One of Jesus’ disciples asked him for a prayer lesson. Apparently praying doesn’t come naturally like eating or sleeping, or so this disciple thought. Why ask for a prayer lesson? Does one take prayer lessons like some people take dancing or fencing lessons? Is prayer like an art or a sport, or is it more like already knowing how to talk but wanting to learn what to say? Or are prayer lessons all about learning when and where, eyes open or closed, hands folded or stretched out, standing up or sitting down?
Jesus prayed quite often, sometimes for hours; in Luke’s gospel, prayer marked significant moments in Jesus’ ministry like his baptism (3:21), his choosing of the 12 (6:12), Peter’s declaration that he was the Messiah (9:18), and his transfiguration (9:28). Jesus prayed that night on the Mount of Olives (22:41ff.), and his last words on the cross were a prayer (23:46).
“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple said, perhaps sensing a connection between who Jesus was and his habit of prayer. In response, Jesus spoke words very similar to what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The words we speak come from the gospel according to Matthew and the long tradition of use in the church. We still say the prayer in the King’s English with ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ and ‘thine,’ thoroughly in love with the old sounds that elevate these words from ordinary speech. The words in Luke are, in comparison, utterly simple, like the meetinghouse of a Reformed church next to a Baroque cathedral. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. There is no ornament, no please, no filler words – just the bare imperatives of give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial. God’s holiness and our need are spoken side by side, and while the language sounds almost brazen, it puts into words our complete dependence on God. This prayer is no meek, religious act of uttering sacred words, but the bold communication of human beings who know how hard it is to be human without food, without forgiveness, and without faithful belonging.
Anne Lamott famously wrote in Traveling Mercies, “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’” Her words reflect her trusting reliance on God, and something we call familiarity or intimacy. Jesus’ prayer, which he invites us to make ours, is also rooted in intimacy, but it is communal throughout: Give us each day our daily bread.
The petition marks a threshold: in the first part of the prayer, God’s cause is foremost – your name, your kingdom. The second part is about us – our bread, our sins, our trials. But the prayer isn’t really changing themes from the sanctification of God’s name and the coming of God’s reign. Bread, daily bread for all of us, is God’s holy will and God’s daily gift. The God whom Jesus invites us to address as Father is concerned about our stomachs and our livelihoods. When we pray with Jesus, we don’t fly away into the weightlessness of spiritual realms, but rather pray with our feet firmly on the ground. We pray with our feet touching the soil out of which we were taken and to which we return, the soil in which the grain of wheat is buried and on which we labor and eat bread by the sweat of our face.
What is bread? Depends on whom you ask. A source of complex carbohydrates, says the nutritionist. Bread is seed and soil, sun and rain, sweat and toil, says the farmer. Bread is flour and water, yeast and salt, skill and fire, says the baker. Bread is the sweet memory of my grandmother’s kitchen, says the old man. Bread is expensive, says the worker. Bread is power, says the politician. Bread is reconciliation and community, says the priest. Bread is cheap, says the rich fool. Bread is God’s gift, say those who pray with Jesus. Give us each day our daily bread. Farmers prepare the field and sow the seed, take care of the plants and bring in the harvest. Millers grind the wheat, the rye, the barley, and sift them to make the finest flours. Bakers blend the ingredients and turn them into beautiful, fragrant loaves of bread. Truck drivers deliver the seed, the fertilizer, the crop, the flour, the bread. Workers stock the shelves at night at the store. And we see so little of it until we notice the cashier whose wrist hurts from pulling tons of groceries across the scanner, and finally the kid who asks, ‘Paper or plastic?’ and puts the loaf in our bag. Some people call this a supply chain, but to me it will always be the poetry of human labor and the grace of God. Bread is a communal product, and no bread is eaten alone. There really is no such thing as my bread, there is only our bread, and every loaf contains our whole life together. When we pray with Jesus, we pray for bread and our life together, we pray for the land and all who live on it, for justice and compassion, and for the love that breaks bread even with the enemy.
We can and we often do consume bread without thanksgiving, without remembering how it brings us all together and that we all need it; we can eat bread without memory or gratitude and without sharing, yet while it will still nourish our bodies, it will not nourish human life, which is life in community.
Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism as a resource for children and their parents to study the basics of the faith. In the chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, he asks, “What, then, is meant by daily bread?” And the answer he wants us to consider is,
Daily bread includes everything that we need for our bodily welfare, such as food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and cattle, money and goods, a godly spouse, godly children, godly workers, godly and faithful leaders, good government, good weather, peace and order, health, a good name, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
Our prayer for bread is indeed our prayer for everything that we and our neighbors need for our bodily welfare. We say bread, because there isn’t a more beautiful word for the dailiness of our needs, the fragile nature of our lives, and our dependence on God, the earth, and one another.
And because we can and do eat the bread of life without memory and without sharing, we need forgiveness. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray with Jesus we are reminded that just like there is no such thing as my bread, forgiveness cannot stop with me. Forgiveness is for our sins, for all that we have done or have failed to do – in disobedience, in lovelessness and in self-absorption – and forgiveness becomes a way for us to participate in the flow of mercy in the world wounded by sin. We’re not asking God to forgive us our sins because we’re so eager to forgive each other’s debts; we know we’re not. We pray for both dimensions of forgiveness in one breath because Jesus does so; he teaches us to see and remember that mercy is not a quid pro quo transaction but a healing flow freeing us from being held hostages by a past we cannot undo, a healing flow that cannot stop with us.
A disciple asks Jesus for a prayer lesson, and Jesus, rather than focusing on when, where, how and why, directs our attention to bread and forgiveness, to the relationships we have with each other that are inseparably woven into the relationship God has with us.
Jesus invites his disciples to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting that we belong to God and that God desires fullness of life for us. He invites us into the intimacy he has with God, encouraging us to address the Holy One of Israel using the same name he uses – Father.
Across cultures and generations, fathers relate to their children in very different ways, and the name does not by itself and necessarily characterize God as a caring, nurturing, compassionate, and responsive parent. The name by itself will stir in some memories of absence or distance or hurt. Father is an ancient name with many reverberations, not all of them life-giving, and what are we to do with those resonances in this prayer? We will notice that when Jesus speaks this name, it echoes deeply with mutual love and unwavering trust. Perhaps we can remember that Jesus invites us to pray with him, and not just like him. Perhaps we can remember that it is Jesus the Son who reveals who the Father is, and not our experiences with fathers, good or bad (Luke 10:21f.).
When we pray with Jesus, we speak of our need and the world’s needs in the presence of God whose kingdom we seek and whose name is revealed in the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. We speak with honesty and held up by the faith of Jesus when our own faith is shaken.
Do not bring us to the time of trial is the final petition in this prayer, and it is good for it to be the last word, as it were. We ask for deliverance from any circumstances that would threaten our trust in the God who found us in Jesus with forgiveness and compassion, and who opened our eyes to see the dawn of a new creation where all of life is finally at home. We ask for deliverance from anything that might tempt us to believe that we are not God’s beloved sons and daughters, or not meant to live in the glory of this love forever.
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Random House 2000) p. 82
 Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, The Lord’s Prayer: Fourth Petition
http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/martin-luthers-small.html#LORD and elsewhere online