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Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Date: 21/06/2020/Speaker: Dr Gwee Li Sui

Matthew 6:9-13
My brothers and sisters (wherever you’re watching this right now) –
I am always thankful to Rev Miak Siew for these occasions to speak to you. But this time is clearly different. We are not at 1 Commonwealth. I have to imagine all your faces stretching to the back of the room. I will have to imagine your reactions and to find a way to pace myself. It won’t be easy, and I am reminded of your leaders dealing with this challenge of distance all the time. Rules, I hear, are changing again.

But I am also reminded that human connections are, by nature, a matter of faith. After all, before another person, I can always choose to distrust him or her – or I can believe the good inside and work towards a connection. I can likewise right now believe that, even in our distance, in my transmission and your invisibility, we are close and I am with you. And I truly believe this.

In this pandemic time, with all of us inconvenienced and many of us facing difficulties of 1 form or another, I thought it apt to focus on just 1 phrase: “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is an all-too-familiar phrase, one that has been repeated for centuries, in churches big and small around the world, in some even weekly. So I assume that understanding is commonplace. What more can I add? What is there left to say?

1. The Lord’s Prayer
Perhaps let me re-frame what has been said differently. While I was preparing my sharing, I realised something rather fascinating – if you are into structure and symmetry like me. You know that this phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” is found in Jesus’s so-called Sermon on the Mount, which is his longest continuous discourse on record.
The Sermon on the Mount appears in the Gospel of Matthew where it opens, after the Beatitudes, with Jesus’s very first parable. This is the parable of the lamp under a bushel, or a bowl. No one, Jesus says, lights a lamp and hides it under a bowl – and “[y]ou are the light of the world” (5:14-16).

It ends with another parable: the parable of the wise and foolish builders. You know this one too. Jesus commands us to be like the wise builder, someone who takes heed of his words and puts them into practice. Don’t be like the foolish builder, who doesn’t do this! You notice how both parables are about activating your professed faith? Faith is useless if you hide it. It is also useless if you don’t live by it.

So here is a frame – or what I’d like to call bookends. The Sermon itself stretches 3 chapters, each with its own centrepiece. In Matthew 5, there are the Beatitudes, Jesus’s 8 blessings to those of God’s Kingdom.
They are people [1] who need God, [2] who are in pain, [3] who are gentle, [4] who seek righteousness, [5] who show mercy, [6] whose hearts are pure, [7] who make peace, and [8] who get harmed from doing good.

Matthew 6, our chapter, has the Lord’s Prayer, which is Jesus’s scheme on how we should pray. In Matthew 7, there is the Golden Rule, the single rule to guide our actions: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (7:12). This rule, Jesus says, sums up all OT teachings. Consider others, treat them, as if they were you.

So another frame. Matthew 6, the Lord’s Prayer chapter, also has 3 parts. Before the Prayer, we are told how to perform our religious duties, to do them in secret. Giving and praying should be special time between us and God, not a show we put up for others. After the Prayer comes another secret, this time God’s duty towards us. God, we hear, always provides for us, in fact, for all creation. There is never need to worry!

So do you see it yet? Here is a structurally beautiful thing: in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount is this chapter that has the Lord’s Prayer. The chapter’s middle is itself this Prayer. In the middle of this Prayer is the cry: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

In fact, the Catholic Catechism, which understands the Prayer as 7 petitions, shows this cry as the 4th petition, the middle petition. In other words, to ask for our daily bread cuts the Lord’s Prayer at the centre. Before, we carry ourselves before God, desiring He be praised and vindicated in human history: “Our Father,… hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.”

After, we let God into us, asking Him to forgive us, to help us forgive, and to help us avoid sin. We ask: “forgive us our trespasses,… and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

So, between a focus on God and on us, on 2 spiritual states, God’s holiness (“hallowed be Thy Name”) and our sinfulness (“forgive us our trespasses”), the Prayer actually passes through our physicality. It admits our worldly and not just our spiritual vulnerability.

2. The Bread
But why is “our daily bread” so central? Why are our body’s needs at the threshold between God and us? We may say that this shows how our bodily sustenance isn’t a trivial matter to God. He doesn’t want us disconnected from the operations of the world and our physical shell. In fact, He needs these to teach us.

