Give us today our daily bread
What a difference one little pronoun can make! “Give us today our daily bread.” The petition does not say “Give me today my daily bread.” This is not the prayer of an individual. It is the prayer of a group. Whoever prays this petition speaks for a whole community. When you pray these words—alone or in a group in public—whom do you see there with you, surrounding your table? Whom do you hear speaking these words with you?
The setting of the Sermon on the Mount
In the Gospel according to Matthew the Lord’s Prayer is an integral part of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5:1–7:27). These three chapters in Matthew are a monologue delivered by Jesus, without interruption. The gospel writer introduces this “sermon” with a brief summary statement that pictures Jesus on the road “throughout Galilee” (4:23). Jesus is on a lengthy journey doing holistic ministry of teaching, proclaiming and “curing every disease and every sickness among the people”—a diaconal ministry, if you will. At this early stage in the gospel, the fame of Jesus has already spread “throughout all Syria.” Jesus has already attracted a large following from the entire region, including the area east of the Jordan and the Decapolis (4:25, the “ten cities”). That whole region was inhabited primarily by Gentiles.
The “sermon” itself, however, is not directly addressed to that large following. In fact, Jesus had moved away from the multitude to go “up the mountain” (5:1) where the disciples joined him. So, at this point in the story the crowd fades somewhat into the background, but it does not go away. At the end of the uninterrupted speech of Jesus (7:28) Matthew states specifically that the crowd is still there. One imagines that these people were standing there during the entire speech, eager to catch what Jesus was saying.
This means that the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel has a twofold audience. There are the disciples who hear it directly, and then there is that large crowd of people who stand in the background and now provide the context within which Jesus “taught them” (5:2).
This setting is no doubt significant for an understanding of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The Lord’s Prayer has in view an audience that is much larger than the handful of disciples. At least some of them—those from across the Jordan—were no doubt Gentiles. They are all allowed to “overhear” what Jesus says. The prayer that Jesus taught the disciples is for them, too. They, too, long for the good news hidden in these words.
Teaching and feeding
During the entire Gospel according to Matthew, “the crowd” is never far away and Jesus does more than just tolerate their presence. He is personally concerned for their well-being. Not only does he teach the people, he provides them with food as well.
The Gospel according to Matthew presents two feeding stories in quick succession (Mt 14:13-21; 15:32-39). Such “doubling” of incidents—here and elsewhere in this gospel—evidently serves to emphasize the importance of what is being reported. In both these stories the disciples are uncomfortable in the face of so many hungry people. “Send the crowds away,” (Mt 14:15) they say to Jesus in the first story. “I do not want to send them away hungry,” (Mt 15:32) Jesus says in the second story. In both stories (14:16; 15:32-33) Jesus suggests to the disciples that they should respond tangibly to the evident hunger in their midst.
The point seems clear enough: Jesus “hears” the silent prayer of the hungry and expects his disciples to do more than just “refer” the case to Jesus. To advocate for the destitute is more than just to “forward” their request to someone higher up. Prayer (like advocacy) is risky; it commits the one who prays to follow through with corresponding action.
In both cases the disciples point to the insufficiency of their own resources (14:17; 15:33) and they are right in doing so. Their means really are insufficient to satisfy the hunger of so many people. But in both stories, the point is that in the hands of Jesus those meager resources of theirs are enough to help fill the need of the multitude at hand. The disciples then become the distributors (should one say “diaconal ministers?”) of the blessings of God. The result: no one was left to starve! All had enough to eat so as to keep them from fainting by the wayside (15:32). Even the marginalized in the community—the women and children (14:21; 15:38) were not forgotten. The circle of the “us” who look to God for food has grown far beyond the small number of the disciples whom Jesus taught to pray for their daily bread.
A still more inclusive group?
The circle widens still more. This prayer has in view not only the needs of the disciples and of their immediate company. It reaches out to a still larger group, as becomes evident when the Gospel of Matthew culminates in the command of the risen Lord (Mt 28:19-20; cf. Jn 20:21) to go into all the world, exercising a holistic ministry of preaching and pastoral care. So, by the time we reach the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer is offered to all people everywhere. It will be for them a means of expressing their need as well as a reminder to give thanks for God’s continuing care.
