Brief Comments on David Bentley Hart’s Article Concerning the Lord’s Prayer

Recently Professor David Bentley Hart has published an article on the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. I quite enjoyed the article for its thought-provoking critique of the many present-day Christians, who do not adequately acknowledge the historical economic factors it speaks to and its continuing moral relevance to today’s conditions of the poor. Hart attributes this lack of consciousness of many present-day Christians to either translation errors or habits of interpretation. I am inclined to agree, although my own lack of knowledge of Greek prevents me from fully grasping the depth of Hart’s argument. Yet I am also inclined to disagree on some points. First, Hart seems to dismiss the legitimacy of the spiritual readings of the text. He goes as far to refer to these interpretations as “‘spiritualized'”. At first it is difficult understand what Hart exactly means to convey by putting “spiritualized” in quotation marks. However, towards the end of the article it seems apparent that he does not grant them much credence whatsoever. He writes:

It is easy to understand, obviously, how it is that over the centuries the Lord’s Prayer should have come to be something else in the Christian imagination—something less specific, less concrete, more comprehensive, more unrelated to any specific economic conditions or any particular station in society.

It could scarcely have served as a model of Christian supplication for all the baptized if its social provocations had remained too transparent, or if it had remained too obviously an epitome of Christ’s “preferential option” for the destitute and disenfranchised. After all, the consciences of the rich require protection too. How else could the banker who has just foreclosed on a family home recite the Lord’s Prayer in church without being made to feel uncomfortable?

Even so, it was originally, and remains, a prayer for the poor—a prayer, that is, for the poor alone to pray. Down the centuries, wealthy Christians have prayed it as well, of course, or at least have prayed a rough simulacrum of it. God bless them for their faithfulness. But, to be honest, it was never meant for them. Quite—one has to be honest here—the opposite.

In short, only the historical or literal understanding of the prayer is its true meaning. All of the spiritual exegeses on this prayer were the outcomes of appeasing the rich or, to put it more nicely, acts of pastoral condescension. This point leads him, therefore, to the second point of my disagreement – that the Lord’s prayer is exclusively intended for the poor. There is much fruit to these spiritual readings of the Lord’s Prayer and in light of Galatians 3:28, which declares an obliteration of the boundaries between slaves and freemen – positions framed by both economic and legal factors – , it would seem unlikely that God ever would have given such an important prayer, central to the liturgical life of the Church, to the poor alone. Furthermore, let it be said, the prayer does include the presumption that those who have debtors should forgive their debtors. That mandate would include the rich as well. Again, I am not rejecting Hart’s argument that this prayer spoke to the economic conditions of the poor during Christ’s time and continues to have moral and economic ramifications for us today. But what I am advocating is that the prayer can be understood in many different ways. While one might find these different understandings to be impoverished or lacking, I think it is well-worth the time to take a brief look at what these different interpretations were and to examine their scopes and limitations.

David Graeber, whom Hart praises in the beginning of his article, briefly discusses the Lord’s Prayer and Christ’s language on debt and debtors as potentially both literal and allegorical. Indeed, Graeber writes:

The parable has long been a challenge to theologians. It’s normally interpreted as a comment on the endless bounty of God’s grace and how little He demands of us in comparison – and thus, by implication, as a way of suggesting that torturing us in hell for all eternity is not as unreasonable as it might seem. Certainly, the unforgiving servant is a genuinely odious character. Still, what is even more striking to me is the tacit suggestion that forgiveness, in this world, is ultimately impossible. Christians practically say as much every time they recite the Lord’s Prayer and ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” It repeats the story of the parable almost exactly, and the implications are similarly dire. After all, most Christians reciting the prayer are aware that they do not generally forgive their debtors. Why then should God forgive them their sins?

