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Interview with William Thompson-Uberuaga About His Book, “Your Kin-dom Come: The Lord’s Prayer in a Global Age”

What was most surprising to you as this book’s author?

There may yet be further surprises for me as time passes and I think back upon it. But let me share with you where I am on this right now. First, I was invited by the Dean of our local Episcopal Cathedral in Boise, ID, to offer a brief theological workshop between our two larger-attended Sunday Eucharist services. This means I had only about 30 to 40 minutes. That’s a real challenge for “old” professors, but it forced me to get to the heart of the matter.

But, what was the subject matter going to be? This was my first lead-up surprise, and still is. Somehow, mysteriously, maybe even mystically as a grace I am inclined to believe, it came to me to deal with something that might be more or less immediately practical for our parishioners. Parishioners, people who are serious about their faith commitments, at least serious enough to attend the Eucharist and participate in parish events more or less regularly, well, these kinds of parishioners certainly pray. Not that others do not, even at a very high level known only to the divine Mystery! So the thought of dealing with the topic of prayer came to mind, and then almost immediately bound up with that thought was the further insight that the prayer to look at would be the Lord’s Prayer, or the “Our Father,” as many of us have grown up to say. I wagered that the Our Father would be a point of immediate connection with the parishioners. As it was for me! Likely we all pray it often, more or less well. At every Mass, and at many other Church occasions. Probably often during the week, maybe especially during trying times. A friend of mine wrote me that she prayed it while undergoing her radiation treatments for breast cancer . . .  it was just about the right amount of time!

So I guess from that the seedlings for the book emerged. But at that stage, it was the seedling for the workshops at the parish. I did not have a book in mind. That came later, as I discovered more and more, while preparing for the workshops. I too had a great curiosity about the Prayer, and the workshop preparations afforded me a more disciplined chance to study, research, and, yes, pray at ever more layered levels, I felt.

So you wanted to offer something “practical,” rather than more theoretical, and the idea of prayer and the Lord’s Prayer popped up?

Yes, I believe so. Now insights don’t often come from nowhere, and I guess I should say that my work as a theologian/religious philosopher has been largely on the interface between spirituality and theology and philosophy. So that may have played a role. But I need to say something more. I really haven’t gotten to the most surprising aspect of this prayer workshop eventually become book. As I studied the literature on this prayer, and it is enormous, as you can imagine, I increasingly felt that much of it was rather narrow, confined more or less to a Protestant evangelistic perspective, or a Roman Catholic perspective, or a Lutheran, or Reformed, or Baptist, or Anglican, or Eastern Orthodox perspective, etc. There were some exceptions, naturally. The Anglican priest-professor John Keble, of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement already in the late 1800s, for example, wrote a very interesting ecumenical interpretation or paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, in which he tried to accent how this prayer might be imagined as one of praying for church unity: When we hallow the name, the name we might think of is “the Holy One [who unites us all].” When we pray that “Your will be done,” we are praying that the “will for union between the churches” be done. And so on. You can hear the echo of John 17, where Jesus prays that all may be one as he and the Father are one. Now that is very ecumenical!

So, I was coming upon an ecumenical “energy” in the Prayer, and this energy kept haunting me, widening me, and I took comfort from the fact, and even inspiration, that this energy was felt by others, like Fr. Keble. So I think this moved me toward a more ecumenical approach to the Our Father. Much of this I had found to some extent among the contemporary biblical scholars, for a large body (not all!) of modern biblical exegesis has become quite ecumenical, with scholars learning from scholars representing the various confessions (Protestant, Catholic, Anglican [the Orthodox to some extent, but I hope for more!], etc.), and of course you cannot do New Testament studies adequately if you are not attuned to the Jewish/Aramaic and Greco-Roman layerings of the New Testament! The Lord’s Prayer, given its very Jewish/Aramaic layering, along with its translation into Attic Greek in our New Testament, is intrinsically interreligious. It will just naturally by its thrust and energy decolonize you as you pray it (and studying it is a form of praying it).

Perhaps my first experience of that was reading Sulpician Father Raymond E. Brown’s ground-breaking essay “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer,” which widened many of us to the Aramaic/Jewish horizon of Jesus and the New Testament. We take that for granted today, but it was not always so.

So, part of the surprise was the discovery of an ecumenical energy in the Lord’s Prayer, and a growing dissatisfaction with approaches to it that ignore that?

Yes, I believe so. The initial surprise opened out onto further surprises! So, for example, as I studied the “reception” of the Lord’s Prayer I came upon a long history of the Prayer’s generativity, if I may use that term, showing up in all sorts of creative ways: besides its long history of being enacted in medieval dramas, or put to music (as in Albert Malotte’s famous 1935 version still widely sung), or paraphrased in various ways in catechisms, or placed in poetry (as in Dante’s Purgatorio), I discovered Margaret Atwood’s powerful retelling in her The Handmaid’s Tale, where the Prayer’s liberationist and antimisogynistic energy breaks forth. I even discovered Ernest Hemingway’s controversially rich retelling in his short story, “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” which alerted me to the Prayer’s relevance to so-called “secular” people with little or no traditional religious affiliation. The Prayer was widening me toward a solidarity with them too.

But matters grew wider. The Prayer begins with a Father of heaven and earth. That is rather wide, even global, really even intergalactic! The Prayer widens, stretches, decolonizes. Maybe we can come back to this.

