In Luke’s version of Jesus giving the disciples a model of how to pray to God, the itinerant rabbi seems to assume – for that particular society in which he proclaimed and demonstrated the coming reign of God – an understanding of humanity’s moral condition. (Luke 11:1-13)
Jesus assumes, that is, that human beings are evil.
According to some translations of the 13th verse, Jesus tells the disciples, “If you then, who are evil…” In other translations, that phrase is rendered: “As bad as you are…”
No surprise, right? After all, in proclaiming and demonstrating the coming reign of God, Jesus is contrasting that divine domain with the sinful nature of not just all human beings individually but also of the whole social, economic and political character of the world.
That’s why in the paradigmatic prayer Jesus teaches the petition to God to “forgive us our sins” as deep-rooted as those sins truly are. In Jesus’ way of thinking, asking for the forgiveness of sins is as important as the other two petitions: for daily bread to live on and for being saved eternally from the time of judgment.
But what level of human sinfulness does Jesus assume here? Or we could ask in a more Calvinistic fashion: Just how depraved does Jesus think human beings and their institutions are?
Certainly he thinks they are small and petty, spiteful and self-serving. They are deserving of the terrible punishment that is sure to come. That is precisely why God’s forgiveness is essential.
Yet in this text it is abundantly clear that for Jesus, despite their sinful condition, human beings have the capacity to do what is expected of them in order to qualify as being human at the very minimum.
In the Lord’s Prayer itself, Jesus instructs the disciples to pray that God will forgive their sins just as human beings forgive the debts that people owe them. Jesus is not equating human debt-forgiving with God’s sin-forgiving. They are of an entirely different order of magnitude. Jesus is teaching, if even evil human beings have this capacity to erase the debts owed to them, then imagine how great is the capacity of a good and gracious God to erase the profound sins of human beings.
To make the same point, Jesus tells the disciples a story about a person who raps on a friendly neighbor’s door around midnight to ask for food so a visitor will be able to eat. The person gets turned down by the friendly neighbor because his or her house has already been locked up and his or her family is already in bed.
As the story goes, the person keeps knocking on the neighbor’s door. Finally the neighbor gives in and provides the needed food. Not out of friendship but rather because the neighbor recognizes the basic need for food that must be met. He or she would be put to shame for not meeting the minimal standards of being human if the food were not to be shared.
In this story the neighbor is not a good person – the friendly neighbor is evil – but the persistent door-knocker knows that even an evil person can be prevailed upon to do what is necessary to meet a self-evident need.
How much more, then, will a good God respond with forgiveness to our sins if we are in a posture of seeking for that divine forgiveness?
Jesus’ prayer and stories worked in the particular society in which Jesus lived – a society in which it was understood that human beings are evil but still capable of meeting the minimal criteria for being human. He could draw on that minimal criterion for defining humanity to contrast it with the magnitude of God’s goodness that is available to us just for the asking.
But will that prayer and the accompanying stories work in our society in which the minimal standards of what it means to be human have been downgraded so that families are losing their homes to foreclosure, caused by unscrupulous lenders, and receiving no debt relief from those who could provide help?
Will they work in our society in which income relief for the unemployed in a disastrous economy is steadfastly opposed by so many politicians?
Will the prayer and the stories work in our society in which tax cuts are proposed for the wealthy but a vocal part of the population are demanding that basic human services for those in need be reduced or even eliminated in order to reduce the national deficit and debt? What defines the baseline standards for being human here?
Will the prayer and the stories work in our society in which the stranger, the immigrant and the sojourner are seen as the enemy to be denied not just hospitality but essential human services and basic human rights? How is the lowest possible common denominator of being human established in such cases?
These questions about the viability of the paradigmatic prayer and the accompanying stories are real because, for Jesus, we cannot begin to comprehend the awesomeness of God’s capacity to forgive our deep and profound sins if we do not also have some sense not just of our sinfulness but also our human capacity to do good as a minimal level.
But if the standard of minimal good for being human is set so low as if not to exist at all, how are we ever to contrast the measly human good with the magnificence of God’s goodness in forgiving our sins?
If that is our condition – or if that is increasingly becoming our condition – then we’ll have to admit that it will still be nice to recite that paradigmatic prayer by the itinerant rabbi, but that the Lord’s Prayer will be, for all practical purposes, lost to us.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.