God meets us here first, in our flesh, even as He wants us ultimately to be concerned with our souls. Because the body affects the soul. The orientation, the posture, of the body (by which I don’t mean like in yoga) affects the business of the soul.

Our bodies have to bear witness to, live out, our reliance on God. This is how we at least commonly understand “our daily bread” to mean. It isn’t about just food but about food as the gift of a Provider, a Breadwinner’s resource. Food must be received in a way that recognises its Caterer.

Indeed, “our daily bread” is thus not just a metaphor but also an allusion. It refers to something else and also somewhere else, in the Bible. You know this: bread may be a staple of Biblical Jews, but it is always an OT symbol of God’s provision for them. The allusion is to manna, what is called in the Book of Exodus “bread from heaven” (16:4).
Manna was God’s food for the wandering Israelites after they fled Egypt. Manna isn’t exactly bread though. We read how it is white and flaky like frost but small and round like coriander seed and tastes like wafer with honey. It would rain down in the desert between dawn and sunrise and had to be picked before it melted. The Israelites would ground it and then make cakes which they baked.

By the way, manna also appears in the Quran! In all 3 instances there, it concerns the same provision during the Exodus – in order that, we read, God was not wronged. Those who would then turn from God only incriminated themselves because God had already shown His faithfulness. So, in the Quran, manna isn’t just about provision; it’s also about justification.
We are seeing that, first, “our daily bread” means God’s provision. Second, now tied to manna, it teaches the lesson of reliance on God. In fact, Moses in Deuteronomy maintains how manna is given “so that you might understand that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3).

Note this qualifier “alone”. The idea isn’t that humans don’t need sustenance but that it isn’t something we need only. What we do need only, what we need above all else, is God’s Word. These are even the same words Jesus threw at the Devil during his own desert temptation, just before the Sermon on the Mount!

The Devil had challenged Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matt 4:3). By quoting from the OT, Jesus replied with what linguists call a speech act, which is an utterance that exactly acts itself out. Jesus showed that man must live on God’s Word only – by only citing God’s Word saying the same! He could use his own words, but he chose to prove his point of Scripture’s sufficiency by using Scripture. So smart!

So here we get a third point: the sufficiency of God’s Word, Scripture, to our reliance before the Devil’s temptation. But how was it a response to the Devil? To answer this, let me call up another moment within the Sermon on the Mount itself. Lines after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites his listeners to dare seek and ask fervently – because the door will open for anyone who knocks. He adds: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (7:9)

This is interesting. Jesus is saying that, if you need bread, God will not give you a stone. If you need to be fed, God will not give you something you cannot eat – like a mask or a hand sanitiser. So the Devil wasn’t wrong at all! God could and would, for Jesus, turn stones into bread – but that wasn’t the point. The Devil wanted Jesus to do this to prove he was God’s son!

The Devil wanted Jesus to test God in the way a Word of Faith preacher might today, to get God to do as we say to prove our special status, our connection with God. But the true son or daughter doesn’t test; he or she has nothing to prove. He or she already knows that he or she belongs to God and so trusts that God will always supply all his or her needs.
But the real curio I want to draw your attention to – and it is easy to miss – is that the Bible identifies bread as a parent’s provision for his child. When you pray the line “Give us this day our daily bread”, remember: this is the prayer of the child to whom his Parent will not give a stone.

And provision from God is a strange thing. We don’t actually know what we will get, what “our daily bread” is – and here is another inversion of Word of Faith preaching. You ask: isn’t it clear, that it is bread? Yes, but, as I have said before, manna isn’t really bread. When we call it bread, when Jesus taught us to say bread, we are admitting that God gives us what He knows is good for us that approximates to our idea of provision.

How shall I illustrate this? On the last New Year’s eve, my Macbook Pro died, and I panicked. I didn’t know what the problem was. I rushed to a computer shop before it closed for the day (or year!), and the guy there opened it up and identified the fault. Then he spoke gibberish, “dunno what”, something about some cable – and, at some point, I just said: “OK, you do just your thing.”

“Your thing.” “Your thing” was my approximation of what the computer guy knew exactly in technical terms. But I couldn’t understand that world; “thing” was my imperfect placeholder word. In the Lord’s Prayer, “bread” is this “thing”.

