Over and Under-Familiarity with Matthew 6:11

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Hearing something repeatedly can diminish its significance. I suspect that this is particularly true of Scripture. Overfamiliarity with a biblical passage can contribute to its misunderstanding. Sometimes it can reduce a profound saying to nothing more than a cliché.

Revised 29-Oct.-2015

Hearing words repeatedly can make them less meaningful. This warning applies to the boy who cried “Wolf!” as well as to the message of a sacred text. Overfamiliarity with a biblical passage can reduce a profound saying to a platitude. It also fosters misinterpretation.

One of the most oft-quoted passages in the New Testament is The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). Christians who attend church weekly can recite it from memory. It is a prayer that many of us not only have heard, but also have said.

Matthew 6:11 is a remarkable verse from the prayer. Pause for a moment and consider, phrase by phrase, this simple entreaty: “Give us this day our daily bread!”

It opens with the imperative: “Give us!” This manner of addressing God seems rather unvarnished. I have heard parents chide a spoiled child for using similar language to demand something sweet.[1]

The verse’s middle phrase is “this day.” I assume that Jesus intended this prayer to be an early morning prayer. After repeating it, his disciples would look to God to provide for them throughout the day.[2]

The third and final phrase is “our daily bread,” which suggests the necessary amount of food that a disciple needed. Jesus taught his disciples to expect—perhaps to demand—that God would nourish and sustain them one day at a time.

For many North Americans, Western Europeans, and citizens of other prosperous regions, “Give us this day our daily bread” has little relevance. As audacious as this claim may sound, it can be verified: Go to your refrigerator and take inventory of its contents. This line of the prayer is certainly irrelevant for me, too. My pantry contains ample food for at least a week.

Unfamiliarity with Jesus’ historical and social context can further muffle the original meaning of his words. “Give us this day our daily bread” makes good sense within the rich conceptual world of Judaism’s late Second Temple period. More specifically, this imperative aimed at God belongs to the culture of what later would be called talmud-Torah (joining oneself to a sage to learn Torah from him).

797px-Carl_Fleischmann_Stillleben_mit_Fisch_Käse_und_Brot

Still life paining by Carl Fleischmann (1853–1936). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus gathered disciples like the early rabbis continued to do in the second century C.E. Jesus’ agenda, however, was distinctive in that it centered on the Kingdom of Heaven. His message was anchored deep in Israel’s Torah. He neither dishonored nor violated it—but in focusing on God’s kingdom, he helped expand the scope of Israel’s Torah in unexpected directions.[3]

Jesus’ demands for entering the Kingdom of Heaven were high. Among them was a readiness to leave family, property, and careers (cf. Luke 5:11, 28; 14:25-33; 18:22). After a person joined Jesus’ band of disciples, the requirements to remain at the center of God’s kingdom remained high. “Give us this day our daily bread” resonates with the priorities and values of this cultural context. Jesus expected his followers to align with God’s redemptive plans. Once committed to them, they had no reason to worry about the basics—food, clothing, and shelter. God would take care of these things.

Jesus reiterated these ideas on various occasions. Just before sending out his disciples two by two, he said:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…Go your way…Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…Whenever you enter a town and they receive you…heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:2-9)

At the conclusion of a short homily on anxiety, he exhorted his listeners:

“Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So, do not worry about tomorrow…The day’s troubles will take care of themselves.” (Matt. 6:33-34)

The things to which Jesus referred were food, water, and clothing.

Jesus did not intend these sayings to be treated as hyperbole or metaphor. He meant what he said. Our hectic lifestyles and the prosperity and materialism of modern, Western society make them, however, difficult to accept. When a sprawling food market is minutes away by foot, and fewer still by car, “Give us this day our daily bread” resists a literal interpretation. Nevertheless, despite the challenge of reordering priorities and rebuilding the structure of a lifestyle—which are typically necessary for entering the Kingdom of Heaven—tremendous liberty and privilege accrue to those who make that decision. They may confidently pursue a life of identification and association with those in acute need: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, educating the illiterate, visiting those in hospice and prison, caring for the forgotten, and healing the sick. Getting started can be done without funding from a nonprofit organization or a philanthropist’s gifts. It simply requires enough vision, tenacity, and fortitude to pray: Give me this day my daily bread!


  • [1] Note the Parable of the Spoiled Son in my article entitled “The Power of Parables,” Jerusalem Perspective 48 (Jul.-Sept. 1995): 11, and Brad Young’s Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Tulsa, OK: Gospel Research Foundation, 1989), 86-88.
  • [2] Compare Matt. 6:11 to its Lukan parallel: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Apparently, even Luke struggled with the radical implications of Jesus’ instructions to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” See David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders (eds. James Charlesworth and Loren Johns; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 72. Interestingly, when Benjamin Franklin paraphrased the Lord’s Prayer, he rendered a blend of Matt. 6:11 and Luke 11:3 as “Provide for us this day as thou has hitherto daily done.” See H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 414.
  • [3] This remark is based on the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Synoptic tradition. A different interpretation of Jesus’ attitude toward Torah emerges from John’s Gospel (cf. John 5:10; 8:17; 9:14). Regarding progressive trends within Jewish theology during the centuries of the Second Temple period, see Professor David Flusser’s important article “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469-489.

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