Lord’s Prayer still can change the world, Crossan says

Here’s Part 2 of our series with internationally renowned Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan, talking about his new book for individual reading and small-group discussion: “The World’s Greatest Prayer.” (In Part 1, we reported on the timely significance of Crossan’s topic—and we offered a new version of the Lord’s Prayer that you might want to copy and use yourself.)

Today we welcome Crossan to talk about his research into The Lord’s Prayer and the arguments he lays out in his new book. (Crossan often goes by the first name “Dom,” as you’ll see below.)

You can buy a copy of “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer” from Amazon now.


DAVID: First, let’s tackle head on the opening words of the world’s most popular prayer: “Our Father.” You argue that such an opening holds a vital meaning and doesn’t necessarily depend on the patriarchal bias of the ancient world in which it first was voiced. And, you also warn that we shouldn’t tinker too much with that opening. It’s not enough to start the prayer with a neutral, “O God.” You argue that using the term “Father,” or “Parent” perhaps, is very important. Why?

DOM: The world’s greatest prayer does start off with this patriarchal term, “Father,” and we have to admit that, yes, the Bible has a basic preference for terms like that. And, of course, it was originally a patriarchal reference. It comes out of a patriarchal tradition. So, that’s no big surprise.

But let’s look at the meaning within that wording and we find that it’s very important to what comes after it in the prayer. What we’re really doing is—we’re starting the prayer by calling upon the Great Householder. A householder could be either a man or a woman but of course biblical authors had all of these assumptions about men being the householders.

Today, we’re really talking about God as the Householder of the Whole. Or, another way to put it is: God is the Householder of the World. That’s what we’re saying when we begin that way. What really interests the writers of the Bible is: What should a good household be? What should a good householder do? Re-read the Bible and you’ll find this concern runs throughout: Everybody agrees that it’s a bad household if half the kids are starving and half are overfed. And that’s just one example.

By calling out to God as Father, we’re invoking God as Householder of the World—and specifically we’re calling to God as Householder of a World in which everyone should have enough. That’s how the prayer starts and really the whole meaning of the prayer is right there in the opening words.


DAVID: You use some further phrases to explain this idea. You say we’re not calling for “retributive justice” in this prayer. In other words, we’re not calling down punishments and lightening bolts. The Lord’s Prayer is really about “distributive justice”—having enough for everyone in the world to meet the world’s basic needs.

DOM: Yes, absolutely. The heart of my whole argument is that we’re not talking about how to get ourselves into heaven in this prayer. And, we’re not talking about punishment in this prayer. This prayer isn’t calling the world an awful place and focusing all our energies on just escaping this world and getting into heaven. No, this prayer is saying: If you could ever get up to heaven and see how God runs that household, you’d realize that God runs a very good, fair household. And, if right here on earth, our overall household is not doing too well, then we’re clearly not hallowing God.

Think about the increasing inequalities not only in our own country over the last 25 years, but the vast inequalities between the world’s poor and the wealthy in many of the world’s rich countries. There’s been an exponential increase in those inequalities in recent years. Compared with the biblical ideal of God’s household, that’s a horror! What’s happening in our world is absolutely horrifying, compared with what the Bible is teaching us about God’s household.


DAVID: If readers buy your book and use it in a small group, you’re going to get some spirited discussion with these issues. And the conversation is really going to heat up when readers get to your section on “forgive us our debts.” That’s the section of the prayer in which some people pray “trespasses;” some people pray “sins.” Your book has a whole lot to say about this portion of the prayer. Give readers just a little summary of some of the issues they’ll encounter.

DOM: Well, it’s very interesting that when you go through the text of the “Our Father,” you discover that toward the end you begin to get these various translations. “Daily bread” is still the same everywhere, but there are various translations of  “debt.” The original term in the original prayer almost absolutely was “debt.” But we’ve also inherited this word “trespasses” and Luke changes it to “sins,” although he still says “as we forgive our debtors,” so he retains a bit of the original.

Anyone in the ancient world would have understood the original version clearly: We need bread for today. Very clear. Then, what would have to come next in such a prayer was: No debt for tomorrow. Those were the two peasant nightmares: finding bread for today and getting out of debt tomorrow.

When that term is translated into “trespasses,” then we’re sliding into some kind of spiritualized, confusing interpretation of the prayer. The English word “trespasses” is terribly confusing. What does that word mean? Probably something about crossing a farmer’s field or maybe sneaking into a gated community. We see that word mainly on signs: “No trespassing.” Pretty soon, we can end up with a section of the prayer that’s close to meaningless for modern people.

