© Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra
THE ‘JESUS PRAYER’, JESUS NEVER PRAYED!
I wish to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal People
and to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.
There are some assumptions behind this presentation which I want to declare up front. You may or may not wish to agree with them. But they are my assumptions.
(i) Jesus was a ‘secular’ sage, a wandering teacher of unconventional wisdom;
(ii) His language was concrete, ordinary, and often indirect. He never sought to cite or interpret scripture or to establish a different religion;
(iii) We can hear fragments of his ‘voice print’ in the genuine parables and aphorisms found in the synoptic gospels and to a lesser extent, in the Gospel of Thomas;
(iv) There were ‘many’ Christianities, not just ‘one’ expression;
(v) What we know as the Jesus Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer in both the biblical records and the various christian liturgical expressions, was not prayed by the historical Jesus.
My presentation this evening will reflect on these assumptions as we think about the historical Jesus and what liturgically is called the Lord’s Prayer or Jesus Prayer. My primary resources will come from the scholarly efforts of Hal Taussig and Burton Mack, sprinkled with the reflections of a few others, as well as my own.
Jesus as secular sage
Jesus was a Jew, not a christian. He never rejected his Jewish roots. He made no theological statements. Neither did he set out to establish a new religion, appoint clergy or inaugurate celibacy. Although it appears he did encounter opposition to his perception of religion and reality from the authorities of the day, just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation.
As a wandering secular Galilean sage, he belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism. His language is often indirect and highly metaphorical, while the primary information or ‘voice print’ regarding Jesus comes from the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and to a lesser extent, the Gospel of Thomas.
Progressive thinking distinguishes between the historical Jesus (pre-Easter Jesus) who lived in a particular time and place, and the mythical Christ (post-Easter Christ). However in the traditional church the historical Jesus is smothered by superimposing the heavenly figure of Christ on him (Funk & Hoover 1993:7).
“Jesus is displaced by the Christ, as the so-called Apostles’ Creed makes evident... Nothing between his birth and death appears to be essential to his mission or to the faith of the church” (Funk & Hoover 1993:7).
Subsequently, progressive thinkers seek to ‘undomesticate’ Jesus (Robinson 2000:15). Some of the best (I reckon) current historical Jesus scholarship comes from the Westar Institute and its various seminars. Its founder, the late Robert Funk, (Funk 2000) compiled a short list of insights about this historical Jesus. Among them he listed:
(i) Jesus as sage, teaching orally
(ii) trust is the horizon of the kingdom
(iii) kinship in the kingdom
(iv) celebration rather than apocalyptic
(v) humour, humility and morality
(vi) the cross as symbol of integrity.
But, Funk concludes,
“christian conviction eventually overwhelms Jesus: he is made to confess what Christians had come to believe” (Funk & Hoover 1993:24).
In recent years there has been less talk about a ‘divine’ Jesus which has resulted in Jesus having been given a ‘demotion’.
“Such a demotion of Jesus in relationship to God has kept Jesus’ value as a centrally exemplary human being, often compared with the Buddha, Mohammed, or Moses. In other words Jesus has remained a central figure for the faith of [progressive] Christians, while becoming more human than divine” (Taussig 2006:27).
Beginnings of several ‘christianities’
From early days there was not one unified group or vision called ‘christianity’. There were several. Separate, often not knowing of others existence. And when these different visions met, it was often a clash! For instance, the clashes between Paul and Peter over the very nature of what it means to be ‘christian’, continued to rage in one form or another, from group to group, for nearly 300 years.
“Since the fourth century, Christians, in the main, have championed Paul’s view... [And] since Paul and his disciples wrote virtually half of the New Testament, it is little wonder that modern Christians regards the Jewish Christians as the ‘villains’ in the story” (Hedrick 2006:5).
One of those so-called movement groups was a community we now call the Q people (from the German ‘Quelle’ meaning ‘source’) and its writings scholars call the ‘lost gospel’. New Testament scholar Burton Mack sets the scene for us:
“Once upon a time, before there were gospels of the kind familiar to readers of the New Testament, the first followers of Jesus wrote another kind of book. Instead of telling a dramatic story about Jesus’ life, their book contained only his teachings. They lived with these teachings ringing in their ears and thought of Jesus as the founder of their movement. But their focus was not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny. They were engrossed with the social program that was called for by his teachings. Thus their book was not a gospel of the Christian kind, namely a narrative of the life of Jesus as the Christ. Rather it was a gospel of Jesus’ sayings, a ‘sayings gospel’” (Mack 1993: 1).
