Lord, teach us to pray. To live as faithful Christians – as those who seek God’s will and work to live according to it in this world, we must be in right relationship with God. And it is this right relationship God that Christ invites us into in the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
Last week we focused on the first two phrases in the prayer – “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We explored how these first two lines call us into greater relationship with one another – identifying that this prayer is offered not from the singular voice – but from the plural voice: Our Father. We also identified that in teaching us to pray, Christ is calling us to humble ourselves – to see ourselves as servants of God – servants of the hallowed one. And we named that in Christ’s teaching, in Christ calling us into authentic relationship with God, we must be willing to approach God with a mind toward God’s kingdom – a mind toward God’s will – and a desire and active living that seeks to see God’s will and kingdom be known on earth as they are in heaven.
Simply put, in the first two petitions, Christ teaches us how we are to approach God. We approach God as a unified body with the desire to seek God’s grand reversal of human failures and brokenness with the deliverance of God’s kingdom and will. And we approach God in this way with the humble knowledge that only God make this happen. Here in these next two petitions our focus is not on the eschaton – the termination of history – but is instead on real needs we have in the meantime. We began with a focus on God in heaven – and we turn now to us, on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Give us this day our daily bread. At first glance, this petition seems to be an easy and realistic request to ask of God. It’s as if we’re simply asking, “Lord, please ensure I don’t go hungry today.” It’s one piece of the Lord’s Prayer that has found its way into many families’ nightly routines at mealtime. As I shared last week, it’s the ending of the first prayer I can remember offering as a child, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. By his hands, we are fed, give us Lord our daily bread.”
But if we take this petition in the larger context of Christ’s teaching, it seems that to offer this prayer in such a shallow way, focusing simply on being fed, is somewhat unfaithful.
Let’s take first the voice in which this prayer is offered. This prayer – the entirety of it – is offered in the first-person plural voice. There is no part of this prayer that seeks to approach God on behalf of the individual. Just as we named last week that the prayer calls us into community with the greater gathering of God’s creation from the start – offering the first words, Our Father, here in this petition, we are not asking for food simply for ourselves, but for this same greater community. Give us this day our daily bread.”
In offering this prayer, there is no room for selfishness. If you are praying this prayer and have an abundance of food – too much to eat – the prayer is no longer about ensuring you don’t go hungry, it’s about asking God how you can be used to be a part of feeding the hungry in the world. Remember, these petitions are not simple requests, these are not mere hopeful ideals – they are offered in the imperative voice. These are demands of the Holy. Just as saying “Thy will be known on earth as it is heaven” requires the faithful to be actively working to know God’s will and to ensure the world knows God’s will, saying “Give us our daily bread” requires the faithful to be actively working to ensure all of God’s creation is fed each day.
This focus – a focus on feeding the hungry – shouldn’t need to be offered a second time in this prayer. We’ve already indicated in this prayer we want the hungry to be fed – for we prayed for God’s kingdom to be made known on earth as it is in heaven, and in the kingdom of God there is no more hunger. Why then is this petition offered again? Why the emphasis on daily bread?
One of the ways in which the body of Christendom is split in the reading and praying of this prayer is in its understanding of what is actually being requested in this petition. What does it mean to receive bread, daily? There are many who believe that Christ is teaching his disciples that to be in right relationship with God and with one another there is no need to literally eat a loaf of bread, but more figuratively, one must receive Christ every day. John’s Gospel, in chapter 6, verse 35 says, “The bread is the Word of the living God, who came down from the heavens.” The Word, as we know from the first few verses of John’s Gospel, is Christ – Christ is the logos, which is Greek for Word. John tells us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”[i] It is possible that the bread being spoken of in this text is not the baked sustenance made from the grains of the earth, but is instead the Son of God – Jesus Christ.
To understand the text in this way makes sense – we are praying, ‘give us this day’ – each day – Christ – the bread that is the Word. We need the Word to have life, and not just life but life abundant. Christ, in instructing his disciples to pray in this way, in instructing us to pray in this way, is teaching us of the necessity to know the Word, to read the Word, to live according to the Word.
But of course, Jesus could also be speaking of physical whole wheat, or gluten free, or rye, or sourdough bread.
Jesus in the original context is speaking here in the text to a body of believers who are relatively poor people. Many are day laborers who truly did not know if they would have food on their table each night. Many didn’t know if they would have work each day, and without work, there was no pay, and without pay, there was no food. So, while many of us worry more about what food we will eat each night rather that if we will have food, the community to whom Jesus is speaking faced a very different reality.
Though knowing this context helps us understand the prayer, I don’t think you need to live in the reality of Jesus’ immediate community to understand why this provision – one for daily bread – is one included in the prayer taught by Jesus as part of the standard prayer for faithful discipleship. Regardless whether we’re speaking of Christ literal food to nourish the body, the daily bread is named as a necessity for life. Yet, the emphasis of this imperative petition is perhaps not on the bread at all – whether it be understood as Christ or as the food. The focus of this petition is best understood to be centered on the subject of the request. Again, going back to last week, we named up front, that the Lord’s Prayer isn’t Jesus teaching us how, when and where to pray. It’s Jesus giving us a better understanding of the who in prayer.
To whom are we calling to give us our daily bread? We are calling on God to provide, albeit God isn’t named in the sentence. What we are really praying is, “God, Almighty One, give us this day our daily bread.”
