Sunday, March 27, 2022

Tempted and Tried

Now came the moment Abraham was dreading. He knew his son Isaac had his suspicions. But now Abraham had to confirm them. Explaining what God had demanded, telling Isaac all the reasons Abraham knew it'd be okay in the end, this was still difficult, even as Isaac understandingly let himself be bound and placed on the altar. This was a 'mountaintop experience' neither of the two would ever forget. Abraham's heart pounded in his chest as he raised the knife, ready to plunge it into the body of his precious son who meant the world to him, the son who was God's promise of a future and a legacy – the son whom God had insisted on having returned in blood and flame. But before Abraham could build up his momentum, the voice of heaven froze him in his tracks, releasing him and providing a substitute.

The record of the binding of Isaac, that near-sacrifice of the beloved son of promise, begins in a curious way. It says that “after these things, God tested Abraham...” (Genesis 22:1). It's the first time the word for 'tested' or 'tempted' shows up in the Bible, and it's the same word we'll find again in the Lord's Prayer. But by the time of Jesus, Jewish tradition had filled in all of Genesis' gaps in Abraham's story. As later Jews told it, humanity was beset by “cruel spirits” who aimed to lead people astray into sin (Jubilees 11.4). Against such a background, they imagined a young Abram praying to the Creator to “save him from the straying of the sons of men” (Jubilee 11.17), saying: “Do not let them lead me astray from following you, O my God” (Jubilees 12.20).

The same traditions later imagined a devilish 'prince of hostility' approaching God about Abraham and urging that he be put to the test by having to sacrifice Isaac. It's like a scene ripped from the Book of Job, with Satan challenging God over how God's servant will react. But here, says the Jewish legend, God had been testing Abraham all along: “The LORD... tested him with his land and with famine, and he tested him with the wealth of kings, and he tested him again with his wife (when she was taken) and with circumcision, and he tested him with Ishmael and with Hagar his maidservant (when he sent them away); and in everything in which he tested him, he was found faithful, and he was not impatient, and he was not slow to act, because he was faithful and a lover of the LORD” (Jubilees 17.17-18). That's how they put it. And now, after all that, Abraham would find himself tested again, to see whether he trusted God enough to return the very son through whom God promised his future. The devil urged the test in hopes of tempting Abraham to turn away in disgust, to lose faith, to cling so tight to his dreams that his love for God would shatter. But the same test the devil meant for evil, God meant for good – to show off Abraham's faith, to shower Abraham with merit, to lay a foundation for all future sacrifices by a father's willing offering of his only-begotten son on the mountaintop. Abraham passed that test.

It wouldn't be his last. The same traditions advanced to a tenth great test, the death of his wife Sarah, after more decades together than any of us get alive – however long they were married before God called them to an unknown land, and then sixty-one years after that. And it's said the angels watched, “testing him whether he would exercise self-control” in the midst of his grief, or whether he'd crack under its strain and withdraw his trust from God (Jubilees 19.3). But in this test as well was Abraham “found faithful” (Jubilees 19.8). Only on the other side of this did the tradition imagine Abraham blessing Jacob, praying that the devil would never “remove you from following the LORD” (Jubilees 19.28), and teaching him to pray that “the Most High God shall protect you from destruction, and from all the ways of error he will deliver you” (Jubilees 22.23). For all the patriarchs would endure their share of testing (Judith 8:25-26).

Centuries later, Moses and the Hebrew tribes would find themselves in the desert. And that was a field of testing not unlike Abraham's own journeys. Repeatedly, Moses tells the tribes that God had resolved to “test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exodus 16:4). “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the desert, to humble you and to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). And in all this, as with Abraham, God's motive was clear, said Moses: “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, so that the fear of him may be before you, so that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20). God acted as he had in the desert “so that he might test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy 8:16). That was the goal! But, alas, the tribes were little like Father Abraham. Most of them failed their tests, finding them a pretext for temptations to creep in. You have put me to the test these ten times,” God objects, “and have not obeyed my voice” (Numbers 14:22). And so “with most of them, God was not pleased” (1 Corinthians 10:5).

God settled a new generation in the land promised to Abraham, the land from which God had told them that, if they were faithful, “then the LORD would drive out all these nations before you” (Deuteronomy 11:23). But as Israel moved into the land, Joshua warned that if they didn't remain faithful, then they could “know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you,” with the result that these pagan sharers of the land would be “a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you” (Joshua 23:13). Which is exactly what happened. As the people dallied with idolatry, God handed them over to their own sin, declaring, “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD (Judges 2:21-22). The Canaanites and Philistines were left in the promised land “for the testing of Israel” (Judges 3:4) – essentially, make-up homework for an Israel on academic probation. But what God meant as a test, the pagan peoples (and the demons who inhabited their idols) meant as a temptation, an opportunity to derail Israel's faithfulness and mission.

Not only that, but God had warned in advance that there'd be another test for Israel. For from within their very midst, God would allow false prophets to arise, even working signs and wonders, with potential to seduce Israel into chasing after lies. “For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:3). These false prophets, with their desires and agendas, were a temptation for Israel. Some were pagan prophets, like those kept by Ahab and Jezebel who advocated for false gods (1 Kings 18:19); others were false prophets who told lies in the name of the true God, promising things God hadn't spoken (1 Kings 22:6). But God allowed and used that temptation as an arena of testing, whereby Israel could triumph by insisting on faithfulness and by “purging the evil from their midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5), thus calling down God's mercy and compassion on them again (Deuteronomy 13:17).

Some of the tests seemed more ordinary. After King Hezekiah had begged God to heal his fatal illness and give him years more to live, God put Hezekiah to the test. Ambassadors came from Babylon – how would Hezekiah react? “God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:31). But, boasting to the Babylonians, Hezekiah showed them all the riches of Jerusalem. And when Isaiah told him this would result, several generations later, in captivity in Babylon, Hezekiah refused to pray for Jerusalem's future the way he'd prayed for his own. Tempted by pride and selfish shortsightedness, Hezekiah failed the test.

On the other side of failure and exile and struggle and oppression, Jewish teachers begin to teach that, as with Abraham and Israel and Hezekiah, anybody who wanted to be faithful and righteous should expect to be targeted by temptations God would allow as a test: “My child,” they'd say, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (Sirach 2:1). That would be a defining experience of the righteous – that “they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself” (Wisdom 3:5).

Onto that scene, enter Jesus – descendant of Hezekiah and Israel and Abraham, but first and foremost the only-begotten Son of God. And just as the Hebrew tribes, once freed by the waters that separated them from Egypt, were led into the desert of temptation, so Jesus, after his own baptism, was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tested by resisting the devilish temptations to which Israel had constantly fallen (Matthew 4:1). Over and over did the Tempter seek to prey on Jesus' human appetites – food, validation, control – but all to no avail, for Jesus was armed with the words of God we too can read, and he used them to triumph in the test. “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).

