Continuing in the next portion of the Lord’s Prayer, we come to the section which is probably the most debated and discussed, but least understood. For many, the coming of the Kingdom means the future destruction of the world (a prediction of Jesus’ which – for some interpreters – never happened!). Perhaps in reaction to this interpretation, today Kingdom language is predominantly thought of as a present, ethical reality, often associated with various causes of social justice or politics. It is advanced when we advocate for the poor, help the environment, or promote family values in anticipation of the final culmination of the Kingdom on the last day. Christians are meant to build, advance, or realize the Kingdom through mission and good works.
On this reading, to pray “Thy Kingdom Come” is a prayer that we might get our act together and finally get around to do what God what us to do. The same of true of the prayer “Thy will be done”. God’s will is thought of in personal terms as some mysterious plan or ordering which I need to find and conform to. I find God’s will when I do the right thing and am “out of step” with God’s will when I make poor choices.
Yet the Kingdom in Matthew (or anywhere else for that matter) is never spoken of as something we do. We may seek the Kingdom (Mt. 6:33) or we enter into (Mt. 12:25), but this is not the same as building the Kingdom. If anything, the Kingdom is closely associated with God’s own activity: the kingdom overcomes us (Mt. 12:28) it is likened to God’s forgiveness (Mt. 18:23f), and it grows of its own accord (Mt. 13:31-32; 33). As Karl Barth said: “The coming of the kingdom is totally independent of our powers. We are as incapable of doing something toward its coming as creation itself”.
Instead, the Kingdom said here to be the object of our prayer, for God alone brings it about to its ultimate completion. The Kingdom, both present and future, does not depend upon our faithfulness or disobedience. Rather than a prayer that we we might get our act together, we ask for God to do what he has already promised to do. In a very real way, our future is out of our hands.
But there is something else… we pray that it might on be earth as it is in heaven. Though the religious language may obscure the meaning, here is an acknowledgement that life is not as it should be. There’s a tint of realism here which is comforting. Prayer (and by extension the religious life) is not meant to be a retreat to an other-worldly experience, detached from “the endless cycle of idea and action“, the deadline at work we have to meet, or that failed relationship we hope to see restored. In looking toward heaven, we do not avert our gaze from the here and now on earth.
Instead, out of our despair and exasperation with the world (a world we have made a mess of), we are to pray that God may overcome the insurmountable distance between the pain and sorrow we know now in the present and the promised future where sin has finally been defeated and suffering has come to an end.