The Greatest Prayer -- A Review

THE GREATEST PRAYER: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer. By John Dominic Crossan. San Francisco: Harper One, 2010. 193 pages.

The Lord’s Prayer is one of the best known and most beloved prayers in the World. Christians may disagree about a lot of things, but they all seem to find deep and abiding meaning, strength and spiritual sustenance in this prayer. But, even though we may recite this prayer weekly or even daily, often from memory, do we truly understand what it is we’re saying as we offer this prayer? That is, is there more to this prayer than meets the eye and could this prayer be in its original form a revolutionary manifesto? That is the contention made by John Dominic Crossan, one of the leading and best known Jesus scholars of our day, as he takes up this prayer. In the course of eight chapters, together with a prologue and an epilogue, Crossan invites us to join him in wrestling with the theological, political, social and cultural implications of this prayer, and the result is an extremely helpful book, even if at points it appears as if the prayer itself fades into the background of a broader discussion of the biblical story.

As I offer my review of Crossan’s book, I need to acknowledge that I have just published my own book on the Lord’s Prayer, a book that carries a title that might suggest that I read the prayer in ways similar to Crossan [Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer (Energion Publications, 2010)]. I will leave that possibility to the discernment of those who choose to read both books.

The prologue and the Epilogue offer clues to the trajectory that this book follows. The prologue carries the title, “The Strangest Prayer,” and in this prologue Crossan makes the point that while this prayer is offered up by Christians of every imaginable perspective, the prayer itself doesn’t address many of the issues that different Christian groups hold dear – whether inerrancy of Scripture, substitutionary atonement or even the resurrection, and yet it is prayed people who tend to ignore what it does say. This is not a Christian prayer per se, but is, the author contends “a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world.” It is, in Crossan’s view “a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth” (p. 2). This insistence that the prayer is deeply rooted in Judaism, leads the author to explore in some depth the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible underpinnings of each phrase in the prayer.

The book concludes with an epilogue entitled “The Strangest Book.” The point of this interesting title is that the Christian Bible, in both its testaments holds out visions of God that would seem contradictory and that require Christians to decide between these two visions of God, one being is a description of a violent God and the other a vision of a nonviolent God. Crossan makes the important point that the distinction isn’t to be made between testaments. Both visions are present in both testaments, with, in his mind, the Book of Revelation being the most violent book to be found in any major religious text. The question that he poses for the reader, especially the Christian reader, asks which of these two visions of God we believe Christ incarnates. How we answer this question will influence how we read and interpret the Lord’s Prayer, or as Crossan is fond of referring to it, the Abba Prayer.

For Crossan, the God who is addressed by this prayer is the God not of “violent retributive justice and punitive righteousness,” but the God of “nonviolent distributive justice and restorative righteousness” (p. 188). And if this is true of the God addressed by the prayer, then the question concerns how we understand the one who brings this prayer to us – is this person representative of a non-violent or a violent vision of reality.

As we wrestle with the origins of the prayer and the Scripture that contains it, we turn to the prayer itself. In a fashion that is typical of Crossan, and of his regular writing partner Marcus Borg, Crossan makes much of the metaphorical dimensions of the text and context. He sees the Father addressed here not in patriarchal terms but more metaphorically and in a more egalitarian fashion as the “householder” and in this vision God is protector, provider, and model. There is a focus on the communal over the individual. We are, he notes, co-responsible with the householder of the world in which we live. As for the holiness of God’s name, here the focus is on God’s role as the deliverer of the oppressed and the one who engages in distributive justice – making much of the Sabbath guidelines in the Hebrew Bible.

In regards to the prayer’s reference to the coming of God’s kingdom, Crossan sets his understanding of the Kingdom of God in the context of competing visions of kingdoms and empires, noting how Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man stands in contrast to the claims of earthly empires, and in Jesus’ vision there is a new paradigm of what a kingdom looks like, with the traditional vision of a warrior/deliverer king (a new David) being exchanged with the vision of the nonviolent collaborator with God in building an egalitarian and just community. When the author moves to the phrase concerning the will of God, which he believes concludes the first half of a three part parallel structure to the prayer, he turns his focus to atonement theory and whether it was God’s will that Jesus die this death on behalf of humanity – as a substitute. While I found myself in agreement at many points with his assessment of atonement theory, especially Mel Gibson’s cinematic vision I had a difficult time connecting this conversation to the prayer itself.