What’s more, there is the lingering suggestion that we really couldn’t live up to those standards even if we tried. One of the things that makes the Jesus of the New Testament such a tantalizing character is that it’s never clear what he’s telling us. Everything can be read two ways. When he calls on his followers to forgive all debts, refuse to case the first stone, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, to hand over their possessions to the poor – is he really expecting them to do this? Or are such demands just a way of throwing in their faces that, since we are clearly not prepared to act this way, we are all sinners whose salvation can only come in another world – a position that can be (and has been) used to justify almost anything? This is a vision of human life as inherently corrupt, but it also frames even the spiritual affairs in commercial terms: with calculations of sins, penance, and absolution, the Devil and St. Peter with their rival ledger books, usually accompanied by the creeping feeling that it’s all a charade because the very fact that we are reduced to playing such a game of tabulating sins reveals us to be fundamentally unworthy of forgiveness.

– David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2011), 84

Graeber’s willingness to permit multiple interpretations of Christ’s mandate echoes how the Church Fathers interpreted it the first millennium. During the fourth century, St. Jerome understood the Lord’s Prayer in a spiritual and literal sense. He based his spiritual interpretation of the text on his own reasons of translations, having knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He wrote the following:

Give us today our supersubstantial bread. And dismiss our debts from us!; just as also we dismiss our debtors. And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil!” (Matthew 6:11-13) What we have expressed with “supersubstantial,” in Greek is called ἐπιούσιον – a word that the Septuagint translators most frequently translated as περιούσιον. Therefore, we have considered [this] in Hebrew, and everywhere that they have expressed περιούσιον, we have found SOGOLLA, which Symmachus translated as ἐξαίρετον, that is, “especial” or “distinguished,” although in a certain place it has been understood as “private.” Therefore, when we ask that God gives us especial or distinguished bread, we seek that which he calls, “I am the living bread which descends from heaven (John 6:51).” In the Gospel, which is called According to the Hebrews, for supersubstantial bread, MAAR is found, which is called “tomorrow;” so that it is understood [as], “Our tomorrow-bread,” that is the future, “give us today.” We are able to understand the bread also in another way – what is above all substances and what surpasses all creatures. Others simply think according to the words of the Apostles concerning some present food that the saints bear a consideration, saying, “We, having sustenance and clothes, are satisfied with these things” (1 Timothy 6:8). And whence in the following things, it has been advised, “Do not wish to think about tomorrow!” (Matthew 6:34).

Jerome, Commentariorum in evangelium Matthaei libri quattuor, PL 26: 0043A-0043C

– Jerome, Commentarii in euangelium Matthaei, edited by D. Hurst and M. Adriaen, CCSL 77 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), 37.769-787

I am in no position to scrutinize the accuracy of Jerome’s Greek or Hebrew/Aramaic. Such matters I leave to others. However, what is abundantly clear is that Jerome never concerned himself with sparing the feelings of the rich when he considered the various interpretations and translations of the Lord’s Prayer. For Jerome, the choice between a literal or historical understanding of the text and a spiritual understanding of the text is not an either-or decision. Both are valid. In terms of the spiritual understanding of the Lord’s Prayer, much of his reasoning is based primarily on translation considerations alone. But there is also another component to his decision making here insofar that he is referencing how the word is used, not in its contemporary context, but in the scriptures as a whole – namely the translators of the Septuagint from the third and second centuries BCE and Symmachus’ second-century CE translation of the Old Testament into Greek from the Hebrew. It is true that Jerome misses the historical circumstances of which Jesus is speaking to and which Hart has highlighted. Nevertheless, Jerome still highlights the moral necessity of living modestly, taking only what we need to live for today, although he himself says nothing about the subject of forgiving debts nor does his literal understanding of the prayer align perfectly with the historical understanding that Hart highlights. In this sense, Jerome falls short of the radical message Hart highlights in his article.

