Hugh Bates explains why the familiar understanding of one of the phrases from the Lord’s Prayer may not convey its full significance
It is sometimes suggested that the Lord’s Prayer falls into two parts. It begins with God, his holiness, his kingdom, his will being done as in heaven so on earth. It is only then that we may introduce our own needs – daily bread, forgiveness, protection, deliverance. But this may not represent the true picture: ‘daily’ bread, for example. ‘Daily’ is a not very educated guess as a translation of epiousios which, according to my dictionary, is a Greek word found only here and nowhere else. Also the emphatic position of today’ conveys a sense of urgency in the original that is lacking in our familiar version.
More serious attempts at a solution proceed along one of two lines. The first is to connect epiousios with the verb ‘to be,’ giving a sense of miraculous or super-substantial bread, like the manna in the wilderness. So Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine. But the demand for supernatural bread is hardly in character with the rest of the prayer. A more plausible derivation is from the future of the verb ‘to come or go.’ This is supported by tei epiousei in Acts 20.18 and 23.11 – ‘the following day, or night.’
As in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, it was the proper practice to pay day workers in retrospect at the end of the day. You were not to think of keeping back their wages till the morning any more than a creditor should keep a cloak taken in pledge overnight [Deut. 24.12, 14]. The poor might live from day to day and from hand to mouth, but nobody should have to pass the hours of darkness hungry or naked. Their wages were to see them through the night and tomorrow was another day. But the Lord’s Prayer looks forwards, not backwards. The bread we ask for is not today’s bread which we have worked for, but tomorrow’s bread, and we want it now! Today!
Some years ago I was rash enough to float this interpretation in a Deanery Lent Course, only for it to be received with shock and horror. To appear to be asking God for something on account was nothing short of gross impertinence. I might have retorted (but did not) that there is little point in asking for wages already ours by right. Worse, we risk being taken at our word! A wider knowledge of New Testament Greek might have lessened the misunderstanding, but maybe further explanation is called for.
Praying for deliverance
First, bread in plenty may be associated with providential deliverance. On the eve of the lifting of the Aramaean siege of Samaria, Elisha forecast a spectacular collapse in the price of grain. The sceptical royal official would see but not taste [2 Kings 7]. Similarly Isaiah reassures Hezekiah in the crisis of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, ‘this will be a sign to you. This year will be eaten the self-sown grain, next year what sprouts in the fallow, but in the third year sow and reap. Plant vineyards and eat the fruit’ [37.30]. The language recalls the divine guarantee for the Sabbatical (and even more, by implication for the Jubilee) Year [Lev. 25.20-22]. People were understandably worried about having to live through a season when there would be neither sowing nor reaping. God promises that the harvest of year six will, with the self-sown grain be rich enough to see them through to year eight. It is against such a background that we may understand the petition, ‘Give us tomorrow’s bread, and give it now, today!’
There has been no change of direction. Throughout, the Lord’s Prayer is looking to the blessed tomorrow when God’s kingdom comes and his will is done. But what will we need to seek for ourselves when the new day dawns? ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one.’ We pray to be delivered, as far as possible from ‘the birth pangs of the Messiah [Mark 13.20]. Just before this we have a double Jubilee reference, first ‘tomorrow’s bread’ and then ‘forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors,’ reflecting the conditions when borrowing and lending will cease, and the land will keep its Sabbath. Everything will be very strange and different in ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’ which Jesus proclaimed in his mission statement in the synagogue in Nazareth.
The Bread of Life
It maybe in this context that we should hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount about not being anxious for the morrow. Possibly also the fulfilment of the promise is anticipated in the feeding miracles, and the discourse after the feeding of the five thousand in John 6. The Bread of Life is foreshadowed by the manna in the wilderness only in the sense that it was given, not cultivated or manufactured. ‘Moses did not give you bread from heaven. The Bread of Heaven is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the Bread of Life… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.’
This shocking saying is best taken as a parable, wilfully and perversely misunderstood by enemies and followers alike. By analogy, as ‘bread’ is the staff of life in our present world, so the One who comes down from heaven will be our only life support in the age to come. The eucharis-tic allusion is undeniable, but the Eucharist itself is an (acted) parable within a parable. Christ is tomorrow’s bread, and tomorrow is already dawning. Give us tomorrow’s bread, and give us it now!
The Lord’s Prayer, then, is all of a piece, and is a fuller expression of the arrow prayers in the Apocalypse, the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar crying ‘How long, O Lord?’; then, right at the end, ‘Surely, I come quickly. Maranatha, even so come Lord Jesus.’ Like these, the Lord’s Prayer is entirely an Advent prayer, to be prayed as such with understanding, fervour and devotion. ND