The Greatest Prayer

The Greatest Prayer
Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer
John Dominic Crossan (2010)


A Review by Dwight A Moody


This is not a new book—published in 2010—but from first to last it will be for everybody a new interpretation of a very old Prayer. Not just that: it is really a new interpretation of the whole Christian religion; and to get there it must re-interpret the meaning of every word and phrase of the Prayer.


So let me summarize the book: this Prayer is from the mind and mouth of Jesus, although it shows not so subtle shifts in meaning from its versions in Matthew and Luke to the version of it that Crossan finds in Mark (what he calls the Abba prayer in the garden of Gethsemane) and in the writings of Paul, where the apostle discusses the use of Abba in the prayer life of the Jesus-follower (Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15).


It is “a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world…a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth” (2). I agree with this wholeheartedly! It is not a specifically Christian prayer; it is a universal prayer for all people everywhere, at all times.


Crossan first juxtaposes the two elements of Hebrew religion: ritual (prayer) and social justice. He asserts that these two elements of biblical religion are two sides of the same coin, that neither can exist without the other, that we are called upon to pray and to establish justice and to do so in the power of the Spirit of God which he describes as “a collaborative prayer between—in this order—God’s divine Spirit and our human spirit? (25).


The Prayer is divided into two parts, the first being the invocation followed by the petitions related to kingdom and will of God. The second part consists of the three petitions for food, forgiveness, and escape from evil. This is Crossan’s division, but it is the division everybody else uses, as well.


The “father” to whom the Prayer is prayed is, according to Crossan, the householder of the ancient world, both mother and father or any other person responsible for the administration and care of those living together. We are called to be the Householder of, not just our immediate or gathered family, but of all the Earth, caring for all the people who live on this planet, especially the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, and also caring for the entire created order. This is the command and the commission given to the human race by God our creator, according to Crossan.


All of this Prayer is interpreted in light of the sabbath: the final action of creation, according to the Genesis narrative. But Crossan follows this trail “from Sabbath day through Sabbath year to Sabbath jubilee” (63) and this forms the most consistent interpretive theme of the book.


The Sabbath, in all of its iterations, is designed to provide food and freedom to all people, and Crossan reviews the many biblical texts that treat sabbath in this social justice way: “the holy name and divine reputation of the biblical God concerns distributive justice and restorative righteousness and that our holiness is a participation in that divine character, identity, and name” (71).


Crossan renames the “kingdom of God” as the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World” (79) and thus moves the focus of life and religion from preparing for some escape to heaven (via death) to preparing for the renewal of life right here on planet earth. “The eschaton [last days] is not about the destruction of the world, but about its transformation into a place of justice and nonviolence” (ibid).


This, of course, is a paradigm shift but one that has been gradually embraced by millions of Christians around the world (and one that is anticipated in the shift from the religion of John the Baptizer—the “imminence of divine intervention”—to the religion of Jesus the Christ—the “empowerment of human collaboration”). It is this collaboration with God that is at the heart of “the will of God” rather than the more-widely-understood “substitution” of Jesus for the people.


Thus, chapter five strikes right at the heart of traditional teachings on atonement: Jesus died, not as a punishment for human sin but as a consequence of human sin. Crossan emphases that “heaven is where the eternal model exists for our earth, not where the future destiny of our earth awaits” (118). We are to pray that the heavenly model of non-violent justice throughout the world is established here on earth, throughout the household of God.


When the Prayer shifts from the will of God to our need for food, Crossan’s interpretation gets bolder, more speculative, and thus less compelling. He uses the petition for food as a springboard for discussing the economic situation in Galilee during the time of Jesus. The Sea of Galilee, the economic support of the Jesus movement and its people, morphed into The Sea of Tiberias; in other words, the economic system undergirding ordinary life in Galilee was commandeered by the Roman authorities, and this disruption caused severe economic stress for the people. All of Jesus’ activities around that body of water—fishing, sailing, calming, eating, etc) were designed to announced: this is the Sea of Jesus and not the Sea of Rome.


In this context, Crossan callsout the four words of the fish stories in the gospels: took, blessed, broke, and gave. These words later dominated the Lord’s Supper, so Crossan contends: “The eucharistic meal recalls that Jesus not only lived for the just distribution of food and drink but died for insisting on that same thing” 135). The ministry of Jesus “is always about God’s food in God’s world for God’s people…. The Lord’s Supper is already present in the Lord’s Prayer” (137).


Because the Prayer is “a hymnic summary of the distributive justice and restorative righteousness of the biblical God…. ‘forgive us our debts….’ should be taken literally and not metaphorically” (154). But he does acknowledge that the original “debts” morphed, first, into “transgressions” and finally into “sin”; but he leaves dangling this powerful observation about the evolution of the Prayer during the first century, failing to adequately expound it for us today.


Finally, the “temptation” from which we pray to escape is the use of violence to establish the kingdom of God, even to defend the kingdom or rule of God. He describes the violence associated with the Roman legions, especially as we know of them in the year 4 b.c.e. and also the years 66-70 and 124-126 c.e., when the Roman soldiers decimated the towns and villages of Galilee and Judah. The Prayer is “about avoiding violence even or especially when undertaken to hallow God’s name, to establish God’s kingdom, and thereby to fulfill God’s will…” (168).


Crossan connects this interpretation to the stories of Jesus’ temptations and concludes: “To obtain and posses the kingdoms of the world, with their power and glory, by violent injustice is to worship Satan. To obtain and possess the kingdom, the power, and the glory by nonviolence justice is to worship God” (173, italics in the original).


This Prayer, he concludes, is “both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world” (182). Even if I am left unconvinced by some of his exegesis (and eisegesis!), I firmly agree with Crossan about this conclusion.


The Prayer remains the most important and powerful of all the words of Jesus, indeed, of all the texts of the Bible. It is a prayer we are to pray, a confession we are to believe, and an ethic we are to live. Can I get an Amen on that?


February 2020