Writing in the early eighth century, St. Bede also made the same general distinction as St. Jerome – that the Lord’s Prayer has both a literal and a spiritual meaning. He wrote:

With the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer seems to contain seven petitions, of which three are sought in eternal matters, the remaining four in temporal matters, which, notwithstanding eternal matters, must be followed by necessity. For the fact that we say, “Let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done just as in heaven and on the earth.” This no one has absurdly understood as that these prayers must be retained altogether without any limit in spirit and body [i.e. spiritually and literally], and in which case these interpretations are unfinished, and as much as we profit [from them], they are magnified in us by means of having been completed. But what ought to be hoped for in another life, will be possessed forever. But the fact [is] that we say, “Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts! And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!” Does no one see that it pertains to the want (indigentiam) of the present life? And thus in that eternal life, when we always hope for future things, the sanctification of God’s name, the sanctification of his kingdom, and his will will remain perfectly and immortally in our spirit and body. But therefore, the bread has been called daily, because this [bread], which is to be given to the soul and body, is necessary. Let it be understood either spiritually, corporeally [i.e. literally], or in both ways.

Bede, In Lucae evangelium expositio, PL 92: 0472B-0472D

– Bede, In Lucae euangelium expositio, edited by D. Hurst, CCSL 120 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

Bede here is clearly more interested in the spiritual understanding of the Lord’s Prayer. Nonetheless, he openly acknowledges its literal meaning. When considering the words, “Give us today our daily bread,” he argues that it pertains to the need or indigentia of our earthly existence. This indigentia he argues can be understood at the literal level as our bodily needs, such as food, or at the spiritual level as our present need of our desire and hope for spiritual solace as well as a better life. By perfectly encapsulating the consequences of the Fall in both body and spirit with the term indigentia, Bede perhaps meshes together the spiritual and literal reading of the text more than any other Latin commentator.

Writing in the ninth century, St. Hrabanus Maurus returns to the more bifurcated spiritual and literal readings of the text that Jerome had embraced. Yet, he distinguishes himself from Jerome by adding further comments specifically on the notion of debts. He wrote:

Give us today our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11). Daily bread has been said [to be] either for all things which sustain the necessity of this [earthly] life concerning which he instructs when he says, “Do not wish think about tomorrow!” (Matthew 6:34); or for the sacrament of the body of Christ, which we receive daily; or for the spiritual food, concerning which the Lord says, “Toil for food, which is not corrupted!” (John 6:27). And [he also says] this: “I am the bread of life, which descends from heaven” (John 6:41)…. “And dismiss our debts from us!; just as we dismiss our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  After the assistance of food is sought, the mercy for having transgressed is sought in order that he, who is fed by God, lives in God. If sins should be remitted, not only [something]of the present and temporal life would be consulted, but also [something] of the eternal [life], towards which he is capable of being made to come, would be consulted. What the Lord calls debts [are sins], just as in his Gospel he says, “I forgave you the entire debt, because you sought me” (Matthew 18:32).

Hrabanus Maurus, Commentariorum in Matthaeum libri octo, PL 107: 0819C-0820B

– Hrabanus Maurus, Commentarius in Matthaeum I-IV, edited by B. Löfstedt, CCCM 174 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

What is interesting about Hrabanus’ commentary is that although he acknowledges both a literal and spiritual understanding of the daily bread like Jerome and Bede before him, he only acknowledges a spiritual understanding of the forgiveness of debts, which he interprets as meaning sins. Here the economic message is lost. Nonetheless, Hrabanus still acknowledges, just as Jerome, Christ’s admonishment against luxurious living and gluttony. It is for this reason that he repeats Matthew 6:34, “Do not wish to think about tomorrow!,” as if saying that one should not have too much and take only what they need. I say “as if” because Hrabanus leaves out Jerome’s quotation of 1 Timothy 6:8, but it is quite clear that he is following in Jerome’s footsteps. Just as in the case with Jerome, however, Hrabanus’ literal understanding of the text differs from Hart’s.