Let’s get into the weeds of the Our Father prayer a little bit. Let’s move from “macro-considerations,” like the Prayer’s ever-widening energy, to some of its “micro-features,” like its make-up and basic characteristics. Could you give us a brief view of some of that?

I can try. I will note a few basics. If these intrigue the listener, they can then go to the book for more details.

For example, we find the Prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke 11. Why not elsewhere? Well, we have almost all of it, but not in the form of a single prayer, but in the forms of each of the Prayer’s themes, reflected throughout much of the New Testament. And many of these themes are found in the Hebrew Scriptures and some of the more famous Jewish prayers, like the Kaddish and the Amidah.

The versions in Matthew and Luke are largely the same, with some few differences. The biggest differences: Matthew begins with an address to the “Our Father” in heaven, while Luke begins with simply the Father. Luke is also missing the petition about doing the Father’s will, and the part about praying to be saved from the evil one/evil. In the original Greek, well, it’s a bit more complicated. Let’s just say that Matthew uses a special verb tense (aorist) a bit more than Luke does, and that leads scholars to ask why? Is he indicating something by that? And, of course, scholars believe (but there is even some controversy here) that the original language of the Prayer, for Jesus and his followers, was Aramaic, and the word Abba is perhaps the major trace of that in our texts.

Something else that may be intriguing: Matthew’s version comes more or less at the midpoint of the Sermon on the Mount, indicating that it is the center of that sermon, perhaps the central key to its meaning. And if that Sermon is the key charter of Jesus’ renewal movement in Israel, then the Prayer is the key to that key! Luke’s version comes approximately at the midpoint of his Gospel (the eleventh chapter of 24 chapters), being a kind of guide for the “journey to Jerusalem” of Jesus and his companions; again perhaps another central key to the whole! All of this links up with the traditional idea that the Prayer is a “summary of the Gospel,” or the Gospel in miniature. If we know how to pray this Prayer, well, then we are truly learning something of the inner core or DNA of the Jesus Movement, participating in its thrust and energy.

And this centrality of the Prayer has continued in the Christian tradition. Perhaps not by accident, but because it is the very nature of a central energy to remain central. So from very early on we find the Lord’s Prayer having a central role in the two major sacraments of the Christian tradition, Baptism and Eucharist.

You just mentioned the two versions of Matthew and Luke. Is the Lord’s Prayer really their prayer, or is it Jesus’ prayer? We know that the Gospels present it as Jesus’ prayer, but what would you have to say about this?

We might also wonder, given the heavily Jewish/Aramaic loading of the various parts of the Our Father, how the Prayer can be said to be Jesus’. And I guess part of a response would be to ask ourselves how heavily each of us is co-constituted by our relationships with one another in society and history, The isolated individual problem comes up here! So just as Jesus shared in Jewish/Aramaic tradition and culture, and to some extent in a Greco-Roman culture and language as well, and that shaped him, so, too, he shared much with his followers and they with him, in a rich interchange, and we might then consider the various versions the distillate of this rich interchange. It need not be an either-or thing. The Gospels, however, do give the leading inspiration to Jesus, and the chain of witnesses would have plausibly served as a check on too much deviation from his lead. And we know that the Prayer very much coheres with the central themes of Jesus teaching and work, namely, the role of Abba and the work on behalf of the kingdom/reign of God/Abba within history and society.

And although memory is a very tricky and controversial issue, even the severest critics of the historical reliability of the Gospel texts, like Bart D. Ehrman (see Jesus before the Gospels), speak of a reliable core of memories (“gist memories” is Ehrman’s  term, pp. 193-95) in the Gospels, and the likely repetitive use and brief nature of the Prayer would tend to favor its original authenticity.

Likewise, I value Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine’s view that we should not tie up the rabbis like Jesus into a straight-jacket, as if they could use only one exact form of preaching, and I add praying to this, in their ministries. (See her Short Stories by Jesus, 14.)They were open to a certain amount of inspiration and context-discernment (what would be most appropriate in a given place?). So, if Luke begins the Prayer with just Abba, instead of “Our Father … [you] who are in heaven,” well, there may have been occasions when this would have made more sense. The “Our Father” seems more appropriate in a social or cultic/liturgical context of prayer (some manuscripts of Luke actually have Matthew’s longer form, perhaps because of liturgical use); the simple “Father,” well, that would fit within a more personal or intimate context. Paul prays that way too, in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. In Mark 14:36, Jesus prays that way too in the Gethsemane garden.

Something similar goes for the doxology at the end of some versions of the Lord’s Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever.”  This is actually found in some Greek and Latin manuscripts of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it shows up in the version in the Didache (c. 100bce) too. We have examples of similar doxologies in, say, 1 Chronicles 29:11-12 and 1 Peter 4:11. Again, such doxologies would be very appropriate in liturgical settings, or perhaps even in more mystical moments of prayerful ecstasy. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, would seem to be indicating this by ending its telling and explanation of the Prayer with the doxology. Reversely, the Book of Common Prayer of Anglicans/Episcopalians also provides opportunities for praying the Our Father without the doxology, thus recognizing a certain variability of form in different contexts.

Pope Francis seems to have ignited a controversy when he expressed an opinion about the petition in the Our Father having to do with being led into temptation. Can you say something about this?

