1He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
7When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
After watching sales drop off for three straight months at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders calls up the Pope and asks for a favor. The Pope says, “What can I do?”
The Colonel says, “I need you to change the Lord’s prayer from, Give us this day our daily bread to Give us this day our daily chicken. If you do it, I’ll donate a million Dollars to the Vatican.”
The Pope replies, “I’m sorry. That is the Lord’s prayer and I cannot change the words.”
So the Colonel hangs up. After another month of dismal sales, the Colonel panics, and calls again. “Listen your Excellency. I really need your help. I’ll give you $10 million dollars if you change the words of the Lord’s prayer from Give us this day our daily bread to Give us this day our daily chicken.”
And the Pope responds, “It is very tempting, Colonel Sanders. The church could do a lot of good with that much money. It would help us support many charities. But, again, I must decline. It is the Lord’s prayer, and I can’t change the words.”
So the Colonel gives up again. After two more months of terrible sales the Colonel gets desperate. “This is my final offer, your Excellency. If you change the words of the daily prayer from, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ to ‘Give us this day our daily chicken’ I will donate $2 billion to the Vatican.”
The Pope replies, “Let me get back to you.” So the next day, the Pope calls together all of his bishops and he says, “I have some good news and I have some bad news. The good news is that KFC is going to donate $2 billion to the Vatican. The bad news is that we lost the Wonder Bread account.”
My first class on my first day of seminary was a jaw-dropping, life changing experience. And it happened about 20 minutes into the class—which was New Testament Greek—when our professor put the words to the Lord’s prayer (in the original Greek) up on the overhead projector. His reason for doing this was to show us just how much Greek we probably already knew and could recognize. He was right. Most of us could pick out the words for “Our Father” or “kingdom” or “heaven.” And then he got to verse 11, and there was the word for “bread” and then he pointed to another big word and said what about this one? And most of us, eager and excited and quite over-confident said “Daily!” because what else could it be? We knew the Lord’s prayer, after all…
Our professor said, “No, that word doesn’t mean daily. Actually, no one really knows what it means. It only occurs two places in the New Testament. Once here in Matthew, and the other time in Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer, same place. And this word doesn’t appear in any other Greek writing from antiquity…so we really have no way of knowing what it means. Daily is just a guess, and not a very good one, since we know what the Greek word for daily is, and it’s not this one.” For all we know, Jesus could have said “give us this day our raisin bread.”
And all of the first year seminary students left the room that day very humbled; some shaken to the core of their faith. After all, if we’re wrong about this prayer we’ve prayed every week of our lives…what else could we be wrong about?
Many times since that day I’ve reflected on how grateful I am to be a Presbyterian pastor. We are one of the last remaining denominations in Christianity that requires all of its pastors to demonstrate proficiency in Biblical Greek and Hebrew before being ordained. Before seminary, I thought that was a stupid requirement and a waste of good ministry time. I don’t think that anymore.
But that doesn’t mean that now I know what the Bible “really” says—actually it’s the opposite. I know enough to know how little all of us (Bible scholars included) really know about the Bible. In fact, I have often observed that those in our world who seem the most confident, the most certain that they have the Bible all figured out, usually are the ones who know it least, or know it only on a surface level, or only in their favorite modern English translation of it. Sadly, many of those are famous preachers and politicians.
A good education does not give you all the right answers. A good education teaches you to ask all the right questions.
Incidentally, the word that usually gets translated as “daily” (give us this day our daily bread) is, in Greek, επιούσιος. It’s made up of two parts: the preposition επι (which can mean on, above, after, against, over, under, among, around, because, beside, beyond, or within) and the root word οὐσία, which means something like the English word “stuff” or “thing” or substance, essence, being. Hopefully you can see why it’s a bit hard to translate.
Some early Christians translated it “Give us this day our hypersubstantial bread,” our “bread beyond bread” our “super spiritual bread.” Other early Christians took things the opposite direction: “Give us this day our around-stuff bread,” our “ordinary, mundane, quotidian” bread. This is the path that eventually led to “routine” or “daily” bread, even though the clear word for “daily,” used throughout the bible is καθ’ ἡμέραν.
So which is it? Super spiritual bread or just plain around-stuff bread? I don’t know. Like I said, a good education does not give you all the answers. But it does teach you to ask the right questions. So what are the right questions? In this case, I think we should ask ourselves, What is Jesus doing here, overall, in the Lord’s prayer? And in this particular line about whatever kind of bread it is? And what about the other words, the words we do have a pretty clear idea about? Bread is bread. Or rather, ἄρτον is bread, everywhere else it’s found in the New Testament and in Greek literature. We’ll come back to bread in a minute.
