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!

1  Jacob Rusch, letter to Johann David Frank, dated 23 January 1923. Printed in Die Welt-Post (3 May 1923): 3. Translated by Hugh Lichtenwald at <>. See also James W. Long, “The Volga Germans and the Famine of 1921,” Russian Review 51/4 (October 1992): 510-525.

2  Jacob Rusch, letter to Johann David Frank, dated 19 May 1933. Printed in Die Welt-Post (10 August 1933): 2. Translated by Hugh Lichtenwald at <>.

3  Jacob Rusch, letter to Rev. David F. Maul, dated 27 July 1933. Printed in Die Welt-Post (18 October 1933): 4. Translated by Hugh Lichtenwald at <>.

4  Reinhold Frank, “The 'Our Father' of the Forced Laborers,” translated into English in Samuel D. Sinner, Autumn Thoughts – Under Ruins and Snow: An Experiment in Ethnic Anthology: Two Centuries of German-Russian Poetry, Short Stories, and Essays (Fargo, ND: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Library, 2003), 106.

5  See James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2005), 164, 175 for comments about the Israelites' diet in Egypt.

6  K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Fortress Press, 1998), 104-105.

7  Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh, The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First-Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 35, 37.

8  Freisinger Paternoster A.5 (a Bavarian test from the early ninth century, 800-821). Translation by Amy Troolin taken from <>.

9  On the way this is applied in Africa, see Michael Wandusim, The Lord's Prayer in the Ghanaian Context: A Reception-Historical Study (De Gruyter, 2021), 229: “Ekem rephrases it as, 'Today too, give us that which will be sufficient for us.' Additionally, Addo Jnr. renders it as, 'Give us this day our daily economic resources.' Similarly, Akoto considers it as, 'Give us this day what we need for living. Give us food and clothing for our physical bodies. Feed our souls also that they may grow.' Interesting interpretations include bread as referring to 'marriage' and 'jobs,' according to Heward-Mills, and bread as connoting 'daily bread,' 'provision,' and 'work,' according to Agyinasare. These re-readings and interpretations reflect different re-contextualization and re-purposing of the text in the reception context.”

10  David Crump, Knocking on Heaven's Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer (Baker Academic, 2006), 135, quotes one of the petitions of the Jewish synagogue prayers: “Bless this year for us, O Lord our God, and all its varied produce, that it be for our welfare; provide dew and rain as a blessing on the face of the earth; satisfy us with your goodness, and bless this year like other good years. Blessed art thou, Lord, who blesses the years.”

11  Didache 10.3 (late first century). Some scholars have even suggested that the Gospel of Matthew is in part based on the Didache – see, e.g., Alan J. P. Garrow, The Gospel of Matthew's Dependence on the Didache (T&T Clark, 2004).

12  E.g., Tertullian of Carthage, On Prayer 6 (late second century); Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lord's Prayer 18 (mid-third century); Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 5.15 (fourth century); Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 56.10 (early fifth century); Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 68.7 (later fifth century); Venantius Fortunatus, Poems 10.1.54 (sixth century); etc., etc.

13  Ignatius of Antioch, Ephesians 5.2; 20.2 (early second century)

14  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66.2 (mid-second century)

15  Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 37 (early third century). Compare also to Didache 9.10-12 (late first century): “But let nobody eat or drink from your Eucharist but those baptized into the name of the Lord, for concerning this, the Lord said, 'Do not give what is holy to the dogs' [Matthew 7:6].” See further Optatus of Milevus, Against the Donatists 2.21 (late fourth century): “What is more evil than... to cast the eucharist to beasts?”

16  Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lord's Prayer 18 (mid-third century). For more on the Lord's Prayer as advocating daily communion, see Ambrose of Milan, On the Sacraments 5.4.25-26 (late fourth century); Venantius Fortunatus, Poems 10.1.55 (sixth century). As Ambrose says: “Receive daily what is of benefit to you daily! So live that you may deserve to receive it daily!” See also, without reference specifically to the Lord's Prayer, Basil of Caesarea, Letter 93 (late fourth century).

No comments:

Post a Comment