Only after Jesus had resisted temptation and been proven supremely faithful in the test did Jesus teach us this prayer we pray today. After asking provision and pardon, now we ask preservation. And it's important to see that, in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, the words for 'test' and 'trial' and 'temptation' – that's all the same word. The difference is only in perspective and motive. Every test God authorizes is meant for our good, meant to give us a chance to stretch, to shine, to succeed; whereas temptation aims at having us not succeed but succumb. That's the devil's angle, that's the world's angle, that's the flesh's angle, but it's never God's angle. God doesn't root against us: “He himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). He wants us to be shocked to our senses, to cry out in prayer for help, and then to put that help to good use.

The prayer Jesus teaches us is faithful to God's history of working for exactly that in Israel. In fact, other Jews were praying in almost the exact same language. At bedtime, the rabbis invited devout Jews to pray: “Lead me not into error, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation, nor into disgrace.”1 And when waking up and washing his face in the morning, the same Jews were invited to pray: “Attach me to your commandments, and lead me not into transgression, nor into error, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation, nor into disgrace.”2 It was a daily prayer not to be abandoned to sin, not to be allowed to go astray. It was their prayer for preservation.

What Jesus gives us here is a condensed version, but what makes this shorter line so powerful is that we pray it in light of Jesus Christ. After the desert, Jesus continued to go through trials (Luke 22:28). Often, these came through the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1; 19:3) – who, refusing to see who Jesus is, were heirs of Israel's disobedience, because they were literally, in the flesh, putting the LORD their God to the test. And the apostles stood by Jesus in all these tests. But then came that 'opportune time' until which the devil had retreated – the hour that was “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53), in which Jesus “himself has suffered when tested” or tempted (Hebrews 2:18). And Jesus said that same hour would be a test for the apostles as well. “Watch and pray,” he told them, “lest you enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). What was the test? Whether Peter and the others would be loyal to Christ in his suffering, whether they'd risk sharing his persecution, whether they'd keep his commandment of love, and whether that love would win out over fatigue and fear. That was why they needed to watch and pray. But they didn't. They ran. But Jesus endured the final test: the cross. And he won.

From that experience, the apostles knew more tests would come their way. Paul says he experienced “trials” or tests in his ministry (Acts 20:19). And the Apostle Peter – who always regretted the memory of having denied Jesus and thus failing that test – taught us that, if we aim to serve the Lord, we should expect trials and tests and temptations ourselves: “Do not be surprised by the fire among you taking place as a trial for you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). “Now, for a little while (if necessary), you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). Some of those trials come from situations in which we find ourselves, as when the early Christians were tested and tried in persecution, pressures that threatened to break their spirits. Some trials come from seductions, like the deceitful trickery of false prophets, in the world and in the church, whose effect is to reduce clarity and lead us astray. And other trials come from self, for as James says, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires (James 1:14).

So, when God calls us from our comfort zone, we might be tempted to withdraw or grumble. When God points us toward our mission, we might be tempted to flee the other way. When God summons us to sacrifice what's dear to us, we might be tempted to hold it back, to say “Anything but this!” When God shows us the way of the cross, we might be tempted to hide our face. When we're praised, we might be tempted to fatten our pride. When welcomed, we might be tempted to overstep our bounds. When offered fame and fortune, we might be tempted to barter our souls. When shown paths to pleasure and power, we might be tempted to jump at the chance. When voices sow confusion, we might be tempted to blur the faith. When surrounded by a world gone mad, we might be tempted to go along to get along. When put on the spot, we might be tempted to speak and act from earthly wisdom. When shouted down, we might be tempted to muzzle the good news and lay low. When contradicted, we might be tempted to argue with fools according to their folly. When provoked, we might be tempted to lash out in anger, fear, and defensiveness. When offended, we might be tempted to wish for fire from heaven – or to make our own revenge. When discouraged and demoralized, we might be tempted to despair. When bereaved and bereft, we might be tempted to bitterly sour our souls.

But one thing we cannot be in this life, and that's free from temptation, exempt from testing. We follow in the footsteps of Abraham, a stranger and pilgrim in a foreign land not yet our own, yearning to be found faithful lovers of the Lord, crying out “I Surrender All!” and hoping we're honest after all. We follow in the footsteps of the Hebrew tribes, journeying from baptizing sea into the desert sands and dreaming of the promised land; and along the way, we're challenged to embrace God's commandments, tempted by the restlessness of our own desires, and tested to make prayer (rather than complaint) our gut instinct and our lifeblood. We follow in the footsteps of Israel, learning to coexist in a world that aims to seduce us, learning also to resist voices of cheap compromise or sharp separation that arise within the camp, and learning further to pray as ardently for those we claim to love as we do for our own life-or-death desperations. We follow with eyes fixed on Jesus, watching as the Spirit carries him to a lonely place to deflect the devil's tempting offers with God's richer words. And as he triumphed in the test, we crave to share in his victory. And we follow the apostles as Jesus urges them to watch and to pray for grace, to loyally stay by his side in the dark and dreadful hour, to boldly confess him between the world's treats and the world's threats. None of them were exempt from temptation, from testing, from trial – so neither can we expect to be. But we have been equipped with this prayer. So what is it we're asking?

First, when we say “Lead us not into temptation,” we ask not to be placed in situations too difficult to bear, we ask not to be given more than we can handle, not to be “drowned by the temptation.”3 When Paul was thinking of the tribes in the desert, he applied their story to us and said, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13a). But there could be a temptation that's uncommon, a temptation that's beyond ordinary life experience, like false prophets whose signs and wonders are so great “as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). But even in the vast den of vice and villainy that was Corinth, the church there hadn't faced such uncommon temptations. We pray that we not meet them either.

But Paul continues: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13b). Like Jesus said, even where the spirit is willing, sometimes the flesh is just too weak (Matthew 26:41). There are trials and tests that each of us might be ill-equipped for – maybe tests I could handle but you couldn't, or tests you could handle but I couldn't. I might be able to face a test of social pressure and mockery for Christ – there's the willing spirit – but be unable to face a test where terrorists gouge out my eyes – there's the weak flesh. Another Jewish prayer of the time asked: “Do not let me enter that which is too difficult for me” (Psalm 155:11). That's what we're asking. We don't want to be in the position of third-graders handed a calculus exam! We ask God that, for each person, he give them tests appropriate to their ability and readiness – to not bite off for you more than you can chew, or for me more than I can chew. Just the tests each is capable of, please.