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer, which is discussed in chapters six through eight, according to Crossan focuses on requests for daily bread, forgiveness of debts, and temptation/deliverance. Regarding the bread, he sets this request in contrast to Herod Antipas’ desire to control the sharing of loaves and fishes (and the discussion here goes to Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand), and how that moves toward the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, where loaves and fish turn to bread and wine. The key point in this supplication is that in contrast to Antipas, God’s distribution allows for enough so that all might be satisfied. In regards to the forgiveness of debts, Crossan notes how the request for the forgiveness of literal financial debts transitions through the idea of trespass into a request for the forgiveness of sins. Crossan suggests that for Matthew, God forgives only if we’re willing to forgive, but he asks us to consider whether God is willing to forgive everything except our own lack of forgiveness of others. To Crossan, in his own vision of God, however we interpret the request, whether it is debts or sins, God’s forgiveness is never conditional. With this request we move to the final request – that God not lead us into temptation but deliver us from the evil one. The primary temptation is to give in to violent resistance to Rome.

Five themes emerge in this prayer, according to the author, which are interwoven throughout the prayer. The first theme is a movement from the patriarchal to the more egalitarian “householder.” On this, I understand the value of this transition, but I’m not sure that abandoning the father image offers the most helpful contrast to the imperial father image. The second theme is the idea that the prayer calls on the ones offering the prayer to serve as God’s stewards of creation – as God’s images/icons. Third, there is the idea of Jesus as son of the Householder, and in this Crossan decides to retain the seemingly patriarchal term for it offers us the idea of Jesus as the heir of God, as first born son – in this I’m of a similar view, that Jesus is the older brother who invites us to share in God’s inheritance. Fourth, there is the call to collaborate with Christ in the movement toward the eschaton or “Great Divine Cleanup of the World.” And finally, there is the recognition that this is both “revolutionary manifesto” and “hymn of hope,” and it is addressed from Christian mouths to the “conscience of the world.”

Perhaps it was ironic that I received notice of the publication of The Greatest Prayer, even as I was sending my own manuscript to the publisher, because I had already made use of ideas and images from Crossan’s earlier books – many of the ideas that Crossan fleshed out more fully here. I would have loved to have had this book before I wrote mine, but that wasn’t possible. But, as valuable as this book is, there is room for other contributions to the discussion. Some of these contributions, like mine, will stay closer to the prayer itself, while others, including Crossan’s will expand horizon, filling in even more details that lie behind the statements we are making. What Crossan does here, whether or not you agree in total with his perspective, is demonstrate his remarkable talents as a scholar of the New Testament. He reminds us that this prayer didn’t emerge in a vacuum, but arose from the context of political and social upheaval. The people who prayed this prayer faced a system that promised peace, but did so at the point of a sword. The God to whom this prayer is addressed offers something different. Readers, especially those who enjoy Crossan, will find this a compelling read. My only concern is that the book sometimes loses track of the prayer itself, and thus the reader isn’t sure how the prayer as it stands fits into one’s faith today. But, that may be due to the fact that Crossan is himself somewhat estranged from the church. Thus, this book is best read together one that emerges more directly from within the church. But, the key here is that Crossan challenges us to think deeply about what it is that we’re saying in this prayer and recognize that we may be asking for more than we’re able, or willing, to embrace – especially the revolutionary and the subversive nature of this prayer.  The God we are addressing here is the God of distributive justice, not the God of retributive justice.  As he notes in the closing line of the book, what he has learned from studying in depth this prayer is this:
"Justice is love, love is justice.  That is all we know on earth, and all we need to know." (p. 190).


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