Give us today our daily bread (Mt 6:11)
The meaning of the word
The words “daily” and “today” in the Lord’s Prayer should be clearly distinguished. “Today” refers to a period of time, while the word “daily” signifies something that is “appropriate,” “fitting,” or “sufficient” for a time or purpose. In exploring the implications of this word, we turn to several biblical passages which speak about what is sufficient, what is enough for human needs.
The widow and the prophet (1 Kings 17:1-16)
Hospitality at a time of starvation
An extra mouth to feed was the last thing this woman needed. As if she did not have enough trouble keeping herself and her son alive. Since the death of her husband she was evidently the sole provider for them both. Her food containers were empty. She had come to terms with the fact that she and her son would soon die of starvation. She now gets ready to cook her last meal, using up the last bit of the essential ingredients: flour and oil.
Then, along comes this disheveled stranger. There is a power imbalance between them from the very beginning. He takes command. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand” (17:11), he demands. And when she affirms with an oath that she has no bread in the house and only a handful of flour and a little oil left for her last meal with her son, he insists: “first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me” (17:13). Unbidden, he has made himself the guest in her home. And he tells her what to do—for him! He challenges her to share the little that is insufficient even for her own survival. And she complies!
The rules of hospitality in every culture are very complex. Western visitors invited to an at-home dinner in certain eastern cultures may be quite surprised to find that their hosts are not eating with them. It is the custom. More accurately: it is the law of hospitality that must not be violated. “No, no, we will not eat with you! You are our guests.” The visitors look somewhat perplexed. Are these the rules of hospitality that were in place in Phoenicia at this time, as well?
Well, even according to the rules of hospitality in his own society, the Israelite visitor (he later turns out to be a prophet) behaves strangely. He presumes to tell the host what to do and he demands to be served first. Common politeness requires that in the home of their host, guests eat what is placed before them. But the woman disregards the surly behavior of the uninvited guest. She conducts herself as the model host. She does not insult the guest, although he has been less than polite towards her. She does as he has requested. She shares her last bit of food. True, the uninvited guest had assured her that “the Lord the God of Israel” says “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth,” (17:14) but what is that to her, a woman of Phoenicia, the land of Jezebel? Would the God of Israel really care about her?
The hiding prophet
Elijah of Tishbe in Gilead (in Israel, east of the Jordan River) had gotten himself into bitter conflict with Ahab, king of Israel and his wife Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre in Phoenicia. They were after his life. He was in hiding, first in Israel, at the Wadi Cherith where he was fed by ravens (17:1-7), and then, after the brook had dried up, in Zarephath in Phoenicia (17:8-24).
This “prophet” is on the run. The king’s agents are out looking for him. After escaping from his homeland, he is now on foreign soil. There is some wry humor in this story. The prophet of God is seeking a hiding place (!), so God sends him to an inconspicuous person: a widow gathering sticks for fuel. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of such women in that region and nobody ever notices them; they might as well be invisible: a perfect place to hide! The prophet is in need of long-term room and board, so God sends him to a widow who is cooking her last meal and is preparing to die! The prophet had to leave his former accommodation, because there was no longer any water in the brook Cherith (17:5-7), so God sends him to a place where there is water (17:11)—but no food!
Yet, Elijah brought a threefold blessing. First, when the woman’s son became sick and was near death, Elijah’s prayers on her and her son’s behalf were instrumental in restoring her son to life and vigor.
Secondly, Elijah conveyed to the woman the promise that God would see to it that there would always be some sustenance available, at least something to survive on. When she relied on that promise and went about her daily frugal meal preparation, she discovered that that was indeed so (17:24). By the time another meal needed to be prepared, there was always “something” with which to prepare it.
But doubtlessly the most important of the prophet’s blessings was the encouragement “do not be afraid” (17:13). It is the same encouragement that Jesus so frequently addressed to people who were in dire circumstances and who clearly were very much afraid and needed to hear those soothing words of comfort.
How much is enough?
What was “enough” for the widow, her son and her guest? Clearly, none of them lived a life of abundance. They had all learned to make do with the bare minimum. All three were used to living “on the edge,” as it were. Elijah must have assured the widow frequently that frugal fare was enough for him. In his previous place of hiding, he had eaten the carrion and scraps of bread some ravens used to leave behind. No doubt the three in the house often reminded one another that at the time of the Exodus (Ex 16:1-15) the people of Israel survived for forty years in the desert on a daily fare of manna and quail—and felt that they had been sustained and had enough.
Somehow, in the home of the widow, there was always just enough. No surplus, no luxury, no overconsumption, not even any waste, but life went on in community with her son and with the prophet who would soon confront the king and demand justice.
The generous employer (Mt 20:1-16)
Imagine the season of the grape harvest in the south-eastern Mediterranean basin. It is hot (20:12). The constant wind blowing in from the desert wilts everything that has leaves, and brings discomfort to every creature that cannot find a shady place in which to escape the direct rays from the glaring sun. The early afternoon is most difficult to endure. Anyone who can, takes a long siesta at that time of day.
The grapes are at their peak. They need to be picked before they dry up on the vine or begin to rot. Grapes deteriorate even more quickly after picking. They need to be processed immediately; otherwise they will spoil over night and become useless both for winemaking and for drying as raisins. The situation is critical. The success of the entire grape harvest hangs in the balance.
Workers are in high demand. Even part-time help is eagerly welcomed. Every vineyard owner is out looking for people who are able to pick and carry grapes: women and men, youth and older people, seasonal immigrants—no questions asked, except, why couldn’t I find you sooner?
