IN the Lord's Prayer there are three petitions for God's glory, three for man's spiritual necessity, and in the midst is set one petition for man's bodily needs--only one, and that most full of significance, "Give us this day our daily bread."
Let us be reverent enough to take this sentence in its plain meaning. To give it some mystical or symbolic interpretation, which our Lord did not mean it to have, is to set up another prayer which is not the Lord's Prayer. "Daily bread" does not refer to the Eucharist. The word translated "daily" is very obscure, it occurs nowhere else in the Greek language; but all are agreed that the meaning is "bread for our daily subsistence," and the attempt made by Abelard in the twelfth century to translate it "super-substantial" is undoubtedly wrong. The petition simply deals with the most fundamental of social questions--the need of sustenance.
Let us consider its four points in order.
"Give." The first word teaches us our dependence upon God. We are apt to take our food and every other blessing as if it were our right, a right of which nothing but injustice can deprive us. The truth is, it is a gift from God, to be accepted by rich as well as by poor with gratitude. We have no right to it: it is given us that we may use it to the glory of the Giver, and not for our own glory. In Lent we give up part of it, as a confession that it is not ours.
"Give us." God is the Giver. We are apt to press the thought of Him as the Exactor, as if this would rouse us to a higher sense of duty. Yet this way of looking upon God as a task-master never does rouse us. "I knew thee that thou wert a hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not straw: therefore I hid thy talent in the earth." Yes, that is the result of regarding God as the Exactor. It is false: He makes no bargain with us. He is the great Giver of all good things, and that is why we must obey Him--in love, in gratitude. Just because He makes His rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, He appeals to the highest motives in us to call us to choose the side of the just.
And because we pray to our Father as the Giver of all good things, when we ask for bread we ask also for the strength and energy to work for it. For this law of labour is God's law for the world--a merciful and good law. In some exceptional regions, where little or no labour is needed to extract the fruits of the earth, that freedom from labour is found to be a curse and not a blessing.
So, when we pray for the fruits of our toil, we ask for the will to toil, for the strength to toil, and for the wisdom to toil. So, not only is our food a holy thing, a gift from God, but our labour for it also, our trade, our occupation--this is of God too, the means whereby our prayer is answered.
So we learn that our trade or profession must be carried on in holy ways, looking from the gift unto the Giver. We learn the dignity of labour--that all work, all service is honourable, and only idleness and thieving a disgrace. And we learn the object of all labour--that we may receive honourably and worthily from the great Giver that which is necessary to our life.
There is no better commentary on this petition than that of old Bishop Barrow:--"A noble heart will disdain to subsist like a drone on the honey gained by others' labour; or like vermin to filch iis food from the public granary; or like a shark to prey on the lesser fry; but will one way or other earn his subsistence, for he that does not earn can hardly be said to own his daily bread."
The second point in the petition is the word "Us." We ask nothing for ourself that we do not ask for others. Am I tempted in my prayers to beg for riches? The words are taken out of my mouth by this word "us." I can ask for no more than is possible to all other men. I am bound to ask for every other--be he a cheap Chinaman or an expensive Jew--just what I ask for myself. I may not pray selfishly. If I ask for luxury, I ask that my eating may involve others' hungering. Our Lord looks out upon all the brotherhood of men, and tells them to pray for bread one for the other. Surely, then, this word "us" makes the rich man pray that he may have less in order that the poor man may have more. Fortunes now are made so enormous that an ingenious American has calculated that some millionaires have acquired in a lifetime as much money as Adam would have laid by if he saved two hundred dollars a day, and lived down to our own time. A system that admits of this can hardly be the system of the Lord's Prayer. True, there will always be some inequality: but the function of Christianity is to correct it. S. Paul says, "Your abundance being a supply at this present time for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want; that there may be equality; as it is written, He that gathered much had nothing over; and he that gathered little had no lack."
That is the lesson of Christianity. That was the practice of the first Christians, as we read in the Acts, "They had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need." They supplied the need of all who were in want, and what was the result? A great happiness and a great popularity--"They did take their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people."
Ah! we Christians are not very popular to-day! and we are not very marked by that supernatural happiness of the first age.