Then their ‘voice’ was lost, Mack suggests, “somewhere in the course of the late first century when stories of Jesus’ life began to be written and became the more popular form of charter document for early Christian circles” (Mack 1993:1).
What is important here is how a founder of a movement is remembered. Is the founder remembered for the teachings or the deeds or destiny? For the Q people it initially was from the former: the status of the poor, hungry and grieving; relationship with enemies; the demands of love; the importance of forgiveness; the importance of self-criticism and limitations; how to pray; the nature of God’s rule, etc. For the members of the later communities to which Matthew and Luke addressed their stories, and adapted and developed the Q ‘voice’ further, it appears it was the latter.
The origins of christianity, understood as a movement among Jews, not as a new religion, lay “in the ideas and practices of Jesus and his first followers” (Patterson 2006:20). But in reality, Jesus of Nazareth contributed very little to what emerged as orthodox christianity! (Funk 2006:183).
The gospels view of Jesus at prayer
With these very sketchy comments as foreground, let me approach the subject if this presentation – Jesus’ prayer life in general, and the Jesus/Lord’s Prayer, specifically.
Hal Taussig in his book Jesus before God suggests there is a reasonable amount of material in several of the gospels which has Jesus at prayer. All the different bits don’t all fit together. Neither are they all reliable historically.
Taussig’s research unearths the various ‘gospel’ layers. Briefly put:
• Gospel of John
Jesus is portrayed as divine and partner of God
Jesus only ‘prays’ once – a chapter-long prayer – prior to his arrest and crucifixion
• Gospel of Matthew
Jesus teaches about prayer
Prayer has got to do with heaven and accompanied by fasting
• Gospel of Luke
Luke’s Jesus prays a great deal
• Gospel of Mark
Jesus does not pray very much at all
Most attention: Jesus praying in Garden of Gesthsemane in a desperate situation
Jesus does not teach prayer
• Gospel of Thomas
Brings out the mystical side of prayer
Prayer not mentioned in a positive light
Taussig offers what I reckon is this important comment:
“…these gospel portraits of Jesus at prayer were not written primarily to describe how Jesus prayed. They aimed at helping people learn how to pray in their own circumstances. The portraits of Jesus at prayer in each of the gospels were different, because each was fostering a particular spirituality in a unique setting” (Taussig 1999:48).
It is not possible to determine conclusively how frequently Jesus prayed. However, it seems likely from the voice print fragments we can discover, it can be suggested:
• Jesus prayed in a wide variety of settings about a broad spectrum of issues,
• Jesus’ prayers made people react, and
• Jesus’ prayers helped people learn (Taussig 1999:98-102).
In fact “his prayer life seems to have been much more broadly focused than that of many religious people today” (Taussig 1999:98). A brief overview of that prayer life can be heard in the Jesus Prayer of the Q people.
The Q ‘collection’, people and prayer
Traditional thought seems to have it that a Christian community established itself immediately following the death of Jesus of Nazareth. However scholarship now questions that, especially scholarship influence by Q studies and the current Nag Hammadi research. So some exploration is needed:
what is the Q ‘collection’?
who were the Q people?
(i) The Q collection
A Q collection called ‘The sayings of Jesus’ is not a manuscript in the sense of bits of papyrus found in old jars somewhere in Egypt or elsewhere. What it is, is bits and pieces of this ancient writing
“found scattered about in the gospels of the New Testament… that slowly emerged. Its existence at the bedrock of the Jesus traditions gradually forced itself upon scholars who hardly noticed the momentous significance of their discovery because the material was already so well known” (Mack 1993:16).
A case of not seeing the trees for the forest! Likewise it was only after some detailed scholarship on various documents, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Didache and others, by James Robinson and John Kloppenborg, that the possibility of the existence of a sayings or wisdom collection before the existence of story documents, came to be tested.