This refers to the traditional sixth and final petition of Matthew’s version: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13NRSV). In Luke’s it is the fifth and final petition, which is shorter, because it contains only the first portion of Matthew’s version: “And do not bring us to the time of trial” (Luke 11:4NRSV). The Pope said he does not believe that God wants to lead us into temptations, and so he was favoring translations which avoid such a misleading view of God. Actually the traditional Spanish translation, “do not let us fall into temptation” (no nos dejes caer en la tentaciόn) is more along the lines of what Pope Francis had in mind, and he seems to have been favoring such a translation for liturgical use in Italy and France, I believe. I think the matter continues to be debated. Greek scholars of the Gospels seem to think that the “do not lead us into temptation” is an accurate translation, and the exegetes tell us that what we are calling “temptations” are also “trials,” and fit within the general and traditional Jewish context of the many trials and tribulations with which we have to struggle. Even Jesus knew such trials aplenty! Just think of his “temptations” in the desert (Mk 1, Matt 4, Luke 4), or his prayer to be delivered from the trial at Gethsemane in Mark 14.

The issue has been a prickly one throughout the tradition. Augustine knew of the issues involved, and thought that either a more literal translation, or the one favored by Pope Francis (which had its favorers early in the tradition) were permissable. The newest (1979) version of The Book of Common Prayer also offered a Pope Francis-friendly version in its modern rendition, “Save us from the time of trial …” This gets us into the issue of what kind of God Jesus believed in and preached. Down through the tradition the general consensus has been that God does not want us to succumb to temptation, although given that all is in God’s hands, God somehow “allows” or “permits” our struggles indirectly. This does not satisfy some today, true, but it is the general consensus. Paul had already talked about not being tested beyond our strength by God and being given a way to endure (1 Cor 10:13), and we find a similar teaching in James 1:13, even more daring: “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”  James then continues, “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it …” (1:14NRSV). Pope Francis is well within that trajectory, and James may be reacting to attempts to promote a view of God which falls below Jesus’ standard of the always loving Abba.

This whole question is actually a very fascinating question about what is happening in translation, but even before translating, about understanding texts in their literary and linguistic forms. Maybe we should turn to some of that now.

Just how would such a literary consideration help us here?

The sixth petition in Matthew takes the form of the traditional Jewish biblical antithetic parallelism. Actually, as some exegetes have noted, the entire Our Father is made up of parallelisms – a very Jewish way to do things – of varying kinds. John Dominic Crossan is perhaps the best at this, at least among those I have read, among interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer, in his The Greatest Prayer (4-6). The psalms are the example par excellence of parallelisms. Take Psalm 23’s first verse: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want [NRSV].” The two parts form a parallelism. If the Lord is one’s shepherd, well, then, one will not be in want/need. So the two statements parallel each other. But it is really more than that. The two statements do not simply repeat one another, but more or less interpret one another, the second in this case going on to bring out a dimension of the first statement. Crossan says that the parallelism creates a “vibration of thought, a metronome in the mind” which gives rise to a kind of meditative spiraling onto deeper and deeper depths of meaning. There is a kind of repetition, but one that leads on to deeper things. This happens to people who pray the rosary and repeat the same thing frequently, like the “Hail, Mary,” or something similar, as the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Christians, “Lord, Jesus, have mercy …” Sometimes repetition bursts into new insight! Biblical parallelism works in a similar way, it seems.

So, if we now return to Matthew’s sixth petition. Here one part takes a negative form: “And do not bring us to the time of trial,” followed by a positive part paralleling it: “but rescue us from the evil one.” If it be true (antithetic) parallelism, the statements should illuminate each other, bringing out various dimensions of one another. Being rescued from the evil one is one of the deeper meanings of “not being brought to the trial.” The Prayer would seem to be saying that Jesus’ Abba is the kind of God who rescues, however much we find ourselves in the midst of trials and struggles. God, whether God “allows” this or not – from the traditional Jewish and Christian perspectives, all is within and under God’s power in some sense – can be counted upon to rescue us, to give us a way through it all. The arc of the universe is bending toward rescue, we might say.

So that is an example of how attention to literary form can be helpful and open up new perspctives. It doesn’t solve everything, certainly not such heavy questions like why do we have the kind of universe we have, in which there are trials and struggles. Or why is galactic evolution the way it is? And so on.  The Lord’s Prayer is expressed in a more “primary” form of insight and symbolic language, and not in the more left brain and conceptual categories of the religious philospher. But it can point us in the right direction.

I would recommend imagining the entire Our Father as one great series of biblical parallelisms, bulding up to the one great climax of God as the rescuer. And because God is that, it seems entirely appropriate that it end from time to time in the great doxology: “For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and always. Amen.”

So as we pray it, we are participating in this wave upon wave of the meditative and spiraling energy of the prayer’s parallelisms. Good translators are sharing in this energy, and that may be just what makes for a good translation, rather than a poor one. Whether it be Malotte’s musical rendition, or Dante’s, or Hemingway’s, or Atwood’s, for example, we might ask whether what they offer seems within the flow of that original energy of biblical parallelism.

Since you’ve brought up this issue of translation, could you say something about our traditional English translations of the Lord’s Prayer? I mean, how did we end up with the versions we usually hear in the public square and the various Christian churches?

That is a fascinating question, and naturally it goes back to the time of the Reformation in England mainly, which more or less established the default position of the English-speaking churches.

