. They also lived with the routine abuse of power by soldiers occupying their land, echoes of which we hear in Jesus’ instruction of what to do when someone forces you to carry their load and John the Baptist’s call for soldiers to stop extorting money.
Jesus’ prayer spoke powerfully to this context. It begins with a reaffirmation of God’s fatherly relationship to the people. They come to a God who is their Father, who loves them and is deeply concerned for their wellbeing. For a people who were versed in the story of their ancestors this would call to mind the bible’s description of this fatherly God as One who hears the cries of his people and promises deliverance.
The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. (Exodus 2)
They come to the Father who sees their suffering, is concerned for them, and has promised to bring an end to hunger, violence, disease, premature death and oppression. The peasants listening to Jesus would have known the future imagined by the prophets, that God would bring a world where every person was secure on their own plot of land, enjoying its yield without fear of loss and living long and healthy lives free from the exploitative clutches of the rich and the violent madness of invading armies (eg Isaiah 65.17-25).
Jesus teaches them to pray that God’s name will be honoured, God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done. This is nothing short of a prayer for the economic, social, and political reordering of society foreshadowed by the prophets. For God’s name to be honored the soldier will need to stop exploiting the powerless, the rich will need to restore the wealth to the people, the Pharisee will need to welcome the ‘sinner” and the disabled into community, the peasant farmer will need to act with grace and love even to her enemies.
To pray for God’s kingdom to come is to implore God to bring into being the world envisaged by Israel’s prophets, a world where a peasant farmer is safe, free and satisfied by the abundance of his land, worshipping God and both loving his neighbour and being loved by his neighbour. This is what it means for things to be on earth as in heaven.
The second half of the prayer focuses upon some dimensions of experiencing the kingdom of God that were particularly resonant for those of Jesus’ day. First, is a prayer that they might have their “daily bread”, that is, that they might be able to eat. On the one hand this is a simple prayer for sufficient food each day. On the other hand it is a prayer for social change. When the Old Testament prophets asked why people were hungry the answer was the rich and powerful had taken their land and withheld their wages. So to pray this prayer in the first century was to plead for landowners who would do justice and at a deeper level for a return to the type of community envisaged in the Scriptures
It is natural then that the prayer move from daily bread to debt. We usually read “forgive us our debts” as referring to our moral debt toward God. This was certainly part of Jesus’ meaning, for Luke translates this clause as “forgive us our sins”. However given the historical context and the way the rich were ignoring the bible’s call to forgive debt every seventh year, it is highly likely we should understand this first and foremost as a prayer for financial debt relief. The addition of “as we also have forgiven our debtors” is a reminder that the poor are to enact the debt laws even if the wealthy do not.
The prayer closes with a cry for protection from those who would oppress – “And lead us not into temptation/testing, but deliver us from the evil one”. This line has often baffled commentators. What period of testing is Jesus referring to? Who is the ‘evil person’ or what is the ‘evil’ (both ‘evil and ‘evil one/person’ ‘ are possible translations)? I think the social history helps us. For a first century peasant living in Palestine it was the oppressive behavior of the rich elites and Roman forces that tested them. It was landlords like those described in James 5 who were the ‘evil person’. It may even be that Jesus has in mind a more particular idea – the testing that will come from the razing of Israel by Roman armies that is looming on the horizon, with Caesar the evil one from whom they will be delivered,
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:21-24)
Jesus’ prayer and parking spaces
So what does Jesus prayer teach us about praying for parking spaces? I think the prayer calls us to focus our prayers, and our lives, on the kingdom of God. That is, we should pray for the arrival of God’s reign in our lives, our households, our networks, our churches, our workplaces, our nation, our world.
Such prayer is both intensely personal, for we will pray for God’s reign to be a dynamic reality in our lives, and globally focused, for we will pray for God’s reign to be a dynamic reality in our world. What we won’t do is ask God to find us a parking space the next time we go shopping. This has absolutely nothing to do with realising God’s kingdom and reduces God to a kind of cosmic genie there to answer our wishes. Whether I have to walk 500 meters or 5 meters to the shopping centre entry is irrelevant to the experience of God’s reign. How I conduct myself as I walk there will reflect the reign of God in my life. So let’s not ask God to privilege us over others in the search for parking. But let’s never stop asking God to bring his kingdom into our lives and our world.