Most of us do not relate directly to Jesus’ statement in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread”, for we live in a society in which we only need to drive to the market and pick up bread when we need it. Even though half of the world’s population lives on less than one dollar per day, leaving billions of people struggling for daily bread, those of us who have our needs met cannot fully identify with Jesus’ statement. So how might we understand these words of Jesus’ prayer, and more importantly, how do we live them?
First, we need to understand that bread was a staple of the first century diet, and calling on God to provide bread each day was an expression of one’s faith in God as the Abba-Father who provides. This image is reminiscent of God providing manna in the wilderness for the people of Israel, and is also reflective of Jesus feeding the multitudes from only five loaves of bread.
In Jesus’ day, due to mass poverty, people survived on day to day bread. Praying that daily bread would be provided each day was an expression of one’s dependence on God for life and that which sustains life. Through this short statement in Jesus’ model prayer, Jesus was calling his disciples to pray for physical bread as an act of faith in God as their provider.
Yet, we cannot read this part of the prayer without thinking of the symbolic nature of bread. Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life, and in his feeding bread to the multitudes, Jesus was symbolically offering them more than physical nourishment. Indeed, in his institution of the Lord’s Supper he re-interpreted the traditional bread of the Passover as symbolic of his own body that would be broken for humanity. Thus, although bread does mean bread in the sense of the physical provisions for nourishment, it also refers metaphorically to Jesus and his work of giving spiritual life to those who partake of him.
But if we understand the Lord’s Prayer as having an eschatological focus, that is, it is attentive to the majesty of God who will come as king, then we have no choice but to read this statement as having some sort of eschatological focus. But how should we understand this eschatological meaning? The answer lies again in the understanding of bread as a metaphor.
As I have already stated, bread was a staple of life and would have been a part of meals, particularly banquets. Such banquets would be celebrations to which the host would invite his honored guests to celebrate with him, and in doing so he would provide the best feast he could. The guests gathered around the table would be important people, for in a patron-client based society, part of having such a banquet would be to associate oneself with powerful individuals who could be influential on behalf of the host. Thus a host would choose his table fellowship carefully.
But when we look at the life of Jesus, we find something completely out of the ordinary when it comes to the people with whom he broke bread. His invitations to dine were given to the outcasts of his society; the lame and blind, the tax collectors and sinners, the helpless and the women. No one can doubt his association with these folks on the margins of society, and no one can doubt the theological significance of Jesus welcoming the disrepute of the social world.
But if we understand Jesus’ instruction for his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to mean more than just the provision of real bread, then we might take Jesus’ words as also expressing the immediate expectation of the great banquet to come when the kingdom of God becomes a fulfilled reality.
Indeed, the statement can be translated, “Give us today our bread for the coming day.” This reading does not neglect seeing bread as that which is needed today for sustenance. More significantly, it sees today’s bread as symbolic of the bread believers will eat in God’s coming banquet. In that day, the tables will be turned, as those who will be welcomed to the feast will not be the influential, wealthy, and powerful of the world. The guests will be those forgotten by the world. Jesus will break bread in the eschatological banquet and share with those oppressed by the social structures of the world.
So, how do we who live in a world where bread is plentiful, pray this portion of the prayer? First, we pray the prayer as an expression of our dependence on God for the basic needs of life; as a demonstration of our trust in God. Second, we pray for our spiritual nourishment through our relationship with Jesus, the bread of life who feeds us the bread of God’s word. But we also pray that the final banquet of God would come when all those who have suffered under the injustice of the world will be welcomed to break bread in the kingdom of God.