3. Epiouios
If you assume this is a secondary point, think again. Not just “bread” but the full compound term “daily bread” is a Biblical mystery. The word we often translate in English as “daily”, epiouios (ἐπιούσιος), is a Greek anomaly. Epiouios appears only in this line in the Lord’s Prayer and nowhere else in the Bible – in fact, nowhere else in all of ancient Greek literature!

Classical scholars call this a hapax legomenon, a word that is ever used only once and so its meaning can only be guessed. (In this case, maybe it’s an almost hapax legomenon since the Lord’s Prayer appears in 2 gospels, Matthew and Luke – so twice though in the same use.) God has left a central term unclear to us modern folks – itself surely another speech act in the context of what I am saying, uncertainty about what it is God provides.

Epiouios may mean 1 or more of 3 distinct things. It can mean [1] today, [2] the next day, or [3] super-essential. (By the way, who can be super-essential in a Sunday Times survey, more essential than doctors and nurses? Maybe we need another survey.)

[1] If we run with the meaning of today, we get a strange repetition. The line is saying: “Give us this day this day’s bread” or “our bread for today”. What this emphasises is sufficiency to the day – like manna, which, you know, spoiled quickly and so couldn’t be stored. It had to be gathered daily.

[2] If the meaning is tomorrow, this becomes a reference to that great future day, the Day of the Lord. After all, what is tomorrow’s bread but the bread we shall all eat with Christ on his table? This is itself imaged in the Sacramental Food we shall partake in after my sharing, the body of Christ we eat in remembrance and in anticipation of him. It speaks of our identification with Jesus, our yearning for him.

[3] If the meaning is super-essential,the bread becomes something powerfully existential, more real than visible reality. This can only mean 1 thing: Jesus himself, the Bread of Life we survive on, the Word of God without whom nothing lives.
Our daily bread, the bread we need, is provision for the body, the partaking in the life of Christ, and Christ himself, for us. Remember how I began by showing you frames?

Now consider this: [1] the first frame is the Lord’s Prayer. When it comes to our physical needs, we tend to think of needing as opposed to being satisfied, of having enough. But both are equally out of focus from God’s will if, in our satisfaction, our fullness, as in our lack, God does not feature.

Needing in a way that doesn’t trust God or feeling content in a way that doesn’t need God is the same in that we lose God’s centrality. The words “Give us our daily bread” is positioned in the Lord’s Prayer between triumph and failure, between seeing fullness in the light of God’s will and seeking help in the light of His holiness.

[2] The second frame is Matthew 6. The chapter starts by telling us not to be pretentious, self-righteous, making a show of our religion. It ends by assuring us not to worry even if it comes naturally. God every day clothes the flowers of the fields and feeds the birds of the air. He surely provides for us – if only we knew how. So God alone is enough in service. And God alone is enough in living.

[3] The third frame is the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5, the first part, has Jesus bless his Kingdom people and call us to a life of greater righteousness. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. The latter part, Matthew 7, warns us not to judge, always to ask from God, and to be selfless.

In this context, “Give us our daily bread” is Jesus’s answer to our spiritual well-being. God always gives us enough food to be the sons and daughters we are to be, not more and certainly not less. To give us more would make us haughty, less God-centred. To give us less would make us mean or gloomy, more self-centred.

4. Prayer
So, in the middle of the middle of the middle – this donut hole, this invitation to rely on God for meaning in our lives. God gives us enough to live with physically and spiritually. God gives Himself to be our bread that we eat and find present and eventual fulfilment.

Shall we gather up manna for a prayer now?

Our Heavenly Father –
You are the Great Provider,
the Giver of life and bread,
the Light in the darkness of our lives
and of our souls.
Daily You give us enough
in the way this life is enough
for You to prepare us for Eternity.
Lord, You give us
not as we want You to give
but as You know us to need.
Because You know what we need
even before we ask of You!
Father, You called us
Your sons and daughters first –
before we even knew You.
You made us Your sons and daughters
when we came to You as servants.
Which parent, when the child
asks for bread, gives it a stone?
Father, give us our daily bread.
Give us what we need
to be Your Light in our world.
Give us what we need
to become salt, flavouring the world
with justice and goodness.
Give us the bread we need
to do Your will.
Forgive our sins against You
and against others.
If we have hate in our hearts, mend us
so that we, in eating Your bread,
may be, like You are,
bread for those around us.
Thank you always
for everything.
Happy Father’s Day.
In Jesus’s name we pray,

Gwee Li Sui