Give us today our daily bread (Mt 6:11)
Bread in the fourth petition (Matthew 6:11)
“Give us today our daily bread.” So we pray in the words that Jesus taught his disciples. What are we thinking of when we say these words? Depending on where we live on this earth, what language we speak and what kinds of crops grow in our soil, different pictures come to mind. In some parts of the world the food supply comes mainly out of the sea. Rice rather than wheat may be the basic crop, and the process of baking may be unknown. What does “daily bread” mean to you?
Centuries ago, Augustine in North Africa pointed out that the word “bread” in the fourth petition could mean at least three things: the natural bread that we eat, the Holy Eucharist or the word of God (the living bread from heaven, John 6:51). Ever since then, it seemed generally appropriate to think of the “daily bread” as both physical and spiritual food. By the time Luther wrote the Small and the Large Catechisms, he had become convinced that in the fourth petition, the word “bread” was to be understood in the physical sense only. The first three petitions, he said, were devoted to the welfare of the soul, whereas in the fourth petition “we consider the poor breadbasket—the needs of our body and our life on earth” (Large Catechism 72, Kolb, p. 449), and he thought of our “daily bread” in the broadest possible terms.
Luther encouraged those who pray to expand and extend their vision to include “everything that belongs to our entire life in this world” (LC 73). In the Small Catechism he names 22 items, ranging from food to clothing, to property (including money), to people who enhance human life, to government, weather, health and reputation. He introduces the list with the words “such as” and ends it with “and the like,” to make clear that the items he has identified represent only a portion of an almost endless list of things that nourish our physical life (Small Catechism 14, Kolb, p. 357).
Luther includes under this heading even the fields and the people through whom God provides all of these good things (LC 73, 74). The farmer, the miller and the baker play an important role in this bread-providing-chain. This attention to food-providing vocations has largely been neglected in the so-called developed countries where the consumer picks pre-packaged food from store shelves, oblivious of both the expertise and the plight of those who tend the land, plant the fields, harvest the crops and make them available for the whole world to eat.
Luther insisted that many things that do not pass through the stomach are so necessary for our physical existence that they should be included under the category “daily bread” as well. Physical hunger takes many forms. We also hunger for the human touch, for companionship, for acceptance, for love, for forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, mercy and peace. Perhaps most of all, we hunger for recognition and inclusion in the human community as contributing members in society, as individuals with dignity and self-respect. These, too, are necessary for living a fully human life.
All such things (and persons), Luther affirms, God gives “without our prayer” to all people—including “all evil people.” So, when we pray, we do not presume to persuade God to give us what we desire; rather, we acknowledge that we have already received these gifts from God. The prayer itself is an expression of gratitude. At the same time, this prayer also reminds us that these gifts, although given to us, are not our own individual and personal possession. They are intended for “us” all (remember Bible study two?).
Physical and material gifts are not “un-spiritual.” They are not to be considered unworthy of the Christian life. They are not something to be ashamed of or to apologize for; rather, they are gifts to be enjoyed and to be shared. Life is intended to be pleasurable for all people, even sensuous. Food deserves to be savored. Fruits and vegetables are meant to be cherished for their taste, color, texture, fragrance and appearance. Humans will be happier and healthier when they take time to taste and chew each morsel. Surely, God must be pleased when people enjoy their food, just as parents are happy when children eagerly munch the good things prepared for them. God’s gifts are bountiful and beautiful. They are meant to be celebrated. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”
So, why do so many people on this earth die of starvation?
It seems almost like a sacrilege to talk so about the rich gifts of exquisite food and the joy of eating it, when in reality, billions of people in the world do not have even the barest of necessities to sustain life. On the other hand, how can one not speak in glowing terms about God’s generosity when God has prepared an almost unimaginable variety of delicious fruits and vegetables and grains for human consumption and declared all of creation to be “very good?”
Jesus’ parable of the banquet seems like a fitting text to shed light on this dilemma.
The parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24)
“Come; for everything is ready now.” (Lk 14:17)
They knew that this invitation was coming. They had been invited (14:17) some days earlier, as was the custom. The host would send a preliminary invitation to determine who could come to a feast. Such knowledge would help the host determine how big a tent must be set up, how much fresh meat the butcher must have ready, how much wine. Of course, the potential guests were not obligated to accept that first invitation. Sometimes there are good reasons for saying no. The host would understand. The answer “sorry, I have a conflict,” does not need to leave hard feelings.
This banquet was evidently going to be a big affair. “Many” (14:16) had agreed to come. Preparations for such a feast were often elaborate. Matthew, relating a similar banquet story (22:4), mentions the killing of oxen and fat calves in preparation for the feast. At the wedding banquet at Cana the steward reminds the bridegroom that it is the custom to serve the best wine first, while the guests can still appreciate the difference between prime quality wine and wine of inferior vintage (Jn 2:10). Such feasts tended to be quite sumptuous.
But food and wine were only a part of an enjoyable banquet. Such feasts were social events. Who will all be there? No doubt there will be lively entertainment, music and dancing—and a lot of good conversation. Such banquets are prestigious community-building events; they fulfilled purposes that went far beyond the consumption of food and drink. A banquet was the time and place for telling and hearing each others’ stories, for commenting on the affairs of the day, for sharing each others’ joys (as well as pain). In the days before cell phones and cable TV, the banquet was an important channel for staying connected.
A rude awakening
Finally, everything is ready. Open the door and invite the guests to come in! But . . . there are no guests! They all had gone back on their promises. Incredible! They evidently had never intended to come in the first place. An outright snub! Of course, they all had their excuses. Only three of them are recorded as samples of the sorts of things that were said to cover up the fact that those invited were really not interested.
One had bought a field and “must” beg to be excused (v. 18). Had he not looked that field over carefully before making the purchase? Another did not even bother with an “I must” excuse (v. 19). He simply informs the host that he is on his way to try out the five teams of newly acquired oxen. Was the banquet not worth postponing the field inspection and the oxen test by a day or two? Yes, such feasts often lasted for several days, but even so . . .
The third person “cannot come” because he has just been married (v. 20). True, the spouse could not accompany her husband. Such banquets were “for men only” affairs. The rules of hospitality can be rather strict, but not honoring one’s prior commitment to attend a banquet was considered a breach of hospitality, too. Would people not want to be there?
Understandably, the host was not amused (v. 21). Public humiliation was one of the worst kinds of exclusion and rejection. The host now experiences first-hand what it means to be marginalized. And he is not happy.
What now? No doubt the host wanted to avoid being exposed to still greater humiliation by cancelling a banquet that had been boycotted. It had been announced, so there will be a banquet. “Go out quickly! Invite anyone! The more the merrier. We will have good food, good wine, happy dancing and lively conversation. And we will get to know and appreciate strangers who will soon be friends. Come to think of it: perhaps these are the people we should have invited in the first place! Had Jesus not advised would-be hosts to invite people who are usually forgotten?”
All was ready. The food had been acquired and prepared, the servants had been engaged, the hall was decorated. Only people—hungry people—were still lacking. “Go, quickly! Call! Invite! Let’s celebrate!”
As for the originally invited guests? Well . . . ? They will never know what they missed (14:24). Tragic, but true.
Rearranging one’s priorities
That’s the story. How does it fit into the larger framework of the Third Gospel? What is it doing precisely at this point in the gospel? Let’s look at this again.
The parable is skillfully tied into its context in the Third Gospel. Immediately preceding this parable, Luke relates instructions of Jesus about how to arrange a banquet (Lk 14:7-14), and immediately following the parable, Luke reminds the reader how Jesus emphasized the cost of discipleship (Lk 14:25-35). That arrangement is evidently deliberate. It must have a definite purpose. What is the connection, the red thread running through these three segments in the Third Gospel? Let us try to trace it.