Second, we ask for wisdom to avoid situations of needless temptation. Don't be that kid in class who asks the teacher to please assign more homework. Just as it can be easy to despair of the weakness of our flesh, so it can be easy to become overconfident – to think that your willing spirit will surely compensate for your weak flesh. That was a problem for the tribes in the desert, and to that story Paul adds: “Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). In the early church, this sometimes played out in tragic ways. As early as the second century, we have records of Christians who, eager for the privilege of dying as martyrs for Jesus, rushed in and denounced themselves as Christians in court. They volunteered to be put on trial, trying to force the persecutors' hands. But in many such cases, such a Christian could see the lions, get scared – there's that weak flesh – and then be induced to deny Jesus and sacrifice to pagan gods.4 Today, too, we might flirt with temptations, confident in our ability to overcome, or thinking we'll gain something by choosing them for ourselves. But instead, “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). Ask wisdom to keep yourself out of temptation's reach, so far as it depends on you. Ask wisdom to be humble and watchful.

Third, we ask, when facing a necessary temptation, to be guided and steered away from sin. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “a high priest who... in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). We want to be like that! In the face of whatever temptations come our way, we want to be guided away from sin. But that can be difficult. Paul warns even those who try to help others untangle themselves to “keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). There's a real danger there. For, as the Jews imagined Abraham telling Isaac: “Be careful not to... commit a mortal sin before God Most High so that he will hide his face from you and deliver you into the power of your sin” (Jubilees 21.22).

Much like that, in Scripture we read how God cooperated with Pharaoh in hardening Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 8:32; 9:12). We read how, because of Israel's idolatry, they were handed over to graver tests, complete victory being withheld from them (Judges 2:21-22). We read how, because of the nations' idolatry, “therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:24). What we ask is for none of those stories to be our story! We're asking God to never deliver us up into the power of our sin, to never hand us over to worse trials, worse temptations, because of the path we've chosen. Even if it's what we've earned, even if it's what we've asked for in every other way, this prayer is our prayer for God not to hand us over or abandon us to sin. We ask God to do the opposite: not to stand aside or be absent or be out of reach, but to get involved, to preserve us, to actively guide away from sin. We ask to be like the ancient Philadelphian church who, because they endured their smaller trials faithfully, heard Jesus promise, “I will keep you from the hour of the trial that is coming on the whole world” (Revelation 3:10). For we know that, “because [Christ] himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).

To that end, fourth, we ask to receive the grace to be successful through the test or trial or temptation. Paul can assure us that, in answer to our prayers, “with the temptation [God] will also provide... that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13d). Paul shares us his personal story of an affliction he had – “a messenger of Satan,” he calls it, and “a thorn... in the flesh” – and how he begged Jesus to just take it away, to get rid of it. But Jesus' answer was a clear no: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Whatever the situation was, it was a test for Paul: a temptation to grumble, but also a chance to rely on the Lord for power to endure. And that power, extended from Christ to Paul, is grace. 

In the same way, when we pray “Lead us not into temptation,” it's as though we're saying: “God, I may not want this thorn, I may not want this temptation, but if you have a purpose of showing your power in me, then don't hold back your power! Open my hand and put your power there; open my heart and pour your grace there. Fill up my soul, fuel my endurance, empower my will with your strength, to say no to the temptation and yes to your glory. For your sake, I'll be content with this weakness, for if I'm weak, then it's all the more obvious how strong you have to be in me – so pull me through!” 

And that's the prayer we need to be praying! If the tribes in the desert had prayed for grace, they could've all made it to the promised land in just a year or two, and dined on the sweetness of the Lord. If Hezekiah had prayed for grace, he could've had wisdom to stave off the exile. If only the apostles had prayed for grace, Peter could've stayed true in the hour of darkness, maybe even died on a cross beside his Lord and then risen with him. So what if you and I prayed for grace as soon as we caught a whisper of temptation, as soon as we felt our weakness meet the sharp end of the testing thorn? What could that power and grace do in us? What could we overcome?

Fifth, finally, we ask that, once the divine purpose of the test is accomplished, we then be rescued from the temptation or trial. We ask that we not be left in the situation, needlessly tempted beyond what can bear fruit. Paul assures us that “with the temptation, [God] will also provide the way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13c). Peter likewise declares that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials” (2 Peter 2:9). Our prayer – “Lead us not into temptation” – calls on those promises to be found true by us, in our experience, in our lives. We ask to be extracted, to be led back to moral and spiritual safety to regain strength and reflect on what we've gained. 

 And what should we have gained, as we'll see once we're out? “Count it all joy,” says James, “when you meet trials of various kinds.” Why? “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). And “blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial” or temptation. Why? “For when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). There it is again! Like Abraham, in Christ we want, above all else, to be found faithful, to be lovers of the Lord. And whatever tests God chooses to allow for us, we pray that it would always and only be such as to get us there – and that God would bless us with success. Thanks be to God! May he make it so. May he lead us triumphantly through all temptation and all trial.  And so let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not succumb to temptation and give up (Galatians 6:9). Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Jubilee Plea

A family in Atlanta shivered in the cold as the mail came. It was December of 1932, the lowest pit of the Great Depression, and as a mother and her children took the mail, she began to cry. One was from her doctor, and it had to be a medical bill. She'd been long past due in paying. She just had nothing to pay with, pressed between a roof overhead, daily bread, and this looming debt. And here it was, the envelope from Dr. Brown's office with what surely was the final notice that they'd take everything. The doctor had been mighty patient, but even the famed George Thaddeus Brown – a prominent medical expert and former state legislator – had his limits. With tears and trepidation, the mother reluctantly opened the bill. Only... it wasn't a bill. It was a letter, signed at the bottom by Dr. Brown. And the mother couldn't believe what she was reading. In it, Dr. Brown said that he knew payment of his bills was an impossible hardship for many patients and their families. And so he'd been moved to do something drastic. On Saturday morning, he'd taken his account books – the record of all the bills he was due – and he'd hurled them into a bonfire. The records burnt to a crisp on the cold ground. And so, Dr. Brown wrote to all his patients, “Let's start all over.” Every debt was hereby forgiven. He asked them to forget he'd done them any service at all, but just to pass along “this message of good will, good hope, and good cheer.” Oh, can you imagine the transformation on a freezing family's countenance, to have their debt given over to flame? Many families in Atlanta that winter felt those tearful frowns flip to grins. Dr. George Thaddeus Brown had, in his drastic act, forgiven a total of $81,362 – the equivalent today of nearly $1.7 million – in medical debt he'd thus never collect on, converting years of past services into gifts for many.1

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we're accustomed to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That's the conventional version, even though it's based on the words Jesus uses after the prayer more than those he uses in it. A 'trespass' here, in Greek, is more a 'defection' or a 'desertion' – it's a misstep that separates us from close companionship with God, something that leads us away from his side, all the way up to an abandonment or a betrayal. In the Gospel of Luke, we read the line starting as “Forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4). And the word Luke chooses there has the sense of misfires that veer off target, missing the mark, like an arrow that gets nowhere near the bullseye. But Matthew gets us closest to what Jesus must have said, speaking to the crowds in Aramaic, by giving us literally, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12).

