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The Lord's Prayer When Bread Is Scarce and Debts Are High

Apr 28, 2008
One of the most familiar Bible passages is the "Lord's Prayer," which occurs in both the "The Sermon On The Mount" in Matthew 6:9-13 and "the Sermon on the Plain" in Luke 11:1-4. Although it is not immediately obvious to most people who pray this prayer, economic issues are at the heart of the prayer.

Even though every Christian church uses the Lord's Prayer, following Matthew's version rather than Luke's, there are variations in the exact wording.

Most Protestant churches end the prayer with the words, "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory." Roman Catholics omit this phrase. Some churches use the archaic English "thy" and "thine."

The most important difference between various churches concerns the word meaning "debts." Some churches use the word "debts, some use "trespasses," and some use "sins."

When Jesus taught his followers to pray for daily bread and forgiveness of debts, it was more than a prayer for spiritual sustenance and forgiveness of sins. He was first of all referring to real bread and real debts.

The fundamental meaning of the Greek word for "debts" is financial. The prayer makes the need for real bread and payment of debt explicit. This intention is consistent with Jesus' concern for the poor and dispossessed of his society.

The most important belief expressed in the prayer is that the time will come when God will establish God's rule on earth, in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God does not refer to Heaven. It refers to God's rule on earth, when God will end oppression, poverty, and suffering on earth. This is clear in the language, "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

When "Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" become spiritual metaphors, they lose the connection with real food and economic debt, which was what Jesus intended.

For Jesus's audience, bread and debt were much more than metaphors. Hunger and debt were constant realities of life for an underfed, overtaxed population. Much of the misery of the peasants and beggars in Palestine resulted from debt. The peasants had to turn over much of what they grew to the king or other members of the urban elite class who claimed proprietary rights to whatever the peasants grew on the land. As a result, many of the peasant farmers were hopelessly in debt. Many of the beggars had been forced off their land by failure to pay their debts.

Jesus condemned the society, which had created such a vast gap between the haves and the have-nots. He criticized the rich for exploiting and oppressing the poor. He also criticized the religious system for judging so many groups of people in the society to be "unclean" and unworthy of God's blessing.

He saw firsthand the extent of hunger, poverty, sickness, and suffering endured by most of the population. He saw how the rich landowners grew rich at the expense of the poor. He saw people who were homeless because they had been driven off their land by high rents and taxes. He saw people living in poverty because the largest percentage of what they grew or made or caught was confiscated by taxes. He knew what it was to live under Roman occupation, where Roman soldiers could force people to do almost anything. He saw how the Temple system collaborated with the Roman occupiers to bleed the people of their money and their power.

It is also true that the words of Jesus reflect Aramaic tradition, which used "debt" as a metaphor for sin. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Aramaic writings show that the language of "debt" and "debtors" was used regularly for "sin" and "sinners." Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer preserves this Aramaic idiom. Here and elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus is clearly using the double meaning of "debts" to refer to both real money debts and sins.

In Luke, the financial reality behind the metaphor is lost because Luke uses the word "sin" rather than "debt." This obscures the underlying concern with real bread and real debts.

If Christians want to pray as pray as Jesus intended, it is essential to recover the literal meanings of the words that have been treated as spiritual metaphors. Especially in these times, when basic staples such as wheat, rice, and corn are in short supply, prayer for daily bread is not simply a spiritual exercise. And prayer for forgiveness of debt is a reality for those facing foreclosure and bankruptcy, because they cannot pay their economic debts.

Jesus intended his words to refer to suffering and injustice in his own society. This prayer for bread and debts referred to real bread and forgiveness of real financial debts.
About the Author
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D. What if most of what you were taught about Jesus and money is false? Get your copy of Going Broke With Jesus at www.GoingBrokeWithJesus.com to see how often Christians misunderstand what Jesus taught about money.
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