Notes on Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come (Matt 6:10, cont.)

“May your Kingdom come!”
e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou
Matthew 6:10a

In the previous study, we explored the literary context of the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13, with its Kingdom-petition [v. 10a])—and, specifically, its position within the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (chaps. 5-7). In particular, the earlier Kingdom-references (including those in the Sermon) were examined. Now we turn to the Lord’s Prayer itself, considering the distinctiveness of the Matthean version of the Prayer (as it occurs in the Sermon), and how it relates to the Kingdom-theme.

Even the casual student of the New Testament will likely be aware of the differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions of the Prayer—with Luke containing a significantly shorter version. Later copyists tended to harmonize the two versions, reducing (or eliminating) the apparent differences; however, virtually all critical commentators recognize the originality of the shorter version for Luke. Whether the Lukan Prayer more accurately represents an original “Q” version is more difficult to determine. Even if it does reflect the original “Q” material, the Matthean ‘additions’ are best explained as being representative of the version of the Prayer familiar to the Gospel writer’s Community. Doubtless, even in the first century, the Prayer circulated widely, perhaps in several different iterations. The familiar lines “for thine is the kingdom and the power…”, etc, offers evidence (from the early centuries) for a continuing adaptation (and expansion) of the Prayer, for liturgical use.

The only ‘addition’ that is likely to come directly from the hand of the Matthean author is the qualifying phrase “the (One) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$) in the initial invocation to God: “Our Father, the (One) in the heavens” (Pa/ter h(mw=n o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$). This wording is utterly distinctive of the Matthean Gospel, making it quite likely that it is an adaptation (expanding the simple Pa/ter h(mw=n, cp. Lk 11:2) by the Gospel writer. The possibility must also be considered that the wording could reflect usage by the author’s Community, rather than an independent modification by the author.

The distinctiveness of the expression (as a qualifying phrase for God the Father) was discussed in the previous study. The specific expression “my/your Father the (One) in the heavens” occurs six times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21), along with another 7 times in the Gospel (10:32-33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 14, 19)—13 total (cf. also 23:9). By comparison, it occurs just once in all the other Gospel combined (Mk 11:25). Similarly, the parallel expression “(my/your) heavenly Father” occurs six times in Matthew, including 4 times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32; 15:13; 18:35), and nowhere else in the Gospels (but cf. Lk 11:13) or the rest of the New Testament. We must consider also the fact that use of the plural “heavens” (ou)ranoi/) and the expression “in the heavens” (e)n [toi=$] ou)ranoi=$) itself is especially prevalent in the Gospel of Matthew:

    • e)n [toi=$] ou)ranoi=$ occurs 15 times in Matthew, including 7 times in the Sermon on the Mount (5:12, 16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21), but only 6 in the other Gospels (Mk 11:25; 12:25; 13:25; Lk 10:20; 12:33; 18:22).
    • Matthew has “kingdom of the heavens” (basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n) instead of “kingdom of God” (basilei/a tou= qeou=) for a number of Synoptic (and “Q”) sayings of Jesus. The former expression is only found in Matthew (32 times), nowhere else in the New Testament (see also the discussion in the previous study); by contrast, “kingdom of God” is used only 5 times in Matthew, compared with 14 in Mark, 32 in Luke, and 16 times in John and the rest of the New Testament.

It is possible that Matthew preserves a Semitic mode of expression which may have been altered or omitted when presenting Jesus’ sayings in Greek (to a Greek audience), which could explain why it disappeared from the Synoptic tradition as a whole. The Synoptic saying in Mark 11:25 might be seen as confirming this (note the similar in content and style with the instruction by Jesus on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount and the “Q” material):

“And when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release [i.e. forgive] (it) if you hold any(thing) against any(one), (so) that your Father the (One who is) in the heavens [o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$] might also release [i.e. forgive] for you your (moment)s of falling alongside [i.e. sins/trespasses]”

At the very least, this demonstrates that the expression on the lips of Jesus was not the invention of the Gospel writer. In a similar way, direct evidence for the use of the Aramaic aB*a^ (°abb¹°) by Jesus has disappeared from the Gospel tradition, except for one place in Mark (14:36) where it happens to be preserved.