Where the main images of sin in most of the Old Testament were of a stain that had to be washed clean or of a weight that had to be lifted away, the last few centuries before the birth of Christ saw a shift in the direction of a new mental picture of sin as a debt that needed to be paid.2 Jesus frequently talks exactly that way, describing sin using stories around debtors and creditors to drive home his point. And as people reflected on that metaphor – sins as debts – they concluded that all humanity became debtors via Adam and Eve's original sin.3 That alone is devastating, because none of us has resources with which to pay off that debt and live. But as if that weren't enough, each of us builds upon the original debt of sin we've inherited by sinning further, getting deeper into the hole. It's as if we're employees whose boss has entrusted each of us with company resources and given us clear directions on what needs to be done. If you use everything you're given for legitimate business expenses and get all the tasks done by the deadline, great – you'll get a raise! But whenever you neglect certain tasks, failing to make the transactions he commissioned you to make, then that negligence puts you in debt to your boss for what was left undone. Likewise, whenever you dip into that trust for your own personal use, spending company money on what isn't company business, that's embezzlement, and embezzlement puts you in debt to your boss, too. Just so, God has entrusted each of us with company resources – the life you live, the breath you draw, the body you bear, the time that ticks down. To use them all legitimately for the purposes assigned to us would be to live a profitable life! But sin neglects tasks that we're commissioned to do – those are sins of omission – and embezzling our life, breath, body, and time for purposes contrary to his – those are sins of commission. And so, with each case of neglect or each act of embezzlement, we dig ourselves deeper into debt.4

The truth is that we today aren't sufficiently horrified by sin, most of us. It's obvious, of course, that the world around us has lost whatever basic grip on the very notion of sin we might have once assumed. But I'm talking, not of the world, but of the church. Do even we take sin truly seriously? Do we realize how much has been entrusted to us, and what a serious thing it is to embezzle from God and spend it on purposes hateful to him? If we had a true picture of the sins of our lifetimes, even our lifetimes where everybody around us calls us a good and decent person, the resultant picture would be scandalous, shocking – a portrait of criminality. In our hearts, each of us knows it's true. And so, already utterly in the red since Eden, and deepened by mismanagement of our own design, we stand before God with a deadly debt.

And all we can do, then, is cry out to God: “Forgive us our debts!” Or, literally, 'Release our debts.' The word both Matthew and Luke use here is an image is of letting the debt go, dropping it from his hand, cutting the tie of obligation between creditor and debtor, and so canceling it out. And it's entirely possible that, for the first people hearing Jesus teach them this prayer, it was also a request for actual financial freedom. Remember, the people first hearing Jesus teach this prayer are farmers who sometimes have to borrow to afford seed to sow, counting on a good harvest to pay it back – one serious crop failure could be their ruin. So too, Jesus is talking to village women who borrow routinely from one another's pantries, with nothing but a promise to return the favor one day. He's speaking in a Galilee drowning in oppressive taxes imposed without mercy by Rome. Debt is a constant feature of their lives, and debt was more dangerous in their world than ours. There were debtors' prisons where debtors could be tortured, with expectation that their families would be incentivized to pay up. There was debt slavery, where the debtor himself or his family members could be sold as slaves to work off the amount of their indebtedness. With threats like that hanging over their heads, these people were desperately yearning for God to act by somehow canceling out those financial debts and saving their livelihoods.5

But Jesus urges them to channel that yearning also to the moral debts we owe to God because of sin. We ask God to cut the ties of debt, the ties that call for payback. We're asking that the debt of our misdeeds be canceled out, that we may find ourselves free from the lurking danger of demand, be it our debt-slavery to sin and death or the prospect of an eternal debtors' prison called hell. We're crying out for God to let it go, to find some way of recompense that will satisfy our debts and let us live and recover. We're pleading for mercy.

And so Jesus came, and he went to the cross. Paul described how, because of Christ's death and resurrection, we've been made alive with Christ, with God “having forgiven us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands: this he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15). And so “God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Any forgiveness that God offers us, any forgiveness that we receive from God, is all and always and only derived from one place: Christ on the cross, canceling the debt record, blanking out our bills with his blood. What comes next is how it gets applied to the life of the Church and to Christians who receive this gift of forgiveness into their life.

I remember, before I was a pastor, helping out with a Sunday School class at my old home church. And there was this one older lady who was utterly perplexed by the Lord's Prayer. She had the question, “Well, why should we be asking forgiveness now? Didn't Jesus already pay it all? If I'm saved, if I'm forgiven, why would I still need forgiveness? Isn't it once-and-for-all?” Those were the questions she was asking, and if we don't pause to question some of our assumptions, they're questions we might not be able to answer.

At baptism, all our debts are wiped away – the whole debt of Adam and Eve we've inherited, plus the debt of all our old life, is gone in its entirety. What does Peter say? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). The early church heard this and knew that “forgiveness of sins is absolutely assured to those who will enter the water,”6 that “the bath of rebirth washes away whatever sins it finds.”7 In other words, born again in baptism, all those old debts are reckoned as proper to a life that's no longer being lived. They're buried at sea with the old self. The account book is burned in its entirety, and the moment you walked away from the water, you were sinless, perfectly free of moral debt!

And that ought to be it, really! Ideally, from that new birth, we ought to have “ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1). “No one born of God,” says John, “makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). But the fact of the matter is that even the holiest Christian on earth still commits at least some sins going forward. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). And just as Dr. Brown's patients could start over but had could accrue new medical debt, so we're given a fresh start but can incur new moral debts, what St. Augustine called “debts... contracted in all the years after the water of salvation.”8 He added: “By going on living, we have contracted debts that need to be forgiven every day.”9 Some are bigger, like the bill for the treatment you'll need after throwing your soul in the path of a speeding freight train. Some are smaller, like the bill you'll get after hitting your soul with a hammer. Not the same size, but both yield debts. So we ask for forgiveness.

