People today make the same request that Jesus’ close friends made of him long ago: “Help us learn how to pray.” In response, he gave them a model, which continues to be useful to all kinds of people all over the world, some using it as a guide for developing their own prayers and others as the very text of what they say to God.
In either way of using the prayer, it helps to be familiar not only with the words but with the meanings that lie behind these compressed, highly metaphorical phrases. This is where a little book—only 60 pages of text—by Detroit pastor Robert D. Cornwall, Ph.D., comes into the discussion.
In his preface, Cornwall states his underlying thesis about prayer. “If taken seriously, prayer is more than simply telling God what we humans want to have done on our behalf (or on the behalf of a friend or relative). It is a statement of trust and commitment, by which we declare our ultimate allegiance to the God who receives our prayers.”
This statement helps us understand the title of the book: Ultimate Allegiance. The subtitle, The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer, follows as the obvious and necessary result. These words “transcend time and cultures, inviting each new generation to consider to whom they owe their allegiance, and in whom they find their purpose in life.” Because the prayer declares our allegiance to God, it “challenges our world views and our loyalties,” and “remains in its very essence a subversive prayer.”
Because the book grows out of a series of sermons preached in Cornwall’s church, the ideas are expressed in language that is readily understandable by readers without technical theological training. Yet Cornwall is well aware of the large body of scholarly writings about this brief biblical text. The point of view that he expresses is consonant with the work of scholars with long-established reputations such as John Dominic Crossan and Walter Brueggemann.
Although Cornwall’s academic training is in post-Reformation church history, he helpfully refers to the Greek that lies back of the words in the English translation of this prayer. His discussion of “Father” is an example. The word here translated is not “abba,” the intimate “daddy” as some scholars have understood this word. Rather, Jesus uses the Greek “pater,” a more formal term from which the English words patriarch and patron are derived. Because “in the Roman world the Emperor was considered the Great Father of the people,” Cornwall suggests, “in addressing God as Father, the early Christians were signaling that their ultimate allegiance was to God and not the emperor.”
In a book as brief as this one, there are topics that left me wanting further discussion. The author rightly affirms that for Christians our dependence is upon God our provider. He also refers to the role of government in providing a safety net for people today. The issues related to survival, way of life, economic life, and national policy are complex enough that they call for fuller treatment than can be given in a book of this size.
One of the strengths of sermons is that they use illustrations and phrasing that are immediately current at the time that the sermons are preached. In order to become a study book to be used in places and times other than when the sermons were first preached, language and illustration often must be changed. In a few places in Ultimate Allegiance, that revision still remains to be done.
It is common practice in churches to use a study book as part of their enriching of congregational life during Lent, which this year begins on Ash Wednesday, March 9. The six chapters in Robert Cornwall’s slender volume would serve this purpose very well.
The reflections with which Cornwall concludes his book would help us add a stringent and healthful tone to Lenten life: “Christians live in the world, and yet they are not of the world—that is, Christians, including American Christians, live in two parallel orders, so that the Christian’s ultimate allegiance is to God and not nation, clan, tribe, or even family.” By praying the Lord’s Prayer with understanding, we learn the implications of this ultimate allegiance and are strengthened by the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to live the life he gave for the sake of the world.