A Prayer for the Poor


Adam in bookstore
Adam, and an alcove of his bookstore

Adam McInturf is a bibliophile inundated by books predominantly theological in his compact bookstore called Windows Booksellers PDX in North Portland. He is also a philosopher/theologian of some repute, especially to those of us who know him and who follow him on Twitter not only for the links he gives us to fertile contemporary Christian thinking but as well for what he spells out on his own (@adamstewardmc). I’m positive this young man will quickly be known much more broadly. (For me he has another claim to fame in that when we first met about ten years ago, he introduced me to my favorite Portland pub, The Horse Brass, and to the black cherry stout from Walking Man that’s available on tap only there in Portland, now my first-choice brew.)

A few weeks ago, Adam tweeted

Understanding the fundamental and universal poverty of the people in it has transformed my understanding of the New Testament like nothing else.

He then links to a David Bentley Hart article, A Prayer for the Poor, in Church Life ND and cites this section:

Christian tradition has produced few developments more bizarre, for instance, than the transformation of the petitionary phrases of the Lord’s Prayer in Christian thinking—and in Christian translations of scripture—into a series of supplications for absolution of sins, protection against spiritual temptation, and immunity from the threat of “evil.” They are nothing of the kind. They are, quite explicitly, requests for (in order): adequate nourishment, debt relief, avoidance of arraignment before the courts, and rescue from the depredations of powerful but unprincipled men. The prayer as a whole is a prayer for the poor—and for the poor only.

That final sentence detonated in my head and tore my heart. It wasn’t so much that it was new to me; I was enough familiar with authors like Ched Meyer, John Dominic Crossan, Paul Farmer, and many others—and years of working with, listening to, and watching Evangelical Covenant pastor, Douglas Cedarleaf—to be very sure of Jesus’ identity with the poor. It was that I’d neglected, forgotten, ignored that dimension of the gospel for too long.

What struck me particularly were the final words of that citation, “and for the poor only.” Worship in many places over many years has meant myriad of my repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Then, too, I’ve recently renewed what was, from very early childhood, a bedtime prayer habit that included the Lord’s Prayer (back then along with Gud, som haver barnen kär, Now I lay me down to sleep, and Jesus tender Shepherd, hear me). I suppose I understood little more of its meaning then than I did the Swedish prayer, and I confess that now, although it is a serious prayer for me, it serves as a kind of sheep-counting process that assuredly gets me to yawning and sometimes before I finish the prayer, asleep. (The force of this habit was apparent to me one Sunday morning when a lovely friend, with a beautiful, mezzo voice, sang the Malotte version during worship, and before she had reached “hallowed,” I had yawned.)

So, perhaps, no not perhaps, I am guilty of trivializing the prayer and not only in my bedtime ritual. I am guilty of misusing it in worship, not simply in the sense that it becomes ritual habit, but in that I don’t qualify to use the prayer at all, for I am not poor. I have no worry about whether I will have a next meal. I am out of debt. I haven’t the least fear of being hauled, bankrupt, into court, nor am I in danger of my property being wrested from me by evil people. The prayer was not intended for me.

David Bentley Hart

I went to the David Bentley Hart article for some further guidance, perhaps to find reassurance that all is not lost, of which there is little. Hart, whose translation of the New Testament was published last year and has become recognized for its relentlessly literal usage of words, finds a good reason for the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, those most often spiritualized and weakened, to be accepted for the what he insists is the original intention of the prayer. His aim is directed solely at the center section of the prayer, the us/we section, where he finds those words whose meaning has been interpolated through centuries to mask their clear intent.

Curiously, the word, bread, has been left intact; repeating the first petition is saying a sort of grace for the plentiful food they will surely soon consume, but, Hart states pointedly, “I doubt most of us quite hear the note of desperation in that phrase. . .—the very real uncertainty, suffered every day, concerning whether today one will have enough food to survive.” This he insists is the prayer of the poor.

When the word, debts, appears the cutting edge of the text becomes all the more obvious, although to us dulled by later metaphorical words like trespasses and sins. The Greek words of the text most assuredly mean debts and debtors: money or other property owed and needing to be repaid. The crowds of people who stood before Jesus to listen or came to him for healing would have included many burdened with debt they would never be able to pay. Is it not possible for us to catch the despair of that prayer, despite our freedom from such overwhelming obligation? And is it not a simple matter to see how that prayer emerging from hopelessness has been impaired beyond recognition, altered to be useful for the affluent? After all, who hasn’t sinned somehow or other, rich or poor?