We cannot pray ‘give us our daily bread’ to God if we are not relying on God to provide. In Christ’s instruction to pray this prayer is a call to ask yourself, who is the source of your provision? Do you believe it to be you – or God?[ii] You may feel it is your wealth that puts food on the table, but God’s Word, spoken in Deuteronomy, speaks the truth in this mentality and reminds us, “It is [God] who gives you power to get wealth.”[iii]
When we believe it is our own initiative that provides for our daily needs, we approach the world with a self-first mentality – we focus less on the community and the common body, and focus on ourselves. Remember the parable of Jesus, there was a man who built up storehouses for himself here on earth, and yet that very night his life was demanded of his. And what of those treasures he built on earth – will they give him any security in meeting God face to face?
To pray this prayer taught us by Christ, to see God as provider – giver of what is needed for daily life, is to acknowledge that God has provided in creation, enough of every needed provision, that all of God’s creation might receive their daily fill. As Rev. Bob Leroe, a congregational pastor in Massachusetts, says, “there’s enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed.” And so we pray, Lord, give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
First a word on trespasses versus debts versus wrongdoings versus sin: Matthew’s text here uses the Greek word opheilema (oh-phay-lay-mah) which normally translates debts. To be in debt is to owe someone else a repayment – we often think of this as monetary debt, owing money to someone else. But there’s also moral debt, to be spiritually bankrupt – called to be obedient to God and not following through. Debt was a word that fit the context of the time of Christ. The Jewish community had gone through a major transformation after the imposition of local overlords who drilled down on those in debt. Though historically a community who focused on the well-being of the entire community, the influence of money and power hungry outside forces in the community made imposing debt-centered practices a norm, and it tore the community apart. Matthew’s emphasis and focus on debts is centered around this ill-fated practice in the community.
In Luke’s account of this story, in his recollection of Jesus’ teaching of this prayer, Luke uses the Greek word hamartia for those things for which we are asking forgiveness (hamartia instead of opheilema). Hamartia normally translates as sin. Lord, forgive us our sin. However, Luke uses the same word as Matthew for who we should offer forgiveness – as we forgive those who have debts against us.
There are other versions of this prayer that translate these words using the words trespass or wrong doing. To trespass is go where one should not go. We can understand this in context as saying that going in the wrong direction in relationship to God would be to separate yourself from God, and that is certainly sinful. Thus, trespassing seems to be a faithful translation given the context. Wrong doing seems to be a faithful understanding as well – doing something wrong – not repaying a debt, going where one has not been authorized to go. Though many different words are used by varying denominational groups – and though there may be a slightly different emphasis by each group based on our understanding of these words – the emphasis of this prayer is on our need for healing because of our brokenness and our need to receive forgiveness – whether it is forgiveness from God or from one another.
This petition begins with a call for the forgiveness of the divine due to our sin. In coming before the divine and asking for forgiveness we are naming that the forgiveness we seek is because of our sin – our trespasses and debts. Unlike going to circuit court and pleading “no contest” – a situation in which we are unwilling to acknowledge whether we broke the law or not, in which we are seeking mercy without naming failure – before God we name that we have strayed from the will of God, and because of that sin, we have a need for forgiveness and the need for the removal of guilt.
In conjunction with the divine forgiveness is our acknowledging our own need to offer forgiveness, which is offered to others. The call to offer forgiveness to another isn’t about amnesia – we aren’t forgetting what debts another owes us, or wrong doings committed against us – but in thinking of the pain others of have caused us, we are drawn to remember the pain we have caused others – the pain we have caused God.
If we do not forgive others, we let the anger and hatred fester – and festering hatred and anger only lead us further from God – further from being aligned with the will of God.
These two levels of forgiveness – ours and that of the divine – are contingent upon one another. If we are unable to extend forgiveness to others, we cannot understand or accept God’s forgiveness offered to us.[iv] In the same way, our reception of God’s forgiveness is dependent upon our willingness to forgive others. In the Beatitudes, Christ says, “Blessed are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them.”
And what does it mean to forgive – how do we forgive others? The Hebrew word for forgive is salach (saw-lakh’). It is used multiple times in the Old Testament – each time used to refer to God’s forgiveness toward humanity – never is it used to define the forgiveness between two persons. In the realm of God’s forgiveness, “… the process represented by this word Salach is the Divine restoration of an offender into favor.”[v] God’s forgiveness does more than just remove the pain and guilt, it restores the person into right relationship – into the favor – of God.
Though this word salach is not used in scriptural text to define the forgiveness offered between two or more persons – if we are asking God to forgive us as we also forgive others, and this is God’s practice of forgiveness, should it not also be ours? We can not offer an eternal favor like that of God, but what if our offering of forgiveness to others was not just about the removal of anger in our heart, or the feeling of failure they may be feeling, but was about the restoration of the relationship between two persons – just as God’s forgiveness is intended to restore our relationship with the Lord.
And in practice for us, forgiveness is not a feeling we have, it is a choice we must make. We can choose to hold a grudge; we can demand a debt be paid. Or, we can refuse to become a slave to the anger of having been hurt and make the intentional choice to offer forgiveness. This is the intentional decision God made in sacrificing his Son, that we may once again – time and time again – failure after failure – trespass after trespass – debt after debt – sin after sin – be welcomed back into right relationship with God.
And this is the prayer Christ has taught us – that though we have failed to be obedient to God’s word – we come naming our sin before the Lord: Forgive us our sin. We are promised in scripture, “If we confess our sin, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[vi] And because we have no more unrighteousness, we will be able to forgive others – for to be filled with God’s righteousness is to be filled with God’s forgiving love.
This prayer – offered not just as words to speak – but a call to live in right relationship with God calls us to acknowledge God as the provider of all things necessary to live in this life – for love, for provision, and for preservation. And this prayer – in calling us to live in right relationship, calls on us to acknowledge how we have failed God, and to receive God’s forgiveness just as we offer it to others – knowing that to be in right relationship with God, we must also be in right relationship with the community of God’s creation. And so we ask, Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.