St. Augustine, one of the great teachers of the church who spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of sin, saw why this prayer was so important. He knew that, for the bigger sins, Jesus had prescribed more intensive treatment – that's why Christ told his apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). But the more everyday sins could be handled in this prayer itself, Augustine said. “On account of certain daily matters..., he has given us a daily remedy,”10 that we receive “the daily purification of this holy prayer.”11 “As for the daily brief and unimportant sins without which it is impossible to lead this life, the daily prayer of the faithful makes satisfaction for them.... This prayer entirely cancels tiny daily sins. It also cancels those from which the faithful turn away in penance and reform.”12 “After a certain fashion, you are cleansed every day from daily light and minor sins through your prayers, if you say from the heart, if you say truthfully, if you say in faith, 'Forgive us our debts as we too forgive our debtors.'13 So said St. Augustine. And his picture dovetails with St. John's beautiful words of assurance: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

So far, so good! This prayer Jesus gave us is how we can petition God each day to show us mercy, to clear our debts away. Prayed daily, it's a daily remedy for our daily sins, bringing us daily back to the foot of the cross. But there is a catch here, a natural one. Jesus didn't just tell us to say, “Forgive us our debts.” He added a qualifier: “As we have also forgiven our debtors.” The condition of our daily forgiveness is our willingness to pass that forgiveness along, to imitate it, to mirror it. Forgiving others their debts to us is what makes us people capable of receiving God's forgiveness of our debts. And this idea isn't new to the Gospels. A couple centuries before, another Jewish teacher said: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can one refuse mercy to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for his own sins?” (Sirach 28:2-4). What Jesus does is, he bakes that question into the prayer itself. And it's implied already by the plural in the petition. We ask for God to “forgive us our debts” – well, who are we praying for? Not each of us for him- or herself alone. You're praying just as much, in many cases, for the person in your debt – the person who owes you, who sinned against you. And if you're necessarily praying for his or her forgiveness, you can't refuse to be a vessel of forgiveness.

On the one hand, this has real financial applications. As an ancient preacher asked: “If you remit the material debt, the bonds of your soul will also be loosened.”14 If somebody owes you money, that's an area God might be calling you to forgive, just like Dr. Brown. But, of course, this prayer has moral application. When people hurt us, mistreat us, deny us our dignity, their actions sign an IOU – an IOU for reparation and restitution for the hurt, an IOU for the dignity we were denied. But we have the power to release them from debt to us.

So what does it really mean for us to forgive other people? We can't go too in-depth on this, or we'll be here all day. But first, here's what forgiveness isn't. Forgiveness is not denying that the sin against you happened. It is not denying that what was done to you was wrong. Forgiveness is not coming to the conclusion that it didn't matter or wasn't a big deal. Forgiveness is not incompatible with seeking justice. Forgiveness is not just getting over it. Forgiveness is not the same thing as healing, even though it can both come from and enable healing. Forgiveness is definitely not the same thing as an automatic change in your feelings. That's because forgiveness isn't a feeling at all; forgiveness is a choice – and it's a choice you might have to recommit to, day after day or week after week, as lingering feelings of hurt and resentment continue to tempt you otherwise.15

Forgiveness is an action of the will, giving expression to that choice. It's an action of relinquishing your grip on that moral IOU, on those ties of indebtedness that bind the offender to you (and you to the offender). It's saying before God: “So-and-So really did owe me restitution for this particular harm they did me, that's true, and I had a right to pursue it, but I'm renouncing that right and letting it go. This person owed me repair to my dignity, but I'm clearing that slate. I reject my desire to hurt them, to get back at them, to teach them a lesson. If they face any consequences for what they did to me, I hope it's only for their good and for the good of others. Faced with what this person did, I would rather heal them and myself than cling to my inner posture toward them, no matter how justifying or consoling this bitter grievance may feel. So I give up my grievance. I let go of this IOU they wrote me by what they did. I drop it into the flames of God's love. And if I find photocopies of that IOU in my heart later, then I aim to burn those in the same bonfire, so help me God.”

That's what it means for us to forgive. And it means that you can forgive a person who hasn't repented. You can forgive a person who isn't sorry. You can forgive a person who won't apologize, or even who isn't still living or available to apologize. You can forgive a person just with your heart, between yourself and God, without the other person's input at all. It takes two to reconcile, yes, but only one to forgive.16 Reconciliation is usually the ideal, but even before Jesus taught this prayer, Israel knew that forgiveness could be given where repentance or apology were lacking. A Jewish writer before Jesus put it like this, and these words are beautiful:

Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. … If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him. If anyone denies his guilt, don't be contentious with him – otherwise, he may start cursing, and you'd be sinning doubly. Even if he denies it and acts disgracefully out of a sense of guilt, be quiet and don't become upset, for he who denies will repent and avoid offending you again; indeed, he'll honor you, respect you, and be at peace. But even if he's devoid of shame and persists in his wickedness, forgive him from the heart and leave vengeance to God.17

Now, that may sound like a tall order, this forgiving business. But Jesus told a parable, and I've yet to see the commentary on the Lord's Prayer that doesn't call in this parable to flesh out this petition. Jesus told a story of a royal servant who, in the course of his duties, had managed to dig himself into debt, to the tune of ten thousand talents. Now, to us, that's just a number. But in today's money, 10,000 talents is about four billion dollars. Can you imagine a person, a private individual, with four billion dollars in debt to somebody? There's absolutely no way out! So in desperation, he begs the king for more time, and promises to pay up. But that's an impossible promise to keep. The only way for the king to even begin to recoup those losses is for the servant's household to be totally liquidated and for him and his family to be sold into debt-slavery for life, perhaps for generations to come, toiling to work off the debt. But to this impossible request for more time, the king makes an astounding announcement: he'll write off the $4,000,000,000 as just a gift. He tells the servant, “I'm not going to collect on this from you. Consider yourself released. The weight and dread are over your head no more. Be free!” That's the position we can be in again with respect to God, if only we ask for this mercy (Matthew 18:23-27)!

Jesus goes on, adding a new character: a second servant. The second servant owes the first servant something. How much could it be? Certainly no four billion dollars! A few thousand at most. Whatever exchanges have gone on between Servants 1 and 2, nothing could have put Servant 2 in as much debt to Servant 1 as Servant 1 has just been released from by the king (Matthew 18:28a). So it is with us. The harshest moral debts we can incur toward each other, horrifying as they can be, all pale next to the amount God has already forgiven us for in Christ. And that's why Jesus says what he says after the Lord's Prayer: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). We're told, plain as can be, that if we want the debts we incur by our day-to-day missteps, our lapses in companionship with God, to be discharged and resolved, then God expects us to forgive the lesser debts incurred to us by those around us, even those who abandon or betray us, even those who've offended the same way hundreds of times already (cf. Matthew 18:22). In Jesus' parable, Servant 1 – you know, the one forgiven a fortune the size of a small country's national debt – meets Servant 2 – who owes Servant 1 a modest and manageable debt – and responds the very opposite way the king did. Servant 1 offers no grace, no mercy, no patience – only violence. Refusing to pass along the blessing of forgiveness, he has Servant 2 handed over to torturers at a debtors' prison (Matthew 18:28-30). In doing so, he implicitly makes the king out to be a fool. Just so, if we Christians, baptized into the body of Christ the Great Forgiver, refuse to forgive others as God forgave us, then we make God out to be a fool. (God forbid!) Jesus ends the parable with the king re-instituting Servant 1's debt and sending him to prison. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you,” Jesus adds, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).