Besides the addition of the doxology at the Prayer’s end, which we already touched on, many of us will quickly think of the words “trespass” and “debts” as one of the big differences in traditional English versions. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” as over against “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  This variation actually goes back to the early translations of William Tyndale (1534), which uses “trespass” language, and Miles Coverdale (1536), which uses the “debt” language. Poor Tyndale suffered martyrdom for his “illicit” translation, but Coverdale managed to escape that fate, because popular pressure was building on King Henry VIII to allow vernacular versions. It was actually The Book of Common Prayer of 1549, during Edward VI’s reign, which gave official sanction to the version with trespass language in it, and which is widely used by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, many Protestant Christians, and many of the Eastern Orthodox churches using English, while the use of debt language prevailed among the Reformed/Presbyterian traditions, perhaps because the King James version of 1611 followed Coverdale’s translation and the Geneva Bible. It was this King James version (during James I reign) which also added the doxology, and this (doxology) too eventually found its way, appropriately, into the liturgical use of the Prayer (1662 version of The Book of Common Prayer).

Matthew’s Greek version is now translated by scholars as “debts/debtors,” such is the irony of history! Luke’s version uses “sin” rather than “debt,” but “debtors” rather than sinners/trespassers interestingly.

One of the interesting questions is whether the word “debt” simply is a metaphor for “sin,”as in Psalm 37:21 (“The wicked borrow and do not pay back”),  or whether Jesus was remembered as preaching something more radical, namely a society in which debts of all kinds are erased. Franciscan Richard Rohr often writes about an “economy of grace,” launched by Jesus, versus an “exchange economy,” based on the do ut des view of life: I will give you such and such, so long as you give me such and such in return. There was the tradition of the Jubilee Year, in which debts were to be forgiven (Deut 15:1-2), and Jesus invoked that tradition in his preaching (Luke 4:18-19). And Jesus’ parables speak about forgiving debts: “I forgave you all that debt … should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave …” (Matt 18:32-33). Did Paul have this in mind when he wrote: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rom 13:8)?  This would be radical stuff indeed, but it fits in with the Sermon on the Mount, in which the Lord’s Prayer forms the central key, we perhaps remember.

Another issue going back to Reformation times which I might mention, which was debated in the English territories between the more “catholic” side of the Anglicans and the more “reformed” side (especially the Puritans and those like-minded) was whether the Lord’s Prayer was to be treated as perhaps the chief example of how to pray, or necessarily as an example which needs to be followed word for word. This goes back in part to Matthew’s version, which uses the Greek adverb “like/in this way” (6:9: houtōs), in which Jesus is saying something such as, “pray in this way, or like this,” but not necessarily meaning “in these exact words.” So if this be the case, then the Our Father is a model, but not one necessarily to be literally copied. Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas was fully aware of this and wrote about it agreeably, and John Calvin from the Reformed side as well. The Puritans and more radical reformers at the Reformation wanted to stress the freedom of divine grace in prayer, not locking it up into formulas which we control. Interestingly the LDS (Mormons) follow this approach rather typically.

Going back to the actual words and form of the Our Father, would you give us a brief overview of it as a whole?

Basically, we have the two versions (of Matthew and Luke), as we mentioned. In each, the Prayer begins with an address or invocation, namely, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew) or “Father” (Luke). The address is very important, and shouldn’t be glossed over. It sets the tone for all that follows, and is more like an overture in an opera. It contains what follows in a kind of laser-like, miniature form. The word “Father” or Abba in the Aramaic implies a God with a family, or a God who cares about one’s family. The word actually unites the two parts of the prayer, a first portion focusing on God, and a second part, focusing upon God’s family. It is like the two great commands to love: love God, love your neighbor. Titus of Bostra in the fourth century called this address an “epiclesis,” which is fascinating, because it suggests the invocation of the Holy Spirit at the Eucharist, which completes in some way the transformation of the elements into the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood. So, following this, the epiclesis of Abba would mean, not just that we are thinking of the Father, but that the Father, through the Spirit, is among us, and in some way our prayer is a flowing with the energy of this Father. The prayer in a way is praying us.

Next, it is universal in the tradition that the Prayer has its two parts, namely a first portion focusing upon God, and a second portion, focusing upon our human and worldly circumstances. Like the two sides of the decalogue (Ten Commandments), or as noted, the two-sided love command. There has been some debate over the centuries about just how many “petitions” each part has, but in general, following Matthew’s version, we have 6 petitions, three in each of the two parts. Luke would give us five, two in the first part (because it lacks the part about doing the Father’s will), and three in the second part, like Matthew. Matthew’s version seems to have generally been chosen for liturgical use, and that may have something to do with that Gospel being the first of the Gospels in the canon of the New Testament.

We might also recall that Matthew’s final petition is more packed than Luke’s. Matthew says “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one,” while Luke simply says, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

So we can find some variation in the tradition about what these petitions actually are, and their number. For example, one might combine the first petition with the invocation. Or one might separate the two parts of Matthew’s final petition into two petitions, and then we would  end up with seven petitions, which was a view held more in the western tradition up to Thomas Aquinas, who began to waver on that point. I guess there is something about the number seven that attracts people! If it suggests perfection, well, then surely the Lord’s Prayer, which is perfect, must be in seven parts!!!

