Give us Today our Daily Bread - Matthew 6:5-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I guess Bart Simpson sums up the attitude of many of us living in the West have when it comes to thanking God for our food: as he bowed his head to say grace at supper time he simply said: ‘Dear God, we pay for all this ourselves. So thanks for nothing.’
The tendency to be ungrateful, even for the basic necessities of life, appears to be a faulty human trait. In his Notes from the Underground written in 1864, the Russian writer Dostoevsky spoke of humanity in these terms: ‘If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.’ The French existentialist thinker and novelist, Albert Camus, similarly remarked, ‘Man’s first faculty is forgetting.’ And this inclination to take things for granted with the corresponding tendency to be ungrateful is something which accelerated during the course of the 20th century so that it is now firmly ensconced in the 21st century. And this widespread ‘taking things for grantedness’ is a by-product of a process called ‘secularisation.’ Let me explain: you see, with the rise of science and industrialisation a certain mentality started to form, what is called the ‘secular mentality’. That is the view that even if there is a God, he is not all that relevant to what is happening in the world- he is somewhat removed. And this outlook went hand in hand with the process called ‘secularisation’, whereby the influence of religious institutions and ideas were pushed further and further to the margins of society until they had no significant influence on society’s fundamental structures. After all, it was argued, industry, education, the economy, technological developments can get along fine without any reference to religion. And so, bit by bit religion gets squeezed out of the public sphere until it becomes a matter which is personal and private. That is secularisation.
But also with this process comes something else, what sociologists like Max Weber call ‘disenchantment’ whereby the ‘magic’ or ‘mystery’ of life is not just removed but unwanted, we simply apply reason and technology to everything with the result that matters of faith are deemed irrelevant.
Just think about it for a moment: if you are ill you call a doctor not a priest; if you want good crops you get a better fertiliser, you don’t offer sacrifices to appease an angry deity. Do you see? Things are not to be understood in terms of God’s acts, but science’s laws- that’s disenchantment- there is nothing enchanting or mysterious about the world anymore. Things are not only explained, but explained away.
The result is that many would consider the petition in the Lord’s Prayer’- ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ to be rather redundant. Surely it is Tesco or Jacksons who give us our bread? Sure, we may see how God might do the occasionally miracle for those in desperate need like feeding the five thousand by multiplying a few loaves and fish; but on a day to day basis- what’s God got to do with it?
Now can you see how the phenomenal success of technology coupled with capitalism in providing so much food actually perpetuates our sense of independence from God, and how in turn our sense of God’s distance and irrelevance from day to day affairs pushes us further and further towards depending upon technology and capitalism? It is a vicious cycle whereby one feeds the other.
Now tonight, I want to suggest to you that rather than this petition in the Lord’s Prayer being passé it is vital in keeping to the forefront of our minds how dependent upon God we actually are, and how, as a result, Christians should be amongst the most grateful creatures on earth.
What does it mean?
The first question we need to answer is: what does it mean when we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread?’ In fact the answer is not as straightforward as we might think because of a difficulty in translation.
The phrase ‘this day’ is clear. We are not asking for bread for next year, or for when we go on holiday or for when we retire. It is this day’s bread. The problem comes when we turn to the next word which is often translated ‘daily’ (epiousios). The difficulty lies in getting a handle on what the word means in the original language because this is the only place it appears in the Greek language. The normal rule of thumb in translation work if you come across a word you don’t know the meaning of, is to see how it is used elsewhere and that provides a clue as to what it might mean in the passage before you. But when it doesn’t appear anywhere else, what do you do then? Well, one thing you can do is to see how early Christians, those who lay closest in time to the original writers, used the word. And so the translators basically fell into two groups.
First, there were those who said that the word referred to ‘time’. Either, today’s bread –hence ‘daily’ bread. Or ‘tomorrow’s’ bread. So it could either be ‘Father please give us bread for today’ or ‘Father, give us bread for tomorrow.’
Secondly, there were those who suggested that the word refers to ‘amount.’ And this also has two options. Some said it meant, ‘Father give us enough bread to keep us alive and no more.’ That is, provide the bare minimum to survive. Others thought that sounded a bit stingy and God was much more generous in nature than that, after all, he is a Father who delights to give good gifts to his children, not some scrooge who holds back, and so they suggested that a better rendering would be, ‘Father, give us the bread we need’- which might be a lot. And bread though being literal is also symbolic of all that is required to live a flourishing life under the loving rule of our Father King.
