Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 50 - Our Daily Bread
Question 125: What is the fourth petition?
Answer 125: Give us this day our daily bread.
Provide us with all our bodily needs
so that we may acknowledge
that you are the only fountain of all good,
and that our care and labour,
and also your gifts,
cannot do us any good
without your blessing.
Grant, therefore, that we may
withdraw our trust
from all creatures
and place it only in you.
Here we arrive at the second half of the Lord’s Prayer. Unlike the first three petitions we now ask three times in succession for what we need: bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from the evil one. First and foremost is the petition for daily bread. This is how Christ has taught us. Therefore no one should think that Christ would consider food and drink to be of lesser importance to his followers. Meanwhile, they are not asking for bread alone. That makes the prayer even more important.1
Our Daily Bread
No one can tell us for sure whether the translation “our daily bread” is correct. As far as we know the word “daily” — so familiar to us — does not appear anywhere else in Greek literature. So the meaning of “epiousion” remains open. Any translation remains a conjecture.J. van Bruggen calls this word “unfathomable”, Matteüs, p. 112-113. According to C. F. Evans, Ibid., p. 61f, this prayer is therefore “one of the most discussed phrases in the Gospels”.
This does not mean that the meaning of this prayer remains vague. We are asking for “our bread”, thinking of our slice of bread and of everything we need for our bodies: roofs over our heads, health, work, peace — politically and socially — , a clean environment and so on. Furthermore, we ask for this bread “today” or, according to Luke 11:3, “each day”, i.e., day by day. This is reminiscent of the manna in the desert. Each day God gave this to the Israelites. The security of their existence was not guaranteed by large supplies and even less by the yield of the crops. There was no harvesting in the desert. Day by day in that barren place God gave fresh food from heaven. Jesus wants Christians to trust in their heavenly Father every day anew, and therefore not in their stocked-up supplies or all kinds of sources of prosperity. That is why he taught them to pray for the bread they needed for that day.
Bread is indispensable for everyone. This is the only prayer for something that all people — believers or not — care about. What Jesus taught his followers to ask in the other five petitions does not interest them (unbelievers), but bread is what everyone wants. Hunger is horrible. Bread is an absolute necessity of life. All people can agree on that. But where does this bread come from?
Bread Supplied From God’s Hand
There is no product of this earth that matters more than our food. The entire world’s population depends on what the earth produces. Food, clothing, oxygen and many other things are indispensable for human existence. A human being has to depend entirely on the earth. Astronauts on a space station depend entirely on what they receive from earth. In light of this reality, this petition may come as a surprise. The earth is not even mentioned. Christ taught his followers that they should not expect their bread from the earth, but from their Father in heaven. They know quite well how that bread gets to their plates: through sowing, harvesting, baking, transportation, buying and other complicated processes. Economics, trade, agriculture, weather conditions and a multitude of other factors play a role. Those who do not know better may think that the earth is the source or origin of our bread. But when all is said and done, God is the only true source of nourishment. Every bite of food comes from his open hand. The Catechism refers to what Paul said to the pagans in Athens, “God did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness”.2.
Those who enjoy a meal enjoy a gift from God. The same is true of those who do not pray or give thanks for their food. Restaurant and other eateries have to rely on what only God can produce and give. Every delicacy comes from his hand. All human toil does not detract from it.
This petition does not even say a word about our care and effort. This does not mean that work is not necessary. The Bible has enough to say about toil and sweat, sowing and reaping, about fields and vineyards. But ultimately it is the Creator, in his very own person, who feeds the entire world population. The same applies to the animals.