That makes forgiveness a must. It's a choice, but there's only one safe choice, one sane choice, one right choice. Jesus describes a world where nothing but forgiveness makes sense. The debtor who owes you? Forgive. The parent who was cruel? Forgive. The spouse who cheated and divorced? Forgive. The child who ran away? Forgive. The boss who fired you? Forgive. The worker who swindled you? Forgive. The friend who scorned you? Forgive. The relative who cut ties? Forgive. The politician who lied? Forgive. The mugger in the alley? Forgive. The world gone mad? Forgive. Again, that doesn't mean condone, that doesn't mean excuse, that doesn't mean restore to intimacy, that doesn't mean forswear justice, that doesn't mean the hurt is gone, that doesn't mean go back to the way things were. It means the account books ultimately get burnt.

And a world where the account books burn up looks like the world of the jubilee. In God's ancient Law, once or twice in a lifetime, there came a jubilee year – a holy time when debts got canceled, slaves went free, all things once lost were restored (Leviticus 25:8-18). And already, by the time of Jesus, the jubilee was seen as covering not just financial realities but moral ones – the hope of freedom from the debt and slavery of sin. People were looking for a Savior to “proclaim to them the jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins.”18 That's who Jesus came to be (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2), and the world he came to bring – in part, through us. What are we asking, then, when we pray the Lord's Prayer here? We pray for the perfect jubilee to begin in our lives and in the lives of everyone around us. We pray to step into Jesus' jubilee world, and to bring mercy back here from eternity's door. Taking sin seriously, we should desperately crave forgiveness. So we pray for the jubilee's forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And in the interest of our jubilee plea, we ask the grace to keep these forgiveness wheels in motion, that every debt might be canceled in Jesus' name. Let it be so! Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Jacob sat, his wife Elisabetha and assorted children huddled around him, writing a desperate letter to a friend in America. These were no days for pride or diffidence. It was late July 1933. Jacob Rusch was the schoolmaster in the village of Dönhof, not far southwest from Saratov, a city on the west bank of Russia's Volga River. Jacob wasn't Russian, nor were his neighbors – their ancestors were Germans who'd been invited to settle the region in the 1760s. Generation after generation, they'd endured their hard times. But never quite like this. Oh, the 1870s were no fun – when the Russian government reneged on its word, many German settler families near the Volga fled for better lands like America. (Mine was among them.) The 1890s – agonizing. The Bolshevik Revolution was hardly a walk in the park. Then came 1921, a year of famine. Jacob watched that year as 129 of his neighbors died from hunger and disease before the Russian government and American aid stepped in.1 The next decade saw a great rebuilding, though life remained expensive. But now it was the 1930s. Stalin ruled in terror. Famine again stalked the land. In the first half of 1933, between gifts of $5 here, $10 there, Jacob and his family had been staying afloat. But hundreds were dying – including his teenage son Konstantin, sick with kidney failure. At least, said Jacob, “he will no longer hunger or thirst.” Unlike those left behind.2

Now summer was in full swing. Supplies had run out. Another son had died. They hadn't had real food since Christmas 1932. By July, “there is nothing left here to sink one's teeth into.” He'd scavenged for anything to keep his family alive, however barely – roots and mushrooms, crows and toads. By the time he sat to write this letter, they'd been eating nothing but ants for five days. There was nothing left. His wife, his kids – they were barely skin and bones, starving before his eyes. It was the worst of times. Unsurprisingly, church attendance was plummeting – too many had died, others simply gave up.3 Across the river from Jacob Rusch lived a boy named Reinhold whose childhood was marked by those same kinds of horrors. He survived the famine – I don't know if Jacob or his family did – and then Reinhold went to college. But in 1941, he was deported to a labor camp in Siberia. Looking back, he wrote a poem: “Our Father, are you still in heaven? Then listen to how your name is abused as a curse, how your will is spurned in Stalin's hell on earth. The tyrant and his henchmen have power over life and death, and they take from us our daily bread and let us die like dogs from hunger.”4

Lurking behind that lament is the prayer Jesus taught us. But when Jesus taught it, he knew he was teaching it to people with a deep background in food and famine. For where did it all begin but in a garden where no one had to ask for daily fruit? It was just there, ripe for the picking. God had filled the garden with “every tree that is... good for food” (Genesis 2:9), encouraged humans to “eat of every tree of the garden” minus one (Genesis 2:16), and offered us all this for only the easy and playful work of tending the garden, keeping it growing this lush bounty (Genesis 2:15). Alas, for finding a way to be dissatisfied with the free gift of every perfect food, we were cursed. Outside the garden, we'd find our bread difficult to acquire, requiring sweaty labor against earth's resistant firmness (Genesis 3:19). Our diet expanded with our appetites (Genesis 9:3), and the patriarchs had to acquire large numbers of livestock to insure themselves against going hungry. Even so, each of them faced the trial of a famine in the land of Canaan, fleeing for their bread to the refuge of foreign powers (Genesis 12:10 [Abraham, to Egypt]; 26:1 [Isaac, to the Philistines]; 41:53—47:12 [Jacob and his sons, to Egypt]). In time, the Egyptians made slaves of the Hebrews (Exodus 1:13-14), but in exchange for the backbreaking sweat of their brows, they at least “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Exodus 16:3) – they could fish with ease in the Nile and had space to grow their cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:5).5

It was from this life of slavery and oppression that God used Moses to free Israel. But once they were out in the desert, they began to feel serious anxiety about where their food would come from. Any food supplies they may have brought from Egypt ran out by the time they left the oasis of Elim. In the deeper desert, they had nowhere to fish, they had nowhere to grow home garden plots, they were out of bread. And rather than turn to prayer, the Israelites turned to grumbling, accusing Moses and Aaron of having “brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). They saw no prospect of their basic needs being met. They allowed their understandable concern with food become a source of panic and division. Surely Moses, though, brought the people's situation to God in prayer. And the LORD promised “to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). Six days a week, with double portions on Fridays, the mysterious manna was left on the ground by the morning dew, in abundance enough that each could gather about two quarts of the stuff (Exodus 16:5, 16). Except for the double portion, it kept good no longer than a day (Exodus 16:20). Each gathered however much he could eat (Exodus 16:21). They “ground it in handmills or beat it in mortars and boiled it in pots and made cakes of it” (Numbers 11:8), and then they baked those cakes as their bread (Exodus 16:23).

That became the staple of their diet for the next forty years in the desert (Exodus 16:35), right up until their first Passover in the Promised Land, after which they made bread from the grains they found growing there (Joshua 5:11-12). That's what they'd been looking forward to all this time. The manna was the daily bread of their desert life, but that desert life was aimed toward getting them to “a land of wheat and barley..., a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing” (Deuteronomy 8:8-9), where “you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely” (Leviticus 26:5). Obedient to God in his land, “he will bless... your grain... in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you” (Deuteronomy 7:13), so that “blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl” (Deuteronomy 28:5) – they'd have all the bread they want. When all would go well, they'd be able to say, “He fills [us] with the finest of wheat” (Psalm 147:14). And the LORD said to them: “When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a contribution to the LORD. … Some of the first of your dough you shall give to the LORD as a contribution throughout your generations” (Numbers 15:18-21).

