Fresh Perspectives

Preparing for a new chapter in our church's life

Matthew 6:5-15

“Give us this day our daily bread
“Words of faith are too well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.”
 Rowan Williams

 By way of introduction:
A suggestion for a powerful way to illustrate some of the points that this session will make is as follows.
Take a large loaf of bread, and tell your group that you’re going to distribute the bread around the group to help focus minds and introduce the session.  Then break the bread as follows:
To one person give about 50% of the loaf.
To 2 people give about 30% of the loaf
And let all the rest divide up the remaining 20%.
This then leads into the two points below:
1) As we start this session we once again notice the corporate nature of this petition: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ rather than ‘give me this day my daily bread.’  Again we see that this prayer has the needs and desires of the whole community of Gods people at it’s heart – there is no place here for ensuring that only the needs of some are met at the expense of the needs of others, and nor is there scope to see the needs of the individual as distinct from the needs of the community.
2)  We also call to mind the context in which Jesus spoke; that of an impoverished people who were used to rulers who took their bread to fill the royal stores rather than rulers who gave bread to fill hungry mouths. 
We see in the prayer a picture of God as a radical ruler whose management of his kingdom ensures plenty for all.  God as a wise householder who ensures all have what they need rather than some having plenty and others going without. 
500g white flour,
2 tsp salt,
7g yeast,
3 tbsp olive oil,
300ml water
...or as we usually call it…Bread
Bread was a staple food for the first century Galileans to whom Jesus spoke.  It formed the bedrock of their diet and came to have a symbolic meaning as ‘all that we eat’.  It’s this symbolic meaning that we should read as we pray this line of the Lords prayer. 
So what is actually being said in this line?  It looks at first glance to be straightforward, but on closer inspection it’s not quite that simple.
Made up words…
Unity and Jessica Mitford invented a language when they were children.  The language involved substituting made up words for regularly used English words, and so grew a whole new way of saying things.  Because the language was made up it was very difficult for outsiders to understand what was being said.
In a way this same problem, the problem of made up words, faces us as we read this line in the Lords Prayer.  The word that we translate as ‘daily’ is word that seems to have been made up by the evangelists. 
The Greek word is ‘Epiousios’ and the trouble comes because it’s not used anywhere else in the New Testament or (as far as we know) in any other literature of the day.  Origen (182-254AD) a famous Greek scholar and theologian finds no trace of it ever being part of the Greek language.
Now clearly this presents us with a challenge.  The meaning of words is determined by the way in which they are used in a variety of places and so if the word only appears once in the known history of language it all gets quite tricky. 
So what on earth do we do? 
In the absence of wider examples of useage the next best thing is to see how commentators and scholars and preachers have understood the word throughout history. 
So let’s do this now as we try to gain a fresh perspective on the Lords Prayer.
Ken Bailey in his book ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ helpfully lays out the 4 traditional ways of reading this line of the Lords Prayer.  Which is ‘right’ is perhaps impossible to say, ad maybe as he suggests each of these interpretations contains something of the original meaning and therefore something that is helpful for us. 
Option 1a) Epiousios refers to time and means ‘today’. 
Our English translations basically pick up this understanding.  Give us this day our daily bread.  I.e give us today the bread that we need for today.  It’s a request for provision for today, today.
Option 1b)  Epiousios refers to time and means ‘tomorrow’
In this case the translation becomes ‘Give us today our bread for tomorrow.’  It’s asking for provision for tomorrow today.
Option 2a)  Epiousios refers to a quantity and means ‘just enough’
So with this interpretation the line becomes ‘Give us today just enough bread to survive’.  Timely provision of the bare minimum to survive is what is being asked for.
Option 2b)  Epiousios refers to a quantity and means ‘all that we need’
If we understand the line this way the prayer essentially becomes “Give us today enough brad to provide for all of our needs.’  Timely provision of a more generous amount of bread is the order of the day. 
Looking at the Lords Prayer with a fresh perspective: 
  • How do you respond to these 4 different meanings? 
  • How have you understood this line in the Lords Prayer?
  • What new perspectives might arise from considering the meaning of this line in light of the suggestions above?
  • What is the significance of the corporate nature of this prayer, especially with regards the request for provision?
But where does this leave us? 
It’s all well and good to lay out 4 options but do we leave it here?  Have we at this point sufficiently interpreted the meaning of this line in a way that nourishes and encourages our life of faith?   No, probably not.  So let’s keep going. 
So far we’ve looked at 4 ways of understanding this line of the prayer but what if there is a way of drawing some of the meanings expressed together? Of finding an interpretation that could have given birth to them all? 
Ken Bailey suggests that such an interpretation does exist and that it derives from an ancient Syriac understanding which is found in a 2nd century translation of the New Testament. 
This translation renders the line as ‘Amen bread today give to us’.  The significance is in the word we translate as amen.  In Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) the word is Ameno which means ‘lasting, never-ceasing, never-ending, or perpetual.’  The translation then is ‘Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out / is lasting, never ceasing, never-ending.’
And it is perhaps in this that we find something important.  Fear of not having enough to survive pervaded the lives of those first century farmers and artisans, and indeed throughout human history this same fear has remained.  Even in a wealthy community in a rich part of a developed western country the fear of not having enough is still a pressing reality for us all at some time or another. 
We may not fear not having enough to eat, but a similar type of fear will manifest itself in other ways.
We are managing now, but what about in the future?
What if I lose my job?
What if my investments crash and I lose my pension?
What if I can’t work through illness?
How will I / we survive
In praying ‘Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out’ Jesus might be inviting us to pray for release from the fear of not having enough and the angst that accompanies it.  This angst and fear destroys life in the present and can render the future hopeless.  Jesus asks his disciples to pray ‘deliver us from the fear and angst of not having enough’ we ask that ‘as we receive what we need for today so we will have enough for tomorrow
Looking at our church with a fresh perspective
  • To what degree can we say our corporate life is built on a foundation of trust in Gods provision? 
  • We ask for ‘enough’ not ‘more than enough’ for a day at a time.  Do we inadvertently expect ‘more than enough’ and struggle to live with a day-to-day sort of trust?  If so, in what ways do we see this outworking?   
  • What practical steps might we take in order to live in a way that is consistent with the ideas expressed in this part of the Lords Prayer?
Bread in the desert and fair distribution
But lest we become so heavenly minded we cease to be of any earthly good we must remember the situation of the people to whom Jesus spoke and the repeated requests in the prayer for the justice and righteousness of Gods kingdom to come and be manifest on earth in the same way that it is in ‘the heavens’.
With this in mind, a study of the line ‘Give us today our daily bread’ wouldn’t be complete without looking outwards to the wider ethical implications of the request. 
At this point it’s worth casting our minds back to the well known incident of manna in the desert as told in Exodus 16. 
As Israel wandered in the desert the anxiety of going without food and the fear of not having enough to survive boiled over into rebellion.  Part of the Lord’s answer to this act of rebellion was to demonstrate his sovereign power as provider by giving the Israelites food each day.  This provision came with strict instructions that each person (householder) should gather enough food for his entire household each day, but not attempt to keep the bread overnight.  It’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of this last step. What if the manna wasn’t there tomorrow?  What if the provision didn’t last?  Surely it’s wise to hoard some ‘just in case?’  - but every ounce that was kept overnight was spoilt by morning. 
There are many things to take from this story, but in light of our current focus the thing I want to draw out is this:
That when God provides food there is enough for every person to collect their ‘daily bread’.   
Developing this point a little, in the narrative we read that the householder was tasked with gathering the manna for his household – i.e all those in his care.  It wasn’t a case of each individual to his own, Gods provision is made available to his people through the just and righteous distribution of the householder.  And here’s the point. 