The composer of Psalm 104 had an eye for this reality. It does not amaze us that the Catechism refers directly to him. This poet paid close attention to what he saw with his eyes. He noticed man and beast busy trying to gather food: the cattle were grazing eagerly, predators were focused on hunting down their prey, donkeys were quenching their thirst, and a diligent man went to work at dawn. In this way they all made their living in their own way. They depended fully on the earth. Suddenly the composer discovered something special. He saw the open hand of God. What did he provide? Grass for the beasts of the field, meat for those predators, water for those donkeys and bread for that early labourer. For the composer it was evident: when that hand opens, they will be satiated. When that hand remains closed, they will perish in spite of all their toil.3 No one can see this with just their eyes, but such is the reality — and not otherwise. We do not get our groceries from the shelves at the supermarket, but from God’s own hand.
The Only Fountain Of All Good
No other petition of the Lord’s Prayer begins so straightforwardly with: “give us!” And what is asked for, even a child understands: bread! Christians need bread and subsistence just as much as anyone else. The difference is that they ask God for it. Is that all? For the rest, do they want the same things as everyone else? Are they asking — at least in this petition — only for bread and health and a little bit of material prosperity? If so, they would be quite satisfied if God would take care of them in such a way that they can make a good living from it.
They desire more than just bread. They want to be cared for by him who through Christ has become their Father. He is “the only fountain of all good things”. They pray for this insight. To them the most important thing is not how much bread they receive, but that it comes from his fatherly hand. That is why they ask: provide and care for us in such a way that we will acknowledge this. Great prosperity is no guarantee for this. People can be doing so well that God is no longer their only source. On the other hand, great poverty can embitter people to such an extent that their trust in this only source comes under pressure.4
Therefore, they leave it to him what specifically constitutes the best care for them. The answer to this plea may therefore mean that they may have to surrender something of their prosperity! Then they should not pretend that God answers their prayer less generously. After all, he wants to provide for them in such a way that they trust him alone. That is what they are asking. In order to reach that goal, he may at times find it necessary to withhold a part of their prosperity or more than that. Even then he provides them with “all the good things”.
In this context the Catechism is thinking of a profound word from James. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” This holds true even in times of scarcity because with him “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). “He just keeps on giving, and what he gives keeps on being good”.5 James writes these things to people who were slaving hard for only a pittance. According to him, God was a source of good to these exploited and destitute people. He did certainly not neglect them. They even had a privileged position with him. They already belonged to his new creation. They were called “firstfruits” because they — together with all believers — were the first in line to be renewed.“6 They formed the advance guard of the new creation. Through Christ, God had become their Father. Despite their hard existence, this Father did not give them stones for bread, but instead what was good. They were not to stare at the rich with eyes filled with envy. The rich would wither, but they would receive the imperishable “crown of life”.7
Gifts and Blessings
Reference has already been made to what Paul said to pagans: the living God has made you happy with food and drink for centuries. It was their mistake that they did not thank and praise him for this, but gods such as Zeus and Hermes. That is why he never gave them more than bread. They would end up badly in the long run. For bread, although it is a gift from God, is insufficient to give eternal life.
Even today, many people enjoy God’s gifts. They are greatly satisfied with their prosperous existence. They do not desire anything more than a thick sandwich. In reality all these good gifts from God do not benefit anyone without his blessing. Jesus tells of a rich man whose fields yielded so much that the crops exceeded his own expectations. He needed to replace his old barns with larger ones.8 No sooner said than done. According to his calculations, he would have an ample supply of goods and “live happily ever after”. His brand new warehouses were packed. Then suddenly he died. All his treasures were no longer of any use to him. They ended up with someone else. Bread by itself is no guarantee of a happy life.
A person may toil to have a successful business or spend long evenings studying for a degree. That is all right. To a certain extent that is how things should be. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”9 God does not give his blessing to slothful people. On the other hand, no one can add anything to that blessing even with all his care and endeavours.10 Blessings have a unique quality. Where there is a blessing, all things work together for good. A worrisome subsistence with a lot of poverty and lack therefore becomes a rich existence. On the other hand, great wealth without blessings brings no reward. A good sandwich is a gift from God, but it does not keep your body young and healthy forever. Without God’s blessing, the rich fade like a flower in the sun.