If we pay more attention to the literary form, and how that actually is transformative for us, enabling us to enter into and more fully participate in the prayer, we might avoid some of these missteps. For example, thinking of the invocation as an overture/epiclesis, or remembering that the Prayer is in the form of a series of crescendoing biblical parallelisms, with the sixth petition of Matthew forming an example of antithetic parallelism (see p. 132, Figure 2).

Would you like to say a little about each of the petitions? For example, what did you and your original fellow searchers in the workshops you gave find intriguing and helpful?

First, a bit more about the invocation. Abba is one of those fascinating symbols. By the way, the entire prayer is loaded with primary symbols, rather than neatly delineated concepts. Like the symbols often found in poetry. This is one of the alluring qualities of the Prayer, its ability to give rise to an almost endless surplus of meaning. Abba is a way of addressing God, a very personal way. It suggests something of a family relationship, and this is one of the reasons why the book uses the word “kin-dom,” by the way, to bring this out more fully.  What we think of as our family is actually only a tiny fraction of what Jesus thinks his family is.

There has been much debate about the word Abba, but the consensus now seems to be that it is Aramaic for a personal God, but not likely meaning “Daddy”in New Testament times as some thought at one time, although some are saying that it has evolved into meaning that today in street Hebrew/Aramaic! Such are the ironies of history. The word is found some twenty times or so in the Hebrew Scriptures, and some fifteen times as a form of direct address to God. So the word is used in Jesus’ Judaism, but it seems to explode in the New Testament (some two hundred and fifty occurrences!). This raises interesting questions about the impact of Jesus’ influence here.

This is an area which might be surprising to some/many, who still think only Christians, following Jesus, spoke of God as a Father. Tertullian, for example, who wrote one of the earliest treatises on the Our Father, claimed that the Jews did not know this title for God, while Origen a little later – surprisingly, given his reputation for biblical knowledge – refined that a bit, arguing that they knew the title, but never used it as a form of direct address for God (but they did! See Isa 64:8, for example). St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas unfortunately followed Origen’s view!

And the petitions?

“Hallowed be your name”: What is the name being referred to? In Judaism the holy name was the “I Am” (YHWH), and that seems to be what John’s Gospel thinks of. Was Jesus giving us another name (Abba), and if so, why? There are all sorts of issues here, even extending up to the question posed by feminist exegesis, as to whether female symbols for God are also needed? And how can we hallow God’ name? Does that mean we are presuming to render holy a reality which is holiness in fullness? This was one of those issues thought about throughout the tradition. Rowan Williams considers this one of the most relevant petitions for today, having to do with not manipulating the Divine. A great temptation in any age, especially for religious denominations, but maybe especially in a consumer society, in which our needs rule supreme.

And, “Your kingdom come”?

This gets us into Jesus’ central message and work, at least for the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Again, try to think about this word as a symbol, with layers of meaning, suggested by the various parables of Jesus as well as his Jewish heritage.

There was the kingdom of Israel, and that suggests something historical and political even, so was Jesus commiting himself to a new kind of political and social configuration, perhaps something we could call the alternative community of welcoming love and justice and shalom? But this petition is among the first three, focusing upon the Father.

So this new community is the Father’s . . .  it is a new kind of kin-dom rooted in the Father’s hospitality. This petition is very social – pulling us into community. The Abba keeps it personal, so to speak, and warm, while the kin-dom breaks the personal out of a kind of incipient narcissism.

Does this petition mean that Christianity will always be in some kind of tension with the various societies in cultures and nations? And perhaps should be? If things get too cozy, maybe we are not praying the Prayer well enough? Thomas Aquinas has a very surprising view on this, holding that until every one is a reigning king or queen in their own right, enjoying the fullness of freedom, the Prayer is not being prayed well enough. “In fact,” wrote Aquinas in one of his commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, “not only will all be free, but all will be kings,” with the petition for the kingdom’s coming in focus (In Orationem Dominicam, 1056).

Aquinas could be quite subversive, something that political philosopher Eric Voegelin noted: “Thomas makes freedom or servitude the criterion of good or bad government. If the members of the community cooperate freely in the enterprise of common existence, the government is good, be it a monarchy, aristocracy, or polity. If one or many are free and conduct the government in their [own] interest by exploiting others, the government is bad.” (see Voegelin’s The Middle Ages to Aquinas, 218-19; cf. Jeffrey C. Herndon, Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order, 100)

And “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

This is a fascinating petition, missing in Luke. In a way, it is part of the one long parallelism of the Prayer. If the kingdom/kin-dom comes, then the Father’s will shall in fact be done. But “will”language suggests something deeper than organizational shells (which kingdom language might regress toward), suggesting something like the command to love with our entire heart, mind, and soul. That must be the spirit moving our prayer and work. The best institutions can be manipulated without this energy pervading them.

This petition also forms something of a bridge to the next three, which begin to focus upon the earth and our earthly concerns. It also, in our neocosmocentric age, gets us wondering about the earth/ecology, but also about the heavens in the original sense of the skies, but now in our more extended sense of the galaxies/space in the most extensive sense. The prayer here radically widens and decolonizes us.Even our space travel needs to be within the ethical horizon of this Prayer, or it too could devolve into something very pernicious. We have barely begun to think about this. I wish I had read astro-physicist Michio Kaku’s The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth before writing my book! One does not think about the symbol “heaven,” or even “earth” for that matter, in the same way after listening to the astrophysicists. But a Teilhardian thinker like Franciscan Ilia Delio has also helped greatly widen my and our lenses about these matters, not to mention Teilhard de Chardin himself!