As Jesus instructs his people to pray for daily bread, he knew this narrative from Israel’s history.  Even more so, he himself put into practice the outworking of this command in a practical sense, feeding the 5000 who had stayed late to hear him speak and instructing the fishermen disciples where to find a catch. 
Jesus, in each of these situations did something interesting which should be a practical model for us as we pray for provision of bread that doesn’t run out.
As Jesus ate with people he followed a pattern
  • He took hold of what had been provided
  • He blessed it, thanking God for the provision
  • He broke it into portions
  • He distributed what he had
From the simplest meal to the miraculous feeding of crowds the same model was evident.  We see it in:
In this Jesus demonstrates something of the justice and righteousness of Gods kingdom, and in praying for Gods kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, we are given a model for how to practically deal with daily bread. 
So looking beyond our immediate concerns for self, our gaze is lifted to see this petition in a broader way, as a prayer that we pray in hope – hope that God will provide, and a prayer that we pray in collaboration – we work with God to make this hope a reality.
Taking hold of what we have been provided with:
In this we acknowledge that all things that we need come from God – that all creation and all the fruit of creation belongs to him.  It is from his storehouse as it were, that everything comes.
Blessing what we have taken hold of:
Here we go further than acknowledging Gods provision, we actively give thanks to him for it and in a manner of speaking consecrate it for his ordained purposes, to feed and nourish and sustain life and health.   
Breaking what we have into portions:
The natural next step after giving thanks to God concerns our responsibility to ensure that the needs of the household are known and taken into account according to the need of each person and the whole.  If we are to see God as the householder and model, this means we must attempt to imitate Gods justice and righteousness be good householders when it comes to the identification of needs and requirements. 
Distributing what we have allocated:
In the kingdom good intentions and holy thoughts are of little value, what matters is that the justice and righteousness of God is lived and made known on earth as in heaven.  And so our final step in the process involves sharing out, practically distributing, what has been provided to ensure that the entire household, from the oldest to youngest (from first born son to slave girl – as it was in the time of Jesus) receives a fair and just share of Gods provision. 
In this then we see that the line ‘Give us today our daily bread / the bread that doesn’t run out’ is about two things:
1 - Allowing the promise of provision, from a good and benevolent king to shape the way in which we live and respond to the challenges of life.  Deepening our trust in God as provider in the here and now and looking forward to a time when the justice of the kingdom will ensure that none go without.
2 – Allowing the hope of the future kingdom to shape the present reality of the kingdom in which we live by asking us to partner and collaborate with God in making the very thing we pray about become real. 
Looking at our church with a fresh perspective:
  • We tend to think about the Lord’s Prayer as being concerned with our inner life – and that is fine.  But to what degree does this part of the prayer challenge us to think about the wider implications of kingdom living?
  • As a church (and perhaps as individuals) do we take seriously the concern for the justice and righteousness of the Kingdom that the Lords Prayer demonstrates?
  • In what ways do we / could we / should we live this out in our corporate life?
  • In what ways might we need to change in order to do this?

Simon Butler, 17/09/2014