That was the plan. Of course, things proved a lot bumpier. In the desert, people's taste buds got bored with the free manna – daily bread wasn't good enough to sustain them on life's journey, they thought (Numbers 11:6). Later they got thirsty and complained not only of the lack of water but of the absence of grain, pomegranates, figs, and grapevines (Numbers 20:5). And they were warned that if they disobeyed God once they got into his land, then “cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl” (Deuteronomy 28:17). God would have to afflict them with famine to get their attention (Amos 4:6). Perhaps even invaders would come and “not leave you grain” with which to make that all-important daily bread (Deuteronomy 28:51). And so “they shall be wasted with hunger” (Deuteronomy 32:24). And so it came to pass: when Jerusalem was under siege, behold, “there is no bread left in the city” (Jeremiah 38:9), and even children “faint for hunger at the head of every street” (Lamentations 2:19) – “victims of hunger who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field” (Lamentations 4:9). But the prophets dreamed of a day when things would be right again, when “they shall feed along the ways..., they shall not hunger or thirst” (Isaiah 49:9-10), when “they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land” (Ezekiel 34:29).

And we're waiting to see that come to fruition. The New Testament sees us Christians in this life as positioned not so differently from Israel in the desert: we've passed through the sea, we're making our way to the promised rest of heaven and the promised land of a new creation, and in the meantime our task is to trust and not grumble, lest we fall short of our promised land (1 Corinthians 10:10). To that end, Jesus teaches us in this prayer to pray to our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) – a prayer that, had the ancient Israelites used it and meant it, could've saved them a great deal of trouble! I wonder, though, whether we're hungry enough – whether we have a deep enough awareness of our needs to know for what we pray, to crave for what we ask.

So what do we mean? What are we asking for? We're asking for “bread.” And before we add on any extended meanings, I mean, bread is bread! 'Bread' isn't an especially hard concept to get our heads around! When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount in Galilee, most of the people in his audience probably farmed for at least part of their livelihood, and much of the land around him was farmland.6 Every family baked bread at home each day, and bread was part of every meal – and for poor peasant families, the evening meal might be the only one they could afford to have.7 Once a day (save for on the Sabbath), a family would bake fresh bread, and at least once a day (preferably more) they'd eat that day's bread. In a slightly broader sense, 'bread' here is all food – because in Jesus' world, if you didn't have bread, you didn't have anything else either. To pray for bread is to ask to be fed, to ask for that hunger inside you to be satisfied, to ask for the stuff from which your body and brain can draw nutrition and strength to sustain life. It's like the prayer in Proverbs: “Feed me with the food that is needful for me” (Proverbs 30:8). But in an even broader sense, “in these words are all our physical needs covered.”8 When we pray this, we're asking God to meet our needs to sustain life.9

It's astounding that, after such sweeping requests as the holiness of God's name, the arrival of God's kingdom, the performance of God's will as perfectly on earth as among the angels and saints of heaven, we pivot to such a seemingly small request – a piece of bread! It's so ordinary, so commonplace. Until, as Jacob Rusch found out, it isn't. But our needs are important to God, because our lives are important to God. We have things to do here. And so long as God sees fit to extend our lives, we need enough in a day's time to ensure we'll wake up the next day in more or less the same condition as we were the day before. That's what we're asking for, at heart. We're not asking for luxuries. We're not asking for the pricy stuff. This is not 'Give us this day our daily filet mignon.' This is not 'Give us this day our ice cream sundae.' We dare not be like the Israelites who got bored of manna (Numbers 11:6)! We're asking for our basic needs to be met. If God chooses to meet them in ways that add lots of pleasure and flavor and spice, that's his right. But if we find simple bread instead, we mustn't grumble about it. This is maybe a hard one for us to get our minds around, because we live in a world of plenty. Each of us has bread at home, I'd imagine, and we know we can afford it at the grocery store. We have racks of spices that would've been unimaginable to the Israelites. And there's nothing wrong with having that! There's nothing bad in diverse foods and vivid flavors. But all we ask of God is our basic needs. Like Paul said: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Food, water, clothing, shelter, health – our needs.

When do we want our bread, our food, our necessities? “This day,” today. Daily bread is a daily need. And we don't want it to come too late. That's what famine is about: waiting for the bread that doesn't come, at least not until it's too late. We're dependent children, and we can't wait on bread. If our needs aren't met when we have those needs, if we run out, we're sunk, we're goners. We're calling out to a “Lord [who] is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness” (2 Peter 3:9). Now, you and I, we can go a day without new bread – we've got our stockpiles and our pantries, and if push comes to shove, we're well-fed enough that we can go a day sans bread if we have to. We usually have what the psalmist asked for: “May our granaries be full, providing all kinds of produce” (Psalm 144:13). But think of Jacob Rusch praying for bread after five days of the anteater life. He can't wait around forever. He needs bread, and he needs it this day, right now. In the Gospel of Luke, there's a different twist on what we're asking: bread not “this day,” but “each day” (Luke 11:3). And that's implied here, too. Let no day go by, we ask, where bread is off the table, where there isn't enough to go around.

How do we want to get our bread? “Give us!” we cry. In Jesus' world, it's perfectly normal for a child to ask his father for bread. So how could God our Father be any different? He's a generous provider. When we ask for bread, he won't leave us with stones (Matthew 7:9). And he provides for his whole creation: “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things” (Psalm 104:27-28). Even animals that hunt and scavenge ultimately get their food as their Creator's gift. And so, if our Father feeds birds who “neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,” won't he feed his children (Matthew 6:26)? Like Nehemiah said, God “gave [the Israelites] bread from heaven for their hunger” (Nehemiah 9:15) – he “gave them bread from heaven in abundance” (Psalm 105:40).

That's not to say we're unwilling to work toward that bread! “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).  Even scooping up manna and grinding it and boiling it and baking it is some real work anyway, even in the case that most stuck in Israel's memory as the season of God's direct provision. But even at the most sweat-of-your-brow, we never earn our bread – not strictly. We put in our work, but the growth of the grain is always God's gift, and it's beyond what we deserve. As sinners in a broken world, we don't deserve the bread God gives us, don't deserve to have our needs met. But it's all grace. And because we're asking for a gift from a Father who loves us, we don't need to be tied in knots by anxiety – “What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear?” (Matthew 6:31). “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” – food, water, clothing – “but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:32-33). Unlike anxiously grumbling Israel in the desert, we pray first for God's kingdom, then for our needs.