Following Kloppenborg’s work, scholars now generally accept Q has at least three layers to its overall shape:
• Q1 = the earliest layer, an aphoristic style, is very close to the Cynic’s style of making social critique;
• Q2 = second layer, prophetic style and appeal to epic lore (figure of wisdom);
• Q3 = latest additions, apocalyptic in style and the day of the son of man/God.
While Q1 is regarded as the earliest layer, it is composed of seven (7) clusters:
Instructions for the Jesus Movement
Confidence in the Father’s care
On Anxiety and Speaking Out
On Personal Goods
Parables of the Kingdom
The True Followers of Jesus.
“What we do know is that the community of Q produced a very popular document that was widely read during the last quarter of the first century. It must have be copied many times and shared among several groups of Jesus people who were going separate ways. Mark, Matthew, and Luke each used a copy of Q independent of each other, and each made use of Q from a distinctly different perspective… If one were to ask which of the narrative gospels most nearly represents an ethos toward which the community of Q may have tended, it would be the Gospel of Matthew” (Mack 1993: 172. 173).
(ii) The Q people
Again scholarship is changing. Some of the early suggestions said they were itinerant charismatics who imitated the radical life-style of Jesus. Other thought suggests they were ecstatic prophets who spoke in Jesus’ spirit and name. Current thinking now says:
• the Q people were part of lively Jesus movements,
• they were placed in the Galilean environment (rather than in northern Syria and Asia Minor),
• their ‘voice’ is the best record we have of the first 40 years of the Jesus movements,
• Jesus is much more like a Cynic-style teacher than either a Christ-saviour or a messiah with a program of reform, and
• there is no indication they were interested in salvation by personal, spiritual transformation on the Christ model.
Looking at this in just a little more detail… between the years 40 and 70 the Q people ”developed a series of strategies to respond to increasing antagonism in the villages of Galilee” (Taussig 1999:51). And they shaped these strategies in part by drawing on some existing synagogue prayer forms, and from their memory of what Jesus said. The strategies were:
(i) they started writing their wisdom down,
(ii) they began to claim Jesus as their founder,
(iii) they began to compose and write down angry sayings, condemning those who rejected them,
(iv) they began to institutional prayer as a response to their situation.
One of those strategies – a liturgical approach - we have come to identify as the Jesus Prayer or The Lord’s Prayer. For the sake of this presentation I want only to take a brief look at Q1, the earliest, and only on prayer. This is Mack’s translation of what is in Q1:
'Father, may your name be holy.
May your rule take place.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Pardon our debts, for we ourselves pardon everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to trial [into a trying situation]’.
Taussig’s translation is similar:
Your name be revered.
Let your basileia/kingdom/reign come.
Give us the bread we need for today.
And forgive us our debts to the extent that we forgive
those who are in debt to us.
And please do not subject us to test after test’.
Immediately we should notice neither has the wording most people associate with the so-called liturgical Lord’s Prayer, known to us.
Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name
your kingdom come your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
now and for ever.
Amen. (ICET/ELLC, 1987)
O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration.
Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us
where your Presence can abide.
us with your creativity so that we may be
empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.
each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.
Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share
what each being needs to grow and flourish.
the tangled threads of destiny that bind us,
as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.
not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from
our true purpose,
but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.
you are the ground and the fruitful vision,
the birth, power and fulfillment,
as all is gathered and made whole once again. (The Nazarean Way web site).
Which has led Taussig to claim further:
“Finally we have found a trail of material close to the historical Jesus. In the Q Jesus Prayer there is very early Jesus prayer” (Taussig 1999: 59).
So let me very briefly dismantle the prayer phrase by phrase, according to Taussig’s research suggestions.
The Q prayer uses ‘Father’ (Aramaic - Abba) not ‘Our Father in heaven’.
Most likely indicates a memory that Jesus spoke of God that way.
Not the standard or sacred way of addressing God.
(ii) Your name be revered
In Hebrew scriptures and daily prayer, the name of God is revered.
Most likely Jesus said daily prayer, because he belonged to Galilean Jewish culture and prayed with other Jews.
(iii) Let your domain come
The coming and presence of God’s reign in Jesus’ teachings mocked and pre-empted the imperial rule of Rome.
But is a ‘less strong’ claim that the use of Abba.
(iv) Give us the bread we need for today
Challenges Galilean peasants to live in the moment rather than worry about what tomorrow might bring.
Rely on the hospitality of others, freeing one from a dependence on family or accumulated wealth.
