Teach Us to Pray, Part 3

I’m continuing my series on prayer today. A couple of weeks ago in the park, I talked about how the Book of Psalms can help teach us to pray. Other than that, I’ve been talking about the Lord’s Prayer in this series:

For example, last week I talked about the nature of God’s Kingdom, the fact that Jesus brought heaven and earth together, and how important it was to pray first, foremost, and always, not that our own will be done, but God’s.

And then the first week, of course, I talked about how the way we begin the prayer is important, because saying “Father” tells us how close our relationship is with God and that we’re all sisters and brothers. And just as important: calling God “Our Father” reminds us that we’re never alone, even when it seems we are.

But I said something else that first week that you might have thought was just me getting sidetracked, but I’m going to end up bringing it up again today, and it has to do with the differences between the version of the model prayer we see in Matthew and Luke.

Do you remember how I talked about how Matthew placed the Lord’s Prayer near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and how Luke placed it closer to the end? In Matthew, Jesus was teaching everybody to pray without being asked to. In Luke, Jesus was teaching his closest disciples to pray after they had asked him to. I mentioned that where a church places the Lord’s Prayer in its liturgy reflects one of those two ideas— is this prayer intended for everybody? If so, the church might place it near the beginning of the service. But if it’s intended only for Jesus’ closest followers, then it’s placed near the end, right before communion— because in the earliest church, non-members would have been dismissed from the sanctuary.

There seems to be something to this in the section of the prayer I want to talk about today. In Matthew’s version— the version that we actually pray in church each week— Jesus prays, “Give us this day our daily bread.” But in Luke, he prays, “Give us each day our daily bread.”

It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but I think there is a difference. Matthew’s version sounds more demanding than Luke’s—more urgent. It seems to be much more the prayer of the hungry— those who are used to being downtrodden, but who suddenly have the promise of something better dangled before their hungry eyes.

This very much reminds me of an exchange in John 6 after Jesus fed the five thousand. The crowd wanted more signs like the one they’d just experienced, reminding Jesus of how Moses had fed Israel with manna in the wilderness. “It wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread from heaven,” Jesus told them, “but God who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

And what did they say to him? “Sir, give us this bread always.”

This is how those who aren’t used to promises being kept respond to promises. They jump at the chance. “Yes! Keep your promise now!”

And there’s no judgment here. Jesus tells us to go ahead and pray this way. “God, give us this bread right now.”

But Luke’s version seems different from that. It’s the prayer of the disciple— the one who’s been following Jesus and has come to trust in God. It’s not an urgent request that a promise made be fulfilled right now, but a prayer of trust, knowing that day-by-day God will provide— not an overabundance, but just what we need: no more and no less.

And that’s how I understand the difference between the two versions:

Give us this day our daily bread
Give us each day our daily bread

And of course the church has never interpreted bread to mean only bread. This request has always been understood to be a request for what we need. Remember back in the late 60’s and early 70’s how hippies started using bread as slang for money? That was quite scriptural. Our daily bread includes our cupboards, our wallets, our transportation, our wardrobes— whatever it is that we need to make a living.

Our daily bread might even include justice and social welfare. Let me paraphrase what the 16th century Reformer John Calvin said:

When we pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread,’ we’re asking in general terms that God would give us everything the body needs in its earthly state— not just food and clothing, but everything which God knows will assist us to eat our bread in peace. In this way we… commit ourselves to God’s care, that we may be fed, nurtured, and preserved.

So I hope we see how far-reaching the Lord’s Prayer can be. Last week I suggested that when we pray that God’s Kingdom would come, we think seriously about the nature of that Kingdom— a place where the poor and the sad and the persecuted are the ones who are blessed, where weapons are shunned, where enemies are embraced, and where squirreling away our money and possessions is considered a vice, not a virtue. We shouldn’t pray for God’s Kingdom to come if we don’t want God to answer that prayer.

By the same token, we should pause when we pray for our daily bread and think about all the things we need: food, clothing, health, peace, and justice. It’s okay to make a list at this point in our prayers— God knows our needs before we ask, so it’s not a bad idea if we think about them as well.

But I think we should do something else at this point: Let’s ask ourselves where we’re at in our spiritual walk. Is my prayer urgent? Do I need more faith? Is this one of those times in my life when I need to start anew? Then meditate on Matthew’s version taught to everyone— especially those who didn’t yet follow Jesus.

Or should I pray the prayer of the trusting disciple, who trusts God on a day-to-day basis?

Few of us are always one thing or the other. The fact that the Bible gives more than one possibility in so many areas, therefore, isn’t proof that it’s wrong, but an invitation for all of us to believe and to follow. No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, Christ welcomes us and our prayers.
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.