So what kind of bread are we asking for? “That's easy,” you say: “Daily bread!” But it's not quite that easy. It says 'daily' in our Bibles, but that's a guess – because the word Matthew and Luke both have here is a Greek word found literally nowhere else in all of Greek literature! It's not gibberish, but it's a word they invented, and there are different theories about the parts they cobbled together for it. In the first place, it's totally possible that it means 'present,' as in the present day, or daily. That's how your Bible translation probably takes it. And that right there is a marvel. Some other Jews in this time prayed for good harvests year by year.10 But Jesus wants us to pray for bread a day at a time. All we're asking is for our needs to be supplied for the current 24 hours. We aren't being “anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Matthew 6:34). We also aren't asking for extravagantly much. Gone here is the psalmist's plea for full granaries. That's a luxury, and a good one, but we don't ask for a week's worth of bread – just a day's. We aren't asking for a few acres and a white picket fence – just warmth and shelter through today's storms and tonight's chill. All we ask is that it be enough, that it meet our needs so as to strengthen us to serve God tomorrow as we hope to serve him today.

Your Bible might also have a footnote that suggests, instead of 'daily bread,' it might read 'bread for tomorrow' – literally, bread that's coming, bread that's on its way. In the morning, it makes sense to pray for today's bread. But later on, especially in the evening, it makes sense to pray to already have in hand the bread we'll eat the next day, the shelter we'll need the next day, so we can better resist temptation to worry about tomorrow. Perhaps we sleep better at night having already glimpsed God's provision for morning – and we ask tomorrow's bread today.

But so does it ask for the bread of the ultimate tomorrow, the bread of God's kingdom, bread that's like no other bread we can get. Because another way to understand this word is as 'supersubstantial' – that is, bread that's far beyond what bread can be of its own nature. Some of the earliest Christians who prayed the Lord's Prayer gave a prayer of thanksgiving to God that he “gave both food and drink to people for their enjoyment that they could give thanks.” But they were especially thankful, they said, that “on us you bestowed spiritual food and drink.”11 And they were talking about what we call Communion – but which they called Eucharist. After all, how could they not read the prayer for bread, based on Israel's experience with God's gift of bread from heaven, except in light of Jesus' announcement: “I am the Living Bread that came down from heaven: if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:51, 55)? There is no point, diving back to the roots of church history, where I find people explaining the Lord's Prayer without saying that this line is ultimately about the Eucharist.12

For that, too, then, are we praying: to be able to really receive the Bread of Life when we approach the altar in the church, in hopes of being given the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. To early Christians, learning from the apostles, this bread being broken at the altar for them was “the bread of God” and “the medicine of immortality.”13 They refused to regard it as “common food and common drink,” but insisted that this food was, beyond the substance of mere bread and wine, “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”14 But I wonder if we believe what they believed. We love to talk about reading the Bible literally until Jesus starts preaching his flesh and his blood! The early church took him very simply and very seriously. They were in awe of this gift, really treated it as spiritual food and spiritual drink, and desperately hungered and thirsted for it – so much so, they received weekly or daily this supersubstantial bread of life. They hungered for the Bread of Life far more than for the bread of this world.

How about today? Our Evangelical churches are not like the early church. Our churches reduce the bread of life lower than a symbol. After we celebrate our communion, what do we do with the grape juice we substituted for wine and then called the blood of Christ? Do we pour it back into the bottle as common grape juice again? What do we do with the leftover pieces of bread? Do we throw them away like garbage? But the early church was insistent that the supersubstantial bread, the superessential cup, were holy gifts for the holy people, were as holy as any ancient temple sacrifice. “Everybody should be concerned,” they said, “that one who is not of the faithful, nor a mouse nor any other animal, should eat of the eucharist, and that none of it should fall and be altogether lost – for it is the body of Christ to be eaten by the faithful, and not to be despised.”15

Likewise, they aimed to “receive his eucharist daily as the food of salvation.”16 But where the early church craved supersubstantial bread weekly or even daily (as the Lord's Prayer said), we have to admit that we don't seem to want it daily, nor even weekly. Many of our churches don't want it monthly. What we do, we do quarterly. And I have to wonder what that says about our relative hungers. Would we bear a world in which we only fed on the world's bread four times a year? But how unquestioningly we bear that scarcity when it comes to God's living bread! So why is it that we crave supersubstantial bread so much less than ordinary bread? Why is it that the food of salvation matters less than food that can't save eternally? Why are we so slow to beg for the medicine of immortality? Or do we perhaps simply not understand what God means to offer us?

But back to ordinary bread, our daily bread, all the things that meet our thisworldly physical needs day by day. For whom are we asking them? “Give us,” we pray. There is no begging my bread or your bread here without begging bread for all the Father's children, indeed, all the Father's creation. There is no asking to ourselves be warmed and sheltered without equally asking and desiring the same for everyone else. When I pray this prayer, I ask God to have given Jacob Rusch his daily bread, and for God to give you now your daily bread, and for God to give people in Africa and China, in Ukraine and Russia, also their daily bread, without exception, on the same terms as myself. What that means is that I can't pray this prayer and then go out trying to get my bread in a way that'll take it off somebody else's plate. I can't honestly ask to get my bread by cheating somebody else, by keeping wages too low for my neighbor to get his. I can't ask my bread through the hands of a system that impoverishes others. I ask my bread the way God gave the manna: such that everyone else gets all they can eat.

Likewise, I can't honestly pray this prayer if I don't so desire that others get their daily bread, that others get the necessities of their lives, that I'm willing to be used by God to answer my own prayer. What did James tell us? “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16). If we pray the Lord's Prayer and then pass by the man or woman or child begging for bread or shelter or security or peace, and we do nothing to help when we can, then we nullify our prayer – worse, turn it into a poison on our tongues. To ask God for our daily bread, we must work to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters.

But we do ask God for our daily bread. We ask for him to meet all our physical needs, day by day, as we need them, not extravagantly or insufficiently but just enough that we can serve him again tomorrow; and we ask for the bread that meets our spiritual and eternal needs as well, by fitting our souls and bodies for the new creation. In the meantime, we ask for all this bread, and we trust in a generous Father. But we know there are times we might go hungry, might go thirsty, might be cold and shivering, might struggle to keep a roof over our head. St. Paul prayed this prayer, but even so he admitted that he prayed it “through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:27), “poorly dressed and homeless” (1 Corinthians 4:11). So was Jesus' promise void for Paul? No – our Father is still in heaven! Paul never died of starvation, dehydration, exposure. He died losing his head as a witness to Christ in Rome. Despite the hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, cold, and exposure, then, he must have ultimately had his prayers – and the prayers of others for him – answered with God's gracious provision. Each day, Paul got up to serve him. May we also, as we await the day when “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more” (Revelation 7:16), through Jesus our Breadwinner. Amen!