When Jesus teaches us to pray to God “Hallowed be your name,” he is telling us, not only how to speak in ways that acknowledge God’s holiness, but also how act in ways that reflect an encounter with God’s holiness. He is fully aware of the biblical themes he is invoking at the nexus of holiness, God’s name — and freedom, liberation, and justice for the last and the least.
Teach Us To Pray: Hallowed Be Thy…Economics?!
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
23 January 2011
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
“Hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9b / Luke 11:2b).
This week we come to the second line of Christianity’s most famous prayer: “Hallowed be your name.” We don’t use the word “hallow” often these days. Hallow means “to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or consecrate.” Perhaps the most familiar usage is the appearance of the word hallow in Halloween. Sometimes you even see the holiday called “All Hallow’s Eve” — or even “All Saint’s Eve” (the day before All Saint’s Day) in which case you can begin to see the connection between hallow and saint, and the related meanings of to make holy or sacred. To explore the larger context of the petition “Hallowed be your name,” I would like for us to follow the lead of one of my favorite historical Jesus scholars John Dominic Crossan and look backward to the Torah — in particular to the books of Exodus and Leviticus — as a key to unlocking the fuller meaning of Jesus’ words.
Perhaps the most obvious connection in Hebrew Bible to the prayer “Hallowed be your name” is the Ten Commandments in Exodus in which we are forbidden from taking God’s name in vain. In contrast to the forbidden act of taking God’s name in vain, we should “hallow” God’s name, keep God’s name holy or “set apart.”
But I think Jesus was making a more significant point than merely how we speak about God. Although how we talk about God is important, I invite you to consider that Jesus is teaching us, not only how to speak in ways that acknowledge God’s holiness, but also how act in ways reflect an encounter with God’s holiness.
As a case study for how we can act in ways that hallow God’s name, let’s turn to another place in Exodus where the themes of holiness and God’s name intersect — namely, Moses’ famous encounter with the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3. While tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, Moses, while on Mt. Horeb, stumbles upon a bush that was blazing, yet was not consumed. God then speaks to Moses from out of the bush: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And in this holy place, God delivers a message to Moses:
I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians….
Then Moses, seeking a way to prove to his fellow Israelites that the message is indeed from God, asks, “What name shall I say has sent me” — to which God offers arguably the most brilliant reply in scripture: “I Am Who I Am…. Tell them ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.” Essentially, God is punning on the infinitive verb “to be” and thereby communicating many complex levels of meaning at once. God is saying, “I Am What I Am.” But God is also simultaneously saying, “I Was What I Was,” and “I Will Be What I Will Be.” Theologian James McClendon translates this phrases’ core meaning as God saying “I will always be ahead of you” — that is, we can never fully capture who God is.
To connect this famous story in Exodus 3 more securely back to Jesus’ prayer, remember that hallowed means holy. And on what God calls holy ground, God reveals God’s own name as holy and set apart beyond human comprehension. But we too often stop there with a verbal declaration of God’s holiness, while failing to press on to the implications of how we should act in ways reflect an encounter with God’s holiness. Remember that the story of the burning bush does not end with the revelation of God’s holiness or even with the revelation of God’s holy name. Instead, here — as well as time and time again in scripture — we see that an authentic encounter with God’s holiness is never an end in itself.
In Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah does not simply see a vision of God high and lifted up and hear angels singing “Holy, holy, holy”; instead, Isaiah’s encounter with God’s holiness leads to his commissioning as a prophet. Similarly, on the Damascus Road, Paul does not simply experience a blinding encounter of divine holiness, he experiences a complete transformation of his vocational identity. But returning to the passage at hand, recall the message that God communicates to Moses in the wake of his experience on hallowed, holy ground with God’s hallowed, holy name: “I have come down to deliver my people from the Egyptians.” A recurring theme in the Bible is that an encounter with the holy leads to a commissioning to work for liberation, justice, and freedom. And so we begin to see a significant clue of the background that led Jesus to teach us to pray “Hallowed be your name” — because he knew that encounter God’s holiness leads to an increase in liberation, justice, and freedom.
In addition to Exodus, an equally important part of scripture in the background of Jesus’ prayer “Hallowed be your name” is the book of Leviticus. Leviticus is the central book of the Torah — with the two books of Genesis and Exodus before it and the two books of Numbers and Deuteronomy after it. And perhaps the central message of this central book is the repeated refrain from God in Leviticus: “Be Holy for I am holy.” Indeed, this refrain reminds us that there is some rationale and structure underneath all those rules and prohibitions in Leviticus: each was meant to hallow, sanctify, or make holy the world.