So what is it referring to: time- ‘daily’ bread or amount- the bread we ‘need’?
Well, someone has suggested an interpretation which covers both, so we can, as it were, keep our bread and eat it!
Back in the second century, the New Testament was translated from Greek into Syriac, which is a language very similar to the original language in which Jesus spoke, something called Aramaic. A literal translation of this version runs, ‘Amen bread today give us’. And the word used for ‘Amen’ (Ameno) means, ‘lasting, never-ceasing, never end’. If this is right, then Jesus is teaching his followers to pray with confidence to their heavenly Father for the bread that ‘does not run out’, bread for today, and the next day- bread that would be newly provided every morning. And this is similar to what we read in the book of Lamentations, 3:22, ‘Because of the LORD’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ And one tangible sign of that faithfulness of God which is new every morning is the provision of what we need to live in God’s world -the provision of bread- the staple diet.
What is its purpose?
If the nature of this petition is to ask God to provide for his children today and for always what they need in order to live well, is there any purpose other than this being a means to that end, a way of getting what we need-, we have to ask in order to receive?
A moments reflection reveals there are at least three other things this petition achieves, other than it being a request for what we require.
First, it keeps God central. As we have seen, secularisation has the effect of pushing God to the margins of our day-to -day thinking and so creating the illusion that he is functionally irrelevant. Most of what we have (so we think) comes to us pretty well through our own efforts: we plough the land, we sow the seed, we tend it through fertilisers, we gather it in by our machines, we manufacture the bread in our factories and distribute by our lorries and sell it through our shops, bought with money we have earned and so on and so forth. The result is that it is we who are central and God is peripheral, we are big and God is small. But the Bible tells us that the reality is the exact reverse. The Biblical portrayal of God is of a heavenly Father- ‘Our Father in heaven’. He is personal –a Father, who therefore has intentions, purposes and interests for the creatures he has made. But he is also enthroned in the heavens, not meaning that God is distant but that he is transcendent- we can’t bring him down to our level and domesticate him, for he rules over everything. To speak of God being in heaven, means he is at the centre of the universe ruling it for his own glory and his people’s good. And so as sovereign Creator he exercises he sovereign rule right down to the minutest detail through what is called, Providence (which is related to the word ‘provides’). God operates through secondary agents-like the sun, the weather systems, the ecosystems, irrigation systems and the genetics of wheat seeds and the like. He works through the agency of human beings by shaping the minds of people to invent tractors and fertilisers and devise economic systems which will be efficient and enriching. And so every time we pray, ‘Give us this day and always our bread which we need’ we are rehearing and bringing to mind a fundamental building block of faith- as we put it in our creed- ‘We believe in the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’. He is not a distant God, he is up close and personal at every point in our lives and this prayer is recognition of that fact of faith.
And so this prayer constitutes a protest against the secular mentality which says, ‘God keep out- our world has nothing to do with you!’ This prayer cries, ‘God come in; Father provide for everything is yours.’ Or as David expresses it in his prayer, ‘All things come from you and of your own do we give you.’ (1 Chronicles 29:14). If God chooses to give us bread through Sainsbury’s at a factory or hand made by a peasant in the Near East on a stone, the eye of faith will detect God’s personal hand at work in all the myriad of events which have gone to provide a loaf of bread.
Which leads us to our second purpose, namely, it keeps gratitude alive. Those who recognise that our heavenly Father is the giver of all that is good immediately recognise that what we therefore receive are gifts. That is what you get from a Giver- gifts. And two things normally happen when we receive a gift which is e treasured, first we are happy and second we are grateful. Gratitude is a source of happiness and expressing that gratitude in thanks is not only proper, it continues the happiness further. And this extends to everything that we are and have in life- they are gifts. Are you good at running- it is a gift- thank God for it. Are you great at cooking- it is a gift- thank God for it. Are you good at making music- it is a gift- thank God for it. The great Czech composer Dvorak began writing his new music with the words “with God” and ended “God be thanked”. Similarly Johann Sebastian Bach wrote in the margins of his music, ‘SDG’ (Soli Deo Gloria) and “Glory to the Lamb.”