At the time when Matthew wrote these words, Paul had already begun to see an even larger picture. He insisted that not only humans, but all creatures utter inarticulate groans while eagerly awaiting the redemption of the human race (Rom 8:22). So, as Paul sees it, all of creation—human and animal (vegetable included?)—“speaks” the same word-less hunger-language. Paul is convinced that the spirit understands that language and intercedes for us all “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Similar convictions are expressed already in the Old Testament, where the Psalm pictures “every living thing” receiving the fulfillment of all its needs from the gracious hand of God (Ps 145:16).
Does it not follow, then, that according to these biblical witnesses, all creation can claim food as a God-given right? Spoken prayer is not a condition for receiving what one prays for. Rather, the prayer reminds those who pray that they owe gratitude for what God gives even without prayer, as Luther so vividly reminds us in his explanation of the Fourth Petition. Such gratitude for God’s precious gifts will of course express itself in generous sharing of those gifts with others—at least, one would expect so. But that is not necessarily what actually happens. Jesus told a story that deals with the perennial tension between those who live in luxury and those whose basic needs go unmet.
The rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
This well-known parable of Jesus explores the relationship between a “rich” person (16:19) and a “poor” one (16:20). These two are contrasted point by point in a carefully orchestrated drama. The characterization of the two main figures in the parable follows the traditional pattern of a hyperbole (an exaggerated story): the one person is exceedingly wealthy, whereas the other is in desperate straits.
The first one has no name. He is referred to with an adjective: “rich.” The story identifies him in terms of his clothing, house and lifestyle. In the Mediterranean society of the day, “fine linen” was well known as an import from Egypt and “purple garments” identified the wearer as a member of the elite (cf. Mk 15:17). Clothing made of these two fabrics distinguished the wearer as a person of spectacular riches, a person of prominence (e.g. Rev 18:12). The entrance to the mansion of the rich person (Lk 16:20) is no ordinary door (thyra) but a pylon, a large gate commonly associated with temples and palaces, such as the twelve gates of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21). The person who owns all these things is clearly well-off. He “feasts” (the Greek word implies exuberant eating and drinking at banquets)—and he does so not just at an occasional celebration, but day after day, and he does it “sumptuously” (Lk 16:19).
The other person in the parable, the poor one, has no material possessions. But he has a name. Lazarus is the Greek form of Eliezer, a proper name in Hebrew that may be translated “God (is my) helper.” Unlike the wealthy man, Lazarus is unable to fend for himself and, in this story, he never even says a word. What is more, all the (Greek) verbs referring to him are in the passive voice. Lazarus used to get deposited (16:20) at the rich man’s “gateway” and he was afflicted with open sores. He was longing to be fed with the scraps that used to fall from the banquet table of the “rich one.” To make things worse, the ever-present ownerless street dogs used to lick his sores, no doubt aggravating his discomfort still further.
Up to this point, the story has placed side by side an excessively rich person and a desperately poor one. The one has everything that the other does not. The one enjoys luxury and the other is destitute. The one lives in a magnificent mansion, the other languishes in the gutter. The one feasts lavishly, the other is so hungry he would feel fortunate to be allowed to consume some of the scraps that others carelessly toss to the dogs under the table. The one wears expensive clothing, the other is covered with sores. The two live worlds apart, although they are neighbors in one and the same community.
Eventually, both Lazarus and the “rich man” died. But the story does not end there. It plays itself out in predictable fashion. From here on in the story Jesus employed imagery which Jewish people easily recognized as a way to express the conviction that between death and the final judgment people experience the opposite of what they had been accustomed to. Lazarus, who was formerly outside on the street, now gets comforted on the lap of Abraham, while the rich man, who used to celebrate regularly in his palatial mansion, now is “tormented” (16:23) in a far away fiery place. Everything seems to have been turned upside down and inside out. The “rich one” who used to enjoy sumptuous meals, now longs for a drop of water, while Lazarus, who once would have been grateful for mere scraps, now shares the banquet table with Abraham and Sarah. Lazarus, who was consistently ignored by the rich man, now receives preferred treatment, while the rich man who regularly ignored him, now desires that somebody—anybody—maybe Lazarus (?) would come to help him. Up to the very end of the story, the “rich one” remains nameless, a “nobody.” He knows that he himself cannot be helped any longer. But he has five brothers who might change their ways if they were warned about what lies ahead. But don’t they already know that?