First, let’s look at those other words. This is a short phrase—the shortest in the Lord’s prayer, appearing mostly the same in both Matthew and Luke, but every word in this phrase is laden with meaning.
Give. It’s the verb in the phrase, the central act. It implies a one-way transaction with nothing expected in return. We don’t say sell us today our daily bread, trade or negotiate with us today for our daily bread. Give. As in a gift.
Us/Our. This is where we noticde that the prayer has shifted. The first part was about God (F) and the next part was about God’s creation, heaven and earth, the really big things (R). The rest of the prayer, beginning here, is about us—our needs, our cares and concerns. Two parts God, three parts us. And as we’ve noticed before, “us/our” is not quite “me/my.” When we pray “give us bread” we are saying a prayer for the people around us, our neighbors, as well.
This day/Each day. This is the one place where Matthew and Luke differ slightly. Matthew says give us σήμερον (this day, today) where Luke says καθʼ ἡμέραν (each day, every day). This makes more sense when you consider the two different audiences: Matthew , is written earlier—his people are still expecting Jesus to come back any day now. They are present-focused—take care of us today, this day. Luke, on the other hand, is written later. His people are beginning to realize that Jesus might take awhile; so they are settling in for the long haul. Take care of us each day, every day. I love how, even in the Bible, this prayer changes to accomodate the circumstances—it’s not something set in stone like a magical formula. It’s a personal prayer, that we make our own.
Bread. Bread is bread. Whether it’s super-spiritual bread, around-stuff bread, or raisin bread—I think the idea here is that in every culture, every civilization, there is some kind of bread, some kind of grain, that functions as the basic staple of existence. Lord, give us what we need to live—spiritually, physically, practically—in every way. There’s actually an old Eastern Orthodox translation of επιούσιος that I really like: Give us this day the bread that we need.
And so, in our acronym that we’re using to help us remember the Lord’s prayer (FRESH) the E stands for Essential Things, or even Everyday things. F is for First, putting God first in our prayers. R is for Really Big Things, praying for the world and for God’s plan for the world. And E is for the Essential, everyday things in our own lives; the things we need and can’t live without: Food, water, shelter, oxygen, love, and community.
These things, the everyday things, are not the things that usually drive us to our knees in prayer (we’ll talk about those things—the S and the H—in our final two weeks). In fact, it is the essential things, the everyday things that we usually take the most for granted. But Jesus reminds us to ask for them: Lord, give us each day the things that we need.
Most of our prayers amount to asking God for a miracle of some kind or another: Heal my loved one’s cancer. Save my marriage. Help me get this promotion, pass this test, win the lottery. Help the Cowboys not choke in the playoffs (I did say miraculous, right?).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these prayers. But Jesus asks us first to consider the small miracles that God grants us each and every day: The air we breathe all around us; the food and water that give us life; the heart that steadily beats inside us; the stable ground beneath our feet; the thousands of people we encounter in a lifetime; the languages and traditions and the knowledge we share.
In every part of the Lord’s prayer there is also a call to action, and in this part as well. If we are bold enough to expect God to provide for our essential, everyday needs, generously, without any conditions, without anything in exchange or return—then we cannot expect any less of ourselves, when it comes to the essential, everyday needs of our fellow human beings, our neighbors here and throughout the world.
This week, an estimated 1,000 refugees fleeing from violence and persecution in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia were turned away by the country of Hungary (the irony!) and forced to walk on foot on the road from Budapest to the Austrian border. It is, of course, a complicated situation, and I won’t pretend there is a simple solution, any more than I can pretend to know what επιούσιος really means.
But what touched and moved me this week as I followed their story in the news, were the crowds of Hungarian citizens who came out to line the streets, encouraging the refugees, giving them food, water, and clothing from their own kitchens and closets. I wondered what that would look like here in El Paso, if we were to line the streets in welcome and support of immigrants fleeing the violence and poverty of Mexico and Central or South America.
If we were to pray, “Lord, give us this day the bread that we need—and if we happen to get a little more than we need, help us to share it with those who happened to wind up with a little less.”
The last thing Jesus did before he died was to share a simple meal of bread and wine with some simple fishermen who had chosen to follow him into a dangerous place. We remember that meal today, and we believe that when we share bread with each other like he did, that Jesus is somehow present with us in this place, in a way that is both very mysterious and yet very real. This bread is super-substantial, spiritual…and yet it is ordinary, mundane, common and comforting.
We don’t have to know or understand exactly what that means. All we have to do is come to his table, trusting that God will take care of our needs. All we have to do is come to his table, willing to share some bread.