(v) Forgive debts… forgiven those in debt to us
Fits the style of Jesus, as Galilean, aphoristic sage.
Jesus primary interest was peasant folk who were rarely out of debt.
A dramatic way of addressing a major social problem of the times as well as nudge people to think differently and inclusively.
(vi) No test after test
Most likely not from the historical Jesus, but reflects the Q peoples sense of insecurity.
On the fragments themselves Taussig says:
“…when they are uncoupled from the prayer unit, a surprising number of them seem to show strong affinities with the historical Jesus… Speaking to God in new colloquial language, dealing with family pressure and imperial tyranny, pressing himself and others to risk, insisting on self-awareness – these challenges created an intensity that gave off sparks… [And they] sound astonishingly like Jesus parables and his beatitudes… calls many pious pictures of Jesus into question… [and] is of a piece with the rest of his teaching” (Taussig 1999: 66, 93, 94).
Some unconcluding comments
Both Taussig’s and Mack’s research on the historical Jesus and the Q people, show Jesus’ prayer life was different from many of his contemporaries, and certainly very different “from the traditional church prayers of today, and from most of the new fashions of contemporary spirituality” (Taussig 1999: 3). For it demands a radical engagement in the social situations of those who are praying.
So where to from here? Let me offer some suggestions.
(i) From the minimalist dismantling of the Q prayer, we can conclude that while Jesus never prayed the Jesus Prayer, the individual prayer fragments (a) give some indication of the prayer ‘voice print’ of the historical Jesus, and (b) reflect the memory of one of the communities within the Jesus movement who saw Jesus as a sage rather than a prophet.
(ii) A possible 21st century prayer ‘model’ based on the historical Jesus will be less like talking to a supernatural being, Harry Potter style, hoping if one uses the right gestures or says the right words, God will manipulate the situation for us. Neither will it be Santa style - be good and get what you ask for. Instead it would be more akin to the ‘language of the heart’… as an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life - the “in-between-ness of God” (Taussig 1999:131) – and the “always present God” rather than “an elsewhere God” (Morwood 2003:8). And its characteristics would include:
• listening in silence
• giving insights into ourselves and possibly others
• connecting us to each other.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once commented ‘prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays’. Others have refined that a bit, to: ‘Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things’. While my theological mentor Henry Nelson Wieman suggests “Prayer is an attitude of sensitivity and responsiveness to God combined with a seeking for some specific outcome” (Wieman 1958:175-76). Hence prayer is ‘answered’ with the
“re-creation of the one who prays, of [the] appreciable world, and of [their] association with others, so that the prayerful request is fulfilled in the new creation” (Wieman 1946:282).
(iii) We should note the current liturgical ‘introduction’ of: “And let us pray the prayer that Jesus taught us”, often used by worship leaders today to introduce the Jesus/Lord’s Prayer, is both inaccurate and unhelpful. To counter this Taussig suggests, because of the status the Lord’s Prayer has within global christianity, this introduction should be dropped thus avoiding its inaccuracy, and for some, hypocrisy. But…
(iv) Liturgy and religion is also about reconstruction. And there are several liturgical reconstructions of the Jesus Prayer now available and some of these have attempted to do exactly what the Q people seem to have done – allow the teaching cameos to shape the composite formal liturgical response. Two examples from several come to mind: one from Bill Wallace (NZ, the other from CPRT Canberra member, Margaret Rolfe (Aus):
Most compassionate Life-giver,
may we honour and praise you:
may we work with you to establish
your new order of justice, peace and love.
Give us what we need for growth,
and help us, through forgiving others, to accept forgiveness.
Strengthen us in the time of testing,
that we may resist all evil.
For all the tenderness,
strength and love are yours,
now and forever.
Amen. Bill Wallace
within and around us, we revere you.
We seek to live life as you would want us to do:
with love and respect for all people
and all things in the universe.
May we find each day sufficient for our needs.
And find forgiveness when we do wrong,
just as we forgive those who do wrong to us.
In times of trouble, may we centre our lives in you.
For your being is love,
which comes with strength and with beauty.
Amen. Margaret Rolfe
(v) An even more challenging suggestion, however, is that offered by David Galston. He says taking the historical Jesus seriously ends up being a challenge to both our liturgical language – away from any image or language of a ‘sky god’ – as well as a challenge to the theology of the mythical Christ.
