A Prayer in the Morning Hours: Matthew 6:9-13 and Sura 93

Rachel Muers
University of Exeter, UK

In conversations about poverty and debt-release in the Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group in Cambridge, one participant described the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13) as a “song of ascents,” that is, the petition and praise offered by those on the way to the site/time of the presence and character of God. This is, I suggest, a valuable starting-point for thinking about the petitions for forgiveness and daily bread, and their juxtaposition; and Sura 93 can offer further insights into the temporality of the prayer and the implications of this temporality for questions of economic justice. For Sura 93’s words are located in the “morning hours” (Pickthall’s translation), or in “the forenoon” (Khalifa’s translation), a time that is still “night” (2) but in which the beginnings of day are already perceived. The words spoken to the Prophet place him between a “former” portion left behind or abandoned, and a “latter” that is named in the modality of promise. Though Sura 93 speaks the words of God to the believer (rather than of the believer to God), it could perhaps also be read as a song of ascents. Both it and the Lord’s Prayer, to change terminology, address the conditions of the “penultimate”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term for material and historical reality insofar as it is directed towards the “ultimate” of divine grace and fulfilment. [1] The penultimate has its own proper goodness, order and stability—it is not simply a means to, nor simply an impediment to, the divine end—but it has this goodness, order and stability only by virtue of its relation to the ultimate that transcends it.

Sura 93, in particular, recalls to the reader of the “songs of ascents” the condition for being able to read the present situation rightly as “penultimate”—an acknowledgment of what God has already done as manifestation of the reliable character of God. Because “thy Lord… [found] thee an orphan, and protect[ed] thee,” there can be confident discourse of the “bounty of thy Lord,” bounty still awaiting its full manifestation, remembered and anticipated bounty that will shape contemplation and action in the “forenoon”. In the same way, the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are prefixed by the invocation of God as “Father,” which recalls and relies on Jesus’ naming of God (the whole narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as extended “naming” of God) as the ground of the particular form of “penultimate” existence out of which this prayer is uttered.

If these are texts of the penultimate, songs of ascents, it is particularly striking that both of them give such a significant place to economic and social ordering: the Lord’s Prayer to “daily bread” and forgiveness, Sura 93 to the situation of the orphan and of the beggar. Thinking first about forgiveness and daily bread, we can understand both as prior conditions of temporally-extended existence. It is obviously true that people cannot live without their daily bread, and, I suggest, equally though less obviously true that as social beings they cannot live without forgiveness. An absence or shortage of forgiveness leads to conditions of social emergency -“crying out,” the use of violence, and the destruction of the most basic relationships, as suggested in Exodus 22:21ff., also studied in these sessions ofthe Scriptural Reasoning theory group. Including forgiveness and daily bread within the prayer draws attention not merely to their immediate and non-negotiable necessity ( our daily bread, today, and our debts) but also to their penultimacy-not-ultimacy (the orientation to God as source and end that establishes them as real but relative goods).

In a well-ordered socio-economic context, both daily bread and forgiveness can to a greater or lesser extent be relied upon in advance—and this is a requirement of any future-directed action not directly ordered to the securing of forgiveness or daily bread,to anything that is not about the moment-by-moment struggle for survival. Trust , we might say, is “forgiveness given in advance” on the basis of existing and enduring relationships that will make forgiveness possible as and when it is called for.

Having read thus far in the Matthew 6 text, Sura 93 pulls us up short — for it points to a situation in which, notwithstanding the acknowledged “bounty of thy Lord” evidenced in his prior acts, and notwithstanding the coming of the “morning hours,” daily bread and trusting social relations cannot be relied on. The text acknowledges the precariousness of its addressees’ situation. People can and do lose trust—even trust in God (“Thy Lord has not abandoned thee nor does he hate thee”); and people can and do find themselves excluded from society, unprotected, or without the basic necessities of life. A reaffirmation of the “bounty” of God draws ever more pressing attention to the features of the penultimate that contradict it. The sura does not, in response to the crisis brought on by sufferings in the “forenoon”—the possibility that “thy Lord has… abandoned thee” -simply offer reassurances; it offers injunctions that direct more, not less, attention at the repeated failures of human social and economic ordering.

For forgiveness and daily bread—for what wards off beggary and oppression—there is no means other than “ordinary” human means, economic, social and political, to overcome the real difficulties of maintaining their supply. Both forgiveness and daily bread have innerworldly conditions of possibility (the fruitfulness of land, the social enactment of something other than the war of all against all) that can easily, in any given situation, be damaged or destroyed. Hence, I suggest, the reference in Matthew 6 to the pray-ers’ acts of forgiveness as the sine qua non of the experience of divine forgiveness.

I would link this, furthermore, to the sequence of ideas at the end of Sura 93; first the breaking of patterns of oppression (the challenge to the social enactment of the war of all against all), then the positive act of charity and trust, and then?as if it depended on the first two?the proclamation of “the bounty of thy Lord.” It is as if, in the forenoon, to speak of the bounty of the Lord is impossible, or untruthful, if one does not act in ways that, however imperfectly, reflect that bounty. Or perhaps it is that discourse of the bounty of the Lord (or the prayer for the Kingdom of God) is both what empowers and what points beyond the acts that repair social and economic relations?as the rightly ordered penultimate reveals its own relation to the “ultimate” that sustains it. Or perhaps, again, and with particular relevance to scriptural reasoning, it is that discourse itself can be either generous or productive of scarcity; to speak of divine generosity is to speak with something reflective of divine generosity.

It is important to note, finally, that the connection between forgiveness and daily bread, and between both of these and forms of discourse about God, is, as the work of scriptural reasoners reflected elsewhere in this journal issue suggests, not merely metaphorical. A shortage of forgiveness is materially connected with a shortage of daily bread, and vice versa . This becomes particularly apparent when we consider, with a critical and troubled eye on the contemporary world situation, the unsustainability of debt.

It would seem that we (by which I do not mean only “we academics” nor only “we members of Abrahamic faiths”) know perfectly well, from a range of sources too numerous to list and at a range of levels too numerous to list, that to base relationships on debt without forgiveness is unsustainable. Debt-without-forgiveness kills (social and natural) ecosystems and their constituent life-forms very fast, frequently before our eyes. Readings of Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts have led scriptural reasoners through the ways in which debt-without-forgiveness absolutises an overreaching claim on the future that destroys the capacity to respond, now or later, to the face or voice of another. This is an economic idea, an environmentalist idea, a psychological idea, most basically a theological/anthropological idea, and much more; it is the stuff of everyday experience, even for those of us whose bodies and daily bread are not directly put at risk (yet) by debt without forgiveness.

It is possible that, if most people in the world know this about debt, and yet things continue as they do, the logical and also (for theologians) rather unsurprising conclusion is that most people most of the time do not desire life enough to choose it above death and/or the fear of death. [2] And hence that, if there are people who do desire life, enough to say prayers like this or to recite suras like this, the fostering of that desire- discourse on the past and future “bounty of the Lord,” speech about the Kingdom of God, the singing of songs of ascents?is itself a crucial step towards a different economics.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics ( Works vol 6), ed. Ilse Toedt et al, English ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss et al ( Minneapolis : Fortress, 2005), p. 146ff.

[2] See the famous opening to Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption , trans. William W. Hallo (London: Routledge, 1971).

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