Perhaps I should mention one last matter, before moving to the final set of three petitions. The first petition that the name be hallowed is, as Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins suggested, an example of the Hebrew reverent passive. “Hallowed be your name” [by You, God], is our prayer. The passive attests a God whose name is too holy to say, so to speak. It attests God’s primacy and grace (see his The Lord’s Prayer, 57-59).

Prayer prays us, its energy works through us, and our work, itself a gift, is to let that happen. That is like what we find the Jesus of John’s Gospel saying: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once” (John 14:31-32). The Hebrew passive, which is a passive rendering its participant very active, but in a new kind of way! Very much what some of the traditional mystics seem to have in mind when they write about the passive mystical experiences, where our will is utterly one with the divine will, in its energy flow. This sets the tone for the entire Lord’s Prayer. The prayer prays us!

And “Give us this day our daily bread”?

With this we move into the second set of three petitions, echoing the second part of the command to love, namely to love the neighbor. It seems as if the Lord’s Prayer is a working out of the two great commands to love (loving God = the first part; loving the neighbor = the second part). If we are loving the God who is Abba, well, I guess we will be loving our neighbor, with ourselves included. Learning to be a neighbor to ourselves seems to be among the blessings of this prayer. The Prayer continues to widen us, to decolonize us!

There’s an old debate in the tradition about what is the “highest” form of prayer. Is it adoration, in which we seem to be caught up into the mystery of the Divine, like the angels of the prophet Isaiah, singing their “holy, holy, holy”?  Or is it the more humble petitions for our needs, and for forgiveness, which after all is a recognition of God too, but also very much a recognition of our humanity and earthliness? And of our imperfection. It is as if the Prayer is a prayer for the imperfect, for those on the way to the kin-dom. In a way, the Lord’s Prayer opts for both and combines both, seeing no opposition between them. It is all very incarnational, the God become human and earthly. But note the “order,” so to speak: the hallowing is first, the human and earthly concerns follow. That may be very important, as if to suggest, if we mess up the order, well, not so good consequences may follow.

But maybe we do not need to worry overmuch about this, if we be praying humbly and well. Notice where we pray the Lord’s Prayer at Mass/Eucharist/The Divine Liturgy. Usually before the fraction, or breaking of the bread, and so it is part of the eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving, the “Canon,” which stresses the awesomeness of God’s deeds in history, like the first portion of the Our Father. But at times the Our Father is prayed after the fraction in some rites. So here the Prayer’s second part is being emphasized … give us this day our daily bread. So this liturgical variation perhaps helps us see that we need both – adoration and petition/service – in our lives.

What about this “bread” now, for which we ask?

Here it helps to keep in mind that we are dealing with symbols emerging from our primary field of experience and practice, for within this habitat “bread” gestures toward any number of references, actual food for eating of all types, bread in a narrower sense, or just about anything that seems to nourish us, even spiritually. We see this range of meanings in the long Christian tradition, with the eucharistic food/elements finding its place, along with a kind of reference to the manna feeding the Israelites in the desert on their long journey to freedom. John 6 picks up on this, joining the eucharistic food which Jesus gives with the manna: Jesus is the bread, the manna, which God gives and our ancestors fed on (6:35).

The biblical scholars find echoes of all of these in the Lord’s prayer. Both Matthew and Luke use an adjective which so far has not been found in traditional Greek (epiousion), which is translated as “daily” usually: “Give us our daily bread.” But it is a guess, an educated guess, but a guess, based largely on context. When you align this word with the earlier petition praying for the kingdom’s coming, this makes sense. We need bread or nourishment for the work on behalf of the kin-dom, which in Jesus’ preaching seems to be both a present and a coming event/reality simultaneously. Matthew and Luke then further qualify this “daily bread’: Matthew petitions for it “today/this day”, while Luke uses “each day” or “day by day.” This is all in Greek, of course: sēmeron (in Matthew) and kath’ hēmeran (in Luke).

Matthew uses the aorist here, while Luke does not (Luke also doesn’t use it in the next petition where we forgive). The aorist tends to evoke an event which has decisively arrived, and will not be repeated. It may be an event stretching over a period of time. But it has happened. Matthew may have in mind Jesus’ kingdom, which has decisively come in Jesus, and especially with his resurrection. Scholars characterize this as Matthew”s more “eschatological” orientation (hence, “this day”).

Interestingly, if one is really hungry in a physical sense, one would be inclined to focus upon the more literal meaning of bread for eating. There are many starving people in this world, daily. How often do we think of them when we say this petition? On the other hand, Margaret Atwood, in her retelling in The Handmaid’s Tale, stresses the lack of humane and spiritual nourishment the women held in captivity are experiencing in her novel’s misogynist dystopia. They need to be nourished by dignity, respect, justice, and freedom.

When we eat, typically, we seem to combine both the physical and the spiritual: we seek nourishment on the physical level, and we enjoy doing this in the context of social company who nourish us in spiritual ways. The word “companion” actually literally means someone with whom we break bread ( in Latin: cum = with [hence, suggesting a “com-panion”]; panis = bread). This is all very Semitic, and very incarnational!

The way you describe this petition makes the Our Father very real and relevant.

