In the Gospel of Matthew, the account of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is found right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. One way to understand the sermon is to see it as a description of the character of the kingdom of God.
That Jesus understood the kingdom of God as a present reality for his followers may be seen in the opening of his model prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth” (Matt 6:10).
How do we understand what this will is? By considering the character of God.
In Luke’s version, Jesus’s disciples ask him to teach them to pray (11:1). And he teaches them what God is like: generous, caring, forgiving and responsive.
Both gospels present the kingdom of God as a social order centered on trust in a merciful God. Clearly, Jesus meant to present prayer and faith as living here and now in harmony with the character and will of his “Abba” (the word that is translated “Father” here). In calling God “Abba,” Jesus means to communicate intimacy and loving kindness, the characteristics of loving fathers and mothers.
Our challenge, I think, is to imagine a “kingdom” — a social order, our communities — as places that rest on a bedrock of mercy and compassion.
We notice at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer a radical idea that is sometimes missed in our English translations.
Jesus explicitly teaches the forgiveness of debts. And he asserts that God is profoundly a God who forgives debts. In this teaching, Jesus challenges social dynamics based on reciprocity, where debts must always be paid. The economics of a debt-centered society lead to the compounding of debt and, all too often, virtual slavery where debtors can never repay what they owe but must forever be working to try, as they fall further and further behind.
The centrality of debt forgiveness has deep theological and spiritual significance as well. If we reflect carefully about what Jesus teaches here, we might be alerted to the possibility that God does not relate to us in terms of debt and payment. Salvation itself might better be seen as a simple gift from God and not as the result of some kind of payment to God that satisfies our debt.
However, we misunderstand if we think that salvation as a gift means that anything goes, that it does not matter how we live, that we all have a “get out of jail free” card. Jesus concludes his teaching in our Matthew passage with some challenging words: “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Abba forgive your debts” (Matt 6:15).
The point, I want to suggest, is that mercy flows through the same channel whether we are giving or receiving it. If we don’t forgive, that shows that we don’t know about forgiveness and are missing God’s forgiveness of us. God forgives because God does not relate to us in terms of debt and payment. When we genuinely receive God’s mercy, we will view others in the same way.
Jesus follows his model prayer in Luke 11 with a couple of fascinating stories (11:5-13). The one who begrudgingly gives his neighbor bread when woken at midnight, and the parent who gives her child a fish or an egg when asked, are imperfect human examples of generosity. How much more generous must God be?
Jesus’ teaching about prayer is actually teaching about the character of God. The kingdom of God reflects the character of its king — merciful and generous. The king is not harsh and legalistic. We will see this portrayal of the leader of the kingdom vividly affirmed a few chapters later in Luke in the story of the Prodigal Son.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.