I HAD to smile when I read Luke 11.8: here is gospel truth that even a dog can grasp. Daniel the spaniel sleeps shut in our kitchen, but every morning at daybreak he goes out through the dog-flap to the garden gate, and howls as loudly as possible. This is not because he wants to get into the garden, but because he wants to come upstairs and sleep on our bed with us. By annoying the neighbours, he forces us to open the kitchen door and let him up. Perhaps we should think of being “cunning as spaniels and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10.16).
There is more to this Gospel than canine wisdom. But, first, another theology-dense passage from Colossians. Verse 8 contains two exciting references. The first calls to mind a fifth-century church historian, Socrates. Socrates is our main historical source for all the fighting over theology which went on in the fourth century. This left him with a distaste for doctrinal finessing and elaborate arguments about putting God into words. He alludes to Paul’s criticism of “philosophy and empty deceit” in justification for his view. And I want to cheer him on.
The other is the use of the term “the elemental spirits of the universe”. The Greek term stoicheia means “components” or “elements” of a whole. In speech, stoicheia are syllables of sound. In writing, they are letters of the alphabet. One influential Greek philosopher taught that all matter is composed of four stoicheia: earth, air, fire, and water.
Paul uses the term to connect Greek ideas about matter with his conception of forces of the universe — the kosmos — which “war against the soul” (1 Peter 2.11). In Galatians 4.9, he makes a parallel point about these “weak and worthless elements”. If they are, in fact, “elemental spirits”, as some versions translate, that hints at individual personhood rather than impersonal forces. The ontology of evil spirits is too ambitious a subject to tackle here, but this passage is an important source for such an inquiry.
One thing we know for certain: Christian life will not be untested bliss. Alongside the message of justification by faith for the individual, Paul sets a cosmic dimension to the Christian message, which he explores in Colossians and elsewhere. Christ challenges earthly powers and those “elemental spirits” alike. Both enemies are real.
Our individual existences are constantly being shaped by our environment. Like a pattern of river erosion, experience and circumstance carve trackways on us where we are yielding (like limestone), and divert around us where we are tough (like granite). Some parts of us are worn down (conscience, confidence, and trust are prone to such erosion), while others are built up (wisdom at one extreme, vanity at the other). But when we are incorporated into a structure, that structure gives us a strength beyond what we can have as individuals.
So, when I read Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, I am struck by the phrasing, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We know Matthew’s version better: not “for we forgive” but “as we forgive”. Luke’s Jesus implies that our forgiving of others is a necessary precursor to God’s forgiving of us. Matthew’s Jesus suggests a balance in which the measure of forgiveness we give will also be the measure we get. Both are daunting.
What both versions of our great prayer show is that pure individualism is not the Christian way. The ability to forgive is a fundamental ethical principle of our faith, as these doubled injunctions make clear. Every Christian needs to be both forgiven and forgiving. Not surprisingly, the former is less painful than the latter, probably because our contrition is rarely as complete as it should be, making us ill-equipped to value full forgiveness at its true price.
The passage from Genesis draws our eye back from New Testament revelation into the world of the patriarchs. Here is a chance for God to show us that he is both reasonable and righteous. This dialogue between God and Abraham establishes the principle that a collective punishment for individual wrongdoing is an injustice unworthy of God. The Lucan Lord’s Prayer takes this a stage further. Unless Christians are a living Temple, a Church, united as the “body of Christ”, there is no “us” to be forgiven.