Historical Cultural Context
Mediterranean and American Prayer
In general, prayer is a form of communication with someone who is considered to be in charge of life. For most believers, God is in charge of life and everything. Americans, who take pride in their scientific abilities and achievements, have gradually reduced the areas of life of which God is in charge.
Only in extreme cases do Americans turn to God regarding needs in the economy, health, space conquest, and so on. This is one reason why American believers sometimes find it difficult to pray.
In the Mediterranean world of our ancestors in the Faith, peasants—constituting about 90 percent of the population—realized only too well that they were not in charge of anything. Nature determined their weather and climate. The landowners determined what they might plant and how much they might keep. Rome determined the taxes they should pay—in crops, not in cash! What could a peasant do?
Above all, the peasant could pray, that is, communicate with anyone—including God—who was controlling one or another part of life and hope to obtain benefits from that person.
In other words, prayer is a form of communication intended to influence the decision of a patron, someone who looks upon and treats a client, the one praying, as if that one were a family member.
This is what the disciples ask Jesus to share with them. “Teach us how you communicate with and have an influence upon God.”
Jesus encourages the disciples to address God as “Father,” just as he does (see Lk 10:21; 22:42). In other words, Jesus says: “Consider God as a Father, as one who is as near as and behaves just like a father toward his children.”
In the Middle East this kind of relationship is called “patronage” and someone who behaves like a father to people who are not his children is a “patron.”
The patron can get things for clients that the client could not obtain by personal ability, or on better terms than the client could manage by personal ability. This is the appropriate context for interpreting the five petitions of Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer.
Praise of the Father/patron. The first two petitions praise God as children would praise a father. These first two petitions concern things no human could achieve but that God can easily achieve with divine power. “To hallow one's name” is to “be in truth who you really are”: Father, patron, truly in charge of life. “Your kingdom come” urges God to achieve and establish kingly dominion once-and-for-always, definitively, over all of life.
Three human needs. The plurals in these petitions give the prayer a communal rather than an individual dimension. This accords with the Mediterranean cultural preference for groups over individuals. Having praised God, the community can now ask for daily sustenance, forgiveness of sins, and preservation from temptation to apostasy. Jesus encourages petitioners to present these petitions with confidence that they will be granted. Whence this confidence?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University