THE short petition for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer is not as simple or as straightforward as we might first have thought. It might sound like we are placing an order with a baker, but — while there is an element of basic request here — there is also something far subtler and more important going on.
When we pray this petition, we are putting our basic bodily needs before God, but we are doing so in a particular way and in a certain context. The effect is to align us with God’s agenda for justice and to invite us to live by trust in God. Yes, the petition is fundamentally about basic bodily needs and vulnerabilities, but its symbolic meaning also taps into our deepest desires and most enduring hopes.
Much of this might be obscure to people today, not because they lack vulnerability or hope, but because their life has become so cluttered and complicated. For us, there is no such single, simple thing as bread — we live in a world of many breads. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the complexity of our relationship with food today. We enjoy our food, but what can we say about the spirituality of our eating?
MANY of us live with more cookery books than prayer books in our homes, and we spend more money and emotion on the wonderful world of food than any previous generation. The exposure to food in supermarkets, cafés, and restaurants, and through glamourous advertising, is something that we have come to take as part of the wallpaper of life, forgetting how historically and culturally unusual it is to be presented with nothing short of abundance all the time.
The negative side of this abundance is obvious, but complicated, with issues as diverse as eating disorders, obesity, intensive agriculture, and waste, not to mention inequality of access to food, leading to the proliferation of foodbanks and soup kitchens in recent years. All of these contemporary realities are connected by an approach to food which is distant from the sort of relationship with it that the Lord’s Prayer might encourage.
WHERE, then, does that leave the conscientious pray-er of this prayer? In practical terms, we might ask whether our recitation of the Lord’s Prayer has ever impacted on our own shopping habits or, indeed, on our storage habits. We might even ask whether the Parable of the Rich Fool is one that has a special relevance for us today. And what about panic buying? Surely, regular exposure to the Lord’s Prayer would disincline us from such an activity, reinforcing in us the manna-mentality that Jesus commended.
Indeed, a strict and literal reading of Jesus’s teaching would seem to rule out not only panic buying, but all forms of storage: domestic fridges and freezers and the use of artificial preservatives are suddenly rendered suspect. Canned foods, pickles, and jams, not to mention the salted and dried provisions that kept our grandparents going, could be seen as sources of guilt and shame. Is this really what the gospel requires of us and our larders? Does a manna-mentality demand a return to day-to-day subsistence?
That seems to me an imprudent and wasteful proposition — a perverse refusal to accept the positive aspects of cultural and scientific advance. We need to embrace a concept of anticipatory stewardship. And, on a more basic level, surely a family facing the prospect of being asked to quarantine or self-isolate would be well advised to have an adequately stocked larder and freezer.
What the gospel requires of us, rather, is a grateful, proportionate (or just), and non-anxious relationship, not only with food, but with all the provisions we need in order to live a good life. We need to nourish ourselves and contribute to the needs of others.
THE point is to recognise that, whatever we have, however much we have earned it, remains in some sense a gift. As John Calvin wrote when commenting on this petition: “what is in our hand is not even ours except in so far as he bestows each little portion upon us hour by hour, and allows us to use it.”
As human beings, we know we are fearful in the face of deprivation, but, as those who pray the Lord’s Prayer, we know that a right relationship with God is developed when we seek to have our own needs met while not neglecting the need for justice for all.
To do this, we need to have faith in God’s provision to the extent that trust replaces the anxiety that drives us to behave in ways that are bad for us and bad for others. At the same time, we must avoid the path of Luddite irresponsibility that would prevent our making adequate provision for the future.
Perhaps even more fundamentally than this, it’s important to recognise that we pray not as people who have got ourselves sorted out, and who are on top of our own negativity, always able to do the right things for the right reasons all the time. We pray as those who need to pray; as those who know their need of God.
Prayer isn’t reserved for those who have overcome their fear and anxiety, but is for those who know that, unless they reach out for spiritual support, they will be even more vulnerable to fear and anxiety (leading on perhaps to panic) becoming the main drivers of their actions.
SOMEONE who prays the Lord’s Prayer might find themselves panic buying, or one day see their store cupboards in a new light and realise that they really have been hoarding. They might even take a look at their finances and realise that, despite the financial fears they have been living with for years, they are, it seems, quite well off.
The difference between the praying panic buyer or hoarder, or the person who has accumulated more money than they expected, and those who do not pray as Jesus taught us is that the one who prays might be brought up short by their prayer and begin to feel the tension between purporting to live by faith and prayer, when their actions have in fact been driven by anxiety, and have led to unnecessary accumulation.
Quite how to respond to that tension is a real pastoral issue. It should not be addressed negatively — “What you have done is terrible” — but positively: “Now that you understand the situation more fully you can make some better choices.”
Christian spirituality is very positive about the future; it is a religion of hope. We may have got things wrong in the past, but the future gives us scope to put them right. That’s why the future is so important. It means that we are not trapped by the past, or locked into the present.
The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.
Extracted from Thy Will Be Done: The 2021 Lent Book © Stephen Cherry 2021 (Bloomsbury Continuum, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-1-4729-7825-7).