After the introductory address of “Our Father in heaven,” the Lord taught His disciples to make three commands. In Greek, these three commands are in the third person imperative, a grammatical form that does not exist in English. In English, we have a second person imperative: “stand up,” “walk to the door” “open the window.” In the second person imperative, you tell someone, or command someone, what to do. In a third person command, you do not specify who should do the action, you are only commanding that the action be done. In English, we usually express such an idea with the phrase “let (something) happen”: “Let the games begin,” “Let there be light,” “Let them eat cake.” In the case of the first three commands at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, the first and third are passive, while the second is active and the “let” is implied, not stated, in all three: “Hallowed be Your name,” “Your kingdom come,” “Your will be done.”
Those of you who are my regular readers are probably wondering, “what’s with all this grammar? Fr. Michael doesn’t usually begin his posts this way.” No, I don’t usually begin this way; however, I admit, it does come naturally to me to start with grammar. I taught English grammar to international graduate students for over twenty years. I’m often thinking about the grammar of sentences, taking them apart and putting them back together again in my head in order to understand them better—or not, depending on the writer. Usually, I don’t burden my readers with my grammatical musings because usually, in the end, they don’t really add much to the understanding and application of the material I read and talk about. But in the case of the Lord’s Prayer, especially in the case of the first three commands, understanding the grammar makes a huge difference in understanding what our Lord is teaching his disciples to do when He teaches them to pray. So hang in there with me. We’ll get to application soon enough. There’s just a little more grammar to slog through. And don’t worry too much if you don’t get the grammar stuff very well. I expect the application will make a certain amount of sense even if you don’t quite follow the grammar.
Okay, back to the Lord’s Prayer. The first three commands of the Lord’s prayer are followed by a modifying phrase, “On earth as it is in heaven” or in Greek, literally, “As it is in heaven, so also on earth.” This phrase, I had always assumed, modifies the third command: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” However, many ancient Fathers of the church point out that this phrase does not just modify the third command, but rather modifies all three commands. And since their understanding of Greek grammar is certainly much better than mine will ever be, I think I have to concede the point. So as we read the first three commands of the Lord’s prayer, we need to read them (at least in our minds) like this:
“Let Your name be holy (as in heaven, so on earth)”
“Let Your kingdom come (as in heaven, so on earth)”
“Let Your will be done (as in heaven, so on earth)”
And one more small point that I mention because some people I have talked to read significance into it, but none of the holy fathers or mothers that I read, read any significance into it. (That said, I hasten to add that I have not read everything written by the holy fathers and mothers, ancient and modern, on the topic of the Lord’s Prayer. So I am open to correction.) The matter has to do with the plural form of the word “heaven” in the Greek. In the first phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” the literal Greek rendering would be: “Our Father in the heavens.” More than one person has mentioned to me that they think the plural is significant. Perhaps it is, but I don’t think so. I don’t think so because four lines later, when heaven is mentioned again, it’s grammatically singular: “On earth as it is in heaven.” In the Lord’s Prayer I think the plural and singular forms of heaven both refer to the same spiritual reality, the plural form is just a hebraism. That is, as in many places in Matthew’s gospel, a Hebrew expression has been translated literally into Greek. We need to read hebraisms according to the Hebrew idiom, not according to the exact Greek form. And in Hebrew (and in all languages) there are many words that are always plural in one language, but translate into a singular word form in another. (Consider, for example, in English, “pants” and “scissors” (always plural in English) which translate into grammatically singular words in other languages.)
Boy, I’m really giving some of you a grammar workout today. Thanks for sticking with me thus far.
Let’s begin now some application, starting with the command, “Hallowed be Your name (as in heaven, so on earth).” Don’t let the poetic word order throw you. What Jesus taught his disciples to command in prayer is “Let Your name be holy.” Several ancient writers link this command with Romans 2: 24 “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (St. Paul is quoting the Septuagint version of Isaiah 52:5.) If we are going to command in prayer that God’s name be holy (as in heaven, so also on earth), then we must begin by understanding that where it is not holy, where the name of God is blasphemed, it is because of us, because of the church, because we who call upon God as Father do not live as God’s sons and daughters. Ouch! I must confess that when I read this connection (in more than one place, by the way), I thought, “that’s too harsh.” Having, at Christ’s instruction, just called upon God as our heavenly Father, we are to command that His name be holy (as it is in heaven, so also on earth) knowing that it is because of us. It is because of the brokenness of us who call upon God as our Father that His name is blasphemed in the world.
