August 11, 2013
Texts: Matthew 6:11, Psalm 145:15-19
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
This is perhaps the most straightforward petition of the Lord’s Prayer: give us what we need, God.
It is also the only petition of the Lord’s Prayer that refers to physical needs. It’s inclusion reminds us that we are embodied people who have physical needs – and that God cares for those needs. They are not somehow less important, less significant than our spiritual needs – though the church has sometimes suggested as much. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he is affirming the validity of their material needs. He will say a bit later in Matthew 6 (31-32), “Don’t worry…Your heavenly Father knows that you need [food, drink, and clothes].” Our physical, material needs matter to God.
So the first thing this line teaches us – for remember, this prayer was given as an example, a model, to teach us how to pray – the first thing this line teaches us is that it is okay – good, even! – to go to God with our physical needs. The proverbial “praying for a parking spot” may be a bit much, but there is nothing at all wrong with talking to God about the material needs of our lives. When the physical needs of life consume our thoughts – a job, a house, food on the table or bills to be paid – it is right and good to take those needs to God in prayer.
That being said, most of us in 21st century America do not, literally, need to depend on God to provide our next meal. Rarely do we know true hunger pains. So how do we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when our refrigerators are full and our store shelves are well-stocked?
Perhaps our prayer ought to be more like the ancient Hebrew prayer, recorded in Proverbs 30:8b-9:
Give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or, I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.
Give me neither too much or too little – but give me my daily bread. This may be the most straightforward petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the most concrete and down to earth – but I would suggest that it is also the most difficult part of the prayer to pray whole-heartedly.
It is hard because it directly challenges both our affluence and our self-sufficiency – two values that are at the very core of our American culture.
A culture of affluence teaches us to constantly strive for more, bigger, better. We are continuously confronted with opportunities to upgrade everything from our cars to our phones – people even upgrade engagement rings to a bigger stone! We may not think of ourselves as affluent – many of us live paycheck to paycheck – but we nonetheless live in a society that lifts up affluence as the goal.
When affluence is the goal, is it nearly impossible to feel as if we have enough. And being content with enough is at the very core of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Like the Israelites who collected manna in the desert (Exodus 16), daily bread implies just enough to meet the day’s needs – not excess to store away for tomorrow. That kind of contentment with enough flies directly in the face of a culture of affluence.
Contentment with enough also implies dependence. Excess allows us to believe that we provide for ourselves, that we are self-reliant and independent. But having just enough for today requires us to acknowledge our own limitations and our dependence upon God to provide. As Proverbs reminds us, it is easy, when we have plenty, to disown – or just plain get distracted from – God. Dependence draws us back and keeps us connected to the God who supplies all our needs.
So we pray with the author of Proverbs: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me my daily bread.”
But the Lord’s prayer, as Jesus taught us to pray it, makes one small but significant change to that ancient prayer. Jesus teaches not “give me” but “give us” our daily bread.
Here, the prayer becomes downright radical. It is not only that I trust, myself, that God will meet my needs. It is not only that I acknowledge my dependence on God and learn to be content with what I have. To pray “give us our daily bread” requires that I also pay attention to the needs of my neighbors.
If we are to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” then it matters that 870 million people – 1/8th of the world’s population – is undernourished. It matters that in our own country, 1 in 5 children – and 1 in 3 African American and Latino children – are at risk of hunger.
“Give us this day our daily bread” takes on an entirely different urgency when food is not readily available. In many areas of Africa, families prepare each year for what they call wanjala – “The Hunger Season.” The Hunger Season is a period of time – sometimes weeks, often months long – that comes before harvest. It is the time when last year’s store of food has been depleted and humanitarian aid is used up. The Hunger Season comes every year, just as surely as spring, summer, fall or winter come to us.
Families prepare for the Hunger Season by intentionally cutting back on the food intake of healthy adults, so that children and the elderly might have enough to stretch through the lean months until the next harvest. Even so, many die through these months simply from lack of calories.
I began today by affirming that God cares about our material needs, and there is nothing shameful about praying for the things we need. By the same token, God cares for the very real, physical needs of hungry children and adults throughout our world. And if we are followers of Jesus, then we must care too. We cannot pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” without acknowledging and addressing the needs of others.
That means we must learn to live with less – even when the media and culture tell us we deserve more. It means we must learn to limit our desires; to be content with what we have, so that others may have what they need. It means we learn to recognize and give thanks for our blessings – to be grateful for daily bread! And it also means we learn to share those blessings more freely, more generously – giving of our time at the food pantry, for example, or of our money to an organization that addresses hunger locally or globally. It means that we work to address the root causes of poverty, and the injustices built into our economic system. It means challenging the idea that making a profit matters more than paying living wages, and standing up against the assumption that poor people bring poverty upon themselves.
This kind of work cannot be done alone. It requires the support of a community of faith committed to wrestling with these sorts of questions and concerns together. It requires sharing life together, a life that values different things than the society in which we live values. And it requires constantly, continuously praying together: “Give us this day our daily bread,” and learning to live that prayer one day at a time.
“Give us this day our daily bread” may be the shortest, most straightforward petition of the Lord’s prayer, but it also perhaps the most difficult to live into. It addresses our hearts’ deepest values and the world’s greatest needs.
It is not our job to solve the problem of poverty or to end the Hunger Season on our own. But it is our job to pray as Jesus taught us, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to trust God to meet our own needs, and to join God in the work of meeting the needs of others. We do so with the promise from the book of Revelation that when the kingdom of God is fully realized,
“Never again will [any] hunger, and never again will they thirst” (Rev 7:16).
 United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization statistics, 2010-2012. From http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm