The Common Good
May 2006

Give Us This Day

by Cathy C. Campbell | May 2006

“Give us this day our daily bread.” The simplicity of the prayer that Jesus gave us can distract us from its wisdom and its challenge.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” The simplicity of the prayer that Jesus gave us can distract us from its wisdom and its challenge. At its heart is what Walter Brueggemann contends is God’s alternate food policy. The more ease and confidence we have in acquiring food, the easier it is to miss the radical edge that cuts through this prayer. As we appreciate this edge, our eyes open to the power of God’s economy of grace to feed the world with the food that genuinely delights and satisfies.

Bread—or, more generally, food—is a bundle of nutrients that, in the right quantities and combinations, are essential for life. But it is more than this, and reducing bread to these nutrients is the first temptation that Jesus faces. Jesus is hungry, and he has the power to alleviate this hunger by turning a stone to bread. Instead, he responds like this: “As it is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). His choice is the opposite of that of the original humans, who, unheeding of the word of God, took and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it was “good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6).

This separation of the bread that nourishes our bodies from the bread that is the word of God has in our time been reinforced by Karl Marx and by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. But in Christ we know that our physical, material choices are inextricably bound up with matters of the spirit. Every time we gather at the Lord’s table we enact this reality. It is real bread that we receive, yet in our eating we become the bread that we eat—the body of Christ, blessed and broken for all.

If our daily bread and the tables at which we break it are understood in the context of the word of God, they can become a banquet at which everyone has a place and every place is honored. Bread is more than a bundle of nutrients. If we can cultivate the eyes and ears to appreciate what that “more” is, then food security for all is truly a possibility, in real time and space for real people. This is Isaiah’s promise: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live” (Isaiah 55:2-3).

THE VERB “TO GIVE” is not related to “to reach” or “to take”—the action of the original humans in the garden—nor to “to buy.” Food is a commodity bought and sold in markets all over the world. But it is a commodity unlike most others. It comes without price from the sun via photosynthesis in plants rooted in soil and water—resources that we did not create. It is not food itself but its economic value that is created by humans.

As we appreciate the extraordinary richness, diversity, and complex interrelationships of creation, it is natural to sing with the psalmist, “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (Psalm 104:14-15). It is not hard to see our growing and eating food as part of God’s economy of life, which is, at its root, a gift economy. We, with our understanding of property, turn gift into commodity for the purported advantage of free markets that can establish equitable prices and distribution. Yet, in a world with enough food to feed every person, 800 million people are hungry. Our markets are deeply flawed as agents of equitable distribution. How do we take our part—and only our part—in God’s economy of life?

Sitting hungry in the wilderness, the Israelites pleaded with Moses to return to their slavery, where at least they “sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” (Exodus 16:3). It took 40 years in the wilderness for the people to learn the fundamentals of an economy different from Pharaoh’s—a way for people to be fed and free. Jesus’ disciples struggled with the same lesson. They set out without any bread, and Jesus, reminding them of the feeding of thousands with just a few loaves, asked them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21).

Jesus’ question remains. Do we not yet understand even the basics of the generative capacity of God’s gift economy? Bread is broken to be shared. We have been given abundance so that we can give abundantly. The table of the first church was characterized by “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). If “to give” is the verb of the kingdom (or “kindom”), then gratitude and generosity are its signs.

THE WORD “DAILY” is about more than the Recommended Daily Allowances of nutrients to consume for good health. It is the discipline of the manna economy. “Each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.... Gather as much of it as each of you needs...[and] let no one leave any of it over until morning” (Exodus 16:4-19). There are so many challenges to this discipline. In a world where bigger means better, how much is enough—enough calories, enough acreage, enough choice? Does “daily” imply “local”? What is the difference between our needs and our wants? Is it possible to school our desiring? Perhaps only if we eat the food that is genuinely satisfying.

And what about security—putting enough away for a rainy day? Can we hear Jesus’ voice? “Do not worry,” he tells us, “saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’...your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32). “Daily” is the walk of radical trust in the everyday reliability of God’s gift—that fine, flaky substance that melts in your hand.

Lest this trust sound easy, remember the sobering parable of the farmer who, after an excellent crop, built up large barns for himself (Luke 12:16-20). Or think of the rich man who lacked only one thing—he could not “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and...then come, follow me”(Mark 10:21). Thinking on this challenge for the rich to learn the ways of a manna economy, the disciples despaired: “‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible’” (Mark 10:26-27).

For Brueggemann, the Israelites’ instruction to “gather enough for the day” relies on God in a similar way: “No hoarding. No storing up. Where there is no scarcity, there is no warrant for hoarding. No member of the community need be threatened by what the neighbor has, no need for greed, no need for brutality, no need for violence, no need for Pharaoh’s way with bread, because Yahweh is the giver who keeps on giving, every day, sufficient for the day.” The accounts of the meals that Jesus shared with his disciples after his resurrection celebrate just such impossible possibilities. If “daily” is the discipline, then hope grounded in faith is the spiritual practice that opens the door to a future different from the present.

Who is the “us” and the “our” we pray for each day? Is it the “us” of our families, groups, congregations, tribes, nations, or religions? Or is it the “us” of the wedding banquet: “Invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet...both good and bad” (Matthew 22:9-10)? Do we extend to our neighbors an invitation to a wedding banquet or only to a food line? Jesus taught us that our hospitality to the lowliest is our hospitality to the judge of history (Matthew 25:31ff.). How wide is the sweep of God’s embrace? Does it include our enemies (Romans 12:20)? Does it include all of creation—animals, soil, forests, water, even the climate itself? We are challenged in very concrete ways to make sure that our table practices reflect the breadth and depth of God’s love for all creation.

Food is a social good. Throughout history, people have used food to express hospitality. Christ’s ministry was no exception. Yet Jesus’ table etiquette subverted all the ways in which we commonly create distinctions among food, people, or places at the table. Jesus took his faith into the company of tax collectors and sinners, of thieves and criminals, of the forsaken. He even took his faith into the silence of the dead, to invite all—anyone and everyone—to the marriage supper of the lamb.

There are no distinctions at Christ’s table: no us and them, up and down, in and out, greater and lesser. But this way of seeing, living, and eating does not come naturally. It is a pattern of relating that has to be learned. The prevalence and persistence of hunger in our world demonstrates the scale of the learning curve that we face. Clearly, too many have been excluded in all sorts of ways from the common table. It seems that each generation of the church must learn the subversive table etiquette of the banquet.

THIRTY-THOUSAND to 35,000 people will die this day of hunger and related causes, and if we add to this the illness and death caused by overeating or poor eating, it is clear that our food choices, individually and collectively, are killing us. The path of life offered by Christ is not removed from time or history. We pray that we might be fully awake, attentive, and mindful of the choices we make this day, in all the particularities of our place and calling, that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Our food choices matter. Indeed, they are the difference between life and death, just as in the original garden. As Jesus encouraged his disciples at his last supper with them: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). And so each day we pray: Lord, give us—all of us, this very day—our daily bread, the bread that is you, the bread that in our lives can become nourishment for all!

Cathy C. Campbell was rector of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Canada, and author of Stations of the Banquet: Faith Foundations for Food Justice when this article appeared.

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