So we pray for all, and especially for the poor that their little may become enough. We pray against our present social injustice--against the system which grinds down men and women to make cheap goods, against the system under which tens of thousands of honest and willing men cannot find work, against the system under which millions can only get work that does not provide enough for health and efficiency, against the system which every year is breeding in our poor streets men so weak and degraded that no one can find them work at all. We pray that everyone may have a subsistence before anyone has a superfluity.
The next point in this petition lies in the word "this day." S. Matthew has "this day"; S. Luke has "day by day." It is conjectured that the one was the morning version and the other the evening version of the early Church.
The lesson is simple. We must be content to wait from day to day upon the hand of God; we must only ask for present needs; we must not be anxious about the morrow.
But, it may be said, how can this be reconciled with the forethought and far-sightedness that are necessary to civilised life?
The answer lies in our own experience. Have we found that anxiety about possible consequences increased the clearness of our judgment, have we found that it made us wiser and braver in meeting the present, or more far-sighted in arming ourselves for the future?
We know very well that it is the opposite spirit that has made civilisation possible--the spirit of men who are content to do their work from day to day, to plough the field and wait for the harvest, the spirit of men who take their meat from God in simple and hearty reliance upon a Power whom the earth and the winds and seas obey. Clearness of vision, providence, discovery, are the rewards of the calm and patient spirit, that is content day by day to have the daily bread. Out of the anxiety for the morrow that cannot pray, "Give us to-day our bread," spring all the evils of the money-lust--the fever of speculation, the hasting to be rich, the endless scheming, the continual reactions of fantastic hope and deep depression in individuals, of mad prosperity and intense sufferings in nations. Wars, oppressions, misery, crime--these are because men do not pray, "Give us this day."
And if it seems irony under our present system to tell the wage-earner to be content with the day, is it not easy to alter that system? Is it not easy by establishing old age pensions, by encouraging friendly societies, so to balance things as to remove all legitimate anxiety? And ought it not to be the duty of every man who says the Paternoster not only to put aside from his own heart the desire to heap up riches, but also to work for the establishment of such a corporate responsibility as would provide in comfort and honour (not in shame and contempt) for all those who cannot work for their daily bread--for all aged people and orphans--for all sick persons, and young children, and those that are desolate and oppressed.
The fourth and last point in this petition is the word "Bread." Our daily bread, our bread for necessary subsistence we ask for. It is a simple request. But it contains the key to all our social evils. It establishes the broad and everlasting distinction between the right and wrong reasons for seeking wealth. We are only allowed to ask for bread for subsistence, for daily, necessary bread, and such bread will never be under any circumstances bread for mere display, for waste, for rivalry.
It lies for each man's conscience to determine in the sight of God which reason governs his acts when he seeks his daily bread. If he honestly offers up this prayer, it will make him very uneasy in that kind of ostentation by which he endeavours to maintain his position in society, or to aim at one that is higher. It will also make him very uneasy if he is seeking the bread of luxury.
For surely the lesson of this word is just--simplicity. It is bread that we ask for--the necessities of life, nothing more. Luxury is impossible to the thinking Christian. Nay! is it not impossible to every thoughtful man? "The cruelest man," said Ruskin in a famous passage, "The cruelest man could not sit at his feast unless he sat blindfold."
O God, our Father, we would not ask such things which are the curse of nations, the ruin of individuals. Give us what is necessary for a healthy human life. We may not--nay, we would not ask for more. Only such things we would ask as enable us best to do our work in the world, our work for our families, our work for others, and our work for Thee.
Yes; because some fight for luxuries, others lack necessities, and all those who have more than bread and those who have less, suffer in happiness, in holiness, and in health.
Yes. It is all very difficult. And that is why the call is urgent upon us to give our minds to social questions. It is not enough to give money; to give money and nothing else does infinite harm. Why? Because a Christian must give more. He must give his time, his care--he must give his heart to those who hunger. He must set himself--as the Christian Social Union tries to do--to understand the roots of hunger, to bind himself with others in working for their removal. The Lord's Prayer is the call to social service. The cry for bread places once for all social duty above private right.
Bread we ask--and that is the only material, bodily petition in the whole prayer--bread we ask for all. Nothing must be in our prayers beyond that in its entire unselfishness--luxuries for none, but necessities for all.
Give us, our Father, give us our daily bread. Give all that is necessary to those who hunger, and give to me nothing but what is necessary for my work in the world. Quench in me and in others our greed of gain---the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. Give us our daily bread.