I believe so, and this is perhaps even more emphatic as we move to the next petition: “And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6: 12) or “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4a). If we again think in terms of biblical parallelism, we might think of this petition as a further spiraling into the meaning of praying for the bread we need, for often we lack this bread because of our debts and sins, or the debts and sins of others among whom we live. This is the problem of suffering, physical and spiritual, and it can extend even unto our obligations to the earth and even to the cosmos in the larger sense.

Another and related way to view this is to come at it from the perspective of the very practical soil of our primary field, where the dimensions of our existence are in interrelationship and only compactly differentiated, if at all. Binary or oppositional thinking is more characteristic of our “secondary” fields of experience and thought. We might say that the poetic art form of parallelism, such as we find it in the psalms or the Our Father, is characteristic of the primary field of our existence.

What we said about sin, and also about the question of whether Jesus may be speaking of even moving beyond an exchange economy on into a grace economy of hospitality might be recalled here. Of course, all of this becomes very utopian if it is removed from the context of the Sermon of the Mount and the gift of grace offered us by Abba.

Something which was debated in the tradition, in addition, was whether God’s forgiveness was conditional upon our forgiving of others. The biblical pattern would seem to argue for an unconditional interpretation. This links up again with grace. As God graciously forgives us, so we, participating in that energy, find ourselves doing likewise. Remember Matthew 18:32-33: “I forgave you all that debt . . . should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” Of course, the Reformers Luther and Calvin followed this unconditional view, given their recovery of the primacy of grace. But listen to St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote a wonderful interpretation of the Our Father in her The Way of Perfection: “Like someone who has accomplished something, we shall think that the Lord pardons us because we have pardoned others. Help us understand, my God, that we do not know ourselves and that we come to You with empty hands; and pardon us through Your mercy” (36.6, 180, Otilio and Rodriguez translation).

We have already spoken about the sixth and final petition, when we were speaking of Pope Francis’ preference for how to translate it. Do you want to add anything here?

Mainly I would stress that the prayer’s ending here is very positive, namely, our being rescued from evil. The last word is positive: rescue. And that may be why it was very appropriate to add the doxology at times: ‘For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever. Amen.”

Notice, too, that only Matthew has “but rescue us from evil/the evil one” (6:13b). That gets into the question of whether the evil one, that is, the Devil/Satan, is a proper interpretation of the Greek word ponēros, which it may well have been, given Matthew’s eschatological tendencies and the role of Jesus’ struggle with the demons in the Gospels. Here I find it helpful to ask ourselves what we lose if we were to eliminate all Satan talk? Perhaps our listener may want to consider this. I attempt a sketch of the issues in the book.

The Prayer speaks the symbols/language of our primary field, and only comes to the edge of the kind of conceptual issues and attempted clarifications found in theology’s and philosophy’s more “secondary field.” For example, saying that God allows evil and the satanic raises all kinds of questions about God and about us, which secondary thinking must struggle with but likely never fully and satisfyingly answer.

You have spoken several times about “primary experience/language” and the “primary field.” Could you say something more about that?

Some liturgists have written about primary theology as the kind of theology which liturgical worship does; that is, it “thinks” and “speaks” in images, symbols, music, art, ritual, etc. It remains relatively closer to our basic or originary experience and language, more right brain, in general. It is only later, by a kind of second reflection upon ourselves, that we try to put these images and symbols and experiences into some kind of orderly, conceptual thought. This would be typically characteristic of our left brain. (Of course, there is some evidence that given accidents which damage one of the sides of our brain, the other side can then learn to compensate.) Now, going a bit further, some have suggested that this kind of primary experience and language lives on the soil of our primary field, a field embracing all of our key interrelationships, with the divine Ground, with the entire cosmos, with society and culture and churches, and then with our own closer, more intimate experience. A large brew.

Our primary field tends to avoid binary or dualistic thinking; it tends more toward our original interconnectedness and unity. Our consciousness may focus upon God, or nature/cosmos, or society, etc., but the other dimensions are “there,” tacitly and subliminally, easily able to break into consciousness.

This may all be a bit theoretical – typical of our secondary fields, so to speak – and I am relying on the wonderful work done by many others, like Eric Voegelin, Friedrich von Hügel, Karl Rahner, Paul Ricoeur, Michael Polanyi, Aidan Kavanagh, Ilia Delio, Teilhard de Chardin, and others.

But, yes, this manner of thinking helps us picture the Lord’s Prayer as emerging from the soil of our primary field. It is brimming with symbols, with the poetry of biblical parallelism. Prayer of all kinds is in many ways illustrative of our primary field: adoration and thanksgiving emerge out of our relationship with the divine Ground; intercessions for others and/or ourselves, from our social, church, and personal experiences/encounters; sorrow and contrition, from our problematic encounters with God, others, and ourselves. (See my Figure 1, p. 122.)

