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hos en ouranō kai epi gēs

One of the greatest joys of teaching Greek is having students memorize parts of the New Testament in its original language. My favorite is reciting the Lord’s Prayer together each time we meet. We do so standing up – as did our early Christian ancestors when they recited it three times daily. Then, sitting down, we discuss it in detail, luxuriating in this tightly packed prayer which Cyprian said “omits absolutely nothing but includes all” and which Tertullian called an “abridgement of the entire Gospel.”

While feasting on it as their daily bread (or is it “bread of tomorrow”? We discuss that too), students begin to notice patterns and repetitions in the prayer. A structure emerges that divides the prayer neatly in two: In the first half there are three “Thy” petitions (“thy name,” “thy kingdom,” “thy will”); followed in the second half by three “Our” petitions (“our daily bread,” “our debts” “lead/deliver us”).

Jesus says, essentially: “What’s in heaven, Father, bring about on earth.”

This is commonly – and correctly – noted in modern commentaries. What is missed, however, is what divides the two sections, the hinge that swings the “thy” petitions onto the “our” petitions. Like the spine of a book, this hinge lies right at the center of the prayer and binds it together: verse 10c, commonly translated “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As my Greek class noticed, the order of the familiar and beloved version of this verse is slightly off. In Greek, it’s not “on earth as it is in heaven,” but the inverse. The order, as Tertullian already noted in his On Prayer, is crucial for finding the prayer’s hinge: “Heaven comes first, since the first half of the prayer is about heavenly things: our father in heaven; his kingdom, name, and will. … Earth comes second, since the second half is about earthy things: fresh bread, monetary debts, trials and temptations.”

Noticing how this line halves the prayer, my class translated it not “on earth as it is in heaven” but “as in heaven, so also on earth.” Rendering it in this way restores how the prayer pivots from what is above and what is below.

Armed with this fresh translation, we noticed that what Jesus instructs his disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer is deceptively simple. He says, essentially: “What’s in heaven, Father, bring about on earth.” Jesus enjoins them (and us!) to ask that God swing all that is in heaven onto the earth, folding the divine onto the everyday, mapping what is “thine” onto the humble, messy business of what we otherwise pretend to be “ours.”

Three things result from this. First, what we are tempted to claim as ours becomes so no longer. Bread, debt, even, oddly, temptation, are taken up into the divine economy. In the prayer, “ours” is properly placed under and within “thine.” Our little lives are acknowledged to be part of God’s work and will “as in heaven, so also on earth.”

Second, not only our small lives, but also the entire world is recognized as being within the divine economy. “Our” world is now rightly seen as God’s sphere of action, and this changes our way of being in it. By asking that God’s kingdom be brought to bear on earth, we ask God to address larger, systemic issues, issues related to bread (food insecurity), debts (predatory loan practices) and temptations (the lure of wealth and power).

Third, in praying, we are invited to act in God’s unfolding drama of deliverance: “forgive us … as we forgive.” God uses human action, astonishingly, to “hallow” God’s name.

How then do we begin to align ourselves with God’s will in the world? Perhaps we start by daily standing up and praying, like our forebears, Jesus’ simple, profound prayer. Perhaps we begin by asking God to turn the hinge: As in heaven, Father, so also on earth.

Nathan Johnson teaches Greek at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey; and for Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.

One Comment

  • Jim Payton says:

    When I learned the Lord’s Prayer in Russian (already knew it in English, Latin, and German), I was struck that it followed the order in Greek as you lay it out here: “as in heaven, so also on earth.” Thank you for this reminder, and for this thoughtful reflection on its significance.