Yes it is harsh. It’s harsh if we have any pretensions of being anything more than mere prodigals on the way home to our Father, mere repentant sinners weeping at Jesus feet, mere broken pots standing at the back of the church beating our chest, not even lifting our eyes but saying, “have mercy on me a sinner.” If we thought we could call God our Father (without being commanded to do so by our Lord) and could shine unsullied as daughters and sons of God in the world, shine as though we were already free from passions and victors over every temptation and wile of the evil one, then yes, it would be harsh to connect this phrase of the Lord’s Prayer to the words of Isaiah and Paul. But if calling upon God as our Father is something we only dare to do, something we dare to do only because we have been instructed by our Lord to do so, then perhaps the connection makes more sense. We are commanding in prayer, according to Christ’s instructions to His disciples, that the harm we have done in the world, the harm that we have done to how the Gentiles see and understand who God is, that is, how the unbelievers or the weak believers see and understand who God is, we are commanding in prayer that this harm we have caused in the world be healed. We are praying that God’s name no longer be blasphemed, but that it be held, understood and known as holy (as it is in heaven, so also on earth).
I think one of the reasons why some of the church fathers linked Romans 2:24 to the first command of the Lord’s prayer was to remind their hearers—most often catechumens about to be baptized—that our Christian status as adopted children of God does not give us grounds for pride, but rather calls upon us to take ownership of the brokenness in the world. Let’s try to get at this by looking at a slightly different example of the same phenomenon. I can pray for the hungry and needy of the world, and afterward feel pretty good about myself, especially if with my prayer I make a contribution to an agency that helps feed the hungry. I can end up feeling really good about myself for devoting some of my mental energy in prayer and even some of my resources to solving a terrible problem in the world. I can feel very good about myself when I do this, so long as it is a problem caused by someone else. So long as hunger is the fault of someone else: the government’s fault, the big corporations’ fault, the fault of the waring factions in some other part of the world, so long as it is not my fault, I can feel pretty good about myself for helping someone else in my prayers and with my deeds. But if hunger in the world is due to my selfishness, my overindulgence, my uncritical participation in economic systems and political structures that contribute to and perpetuate extreme inequity in the world, then if that’s the case, then my prayer and my action to alleviate hunger in the world is merely my duty. It is my duty in some small way to work to counteract the painful consequences of a broken world that I myself have contributed to and helped to perpetuate. It’s the least I can do.
Yes, it is very hard to take ownership of our own participation in the brokenness of the world. It takes great spiritual maturity, or maybe just a great deal of personal suffering, to realize that the sin I see in others has in some way or another at least some small roots in me. My brokenness contributes to the brokenness of others. It is very common (at least in my part of the world) to hear young Christians in conversation berate the failings of the older Christians in their life. Not a few young people have distanced themselves from God and the Church because of the failings and weaknesses they see so evidently manifest in their Christian parents, or other people in authority in the Church. In fact, it is kind of a pattern you notice after you have been hanging out in church circles for thirty or forty years. The pattern goes like this: young people distance themselves from God and the Church because they are offended by the weaknesses of those older and in authority in the Church. Then these same young people grow up to become the very ones who offend the next generation. And here’s the really ironic part. Now that they are older, they are still blaming their weaknesses on their parents or others who hurt or disappointed them when they were young.
I think this first command that Jesus teaches us to pray and how some of the church Fathers taught us to think about it can help us break this cycle of blame. Whether we are young or old, it really doesn’t matter, we have all sinned. We have all made the world a harder place for someone else. We have all failed to love our parents or our children as we should. We have all contributed to the name of God being blasphemed by someone. And yet, it is always so much easier to see where others have failed. It almost takes a leap of faith to say “I too am a sinner.” It takes a leap of faith to say, “I too have contributed to the brokenness of the world.” If the name of God is blasphemed because of me, then when I dare to command in prayer that God’s name be holy, then I say such a prayer from a place of humility. I pray that God’s name be holy fully aware that it is I myself who have contributed to making it otherwise.
This is at least one of the reasons why catechumens in fourth century Alexandria were taught to associate Romans 2:24 with this first command we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. We are not the holy ones praying that others will get their act together. Rather, we are the ones who have contributed to the mess, the blasphemy of God’s name. Therefore when we pray, “Hallowed be Your name,” we are praying that we and the whole world will be healed of a blindness that we ourselves have helped cause. We are praying that we all may come to see God’s name as it really is: Holy.