You probably noticed that the way Kaleb read this verse from Matthew isn’t the way we’re used to saying it. There’s good reason for that, but you’ll have to let me go full language-nerd on you for a moment. You see, the word here in the Greek doesn’t really exist anywhere else, except in early Christian writers trying to interpret it; neither Matthew nor Luke uses it outside their record of this prayer, and none of the other books of the New Testament picks up on it. By the time we see leaders in the church writing about the Lord’s Prayer, its meaning is unclear to them.
Over the years, various explanations of this word have been offered. It could, of course, refer to time, and this is the interpretation that has prevailed in the Western church tradition; those who understand it this way then divide over whether it means today or tomorrow. Obviously, our standard English translation presents this as a prayer that God would give us bread for today. It’s also possible that the word here isn’t a time word at all, but refers to an amount of bread; this has been more common in the Eastern church, especially in the non-Greek-speaking communions. Some then interpret this as a prayer that God would give us just enough bread to stay alive, while others translate it more generally as “the bread we need.”
Now, you might be wondering if this really matters all that much; but we can see that it does, once we realize what bread meant to Jesus’ audience. Nowadays, bread is easily available, just one food among many; you can go without it altogether, and many people have to for health reasons. That’s a recent development, though. In a review in The Atlantic of a book on Wonder Bread, Benjamin Schwarz writes,
In the early 20th century, Americans got more of their calories from bread than from any other single food. This meant that they had to depend either on keeping women close to home . . . or on buying bread from the thousands of unregulated “cellar bakeries” that typically produced adulterated loaves in filthy conditions. The solution, developed early in the century (a period “when food-borne illnesses were the leading causes of death”), was inexpensive bread mass-produced in sanitary, factory-like conditions, wrapped in packaging to prevent exposure to germs. . . . To an underfed population, however, it was a cheap and safe source of calories and—thanks to vitamin enrichment, a radical innovation of the war years—essential nutrients.
Wonder Bread and its ilk were “safe, reliable, nourishing, if hardly delicious, food [that was] universally available.” We take that for granted now, but that was a major change in the human economy. Jesus and his disciples lived in a very different world. For them, bread was the staple food; it was the one absolute necessity, and not just as a source of calories to fill the stomach. As Kenneth Bailey writes, in the Near East,
Bread is the knife, fork, and spoon with which the meal is eaten. The different items of the meal are in common dishes. Each person has a loaf of bread in front of him. He breaks off a bite-sized piece, dips it into the common dish, and puts the entire “sop” into his mouth. He then starts with a fresh piece of bread and repeats the process. The common dish is never defiled from the eater’s mouth . . . The bread must be flavored with something for the meal. In absolute desperation the bread is dipped into a dish of salt. Thus the Oriental phrase “eating bread and salt” means . . . abject poverty.
In Scripture, bread represents all that we need, and all that we must have to stay alive; it’s the absolute foundation of God’s provision for us. That means that how we understand this verse is critical to our understanding of our needs, and how God provides for them, and how he wants us to pray about them. Are we supposed to pray just that he would meet our needs for today, and take no thought for tomorrow? That would seem to fit with Jesus’ words later in this chapter. Or are we praying for tomorrow’s bread—and if so, what does that mean? That one can actually get pretty strange. Or is the point that we’re only supposed to ask God for the bare minimum and nothing more?
Here again, I think Dr. Bailey is helpful, as he points us to one of the very earliest translations of the New Testament, into the Syriac language—a language closely related to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus; Syriac was the language of Syria and parts of the Middle East before the rise of Islam, and is still preserved by the ancient Syriac churches. In the Old Syriac, this prayer reads, “Ameno bread this day give to us.” Ameno is related to the word “amen,” and according to the lexicons, it means “lasting, never-ceasing, never-ending, or perpetual.” As I had Kaleb read Matthew this morning, “Give us this day our bread that doesn’t run out.” Give us the bread we need for today, yes; give us enough to meet our needs, yes; give us more than just the bare minimum, so that we have enough to share and enough to take care of others, definitely; but there’s more here than that. To quote Dr. Bailey,
One of the deepest and most crippling fears of the human spirit is the fear of not having enough to eat. . . . [which] can destroy a sense of well-being in the present and erode hope for the future. I am convinced that . . . at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer that means, “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of not having enough to eat. Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow we will have enough.”
In other words, when we pray this—and saying, “Give us this day our daily bread” works just fine, as long as we understand that this is what it means—we aren’t just praying that God will provide for our needs; as with verses 9-10, that’s a prayer that he would do what he’s already said he’s going to do. It’s also a prayer that he would give us the faith that he will provide for our needs, that he would teach us to trust him to provide for our needs without reservation. To borrow from FDR, we aren’t just asking for freedom from want, we’re asking God for freedom from fear.
Now, as we say this, we should bear in mind that the prayer is for bread, not for cake; this is Jesus, not Marie Antoinette. He teaches us to ask for the things we truly need, for the things that sustain life and give us strength to follow him, not for the luxuries. That doesn’t mean we’re forbidden to ask for things above and beyond what we absolutely need; it does, however, give the lie to those who teach that God wants to give you whatever you want, as long as you ask for it the right way or with enough faith or whatever it may be. That’s not Jesus, and that’s not how he teaches us to pray.
In line with that, note also that we are to pray for our bread, not my bread. As I pray this prayer, I don’t just ask God to take care of me and provide for my needs; I don’t ask for blessings for myself alone, or even just for myself and my family. Instead, I ask him to provide for us—which means, in part, that he would give me and my family enough to share, that we would have our part in providing for those around us. That’s one of the reasons I believe this is a prayer for more than just subsistence, and more than just today: once we’re free of the fear of running out, going hungry, going broke, we’re able to be generous in sharing God’s gifts to us, and in showing hospitality to others.
At the heart level, that’s the deepest meaning of all to this prayer. This world teaches us to believe that it’s my bread. I’ve earned it because of my work, I made it happen, I have a certain right to feel superior to those who haven’t done as well, and it’s up to me to continue to provide for myself; in that mindset, I put my trust in my bread and my ability to earn it and bring it home. That’s the foundation of our whole understanding of wealth. Jesus upends it.
The Bible certainly affirms the importance of good, hard work, and of responsibility and self-discipline in using the gifts God gives us—but that’s the key point: the things we have, and the things we’re able to do, are God’s gift, nothing we’ve earned. We see wealth as something that belongs to us, that we need to use carefully to make sure we’re provided for. Jesus calls us to understand that all wealth belongs to God, and that he is the one who makes sure we’re provided for; it isn’t ours to use for our own purposes. We need to use it carefully, yes, but not to keep ourselves alive, not to keep ourselves afloat; we need to use it carefully to make sure that we’re doing what God wants us to do with it, that we’re using it to bless others, not just to take care of ourselves. He wants to set us free from the fear of running out so that we may be free to give it away.