Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer has been around as long as we have. Since before the Gospels were written, it has been THE prayer of Christian disciples. Even among skeptical moderns there are those who assert Jesus taught his disciples this prayer as an emblem of their discipleship. We still repeat this prayer at virtually every service of worship.
It is the essence of Christian prayer, and as such, almost impossible to approach as a preacher. Thousands of volumes have been written about it, many by people much more learned and wise than me. But I hesitate even more, because the holiness of the mystery of the Lord’s Prayer repels unworthy additions, ornamentations or deconstructions.
The prayer is simple and in that simplicity is its profundity. The prayer as we usually pray it has 9 petitions: I read the structure as being four parallel pairs—our father; your kingdom; forgive us; lead us not into temptation; and a single petition in the middle: Give us this day our daily bread. In Luke’s version in today’s Gospel lesson there are five petitions with the same meaning–this petition about bread is in the center of both, but it’s not buried—it sticks out because it breaks the parallelism.
The Lord’s Prayer is filled with terms which are eschatological. Eschatology is a theological term which refers to “the end.” It is a whole sub-discipline of systematic theology where things are discussed like heaven and hell, the final judgment and so forth. When we look at Jesus, the most important image of this sort is the Kingdom of God—the final action of God is brought among us, in this world. When we look at this prayer of Jesus, there is lots of eschatology there: kingdom of god, the “trial” or “temptation”—so in this context, how do we understand—Give us today our daily bread?
First, I think we should avoid our churchly inclination to look toward the altar every time bread is mentioned (maybe we should look toward the altar more frequently when wine is the matter of concern). This central petition of the Lord’s Prayer can’t be understood properly, if we don’t first understand that it is a prayer for actual daily bread. In the Middle East, bread was the normal way that normal people ate their daily allotment of grain. And in most parts of the world, for most of history, most of the people make most of their diet from that daily allotment of grain. And for a huge portion of people, now as well as then, the most important drama in their lives comes from the uncertainty of whether that daily bread will be available. It may be that there is less starvation in this country today than has been the case in most places historically. Yet anyplace that I have looked around—in the rural Midwest, in the suburbs, in the city—there are plenty of people whose day to day financial existence is precarious, for whom daily survival is the overwhelming preoccupation.
Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for their daily bread, that in the continuing crisis of human life they would survive to pray for the kingdom. It is real bread that this prayer is concerned with, and if Christians are not concerned with real bread for the real people who really need it, they have no business approaching this Holy Prayer. It’s good if some Christians are involved in local and even broader solutions to problems of hunger and poverty, but it is absolutely essential that every aspect of Christian spirituality be involved in the material needs, sufferings and feelings of the people of this world. Those who are comfortable enough to live the life of the mind are called to humbly listen to those who await their daily bread, with no assurance that it will come.
Through this daily bread, this ordinary bread of ordinary people, the eschatology of the prayer comes into focus: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—the kingdom where God’s name is indeed hallowed is where all those who need their daily bread will have it without anxiety or fear that it may not be there for their children. The Kingdom that is breaking in is radical, because it is comfort for the ordinary workaday people, not for the religious or cultural elite.
“Forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven our debtors”— the Gospel of Luke indeed has debts (not trespasses). In the Jubilee year, which is found in the Book of Leviticus—which may have been honored more in the breach than in the observance , especially by the first century)—all debts were to be forgiven—sort of a universal no-fault bankruptcy. All those people whose credit cards were maxed out from paying the grocery bill; and the small farmers whose land was in pledge to pay for seed, equipment, and perhaps food, in years of famine, got their land back and were restored to even. Perhaps this petition refers to a restoration of the Jubilee—perhaps as a component of the eschatological kingdom … as we forgive our debtors—participation in the Jubilee is not simply getting rewards, but also restoring others to wholeness by giving up our own advantage.
“Save us from the time of trial,” is interpreted many ways, often eschatologically (especially among pre-millennial dispensationalists, who want to talk about the rapture and the tribulation) –and indeed, we may be talking about an overwhelming cataclysm, like persecution, or war, or the end of life. It might also point to the failure of the daily bread. The trial could be a simple one, however; as simple as the anxiety and suffering of not being able to put food on the table. People who don’t know where their daily bread is coming from can appreciate how very close and real that trial can be.
We have our daily bread. Now we can turn to the altar and give thanks.