Of all the lines in the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be thy name” is surely the one we throw away with the least amount of thought. And yet, to a first century Jew, even to a modern Jew, it would have immediate resonance. The name of God, given to Moses in his encounter in the burning bush, is considered so holy that they will not even pronounce it. The four Hebrew letters that make it up are unpronounceable in any event – Hebrew having no vowels – and our Western attempt to pronounce it as Jehovah is ludicrously wrong and even the more scholarly equivalent – Jahweh – is little more than a guess.
When Jesus taught us to hallow God’s name, he, as a Jew, undoubtedly had in mind at least the kind of reverence his fellow Jews showed to God’s name. And though some Christians feel that we are free, under Grace, to use that name, I personally feel uncomfortable about doing so. But in any event, the Jewish approach to hallowing God’s name goes far deeper than merely the avoidance of pronouncing it.
Jesus’s reference to it in the Lord’s Prayer has its roots in the third commandment: “you shall not make wrongful use of my name.” When I was taught the faith, that apparently meant no more than not using God or Jesus as swear words. And whilst that is clearly part of it, the Jewish understanding goes far deeper. It means not saying anything in God’s name that God has not said himself, not attributing to God that which is not of God.
This has a particular resonance in the light of recent events in our cities, where the name of God has been used to justify acts of violence and injustice that not only offend God, but bring his name into disrepute. But as the Archbishop of Canterbury was reminding us only yesterday, Christians also have been guilty of doing evil in God’s name. And it is not just in our use of violence that we misuse God’s name. It is so tempting to use God as a cloak for our own desires and wishes. In church, it is so easy to describe our own preferences as God’s will and use God’s name to oppress and bring down our fellow Christians. To listen to our disputes, it would appear that the same God clearly decrees that the pews in church should be removed and considers that their removal would be sacrilege – both views so easily justified as God’s will, when in fact God never said anything about pews, but did command us to love one another. An example of this that has lived in my mind was a couple who visited one of the churches where I was curate. I was sitting in the congregation in mufti, right behind them and, as I quickly discovered, used to attend that church many years ago. They started talking in the most disparaging way about my incumbent, saying it was a disgrace that she had changed the service from the Book of Common Prayer and introduced family services. Dumbing down religion, they called it. They spoke with such spite and venom that eventually I rounded on them, telling them that their language was inappropriate for God’s house and asking them to leave. (I fear I may have told them that they, of all people, needed their religion to be dumbed down as it was the only religion they were likely to understand – curates can be rather hot-headed). They looked pretty startled, but did as I suggested and left – and I quickly discovered that everyone was very relieved to see them go. That is, perhaps, a very stark example, but it is so easy and so tempting for all of us to hijack God’s name for a cause of our own.
But only God is God. His name may not be pronounceable, but we know what it means: “I am who I am”. It is so wonderfully absolute. I cannot be compared to anything you know – nothing in this world, no graven image, no known thought, no known name. I am who I am. My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, my ways higher than your ways.
To hallow God’s name is no empty phrase. It requires us to be very careful to speak God’s word and not our own. And to do that, we must know God’s word, feed on it hungrily every day until it changes our hearts to be like God. And then, out of the fullness of our hearts, we will speak God’s word to our neighbour. And if, in this week of prayer, we pray “Thy Kingdom come” in the hope that our friends and neighbours will come to know Christ, we must take upon ourselves the responsibility to speak for Christ, to speak in God’s name, because if we don’t, “how will they ever hear of one of whom they have not heard”? And if we do, we must take care to speak in God’s name only what God himself would say, only to do what God himself would do and only to think what God himself would think.
Hallowed be thy name. Amen.