David Bentley Hart recounts carefully how the Mosaic law sought to protect the poor. The prohibition of interest, for example, the Sabbatical year, every seventh year, debts being forgiven, and every 50th year a year of Jubilee when enslaved people were freed, debts forgiven, and land taken in forfeit returned for a clean, new start. Jesus came proclaiming the Year of Jubilee, that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and gave his followers a prayer to fit that proclamation.

And what is that we think of when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation”? Here again, a substitute translation defeats its meaning. Hart chooses the word, trial, expressing the dreaded risk that the petitioner would be dragged into court over some issue or another, a fine imposed that he cannot pay, a sentence passed that will place him in custody. Also, finally, “deliver us from evil” really means “deliver us from the evil one,” not a generic “evil” nor Satan, so easily inserted there, but from the evil creditor who revels in the default of the poor man for his own vicious purposes.

Which leads David Bentley Hart to express that section of the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of the Poor, so:

Give us our bread today, in a quantity sufficient for the whole of the day. And grant us relief from our debts, to the very degree that we grant relief to those who are indebted to us. And do not bring us to court for trial, but rather rescue us from the wicked man.

Does this at all translate into our modern life? But of course it does, and many of us who are not poor benefit from it. I who depend much upon income from interest for my survival these days benefit from an economic system that pays interest to the rich and charges it to the poor. David Bentley Hart writes

The logic of this is not difficult to grasp. Once the principle of interest—especially compound interest—is recognized as a legitimate means of encouraging lending, it requires very little ingenuity indeed to create a system in which one man’s poverty is another’s source of wealth, and in which it is very much in the interest of creditors to see that the poor remain poor.

Witness, as just one crucial example, the practice of payday and title loans, legal in most states and mildly regulated in most of those in which it is legal. In Oregon, the interest on small payday loans is limited by state regulation to a maximum of 153.833% APR. One online purveyor promotes loans at an APR of 153.65%, which means that a typical 31-day loan of $100.00 adds a service charge of $13.05. Cross the line into California, which allows automobile title loans, and you’ll need to be very careful not to be caught in a loan with a very high, unregulated interest rate, numerous other charges such as exorbitant late fees, and the possibility of repossession immediately after missing a payment, leaving you without transportation essential for your work and almost no possibility of recovering your vehicle. The advertising of such loans and the location of stores that provide the loans prove that poor, often desperate, people with few choices are the intended targets.

Another example: Prior to the great recession, high-risk home loans were fiercely promoted in poverty areas of large cities. In 2005 I was working as a mathematics coach in a Jacksonville, FL, inner-city school. I recall well a small girl coming to me, her excitement level sky high, and telling me, “Mr. Anderson, I’m moving to a brand new house!” Knowing the deep poverty in which at least 85% of the children in that school lived but unaware of how the predatory mortgage industry was operating at the time, I shared her joy. Few years later, many if not most of those poverty-level families had not only lost their homes but their savings as well, while mortgage lenders were themselves going bankrupt as the entire economy readjusted to devastation. The resulting bailouts, of course, helped lenders but few of those once-excited families recovered their losses.

How then shall we pray this prayer? I can, of course, speak the words that bracket that us/we section, and I can speak them enthusiastically with strong intentionality. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done,” is indeed one of my most fervent prayers. And, of course, I can say, “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen,” without doubting or hesitancy. Then, what must I do when I come to “Give us . . .”? I can imagine three possible choices:

1. If I am speaking the prayer as part of a congregational ritual, I will become silent and remain so until I hear the word, “evil.”

2. Or, if praying with others, I may change the pronouns to “them” and “they,” flipping that section into intercession rather than petition and in the course of that, give genuine attention to my thoughts about the poor whom I’ve just passed on the street or those far away.

3. And if I am praying alone, I will pause at length as I come to that section and recall one or more situations where daily hunger and suffering are a part of life, Yemen, for example, or refugees in a caravan seeking escape from poverty, or those living in my city, scrambling daily for sustenance, and pray earnestly for them.

In any of these experiences of prayer, my speaking the bracketing words will carry acute concern that the poor might experience the coming of the Kingdom, the action of the will of the Heavenly Father, whose kingdom, power and glory are forever. And somewhere among all of that, I must if I am at all sincere ask myself how I have participated in the coming of that Kingdom for the poor, lest I simply mouth words about conditions for which I must share responsibility.

Or maybe it is better than I recognize the prayer is not for me at all and simply avoid speaking it as it is, as David Bentley Hart implies in the closing paragraph of his article:

. . . 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.

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