The last example I wish to highlight is St. Paschasius Radbertus’ ninth-century commentary. He follows the track of Jerome more closely than either Bede or Hrabanus, and even takes in an interest in the Greek word ἐπιούσιον that Jerome mentions. But he also adds significant expansions to the exegesis, most of which I will have to pass on highlighting. But for the purposes of this post, what is most interesting in his exegesis is his explicit acknowledgement of debts actually pertaining as much to money as it does to sins. He wrote the following:

However here if it is thought [to be] unclear – about what is called debts or what is called debtors – the stuff of an excuse must be cast away, and that “from every debt” should be fully understood as for committing crimes [against God] as well as for owing a severity of money, with the result that in whatever way your brother has become a debtor to you, this debt you should release. For often as the presumption of those having failed shows us as having been seized by many more slaveries on account of debts, [so too does] pecuniary dishonesty and the theft of avarice. Therefore, just as the means of taking action is present for everyone, individuals ought to loosen the burden of possibilities for their debtors, whom are bound to be oppressed by debts…. But most importantly, the burden of sin, if it is deemed to pertain to us, let us remit spontaneously. Although since legally we occasionally renew the debt of money, we never reject the debt of those having failed for seeking to be freed from our condemnation. Whence it has been commanded in this very Gospel, “When you stand to pray, remit if you have anything against anyone so that your Father, who is in heaven, remits your sins!” (Mark 11:25).

Paschasius Radbertus, Expositio in evangelium Matthaei, PL 120: 0295A-0295C

– Paschasius Radbertus, Expositio in Matheo I-IV, edited by B. Paulus, CCCM 56 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1984), 400.1259-1267.

Paschasius understands the burden of crushing debt to run contrary to the principle of viewing one’s neighbor as a brother. In a sense, perhaps he is acknowledging that such a disparity in a relationship undermines the intended equality that it is supposed to uphold. Therefore, such profit seeking from the denigration of one’s brother is described as a theft of avarice (contrectatio lucri). In this way, Paschasius’ position closely resembles Graeber’s, in which the latter argues that notions of debt are originally intended to be framed as a commercial transaction between equals but in practice often are not or result in a disproportionate inequality. Therefore, some moral boundary is felt to have been transgressed by those subjected to debt (Graeber, 86). He also draws on the implicit idea highlighted by Graeber that because we are unwilling to totally forgive the debts of our brothers, whether they be pecuniary or moral, we are fundamentally unworthy of forgiveness. In short, only God’s grace can redeem us.

Hart is certainly correct that the socio-economic conditions that Christ spoke to when he first uttered the Lord’s Prayer faded in some sense in the Church’s tradition. Nevertheless, to proceed to the assumption that the concern for economic injustice faded too or that the spiritual interpretations were cynical ploys to make the rich feel more comfortable is a bridge too far. Although none of the Church Fathers and saints above precisely grasped the historical and literal context that Hart so eloquently highlights in his recent article, they did nonetheless show a concern for avarice and living modestly. At the same time, they also understood the Lord’s Prayer to pertain to all Christians through a variety of spiritual interpretations. It is on account of these various understandings that one can say or affirm that the Lord’s Prayer is for everyone.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Bede, In Lucae euangelium expositio, edited by D. Hurst, CCSL 120 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

Bede, In Lucae evangelium expositio, PL 92: 0301-634D.

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2011).

David Bentley Hart, “A Prayer for the Poor,” Church Life Journal, June 5, 2018, https://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/06/05/a-prayer-for-the-poor/.

Hrabanus Maurus, Commentariorum in Matthaeum libri octo, PL 107: 0727-1156B.

Hrabanus Maurus, Commentarius in Matthaeum I-IV, edited by B. Löfstedt, CCCM 174 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

Jerome, Commentarii in euangelium Matthaei, edited by D. Hurst and M. Adriaen, CCSL 77 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969).

Jerome, Commentariorum in evangelium Matthaei libri quattuor, PL 26: 0015-218D.

Paschasius Radbertus, Expositio in evangelium Matthaei, PL 120: 0031A-0994C.

Paschasius Radbertus, Expositio in Matheo I-IV, edited by B. Paulus, CCCM 56 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1984).

About Alura

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