Rowan Williams, in his book ‘Being Disciples’, makes an interesting link between the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” and the succeeding lines about forgiveness. I struggle to follow Rowan Williams a lot of the time, probably because I’m not one of your natural mystics. (For all the time I spend staring at trees, I would find it difficult to articulate what’s going on for me in those encounters beyond simply finding it spiritually satisfying). However, what Williams wrote did feel profound and these are the thoughts I’ve been having in the days since reading it.
First of all, I have grown to like the Lord’s Prayer. I started using it more frequently a few years ago when reading about St Francis of Assisi. I like St Francis because he liked animals. I like animals. Apparently Francis told the Friars to say the Lord’s Prayer 24 times when they prayed. I find the prayer says all that needs to be said, and very succinctly and helps keep my rambling prayer-thoughts on track. In particular, I think that the double-sided forgiveness clause is a stroke of genius, connecting my attitude towards those who have wronged me to my hope that God will forgive me, and describing a life lived in grace towards God and towards the world. The perfect tense in Matthew’s gospel challenges me – I ask for forgiveness “as [I] have forgiven.” It’s not a pledge of vague intention, but a statement of completed deeds, which is presented as the model for God’s forgiveness of me. The language of debts and debtors (not sins or trespasses) also seems to root forgiveness in the real, material world. I might forgive you for the way you spoke to me, but I’d still appreciate having the ten pounds you owe me – they’re two quite different things … unless you’re Jesus, in which case they’re not. I think that, for Jesus, spiritual and material were like dimensions of one reality, in the same way that thoughts and actions were dimensions of one real person.
The debt thing leads back to the daily bread. If I am praying for my daily bread, trusting God for my needs, then why would I borrow, either from a neighbour or from the future? Racking up a debt would indicate that I have not been content to live within the gift God has given. God’s provision is enough, but it doesn’t always feel like it. The present moment is enough, but I worry a lot about the future and fret about the past. On the flip side, if I am content with God’s gift of today, why would I lend to you? Who cares about tomorrow, or next year, when in each day, God provides? I should just share today’s bread with you, because it’s “Give us…” So it seems that the radical trust involved in living in the grace of what God has given is wrapped up with not finding ways to get more for myself and not keeping accounts with others, but letting the grace ebb and flow around and everyone will have enough. It seems like a very gentle way of life, and contrasts hugely with the way the world is, where some of us accumulate so much at such great cost to other people, animals, plants and the earth itself. Jesus’ alternative seems very liberating to me, but a long way from where I am.
The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew’s gospel (Luke’s version doesn’t count because he’s missed half of it out while his mind wandered – so much for ‘Lord, teach us to pray’). Nigel Wright says that Matthew presents the story of Jesus – including his teaching – as a framework within which we may learn to live as his followers. To me, it’s as if within the grace and truth embodied in Jesus, there’s a broad space where we can live free. Jesus’ teaching can be hard, and his example is near-impossible, but it’s not a test to fail or a stick to beat yourself with. It’s a gift from God, with trust and forgiveness and love at the heart of it – a broad space within which life is given and received, hallowed and enjoyed.
There are parallels in the older covenant. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is not just a collection of commandments against which your life is to measured. It’s five books of stories, including some great stories (and some terrifying stories), about people and the God who made a covenant with them, within which life can be lived as a gift of God’s liberating grace. I think that engaging with the Law in its wholeness teaches how you can live free by God’s grace: not just the commands but letting the larger story live as your story, inhabiting the story just as you might inhabit the land itself as a gift.
I think it might be the same with Jesus. The Christian life may be less about some transaction when a holy man was killed on a cross and more about that episode plus the rest of his story too: not a transaction at all but a gift. It’s about inhabiting that story as our story and I think that the Lord’s Prayer takes us to the heart of doing that. Amongst other things, it looks for God’s will to be done on earth – including the bit of earth that’s me and the bit I inhabit, but applying to all other inhabitants of earth too. As already pointed out, it uses the material language of debt rather than the spiritualized language of sin. It insists on being plural: although Jesus has been advising praying in your room, in secret, it’s still ‘us’ and ‘our’ daily bread. So it’s a prayer prayed with the world, on behalf of all beings on earth who (in the words of Psalm 104.27) look to God to give them their food in due season. And it has at its heart this radical trust in God and a refusal to keep accounts either with God or with anyone else, because today is a gift and the gift of God is always more than enough. So the Lord’s Prayer is not about my spiritual (or mystical) practice. It’s about a world whose basic system moves wealth from the poor to the rich, a world of refugees and war, of pollution and climate change, of exploitation of soil and extinction of species, and it’s about the transformation of this world until it resembles a just and peaceful community in which all flourish. I wonder if it literally was the Lord’s Prayer, i.e. the prayer Jesus prayed, the prayer that kept him grounded in and aligned to his mission, and I wonder why it’s not had the same effect on the church that’s prayed it for 2,000 years or on the dominating culture that’s supposedly rooted in Christianity? Or on me, for that matter.
“Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Such a simple sentence that, if it were ever put into practice, would change the world.