The extensive use of the plural (ou)ranoi/) in Matthew may also reflect the corresponding word in Hebrew and Aramaic, which is always in the plural—<y]m^v* š¹mayim; Aram. /y]m^v= (always emphatic aY`m^v= š§mayy¹°, “the heavens”). A reconstruction of the Matthean phrase in Aramaic might be: aY`m^v=B! yD! an`Wba& (°A_»ûn¹° dî bišmayy¹°); cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901. Aramaic aY`m^v= has essentially the same range of meaning as oi( ou)ranoi/ in Greek. For Aramaic references in the Old Testament, where it refers to the abode of God, cf. Dan 2:18-19, 28, 37, 44; 4:31, 34; Ezra 5:11-12; 6:9-10, etc. The close association of God with “heaven” is indicated by the fixed (emphatic) expression “the God of Heaven” (aY`m^v= Hl*a$). It is possible that “…Father the (One) in the heavens” in Matthew reflects such a traditional expression in Aramaic.

Whether one attributes the phrase “our Father the (One) in the heavens” primarily to the Gospel writer or to Jesus himself (in Aramaic), there can be no doubt of the importance it has to the Sermon on the Mount, where it occurs six times (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21); the expression “in the heavens” itself occurs again in 5:12, and “the kingdom of the heavens” (par. to “kingdom of God”) also six times (5:3, 10, 19 [twice], 20; 7:21). In addition, we find the parallel expression “(your) heavenly Father” (o( path\r [u(mw=n] o( ou)ra/nio$) four times in the Sermon (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32), as noted above. Thus there is a definite (and concentrated) emphasis on associating God the Father with “the heavens” in the Matthean Sermon on the Mount, beyond anything we find elsewhere in the Gospel tradition. How is this to be understood?

The main point of emphasis appears to be the idea that the behavior of Jesus’ disciples on earth should follow the example of God the Father in heaven. This is clearly expressed in 5:16 and 45, and the principle is summarized powerfully in the declaration of verse 48, whereby, if Jesus’ teaching is followed:

“You shall then be complete, (even) as your heavenly Father is complete.”

When we turn to the instruction in 6:1-18 (of which the Lord’s Prayer is a part), we find a slightly different emphasis: that of a dualistic contrast between common religious behavior by people (on earth) and the behavior of Jesus followers (focused on God in heaven). The principle is well expressed in the opening verse: “you must not do (things) in front of men to be seen by them, otherwise you hold no wage [i.e. reward] from your Father the (One) in the heavens”. The earthly desire and inclination of human beings is to demonstrate one’s religious devotion publicly, and to receive recognition for it from other people. Such recognition, Jesus says, is the only reward such people will receive—i.e. earthly, not heavenly (vv. 2b, 5b, 16b). Jesus’ followers are instructed to behave in just the opposite way—to act privately (“in the hidden [place]”), being concerned only about being seen by God (who is in heaven), vv 3-4, 6, 17-18

In all of this there is an implicit spiritual dimension at work, even though the Spirit (Pneu=ma) is not specifically mentioned, neither in the Lord’s Prayer (the variant reading in Lk 11:2b has already been discussed), nor in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. This is in contrast to the Lukan context of the Prayer, where the Spirit it is of the utmost importance (cf. the earlier study). I would, however, maintain that for the Matthean form of the Prayer, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the idea of the Spirit is embedded in the expression “in the heavens” —i.e. the heavenly dimension defined by God’s own Power and Presence. This will be discussed further.