The story is indeed very sobering, but it does not delight in punishment. At this point in the parable the wretched man in Hades (16:23) repeatedly appeals to Abraham as “(my) father” (16:24, 27, 30). Surprisingly, Abraham in turn acknowledges him as one of his offspring, addressing him with an endearment, a term which conveys the warmth of filial relationship within a family context: “(my dear) child” (teknon, 16:25). Abraham’s conversation with the man in torment seems to reflect a good deal of empathy with the “rich one.” Loving parents know what it is to agonize with a distraught child who is desperately trying to come to terms with the inevitable consequences of a self-destructive style of life.
For practical purposes, the parable itself ends at 16:26 with the shocking reality that the gulf is now unbridgeable and that there is no possibility of going back and try to undo the mistakes of the past. The remaining five verses in this story only serve to make that point with all desirable finality. Abraham confronts the reader with a sobering thought: not even the most spectacular miracle could be more convincing than Moses and the prophets already are (16:31).
And on that tragic note the story ends—with a groan, so to speak.
The reader now has to face a disturbing reality: These two people, although they occupy very different positions on the social scale, belong to one and the same faith community. The “rich person” is clearly identified as a “child of Abraham” and the poor person’s name indicates that he, too, belongs to the community that recognizes that all help comes from God. Both of them belong to a faith community in which every aspect of life is connected with prayers of thanksgiving, of lament and of praise. Basic to that community is the confession of total dependence on the grace of God.
And this brings us to the central point: the community that calls upon God for daily sustenance is made up of all sorts of people, including those who have more than enough to eat—and to waste—and those who, for lack of even the most basic food, can just barely survive. How is it possible for such a discrepancy not only to exist, but to increase in severity as time passes?
A troubling conclusion
The story becomes even more sobering when one considers that the chief figure in it, the “rich one,” is not portrayed as an evil person. Nothing is said of him that would lead one to conclude that he is worse than any well-respected member of the community. He is not a particularly greedy or abusive person. He seems to have many friends and few, if any, enemies. He might even be the person who funded the building of the local synagogue. He might well be a prominent member of city council, or just an ordinary person who minds his own business and manages the family finances responsibly, in order to secure the welfare of his next of kin. He might desire no more than to ensure that after retirement there will be enough resources available for him to maintain the standard of living to which he has become accustomed. In other words, the “rich man” may be no different from you and me.
The story is coming too close for comfort. It shows us the world as it really is. There is enough wealth in the world for the privileged to live in luxury, while the hungry continue to be ignored. It will not do to blame the facts on “those others” whom we may call “tight-fisted.” The problem is not confined to specifically bad individuals; it is rooted in the socioeconomic system itself of which we all are a part. That system victimizes some (like Lazarus) and privileges others (like the “rich one”). And people let it continue to be so, unchallenged.
The story confronts the reader with an intolerable situation: The sick and physically challenged Lazarus is allowed to die of hunger and no one—not even he himself—protests. The “other one” is allowed to benefit from the same system that marginalized Lazarus—and no one cries foul. Are there none who advocate for the weak and call the strong to take responsible remedial action?
The gap between rich and poor is unbridgeable—or is about to become so. Perfectly “good” people, with perfectly good intentions and good will can be the cause of the starvation of millions of the poor. That can be the frightful result of overlooking that little pronoun in the petition: “Give us today our daily bread.”
The story does not have to end that way. In the community that looks to God for daily sustenance, the one who has no name and the one who has no voice can find both. There is enough for all who hunger.
From the Asian region: Questions Worth Pondering
Prayer is risky; it commits the one who prays to follow through with corresponding action.
What does that mean for you in quite concrete terms as you pray “Give us today our daily bread”?
Problems of world hunger are so overwhelming that we are tempted to think like the disciples: “send them away” (out of sight, out of mind) or, like the rich man: “send Lazarus from beyond the grave to warn my brothers” (“God, you fix things up in a miraculous way”).
How do you cope with the knowledge that millions are starving?
How do you reconcile it with the biblical concept that God provides enough food for everyone?
The problem of the “haves” and the “have-nots” is “rooted in the socioeconomic system of which we all are a part.”
Has the world ever known a system which doesn’t victimize some and privilege others?
Is it possible for humans to come up with such a system? What would it look like? How can you effectively advocate in your context?
The conclusion to the story of the rich man and Lazarus suggests that what we need most is “Moses and the prophets,” i.e., the scriptures. Amos, the great advocate for social justice, prophesies “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Am 8:11)
Is there a risk for some Christians that they are so concerned about the problem of world hunger that they overlook the importance of feeding on the “Bread of Life”?