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Winter Books

Say it in secret: Our Father, Jesus’ subversive prayer

by Michael H. Crosby
Orbis Books, 202 pages, $19

Reviewed by GERALD M. FAGIN

Reciting the Our Father reverently takes about 20 seconds. In The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us, Capuchin Fr. Michael Crosby makes clear that understanding its subversive meaning and living out its implications takes a lifetime. Author and activist Michael Crosby returns to a reflection he began 25 years earlier in Thy Will Be Done: Praying the Our Father as Subversive Activity, but now, as he admits, with more nuanced biblical scholarship that situates the prayer in the broader social context of Matthew’s gospel. The thesis remains that the Lord’s Prayer is not simply a pious formula unconnected to our social and political lives, but rather a challenging judgment on injustice wherever it is found, either in society or in the church.

Crosby presents Jesus’ prayer as the “original anti-establishment household prayer.” Early Christian house churches understood themselves as alternatives to the Temple and the pagan world of the Empire, alternatives “struggling to be just in an unjust world.” Crosby proposes that one reason that Matthew’s Jesus advises his followers to say the prayer in secret was that it articulated subversive alternatives to the injustices of the surrounding society and culture. Throughout the book, Crosby envisions how this same critique of unjust structures must be made of our contemporary social order. Jesus’ prayer calls us to create communities of justice and compassion.

Crosby offers a rich reflection on each phrase of Jesus’ prayer by exploring the contexts of the New Testament Mediterranean world and of our contemporary world. It is a difficult book to summarize, rich in experiences and applications, but perhaps a few examples will be an invitation to explore the book on one’s own.

In analyzing “Hallowed Be Your Name,” he contrasts holiness as separation with holiness as mercy. Jesus rejected the system of exclusion based on purity and cleanliness and replaced it with a ministry of inclusion based on justice and compassion. The ministry of Jesus sets an agenda of justice both in the church and in society that will make God’s name holy.

Crosby further contrasts God’s kingdom with the values of religion and society and interprets Jesus’ use of parables as advocating a way of justice that means the creation of a new social order. He dissociates God’s will from any form of violence and identifies it with the work of compassion and justice. Both in society and in the church, God wills that the basic rights of all should be fostered.

Crosby puts the first three petitions of Jesus’ prayer in the context of the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s reign is not simply a future reality, but a present experience of healing, reconciliation, justice and compassion. Globalization and environmental degradation challenge this reign, but it will come about through God’s power manifested in Jesus and shared with us.

The last three petitions for daily bread, forgiveness and freedom from evil and temptation present their own challenges to our contemporary world. How do we pray for our daily bread in a world devastated by hunger? This petition reminds us of our absolute dependence on God and our interdependence on each other. It calls us to a compassionate heart that recognizes needs and moves to respond to them.

Crosby interprets the pleas for forgiveness of our debts in the light of Matthew’s parable of the reign of God and the merciless official (Matthew 18: 23-34). The king subverts the existing order by not only forgiving the official’s debt, but also releasing him from slavery. This “forgiveness from the heart” invokes the principles and practices of jubilee, of periodic freeing of slaves and forgiveness of debt. It raises searching questions about what this would look like if applied to contemporary economic policies and structures.

Finally, “temptation” and “evil” are connected to power structures and possessions that promote a process of seeking, finding, selling and buying at odds with the gospel call to conversion. Crosby ends where he began, with a call for new households of faith that will be prophetic communities that speak and act for justice.

New Testament scholars may well critique some of his exegesis and question whether his own agenda has at times shaped his reading of the biblical text. Some readers may have trouble adjusting to his recasting the language of Father into the language of patron/client. But his radical reading of the Jesus’ prayer offers a new hermeneutic for approaching this gospel and, in particular, the prayer that Christians so often repeat in private piety and in communal worship. This is a demanding book both in its content and in its challenge to our living the gospel today. In fact, if people take Crosby’s reading of the Jesus prayer seriously, many Christians will either have to change their priorities in a capitalist society or find a less subversive prayer to recite. Some, of course, may simply prefer to return to the early church’s practice of reciting it only in secret.

Jesuit Fr. Gerald M. Fagin is associate professor of theology and spirituality at Loyola Institute for Ministry, Loyola University, New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002