In the first portion of the Prayer, in the Lukan version (11:2), there are two paired petitions: “May your name be made holy / May your Kingdom come”. These are also present in Matthew’s version (v. 9b-10a), with identical wording (a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou: e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou). However, Matthew includes a third petition (“May your will be done”, v. 10b) not found in Luke (though it was added by copyists). This produces a triad of three petitions in the first section of the Matthean Prayer, with the Kingdom-petition at the center. Moreover, the two flanking petitions would seem to be parallel, both in form and meaning:

“May your name be made holy”
a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou
“May your will be done”
genhqh/tw to\ qe/lhma/ sou

In each instance, the petition begins with a passive (aorist) imperative, with the subject being a particular attribute/aspect of the God ‘who is in the heavens’. This could be taken as an example of the so-called divine passive (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. Since the petition addresses God, this would be a natural way to understand the wording. However, there can be little doubt that an emphasis is on the actions of human beings—both in treating God (and His name) with sanctity and honor, and in acting according to His will. Since the Kingdom-petition is at the center of these two flanking petitions, it is fair to assume (or at least consider) that these two petitions inform the meaning and significance of the Kingdom-petition.

Let us consider briefly the first petition. The verb used is a(gia/zw (“make pure/holy”). It can be used specifically in a ritual/ceremonial context, but also in a broader ethical-religious (or spiritual) sense, as with the adjective a(gno/$ (“pure, holy”, cp. a%gio$), from which the verb is derived. It is extremely rare in the Synoptic Gospels, occurring just once (Matt 23:17, 19) outside of the Lord’s Prayer. It is somewhat more common in the Gospel of John; cf. my recent note on 1 John 3:3.

When it comes to the specific idea of holiness, there are two aspects which should be delineated: (1) purity, and (2) setting something apart for special (religious) use. The Greek a%gio-/a(gno– word group emphasizes the former, while Hebrew/Aramaic vdq (qdš) the latter. Moreover, a fundamental religious principle is that: what we treat as holy in terms of religious behavior ultimately is an expression of how we view the nature and character of God. For Israel as the chosen people of God (YHWH), this is defined by the formula in Leviticus 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, YHWH your God, am Holy”

Jesus effectively restates this for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount—if they follow his teaching, then:

“…you shall be complete, as your Father the (One) in the heavens is complete” (Matt 5:48)

Thus, true religion requires that people act and think in a way that honors God and reflects His own Person and Character, including all the things He has done on behalf of humankind and His people (as Creator, Life-giver, Savior/Protector, Judge, etc).

According to the ancient religious mind-set, shared by Jews and Christians in the first century A.D., the “name” of God represented the Person and Nature of God manifest to human beings on earth. For more on this concept of names and naming, cf. the Christmas season series “And you shall call His Name…” The “name” of God the Father is more than simply the name expressed by the tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh)—it reflects the very Person of God Himself as He relates to His People. And, it is God’s “name” that is to be honored and treated as holy by His People—cf. Exod 20:7, etc. By the time of the Prophets, the emphasis had shifted away from a ritual honoring of God’s name, toward honoring it in terms of one’s overall behavior and conduct (see esp. Isa 29:23). Jesus, in his teaching (as in the Sermon on the Mount), moves even further in this direction, and this is certainly intended in the Lord’s Prayer. But why/how is it that we pray to God for this, when it is our (i.e. human beings’) responsibility to treat His Name as holy? The key to this lies in the eschatological orientation of the Prayer, which will be discussed as part of the next study.

For examples in Jewish tradition of invocations or petitions similar to those in the (Matthean) Lord’s Prayer, I point out several here:

    • “…their Father in heaven, the Holy One” (Mekilta on Exod 20:25; Fitzmyer, p. 900)
    • “Thou art holy and Thy name is holy, and the holy ones praise Thee every day. Selah. Blessed be Thou, O Lord, the holy God.” (Shemoneh Esreh [3rd benediction])
    • “Let his great name be magnified and hallowed in the world which he has created according to his will” (The Qaddiš [Kaddish] prayer; Betz, p. 390)

In the next study, we will look at the second of the two flanking petitions—the third petition in the Matthean version of the Prayer. By examining both of these petitions, we will gain a better idea of what the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker in the Matthean Gospel) understood with regard to the Kingdom-petition and the coming of God’s Kingdom (“May your Kingdom come”).

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 28A (1985).

 

 

 

 

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