The secret of God’s blessing is in his promise: I will be with you. Someone has called this the simplest yet most complete indication of blessing.11 When God is with you and for you, everything starts to work out for the better. Thanks to Christ, God is for us and he only gives what is good.
“Blessing” is not included as a separate line item in any budget. Even in church budgets this entry is not mentioned anywhere. It is impossible to budget for “blessings”, yet with only “our care and labour” all our promising ventures come to nothing. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (Ps. 127). Apparently, even with equal quality there is a huge difference between mortar with or without a blessing. This is true of all food, provisions and building materials. Bread is bread and mortar is mortar, people say. They think in terms of economy and quality, while Psalm 127 says three times that all our labour is “in vain” if God is not with us.
This blessing is not for sale anywhere. It is not being traded. It is priceless for the very rich and yet thanks to Christ it is available freely to the poorest.
So no one can live on bread alone. The Catechism refers to what Moses said: that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD”.12 He is saying this with words. That is enough because in his words we have everything that is good. One such word was his promise: “I will cause bread to rain down from heaven for you” (Ex. 16:4). This word from his mouth provided manna in a barren wilderness for forty long years.
His words are the only food by which a human being can live. Not the cornfields, not even the manna, can be or form the basis for human existence. The only true food is the Word of God. One can live only from every Word that comes from his mouth.“13
As to how his words make a person live, that is another story. Through a word from him, the wheat starts to grow in a fertile field or manna will fall in a bare wilderness. Every word is loaded with the power of his blessing. Therefore, man will live by everything that comes from God’s mouth, that is: everything he promises or commands in his gospel. Whoever sticks to this will receive all that is good for his body. He will never fade like a day flower, but will live forever.
Give Us This Day
Jesus did not teach his followers to pray for a full year or one week at a time. You can get enough bread for the entire week and keep it in the freezer, but this prayer is about daily portions: give us this day. We must realize each and every day that our bread comes from his hand.
“This day” forbids us to think about tomorrow. On a day of prayer for the crops, early in the Spring, the church looks forward to a season of more than half a year. We may pray for bread for the time ahead. Indeed, we may also prepare for the time ahead. When Joseph was ruler in Egypt, he had enormous storehouses built for seven years for the next seven lean years.14 The rich man in the parable of Luke 12 seemingly did the same thing. He too had barns built and filled with grain. To him God said, “You fool”. What was the difference between Joseph and him? Joseph saw the hand of God open up day after day. This was evident when he was allowed to provide food for his father and his brothers — the people of God. It was not his grain stores, but God himself who had kept them alive.15 The rich man, on the other hand, did not trust in God but in his barns filled with grain.
For Christians the words “give us this day” become particularly relevant at the beginning of a meal. With the food already on the table, they ask that he will open his hand to them today. They close their eyes and ask: teach us to put our trust in you alone, and no longer in any creature. No longer do we depend on ourselves or on others. This reality is shaped each time we ask him to bless us.
After this prayer the people help themselves to the food. Is that all? In that case they are mere consumers. However, they receive their bread with a view to their service in God’s kingdom. This prayer is the direct continuation of the previous three. In order to live to the glory of his name, in the service of his kingdom, and according to his will, they need bread. This is not the prayer of a greedy consumer asking for my bread. Children ask their heavenly Father: give us this day our daily bread. As children of one Father, they are involved in the same cause. Much is needed for all kinds of work in the fields of church and education.
God answers their plea as soon as he gives bread to the circle of those who call upon him as their Father. Some of that bread must then be passed on to other members of the family who would otherwise be on the short end of it. God also opens his hand through the work of deacons and all kinds of relief organizations. In this way he intends to give all of us our bread.
In addition, there are many needs in the world. While many have to watch their weight, they see the images on TV of emaciated children. Why is there no bread for them? Or has God given their bread to us to pass it on to them?