The Lord’s Prayer: bread and fish for all

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — We don’t know the actual context in which Jesus taught his followers the Lord’s Prayer. They may well have been in the middle of eating together. Perhaps a relaxed evening meal or a hastily consumed mid-day snack as they walked from one town to the next. “Give us this day our daily bread.” What kind of “bread” do you picture in your mind’s eye as you hear this petition? When I pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer, I remember the squishy white sliced marvel of my childhood: Wonder Bread! My sister and I loved to tear off the crust and mush it into a ball, which we would slowly nibble as we wandered the neighborhood. A far cry from the flat pita-like bread that Jesus ate in his day. “Give us this day our daily bread”: it seems so obvious, but what are we doing when we pray this part of the prayer?

The whole issue of daily sustenance, and our relationship with food, has become increasingly complicated. Food is so over-consumed in our part of the world that we live in culture of fad diets, rising obesity, various eating disorders and diet-related diabetes. And some popular diets suggest that bread is fattening and bad for us. Perhaps we should pray, “Keep us away from our daily bread!”  But we know all too well that as many of us walk miles to burn off calories from bread, others around the world walk miles to just find bread and food calories for their families.

We pore through glossy food magazines, watch hours of TV celebrity chef shows of other people cooking. We obsess about nutritional value and the sourcing of our food, but as a nation it is now a well-documented fact that we are spending less and less time cooking. Food policy researchers have noted that while the price of an increasing abundance of processed food has plummeted since World War II, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables has skyrocketed. Is it any wonder that those with limited food budgets eat too much processed food, fast food, junk food? The powers and reach of agribusiness, industrialized feedlots, and GMOs continue to grow and overwhelm our supermarket aisles, and their products are being increasingly marketed to underdeveloped countries. All while we are painfully, if we can stand to pay attention, painfully aware of the exploding number of people in the world who are hungry. Over 800 million a day, with about 35,000 dying daily from hunger-related illnesses. “Give us this day our daily bread.” How does God envision that we relate to our need for daily sustenance with the needs of others?

As we considered the first part of this prayer in the last few weeks, I suggested we imagine “God the Father” as the Divine Head of the World Household (John Dominic Crossan’s phrase, from “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer”). As a just and merciful gender-inclusive Householder, head of a multigenerational estate. God looking after God’s whole house, seeing that everyone, even the most vulnerable, gets enough. “May your kingdom, your reign of peace and justice, come.” We considered how we are called to be coworkers, partners in helping heal the broken House of God’s world. Today’s brief petition about daily bread moves us into the nitty-gritty of how life should go in God’s House of the World. And it is not just about me as an individual: not, give me my daily bread. Maybe this is the first piece Jesus wants us to understand: that we see ourselves in this need for sustenance together. As in the paraphrase of the prayer by John Philip Newell: “May there be food for the human family today and for the whole earth community.” If you don’t have food, this should be a problem for me.

But it is a huge challenge to maintain this awareness on a daily basis, to bring it to the consciousness of our children, to find ways to be around and work with and for hungry people. I’m beginning to think this is one of the most challenging spiritual practices there is today: what might I do daily that addresses world hunger, near and far? Might I pray about this a few times a day? Pick a country with food shortages and read about it, make a donation on a website, talk with my family about it? Find a food policy issue that worries me and pepper my congress people with letters about it? Help my children to choose three items for the local food pantry each time we shop together and deliver it? Really put a few more moments of attention to slow and careful table blessings said together at each meal? Grow some food – anything; cook some food mindfully? What would a daily spiritual practice of engaging our daily bread look like for each of us?

Jesus’ disciples would have heard this part of the prayer as they chafed against the control of the Roman Empire, where life for many within the Jewish community was precarious at best. People were conscripted for military duty, lost their land and were dealt taxes and tariffs on most aspects of their lives. This also included the local fishing industry, which was of particular concern to many of those meeting Jesus. Rome made commercial dealings more profitable for those in power, but far less so for everyone else, like the local fishermen. The fish you caught were taxed, as were your boat and your nets, and the materials used to repair your nets and vessel (see John Dominic Crossan).

So, the context for Jesus’ prayer is a tinderbox. But what is so incendiary about: “Give us this day our daily bread?” These words would resonate with the Exodus story for his Jewish followers: Their ancestors had fled slavery in Egypt and struggled with starvation during their years of traveling through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But they were blessed with the appearance of “manna,” a substance that would last for about a day before spoiling, with which they could make bread. Enough was provided just for that day. Jesus’ prayer would seem to make a tidy circle, reminding them to trust God. Just pray for this day…don’t get greedy. Simple enough.

Not so simple and innocent, writes the New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan. He contends that this part of the prayer about daily bread may be the most dangerous part of Jesus’ teaching. “Jesus dies not for demanding charity or generosity of hospitality,” says Crossan. “(Jesus will be killed) because he insists the world and its food belong to God and not Rome.”  Over and over, Jesus would use both bread and fish to illustrate this reality: He would multiply not just wine, but loaves and fishes, politically dangerous acts where the Romans are standing by ready to tax all of any extra food production! Jesus spoke of himself as “the bread of life,” blessed and broke bread as symbolic of his own body and spirit that will nourish his followers. The resurrected Jesus stood on the beach directing his followers where to productively fish, then grilled them fish for breakfast. In front of everyone, Jesus kept enacting a living parable of God as Householder of the world. The Emperor of Rome is not ultimately in charge here; God is.

I wander the aisle of the supermarket and wonder to myself: what does it mean that God is in charge of all this plenty? What do I need, what is enough? I was eating blueberries one recent summer while serving in another church in northern Virginia. I was proud that I had not eaten blueberries flown in from Chile during the winter. I had waited for seasonal fruit to arrive. ”New Jersey blueberries,” I read on the plastic box. Pretty close-by to where I was living, but I wonder what it’s like to pick these things? My few minutes on the Internet revealed that there were ongoing labor violations in the New Jersey blueberry industry. Haitian migrant workers come up from Florida, enduring overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps, unsafe bus transportation. The Farmworkers Ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Camden had recently been established to provide a social justice ministry of outreach and advocacy among these farmworkers. Not in my backyard? Well, I’m eating the blueberries they pick, wasn’t I?

God the Householder of the World wants food security, enough bread and fish, for everyone. If your child is starving, you become insecure, angry and desperate. Might we learn more about the places of food insecurity in our Twin Cities? What are the choices facing these families? Paying for medicine or utilities or paying for bread. As hard as it is for us to imagine, many of these people are already working several jobs.
Maybe it’s our own anxiety about our own future that complicates our relationship with food. God is ready to partner with us, to guide and empower us and our choices, and we stay stand-offish. We stay muddled in our own worries and insistence that we figure this out ourselves. Perhaps we might try a new rhythm this week. Perhaps some more mindful tasting, savoring the things we eat each day, and giving thanks. And as part of this rhythm, then learning more about where it comes from, the environmental impacts of our food production, who is hungry and why.

Yes, this church has a long history of collecting food and food money for those in need. Meals on Wheels, sandwich making and food serving for those without food and shelter, financial support of our denomination’s hunger programs. We have started providing weekend food for kids in need at our elementary school down the block. But God and the whole food reality is much bigger than this. What could be the new spiritual practices we will engage around our own food consumption and the wider questions of food justice? As individuals, as families, as a church community? Begin by praying like this, said Jesus: “May there be food for the human family today and for the whole earth community…give us this day our daily bread.” Amen.