DAVID: We all hate debt, these days. But you point out that debt is bigger than just owing money. In the biblical understanding of debt, this is a direct pathway toward slavery, right?

DOM: Yes, the Bible always puts debt and slavery together. Remember, the Bible originally was speaking to people who were mostly small farmers. That’s the focus of the Torah. The big question was: How do we live together and protect the family farm? At that time, people were sold into slavery over debts. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery over a debt.

In our world at the moment, I think we may be coming to see this problem in new ways. Think about the mortgage meltdown we just went through. There are people now who owe more on their houses than the houses are worth. They’ll never be able to get out of debt. Is this a new way of enslaving people?

Today, how does one country take over another country? We don’t send in an army anymore, for the most part. No, that’s a crude, old-fashioned way to control other countries. Now, we enslave other countries by controlling their economies.


DAVID: You’re careful to explain in the book that your interpretation of the prayer is built, reference by reference, from the biblical record itself. This isn’t a case of Dom Crossan stepping into the prayer and taking it in some strange Socialist direction, for example.

DOM: Right. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, this is just liberalism of the worst sort!” Or, “You’re just putting Socialism into the Lord’s Prayer!”

So, I wanted to come up with my own term to describe this meaning within the prayer that won’t confuse people with those other political arguments. I might have said that the prayer is calling for “egalitarianism,” but that’s not right. It’s not accurate. Good households aren’t run on egalitarianism and that’s even not the issue in this particular prayer. We’re not calling for everyone to have exactly the same. That doesn’t work and it isn’t fair. If a child becomes seriously ill, we all agree that child should get extra care. If a woman becomes pregnant, we all agree that she should be able to get all she needs during her pregnancy.

We’re not talking about giving every single person exactly the same thing. We’re talking about people having enough—and that’s not a precise term and it shouldn’t be a precise term. Enough will vary, but that’s the goal—enough to meet our daily needs and to avoid crushing debt tomorrow. So, I call that “Enoughism.” The Lord’s Prayer calls for Enoughism.

DAVID: Finally, you make it very clear in the book that we are talking about a prayer here. We’re talking about a spiritual experience of invoking the Spirit of God, not merely taking some kind of good-hearted civic pledge. I really like the sections of your book in which you try to describe the idea of God’s Spirit praying with us—even praying from within us. I think readers are really going to enjoy thinking about and discussing those sections of your book.

DOM: Right. I do get terribly nervous when people start arguing that I’m somehow trying to push politics—that I’m ignoring religion. That’s a notion alien to the Bible. What the Bible is interested in is the question: Who owns the world? And if God owns the world, then how is it to be run?

A phrase like “Kingdom of God” is not comfortable contemporary language for us, but the phrase does push us to raise questions like: What would it look like if God drew up a budget for the whole world next year? What would that budget look like?


DAVID: You write in the book about the many ways that we as humans create our own problems in God’s Household. When we allow such horrific inequalities to exist—including areas of the world where infants and their mothers die at shocking rates, for example—then we shouldn’t be surprised that there are rising tensions in the global community.

DOM: I like to talk about building a boat. If you build a boat but you don’t seal it properly, then you take that boat out to sea—you’re going to sink. Well, when that happens, don’t blame the boat. Don’t blame the sea. We didn’t build the boat correctly in the first place. The same thing is true of the world. If we don’t build the world correctly, there will be problems. A God of Justice created this world and this boat won’t sail right if we forget the importance of justice.


DAVID: Readers are going to enjoy a lot of your fresh metaphors in the book. I like the one comparing God to an electrical outlet in this prayer. We’ve got to connect back to God or we’re not going to get far in this prayer—or in this larger enterprise of reshaping the world.

DOM: When we talk about these things, remember that we’re actually taking on what’s considered “normal” in our world. In human civilization, we’ve come to think that violence is normal. We’ve come to believe that injustice is normal.

We’re taking on some very big forces here, and we can’t hope to do it alone. We really need the transcendent empowerment of God. I’m not talking here about just trying to increase our charitable giving a bit. Now, don’t think for a minute that I’m discouraging charitable giving. I’m not. But I’m talking about something much bigger than just a little more almsgiving.

I’m talking about fair distribution in our world. That’s a challenge so big that we need God with us—and in us—if we even hope to make a difference.

You can buy a copy of “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer” from Amazon now.

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