One further thought: Within our primary field, various movements are always happening. We can be inattentive to these, on a more conceptual, secondary level, but there they are! And they always have been. Like the waves of quantum theory, vibrating and flowing. Or like the “strings” of string theory, carrying energy and interconnecting us. In the past the great breakthroughs, like the emergence of sapient humans, or the agricultural and then industrial revolutions, or the spiritual revolutions of the prophets and Jesus, of a Mohammed, or of the sapiential breakthrough leaders like Confucius, Laotzu, and Gotamma Buddha, or the Upanishadic explorers of India, or the great sapiential philosophers like Socrates and Plato, and more. And we dare not ignore the great mystical explorers, male and female, on to today. And then we have the more contemporary movements emerging with the western “Enlightenment,” the yearning for democratic governments, the emergence of the sciences of psychological and social critique smbolized by a Freud and a Jung and a Karl Marx and a Max Weber, and so on. And then we have the emergence of postmodern explorers, and of course the few yet amazing globalist/planetary explorers. All of these have enriched us and yet challenged us, and my book strives to approach the Lord’s Prayer from a perspective enriched and stimulated by all of these great transitions in history. They give rise to the rich surplus of meaning found in the Prayer’s ongoing reception.

We began this interview with some of the surprises you experienced. Did you discover some others?

Well, research brings its own little surprises, which can delight, partly because these surprises raise questions. For example, we have mentioned the variation of the versions given in Matthew and Luke. Those are well known, but even that brings its little surprises, when you look into it closely. And we have tried to do some of that already. Then, going a bit further, I did not know that Tertullian offers a version of the Our Father in which the petition for doing the Father’s will actually precedes that for the kingdom’s coming, or that Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor know a version in which the petition for the coming of the Holy Spirit takes the place of that for the kingdom’s coming. These variations are typical of the primary field, where conceptual delineation is not central, I imagine. But the replacement of the kingdom by the Holy Spirit is intriguing and worth thinking about.

Mentioning the Holy Spirit brings up the doctine of the Holy Trinity, and that was something I had just assumed was unmentioned in the Our Father. And then I read Father Nicholas Ayo’s book, The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. This priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, from the University of Notre Dame, has also written insightful studies on the “Hail, Mary” prayer and the lesser doxology, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.” Each of these books is brimming with insights that can only come from years of keen praying and meditation, but with a scholar’s sensitivity too. Readers of my book will see how Father Ayo’s work has been very important for me.

But to return to the Trinity. Father Ayo suggests that it is implicit, in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: we have the Father, of course, with “Hallowed be your name.” He then suggests that, given Jesus’ connection with the proclamation of the kingdom of God, as its mediator, that the petition for the coming of the kingdom implies the work of Jesus the Christ. We might add that calling upon the Father/Abba is enormously characteristic of Jesus, the Son of the Father. Finally, Father Ayo suggests that the petition for doing the will of the Father evokes the work of the Spirit, whose work is to bring about our own participation in the mutual work of Father and Son.

This then, I am thinking, helped me to ask whether the second set of three petitions might carry its own theological resonances. As I was working on them, I was motivated to suggest a redemptive pattern emerging: from creation (the petition for bread, evoking God’s gift of creation), to creation’s struggle with evil and sin (the petition for forgiveness), to the gift of salvation and deliverance from evil, through deification and deliverance (the final petition for rescue from evil/the evil one). This redemptive pattern is found widely among the religious traditions, Abrahamic and sapiential.

You have just mentioned that this redemptive pattern is found among the world’s religions. This reminds us of the interreligious and maybe even global dimension of your book. Would you like to say something more about that?

That may be a good note to end on! Anglican Bishop Kenneth Stevenon’s wonderful book on the reception history of the Prayer, The Lord’s Prayer: A Text in Tradition – so far as I am aware, the source for this in the larger Christian tradition – asks the question: “But to whom does this prayer belong?” (228) He suggested, in response, that if we follow Matthew’s Gospel, it belongs to all. If we follow Luke’s, to Jesus’ disciples. So we have a tension, between the universal and the particular. And how else might we move into the universal, except through the particular? It just seems that our globalizing era is pushing, dragging, and challenging us toward this!

Both implicitly, for its fuller implications are only now being realized in our globalizing age, and yet explicitly in some significant manner too, a unity in diversity of the one family of the Abba of heaven and earth shines out for us in the Lord’s Prayer. We have one Holy Abba loving us as our Mother in one family (the kin-dom): there is the unity. The diversity we recognize as well: in the heavens and earth, in the cosmos, in the universe in its entirety, in the many species, and of course in us humans, in whom the cosmos has become articulately conscious and self-conscious, and perhaps, we as yet do not know, in other highly conscious beings.

So we trust that the various religions, and all creatures, are participating in one vast ecosphere. And correspondingly our symbols, generated in this vast primary field, might be said to have a roughly equivalent significance as they arise from our experience of and participation in the same partners in reality (the divine Ground, nature and cosmos, societies, cultures, churches, and persons and all creatures). This may well be one of the great surpluses of meaning of John 14:2: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

And so my book explores possible echoes between the Lord’s Prayer, with its rich symbols, and various prayer fragments from the world’s religions. The Prayer prays us, and as it does, it widens us, globalizes us. We learn more and more to “stop slamming doors,” in Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s words.


Also see Eugene Webb’s review of “Your Kin-dom Come” and William Thompson-Uberuaga’s “Mapping the Different Approaches,” “Participation and Interpretation Theory,” “Eschatology, Geography, and the Advancing Jesus Movement,” Being, Becoming and Metaphysics,” “History and Place, Historiogenesis and Geogenesis,” and Craig Baron’s “The Postmodern “Christian” Theology of William Thompson-Uberuaga.”


William Thompson-Uberuaga

William Thompson-Uberuaga is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He is author of eight books and a co-editor, with David L. Morse, of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works Volume 22: History of Political Ideas - Renaissance and Reformation.

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