For example, many of those rules and prohibitions helped hallow a place — such that it might become a “holy place” or even the “holy of holies.” This is not to say that God is absent in some places that were considered “very unclean” like the Israelites’ campground or outside the camp. Rather, God is everywhere, and everywhere is holy. But the prayer “Hallowed by your name” coupled with the levitical laws invite us to consider if some places are or can become particularly holy where God is perhaps superabundantly present or at least where God’s presence is most easily or palpably felt by many humans.
All those rules and regulations also help hallow time such as festivals or Sabbath. The height of sanctification or “making holy” would be that ritual done only by the high priest and only in the holy of holies and only on the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.
We miss the point, however, if we see these rules and regulations as ends in themselves. Instead as we saw in Exodus 3 with the burning bush, an authentic encounter with holiness leads inextricably toward healing and wholeness, justice and freedom. For instance, the underlying point of the Sabbath day was not a burdensome restriction, but a deep freedom: to be free as God is free. As anyone who has ever read about the horrific conditions in sweatshops or maquiladoras in which women and child are forced to work seven days a week without any days off, we can quickly see that in many cases without Sabbath, only the the rich ever get a day off. Sabbath is meant to guarantee everyone from the richest to the poorest a day of freedom. Just as in Exodus 3 we saw that God’s holiness leads to liberation from enslavement, we see in that when rightly practiced “Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy” means that even the poorest of the poor get a day off work each week.
Leviticus chapter 25 takes this understanding of the sabbath to a whole other level. We are accustomed to a once-a-week Sabbath, but a close reading of Leviticus shows that the larger vision of divine economics called not only for a day off once a week, but for a sabbatical year off for the whole society once every seven years. Leviticus 25:4 says, “but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.”
Even more radically, every fifty years was to be a Sabbath of Sabbaths — that is, if you have a Sabbath Year every seven years, then seven cycles of seven years would 49 years after which a capstone “Sabbath of Sabbaths” or Jubilee Year was to be celebrated. Listen to Leviticus 25:10, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” Did you notice the word hallow in that last verse? Jesus knew his Torah. Remember, after all, that Jesus famously turned to the book of Leviticus as the source of his “Second Greatest Commandment” to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Jesus’ “First and Greatest Commandment” to love God is similarly drawn from the Torah in Deuteronomy 6:5. So, again, I invite you to consider that when Jesus taught us to pray to God, “Hallowed be your name,” he was fully aware of the biblical themes he was invoking at the nexus of holiness, God’s name — and freedom, liberation, and justice for the last and the least.
Last week we noted that the first meaning of calling God “Father” was likely meant to subvert the tyrannical authority that fathers held over their households in Greco-Roman society, pointing instead to God as the one to whom highest allegiance was ultimately due. And now we see that the line “Hallowed be your name” points toward what holiness looks like in society: liberation from captivity modeled in the spirit of Exodus, freedom incessant labor in the spirit of Sabbath, and just distribution of assets for all in the spirit of the year of Jubilee. So, hallowing God’s names ripples into hallowing time, place, and people — which, in turn, ripples into our very economics.
Of course, as history shows us, liberation, freedom, and jubliee is easier said than done, but perhaps the idea of hallowing economics is indeed not that foreign to Jesus’ intent. Remember that after praying “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” Jesus next prayed, your kingdom come. But kingdom will be the focus on the next sermon.
For now, I invite you to listen once more to the contemporary paraphrase of Jesus’ prayer that we heard earlier. As you listen, having spent some time this morning pondering the fuller meaning of the petition “Hallowed by your name,” be open to the word or phrase that in this version of the prayer that resonates with you most fully. Be open to the fuller meaning that word of phrase may have for you this morning:
How deep within You are! How high above, how far beyond!
Your name be hallowed.
Your new creation come.
Your way be followed everywhere.
Give us bread to share.
Forgive us the wounds we have caused,
and help us forgive those who have wounded us.
Do not let evil exploit our weaknesses or hold us in bondage,
your grace heal and free us,
your love sustain,
your Spirit enliven,
your wisdom guide.
And may our last word to You always be
1 John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, 71.
2 Exodus 20:7 reads “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Another version of the “Ten Commandments” is found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. In addition to these two versions of the commandments, different traditions also number the commandments differently.
3 McClendon’s loosely translates the imperfect, causative form of the verb (Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume II, 285).
4 See Leviticus 11:44-47; 19:2; and 20:26.
5 On the notion of God being everywhere and everything being holy, I highly recommend Peter Mayer’s song, “Everything is Holy Now,” which you can hear at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfLI1l_Pda4. Learn more about Mayer at www.petermayer.net.
6 This contemporary version of Jesus’ prayer is by Thomas B. Turner.