“Gathering in the name of Jesus and gathering in the name of Christ are two different acts set on different foundations with different suppositions and necessarily different liturgies. One can not be a Jesus follower and a Christ confessor at the same time, at least not with integrity… For in the end how can we accept the utter humanity of the human Jesus with compassion, solidarity, and an honest heart if we should simultaneously persist in forcing out of his flesh the pre-apprehended, transcendental, ground-of-Being ‘theme park’ called Jesus Christ?” (Galston 2007:1).
The tasks of deconstruction and reconstruction are serious tasks which should always be undertaken if we are to remain faithful to a progressive ‘prayer’ theology and to the historical Jesus. Because those who name the world, own the world. And because thinking theologically, especially in worship, means more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being “willing to think differently than in the past” (McFague 1987:21).
In his paper “The encounter of progressive Christian theology with the language of prayer and ritual on Sunday morning”, Jerry Stinson, member of the Literacy & Liturgy Seminar, Westar Institute, tells the following:
“Sometimes I find myself being asked to pray in settings outside the church. I refuse to do invocations at official government functions (such as city council or school board meetings) because of my passion to see the separation of church and state maintained. But here is a prayer I offered in a non-church setting - at a Lambda Democratic Club event:
“During this opening prayer, a minister would usually urge you to close your eyes, bow your heads as that minister invoked the blessing of the god of his or her tradition. But that’s not what I want you to do tonight. I want you to keep your eyes open and look about you in this room.
“Look at this beautiful picture of a rainbow of diversity.
That is how life was meant to be.
Let this prayer tonight be a celebration of diversity, of God’s blessing on all people: of both genders and of the transgendered, of all races and nationalities, of all religious faiths, of all levels of education and income, of all abilities and disabilities, and of all orientations – lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight.
And let the opening prayer tonight be a blessing of our dreams – the dreams that separate us from those who currently wield so much power in this nation
• Dreams of a world at peace, where diplomacy replaces the macho strutting of a president who feels free to wage war on anyone he happens to label an enemy; a president who thinks he is John Wayne come back to life. – no, our dreams are of a just peace.
• And our dreams are of justice and equality – where all people’s love can be blessed and honored, where gay marriages can be licensed just like straight marriages, where homophobia becomes a thing of the past; and where people are as passionate about hate crimes as they are about the abduction of children.
This night, may all of us, whether we follow
• the path of that radical Palestinian peasant Jesus,
• or the path of that Asian mystic Gautama Buddha,
• or the path of the Great Spirit who guided the first Americans
• or the path of holiness set forth by Mohammed,
• or the path of freedom exemplified by Moses,
• or if we follow no religious path
• whatever way we walk through life,
may we do so holding the hands of all those around us and dreaming the dreams of peace and justice.
May it be so.
Inspired by and borrowing from the work of Francis Macnab, the following prayer was written by me and prayed at St James, Canberra in early 2007. It is offered here as a prayer sample...
A sense of Creativity is among us... in the changing of the seasons.
Let the slowly changing leaves of autumn
speak quietening words to our souls.
Let the breeze of these early autumn mornings
bring a vitality and hope to our lives.
Let the symbols of this place: candle, bread and wine,
speak strength and courage to our hearts and minds,
as we come, and as we go.
In the silence and acceptance of this sacred place we look inward at ourselves:
the advantages we have been given,
the opportunities we have seized.
May we have a sense of gratitude for the gifts that are ours:
knowledge, skills, insights.
Yet may we also be nudged
to give back,
to reach out,
sharing our talents, our riches, and ourselves
with those who are discouraged, disheartened, or simply unaware.
May we be more kind, tolerant and charitable toward one another
and all with whom we share this globe
of love and laughter and tears.
And may we be seized with the miracles of life itself,
that we might be filled with
new resolve, to take the next step.
So be it.
Amen. (Influenced by Francis Macnab)
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Funk, R. W. 2000. “The once and future Jesus” in R. W. Funk (ed), The once and future Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
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Stinson, J. 2006. “The encounter of progressive christian theology with the language of prayer and ritual on sunday morning”. Literacy & Liturgy Seminar, Westar Institute. In private circulation from the author.
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