Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 6:5-15
In first century CE Jewish literature, a piece of writing would have it’s climax in the centre, rather than at the end. Here, in the centre of three ways of practicing justice (Mt 6:1) is Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Some scholars place this passage as the centre, and therefore the climax, of the whole Sermon on the Mount.
Verses 9-13 contain the Lord’s Prayer, as it has come to be called. Many have noticed how the first half of the prayer, verses 9-10, concern things “in heaven” while the second half concern things “on earth.” But in the mindset of first century CE Jews, there was no such distinction—they are two sides of the same coin.1 The prayer, then, envisages the world—in all its earthy reality—in the way God wants it to be.
The first half of the prayer petitions for God’s name to be “hallowed”, for God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done. Hallowing God’s name is not simply about God being shown proper respect or honour. Rather, God’s name in the prophetic tradition was honoured in the restoration of God’s people from exile. Isaiah 52:5-7 expresses it like this:
“Now therefore what am I doing here, says the Lord, seeing that my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers howl, says the Lord, and continually, all day long, my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (Isaiah 52:5-7)
The second half of the prayer is a picture, especially for Matthew’s struggling community, of what God’s will and reign will look like. God’s reign is a community that has enough to eat. “Our daily bread” is not a metaphor—it is quite literally having enough bread to stave off starvation. God’s reign is people sharing generously and being prepared to release one another from debts—the word opheiléma, which is often translated as “sin,” actually carries the meaning of economic debts. Jesus’ prayer, then, envisages a world of release from debts—a continual living out of the tradition of the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55). As such, praying for release from debts concerns not only personal relationships but economic systems and structures.
God’s reign expressed in Jesus’ prayer also envisages the deliverance for those on the underside from exploitative overlords who would bring them “to the time of trial,” before the courts to take what little they have. Such “justice” enabled the elite to fill their pockets at the expense of the poor, but it was a far cry from the justice of God. The poor of Matthew’s community, rather than seeking justice in the courts, could only seek it from God.
The Lord’s Prayer, then, envisages a world where God’s will is enacted on earth, as all have enough and communities organise their resources so that no one needs to fall into perpetual debt; a world where leaders rule wisely for the good of the community, not exploitatively for their own gain; and a world where “justice” is not bought by the rich nor “order” imposed through violence by the strong.
- Imagine you are a member of Matthew’s struggling urban community. Which words of the Lord’s Prayer are of greatest encouragement to you?
- Which words challenge you?
- Have someone read through the Lord’s Prayer, pausing after each line.
- After each line is read, take some time in your group to pray for one another, your neighbourhood and the world, according to the content of each line.
1. John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer (Pymble: Harper Collins e-Books, 2010), 182.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 6:19-24
Having taught about nonviolent and just relationships in chapter 5, Matthew’s Jesus now turns to economic relations. This is another integral aspect of life as God created it to be. In Matthew’s time, the economic assumption was one of “limited good”—if one person accumulated wealth, it meant that someone else was losing it. To store up treasure, then, was in effect taking what belonged to another. It meant that the accumulation of wealth came at the expense of communal relations. Here, Jesus calls his followers to reject the way of chasing after economic gain, and so have hearts rich toward one another and God.
In first century Mediterranean culture, “people believed they could see because light proceeded from their eyes, which worked something like a flashlight.”2 In speaking of an eye that is “unhealthy” (this word ponēros usually means “evil”), perhaps Jesus is talking about their perspective. “Where you stand will determine what you see,”3 and this is nowhere truer than in economic relations. The view of reality for Matthew’s struggling urban community or the Galilean crowds listening to Jesus was no doubt very different from that of the ruling elite, whose interpretation of reality had to somehow justify their exploitation of the poor.
In verse 24, Jesus cuts right to the heart: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Here, we should not understand mammon simply as wealth. As ancient agrarian societies changed from barter to cash economies, it had huge ramifications for peasant workers. Rather than paying taxes in a proportion of their crop, they now had to pay in money amounts, which meant that debts accumulated and exploitative rulers could much more easily strip the poor of their land. In speaking of mammon, Jesus is referring to an economic system that was fundamentally unjust—exploiting the poor and enabling the rich to accumulate wealth and land. To the Galilean peasants on the hillside, Jesus’ words are a call to a way of living outside of the service (the word douleuein here is “slave”) of unjust economic systems.
Of course, we live in a world that is vastly different to Matthew’s. Our assumptions are not that good is limited, but that economic growth can continue perpetually. We are now recognising, however, that the perpetual consumption required to feed such an economic system is coming at a terrible ecological cost. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda sums it up:
“For humankind to achieve a sustainable relationship with our planetary home, the economic order that we assume as a given—advanced global capitalism and ways of life in accord with it—is not an option. This is not an ideological statement or a political or moral opinion. It is a statement about physical reality.”4
A world of economic justice, though, is proving to be a slippery ideal. Where we stand does determine what we see, and for those of us who benefit from the world’s economic systems, it is especially difficult to see and imagine different possibilities. According to Jesus, refusing the way of accumulating wealth and benefitting from exploitative systems is the only way that we might begin to imagine a just world.
- What stands out to you in today’s reading?
- Spend a moment in silence together. Are there ways that God’s Spirit is prompting you to act?
- Share with the group or a partner and pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
2. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), Kindle loc. 1009.
3. Robert McAfee Brown, Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 35-36.
4. Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), Kindle loc. 993. Emphasis in original.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 6:25-34
In today’s reading, Jesus continues his teaching on economic relations, appealing to the created order in all of its richness for images of God’s provision. Jesus’ followers have no need for the anxious accumulation of possessions, for they only end up owning their possessors. In Bonhoeffer’s words:
“Be not anxious! Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of all anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable.”5
Jesus’ teaching here is not only concerned with luxury and excess. Even the necessities of life—food and clothing—are to be matters of trust in God’s provision. To our ears this might seem like a word which is impractical or even irresponsible. But when we consider what Jesus does call his followers to strive after—“the kingdom of God and his justice”—we might begin to see the kind of world that Jesus imagines. This is the same world that Jesus’ disciples are taught to imagine into being as they prayer the Lord’s Prayer. It is a world where people live in just communities, sharing their food and resources out of God-empowered generosity, and a world where people live without exploiting or dominating one another. In such a world—a world Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven”—anxiety for the necessities of life need not be known.
- Imagine that you are a Galilean peasant villager hearing Jesus’ words for the first time. How do they make you feel?
- In what ways do Jesus’ words challenge or encourage you?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. (1948; repr., London: SCM, 2001), Kindle loc. 2474.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Transformation
Read: Isaiah 61:1-11
- What transformation do you long to see in your neighbourhood?
- What transformation do you long to see in your own life?
- Are there ways in which you sense God asking you to open yourself further to the transformation of the Spirit?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer