Commentary on Matthew 6:7-21
A friend suggested that Matthew’s story is governed by the Lord’s Prayer.
I like this suggestion. This little prayer has incredible power in any context, but in the flow of Matthew’s story it becomes something transcendent.
It matters that it is a little prayer. The storyteller says pagans are impressed by battalogia and polulogia. Babbling and long-winded wordiness are useful if the Deity demands groveling before deigning to respond. Babbling and long-winded wordiness are useful if what really matters is preening religious practice. I am the child of people who believe that directness and simple honesty matter, and that elaborate protocol is a sign of dishonesty. “Don’t try to snow me” might be our family motto. It’s refreshing to hear that Matthew’s Jesus could belong to our family. “God your father knows what you need,” he says. “He knows it before you ask, so don’t try to snow him.” Prayer trusts the nearness and readiness of God. That is worth remembering.
The Lord’s Prayer, however, makes it clear that this does not preclude our needing to ask, directly and pointedly, that God’s will be done on earth, not just in heaven. The rabbis understand clearly that when God created the world, God created it richly so that all life could thrive. The fact that children have to pray for food is a sure indication that God’s will is not being done on earth, regardless of how things are running in the heavenly spheres. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer as a whole constitutes an argument that unless the reign of life holds sway on earth, heaven is quite irrelevant.
This runs counter to the way Christians often talk about God’s will. Often, far too often, the evident aim is to silence anyone who has the temerity to protest the way things currently run. People argue that disease is the will of God, or that homelessness, joblessness, and even starvation are just part of a well-oiled system ordained by God to allow the real stars to shine. I have even heard people argue that God must have had a plan in allowing Jewish children to be slaughtered in Nazi death camps. The same argument was brought forward by Hutu pastors in Rwanda who informed Tutsi parishioners that “God was through with them.” One could imagine Herod and his murderers saying such a thing while slaughtering the babies of Bethlehem.
Matthew’s story knows that the world is not as it should be, that murderous power holds the throne, and that there is a real need (not just a pious inclination) to ask that God’s dominion come and that God’s will actually be done, for once.
Matthew’s Jesus gets earthy and specific. He notes that the world is a web of debt and obligation. The usual version of the Lord’s Prayer asks for forgiveness of trespasses. This is a good prayer, much in keeping with the tone and tenor of the prayer in Matthew’s story. But Matthew’s story uses the word ofeilhmata, which names those things that are owed. Trespass surely does create a relationship of owing and obligation, but the prayer does not indicate that we ought to take this as a metaphor. Matthew’s Jesus recognizes real debt.
Several things come out of taking the metaphor concretely, not simply spiritually. For one thing, the petition recognizes that we are all in debt. Farmers put the crop in the field with operating loans. Contractors build houses with construction loans. Students and their families build an education with loans and hard work. The prayer knows this, and recognizes it as a basic truth of life together. But the prayer also recognizes that debts are forgiven. When my wife and I were first married, we worked at a small meat market. I was in school, accumulating debt and building an education. Ends did not always meet, but we could usually get them pretty close to each other. This was possible in significant part because our boss gave us gifts. Every Saturday evening he and I would inspect the meat case, selecting those cuts that would be ground for hamburger. It was a regular ritual that allowed us to talk about how business was going and about plans for the future. Every once in a while our boss would grab a sirloin steak out of the case and claim that it simply needed to be boned out and ground; no question about it: it was destined for hamburger. Sometimes it was a t-bone steak that he grabbed. Before I learned the ritual, I would protest that the steak looked fine and that it would surely sell the next day. I learned that he would always insist, and that he would then suggest that I buy it for the price of hamburger.
He was giving us a gift. More important, he was giving us a celebration. And he was, in a real sense, releasing us from the obligation to make ends meet. “Life needs more celebrations,” he would say, whether we could afford one or not. The Lord’s Prayer recognizes the way the gift of release is part of the economy that makes the world work.
Of course, there are other kinds of release that are part of the economy. A friend was buying a computer. The salesperson quoted one price until he realized that my friend was married to a medical specialist. At that point, the price dropped dramatically. My friend reported this as a regular part of life. The salesperson was angling for future sales, which would also be sharply discounted. Of course, someone with less income would not get such a deal. The physician was granted a kind of release, though not the kind Matthew’s Jesus is praying for. My friend didn’t think this was unusual or improper. We had an awkward discussion about how hard it was to make ends meet on a physician’s income.
But of course I’ve had those conversations, too, but in my case I’m talking about a professor’s salary. And I’ve heard businessfolk of all sorts having the same conversation, and farmers and teachers and everybody. Maybe one of the points of the Lord’s Prayer is to refocus our attention: away from our own difficulties and onto the ways we can release other people.
Interpreters (Jonathan Reed significant among them) have pointed out that one aspect of Jewish life under Hellenistic domination was that people were being driven off their hereditary land-holdings by artificially created tribute-debt, which was bled from them to build Hellenistic cities that were showcases for the power and wealth of the foreign overlords. The web of debt that Jesus addresses is part of a system of domination put in place by a foreign dominion. Against that background this petition echoes the earlier prayer that God’s dominion hold sway. This is not a pious abstraction, then, it is a forceful prayer for release from domination that kept ordinary people from thriving even in the Land of Promise.
May God’s will be done also among us.