The Christian writer G.K Chesterton once said that ‘…the test of all happiness is gratitude’ and then went on to write, ‘You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the play and the opera. And grace before the concert and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing; and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.’
Now could I ask whether you are in the main an unhappy person? Life seems rather mundane, hum drum and so you try and get your highs some other way by overindulging yourself in some way-maybe through chocolate, sex, drink or even overwork? I would suggest that much of this is because you do not see that not only do you have so much, but what you have is a wonderful, wonderful gift and that it comes from the kind hand of your Father. Why not tonight resolve to recognise the reality of the gift of living and the greater reality of the Great Giver by taking every opportunity to offer up an expression of gratitude to God for everything- great or small. That way the disenchantment, the sucking out of the magic and mystery of life which our secular society is doing to you will be checked and you will start seeing patches of ‘Godlight’ in everything. And that way, you will also be making God’s name hallowed- special, because his is rightfully being acknowledged in all of life.
Thirdly, joyfully recognising that God is the continual giver of all our needs keeps anxiety at bay. One of the most crippling fears we can ever have in the fear of not having enough in order to flourish, in some cases it is even more basic, not having enough in order to live. This petition reminds us that we have God as Father and Lord who provides for today. In the wilderness the people of Israel were given manna to eat. It was given daily. They were to collect it and eat it and not store it. When they did try to store it, it simply rotted and became inedible. The lesson is that we have to rely upon God day by day for the day.
Of course this is how children do it. A mother who discovers that her child is saving up Cheerios, pieces of toast and strips of bacon for fear of not having food the following day has cause to be alarmed. Sure, we can imagine in some dreadful, extreme situations, this would be understandable, but not in any normal situation. The parent would be pained to think that the child does not trust them enough to provide for it day by day. And yet, could I ask whether that is in fact what you do with God with the result that anxiety gnaws away at you?
The key is getting to grips with the day by day, existential provision of God. Fear about the future can be overwhelming- especially if it doesn’t have a rational basis. The ‘what if’ can eat away at us, undermining confidence, sapping energy and distancing God. By praying this prayer meaningfully and sincerely, we are not only reminding ourselves that such anxiety is an intruding alien, it has no right to be in our lives, but it is a means of reaching out for what we need but fear we won’t get. Let me illustrate this by being personal for a moment. One of my unwelcomed intruding anxious thoughts is that next week or the week after or the week after that I won’t be able to write and deliver sermons which will be God honouring and people edifying. Just before the service I genuinely feel that what I have in my hands isn’t going to ‘cut the mustard’, it seems inadequate in many ways, as I feel inadequate to preach it. One of the things that helps me is to pray this petition before I come up here, ‘Give us today our daily bread’- not next week’s sermon or next month’s, but today’s- feed us now Father. I then trust that he has heard my prayer. And when I have finished I say ‘Thank you to God’- expressing my gratitude. I do this every week- what else can I do? I am sure that you will be able to think of similar struggles in your own life which amount to the same kind of thing. And when you have to face them- remember this petition and pray it.
But there is one final purpose of this petition which links in with everything that has been prayed so far, it keeps hope real. We have been called to pray to our Father that his kingdom will come and that his will, will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In part that is asking that God will restore his rule in this broken, rebellious world, and for his Kingship to be shown over everything. Something of that rule is known now- amongst his people who own Christ’s Kingship in their lives and who look to him as their great Provider. So it is right they pray this prayer that in the giving of their needs to flourish for him in this world, he demonstrates his kingdom and will being done for them. But as we have seen, this is a prayer today for the bread of tomorrow, and for a bread that will never run out. When will that aspect of this prayer be fully answered? It will be when God’s kingdom comes, his will is done on earth as in heaven, namely, at the return of King Jesus and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. That is when we will hunger no more, that is when we will feast at the great heavenly banquet with wine overflowing and food never ceasing, when God and man are truly at one again. So this is a prayer which, while looking to God to provide for us today, is also a prayer which reaches out into the future, when the one who describes himself as ‘the bread of life’, who we feed upon now by faith, will return to be with his people for ever.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (IVP, USA, 2008), pp 119-123
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