Humility and hospitality (preceding the parable) (Luke 14:7-14)
Observing how at a banquet the guests were jockeying for places of prominence, Jesus reflects about competitiveness—the deep-seated drive to improve one’s relative position in society. He concludes with a pointed lesson to the host who had invited him:
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. . . ” (Lk 14:12-14)
But this is precisely what the host in this parable did not intend to do!
Readers of Bible stories—especially of the parables of Jesus—should not too quickly assume that the main actor in the story represents God. Often the opposite is true: The “lord” in a given story may be a foreign landlord who abuses the peasants who work the land for him. The employer in another story may be just that: an ordinary human employer—but one with a social conscience. The rich host in our story may well be a prominent resident in the town who makes mistakes like most of us do, and from whose mistakes we can learn something.
The parable of the great dinner (Luke 14:15-24)
See the red thread that ties this story to what precedes? In contrast to what Jesus had just said, the host in this parable invited rich friends and neighbors to the banquet—people who could afford to add another field to their property or buy five yoke of oxen—ten additional oxen?! They were well off! These so-called friends were not friends at all, the host discovered all too late. Although they had accepted the first invitation, they did not really want to come—not even out of a sense of obligation to keep their former promise. That experience left the host humiliated and angry.
In his embarrassment, the host tried to save face by inviting others. But not just any others; he specifically requested the inclusion of “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” just as Jesus had earlier encouraged hosts to do (Lk 14:13). The host probably did that out of anger or spite—as his sharp exclamation seems to suggest: “I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner!” Whatever his motivation, the host now did the right thing. He invited the marginalized, those who really longed for what he had to offer.
The cost of discipleship (following the parable) (Luke 14:25-35)
Where does the red thread lead now? In the very next verses Luke reminds the reader of the words that Jesus had spoken to a large crowd of people who travelled with him. “You cannot be my disciples unless you love me more than you do parents, children, friends and even life itself” (paraphrasing Lk 14:26). To love Jesus is, of course, to love those with whom Jesus regularly associates. For a disciple to do otherwise would be to become like de-salted salt (14:34f).
Discipleship shines brightest when followers of Jesus joyfully relinquish their position of privilege and are prepared to be humiliated themselves by joining those who are regularly being excluded: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind—the marginalized. These are the people with whom Jesus felt a special kinship. These are the “family” of Jesus (cf. Mk 3:33f.).
The banquet is a fitting image of life with God. It offers people an opportunity to celebrate the rich variety of God’s delectable gifts in company with others who are themselves gifts to one another. The food is excellent, but a banquet is people—all sorts of them—celebrating!
Although the host may still be upset, the parable ends on a jubilant note: the marginalized, the poor and hungry, have access to the gifts God has provided for all creatures! This world is not a hopeless place! There is food for all! This banquet has become the Table of the Lord!
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:1-2)
From the Latin America and Caribbean region: Questions worth pondering
Latin America is one of the main cradles of claims for justice and transformative development.
Did the theological approaches of the contextual theologies coming from this particular continent, especially regarding the search for justice and fair distribution of “bread” influenced the theologies developed in your region?
What are the invitations being sent out today? Are such invitations inclusive enough to the point that they consider and welcome indigenous people, women and people with disabilities, youth, elderly, and children and sexual minorities? Are we, as part of a Lutheran communion of churches, sending invitations and welcoming the wider Christian family and, at the same time, being attentive to the invitations we receive?
Today we witness wealthy groups offering banquets to selected groups.
Can we describe the unfair distribution of wealth, which is one of the main aspects of the ongoing global economic structure, as a banquet to which few are invited? In this sense, who are those offering the banquet? Who are those that are not being invited? What is expected of the church’s prophetic voice?
Rearranging priorities: diakonia
We just read that this world is not a hopeless place and that there is food for all. The poor keep asking: Who has my share of food? Such question makes us reflect on the effectiveness of our diaconal work. The conceptual foundation of ecumenical cooperation tends to segregate key elements of the life of the church. In Latin America, most of the churches try to respond to the different "hungers" of the people on the margins and see such a challenge linked with aspects of spirituality.
Can we talk of a spiritual dimension in development strategies that could also become an indicator of the effectiveness of aid?