We follow one employer who is eagerly scouting for harvest help. He goes out to the public square before sunrise. As the workers gather there, he makes them his offer: the usual daily wage (20:2). The owner is desperate. Again and again, all day long he keeps on going to the market place in search of hired help; not only at mid-morning (20:3), at high noon and in mid-afternoon (20:5), but even barely one hour before sunset (20:6), in the cool of the early evening. No time to haggle about wages, just “go, quickly, I will pay you well, trust me!” So they do.
This employer follows the ancient provisions (cf. Lev. 19:13) according to which laborers must receive their pay before leaving for home in the evening (cf. 20:8). This regulation demonstrates how sensitive and caring the Mosaic Law was in regard to the well-being of hired help. Day laborers are poor people. They cannot afford the luxury of budgeting for longer periods of time. Monthly or bi-weekly payment vouchers would cause immense hardship for them. These workers needed the cash now. Without it they will not be able to purchase food on the way home to feed their families. If the wage earner takes home less than a full day’s pay, the family would have to go to bed hungry that night.
As the sun sets, the workers gather around the manager whose job includes keeping track of each laborer’s time and performance and then doling out the money accordingly.
But now something extraordinary happens. As the workers stretch out their open hands, the manager places into each palm the same amount: the usual daily wage. It was impossible for them all not to see what was happening. They immediately start to compare their day’s take. “How much did you make today?” All had received the same pay! Incredible!
The employer, by instructing the manager to give to each laborer a full day’s pay, had ensured that the family of each worker could enjoy a full meal and have a good night’s sleep afterwards. What this vineyard owner had done was totally different from what was happening all across the country that night, and it would surely be talked about in many places. This employer had broken the rules of the marketplace. According to the economics practiced by this employer, the size of the paycheck was determined not by the amount of work performed for it, but by the needs of the people who depend on it. This is a truly remarkable departure from normal practice. Just wait until the business establishment hears about this! They will argue that such a practice is unsustainable and will bring quick ruin to the national economy. Who is the person who came up with such an idea? they will ask. Anyone who advocates such a “law of the market” can expect to get crucified. But wouldn’t such a “law”—with the stroke of a pen—eliminate all hunger in the world? Imagine a world in which every worker is paid (or otherwise provided with) the normal daily wage, an amount necessary to sustain a decent standard of living!
Will such a “law” ever see the light of day? Well, the answer to that question depends on the answer to another question: will people ever stop thinking that they should receive more than the others did (see 20:10)?
The workers who had toiled all day would obviously be satisfied with the amount that they had received. It was precisely what they had contracted for. It was entirely just. Those workers would have gone home happy, had they not seen what some others were getting. What had appeared sufficient to them at first, began to look unjust to them when they compared their earnings with those of others.
Maybe this is really a question of justice. To those who had joined the workers in the vineyard later in the day, the employer had given the assurance that they would receive what was “just” (NRSV 20:4 translates “right”). So, was it “just” for those latecomers to receive the same amount as the others did?
It all depends on how we define justice. According to Paul (Rom 4:4), there are at least two kinds of justice (righteousness): there is the justice according to which reward is calculated as something due, and then there is the justice according to which a reward is given as a gift. The employer in our parable had dared to introduce the concept of justice as a gift (as a God-given right!) into the market place.
First and last
The parable ends with the summary comment: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (20:16). But how are these words to be understood?
The parable reaches its high point at the end of verse 8, when the employer instructs the manager to give to every worker “their pay,” which turns out to be not what each one has earned, but “the usual daily wage” (20:9). It is not that one gets paid more money and another less. They all get the same amounts. The chief complaint of the early comers in the parable is not that the latecomers were paid first, but that they were paid the same amount. The early comers feel cheated. “You have made them equal to us!” (20:12) Equality is what they object to. They do not want to be equal with the others; they want to be treated “fairly”—whatever that may mean.
So, how should one interpret these words? Think of what happens when a group of people join hands and dance in a circle. The circle goes round and round in happy abandon. The people sing and laugh, they jump for joy, and have fun together. Who is first and who is last in this dance? The group forms a closed circle in which nobody is first and nobody is last. They are all the same. In a circle there is no such thing as a first person and a last person.
This parable is introduced with the words “the Kingdom of heaven is like.” This story is an illustration of life with God. It is a life where justice prevails. But not the kind of justice that rewards those who have and withholds from those who have not. It is the kind of justice that provides for everyone according to their needs. Is that what is meant by having enough?
This parable leaves the reader with several unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) questions. That may well be intentional. It has been said that the Bible is not a book of answers to people’s questions; it questions the answers people take for granted.
The Lord’s Prayer is a humble prayer. It does not ask for special privileges or rewards. It asks that all people may have enough, that all people may have what is needed for a decent life.
From the Africa region: Questions worth pondering
In many parts of the world starvation is an ever growing crisis.
Discuss the reasons and the consequences of the insufficient daily bread versus the over sufficiency enjoyed by a few.
Cheap labor is dehumanizing and unjust.
How can the church be advocates of fair labor practices to ensure the availability of daily bread?
How can the church be instrumental in assisting that the “jar of meal” and the “jug of oil” will be available on a daily basis to the most vulnerable and marginalized in our societies?
What do you think is the impact of not having sufficient daily bread on the spiritual life of the poor and of vulnerable people?
Discuss how the church can deal with this matter in a pastoral and diaconal manner.
Discuss “the poor always have enough to share.”