Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, IV: Prayer in the Imperative Mood

HomeHelp, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, IV: Prayer in the Imperative Mood
January 24, 2021

Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, IV: Prayer in the Imperative Mood

Passage: Exodus 16:13–21, 31

That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’”

The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”

However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away.

The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.

My family has spent the month of August in Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula for 25 years, since my son was eight years old and my daughter three. My kids have three cousins who are very close in age and in friendship to my children, so they visit us up there every summer.

We have lots of campfires on the beach every August and from the beginning while sitting around the fire we have vexed our children with riddles. Sometimes one riddle will keep them busy for three hours.

They’re really too old now for that kind of thing, but they still plead nostalgically for the old rituals of childhood, even though they know these riddles will drive them crazy. Every summer as they get older and smarter, their parents are mischievous enough to make the riddles harder and harder.

One summer a riddle kept them guessing for over an hour: What is greater than God, badder than the Devil, the rich need it, the poor have it, and if you eat it, you’ll die? It took a long time, but my now 28-year-old niece finally figured it out. She studied neurobiology at Michigan and medicine at Case Western.

What is greater than God, badder than the Devil, the rich need it, the poor have it, and if you eat it, you’ll die? While you’re figuring that out, I’m going to preach you a sermon about the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s see if you can multitask. If you’ve heard it before, or if you figure it out, you can brag in the Chat Bar, but don’t give away the answer till the sermon’s over.

Let me look with you at each of the words in this petition. There are four: (1) Give, (2) Us, (3) Daily, (4) Bread.

The first word in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is a verb: “Give.” “Give us,” the prayer implores with unexpected brazenness. No “Please.” Just “Give.” If my son ever said, “Grandma, Give me some bread,” I’d say “Mind your manners: What do we say when we ask for something?” But Jesus doesn’t say ‘please.’

“Give” is a verb, obviously, and this verb is in the imperative mood. Prayer is in the imperative mood. Every verb in the Lord’s Prayer is in the imperative or the subjunctive moods. The imperative and subjunctive moods are the pushy, brassy moods in Hebrew and in English.

So first, Prayer’s verbs are imperative, and second, prayer’s pronouns are plural. It’s not “Give me mine.”  It’s “Give us our...”  Martin Luther once said, “The glory of the Christian religion is in its pronouns.” This petition makes the Lord’s Prayer a plea for the health and life of the whole human family.

Hunger, says Will Willimon, is an affront against the kingdom of God,[1] especially in a world which possesses the technology to end it. Those traffic jams at food banks in every small town and big city of America this past year were so striking for two reasons: our hearts were riven that so many Americans don’t have enough to eat, but also in awe of the thousands of volunteers and millions of pounds of donated food. We are riven, and awed.

How are you doing with that riddle, by the way? What is greater than God, badder than the Devil, the rich need it, the poor have it, and if you eat it, you’ll die? 

So prayer’s every verb is imperative, and its every pronoun is plural, and its object is modest. Just our daily bread. Just enough to survive.

Just enough to eat for today. You see the background behind this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, don’t you? When the Hebrews are lost and starving in the wilderness somewhere between slavery in Egypt and freedom in Canaan, God sends them a strange substance called manna, which means “What is it?” We still don’t know what it was; maybe they didn’t know what it was. It was a white flaky substance, like coriander seed, and when pressed tasted like wafers dipped in honey.

It was wonderful stuff, but it had terrible shelf life. Today food companies build long shelf life into their products so that you can live in a house for 20 years and then when you move you can take your canned goods and your macaroni & cheese with you to Vero Beach.

Manna lasted 24 hours and then the worms came. You couldn’t build barns or silos to store it up; it went bad in a day. You couldn’t horde it and trade it and get rich on it.

And so that’s what Jesus taught us to pray for: our DAILY bread; just enough for today. It’s a hard prayer for people like us to pray—isn’t it?—because ‘enough’ is not a concept we’re able to grasp.

Hank Aaron died on Friday at the age of 86.  You know the thing about Henry Louis Aaron? He was just as remarkable in life itself as he was in the batter’s box or the outfield. His character was irreproachable, his integrity unimpeachable (I wonder why exactly that adjective leapt unbidden to my imagination).

In 1973, when Hammerin’ Hank was closing in on Babe Ruth’s 40-year-old record of 714 career homeruns, the U.S. Postal Service said that Mr. Aaron received more mail than any other American who was not holding political office. Much of it was hate mail.

One letter read, “If you come close to Babe Ruth’s 714 homers, I have a contract out on you. When you get to 700, you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell.” Another read, “My gun is watching your every black move.”

Henry said (he hated ‘Hank’), Henry Aaron said, “Closing in on Babe Ruth’s record should have been the best time of my life. It turned out to be the worst. I couldn’t believe how much hatred there was out there.” His children needed a police detail to protect them.[2]

When he finally retired after 23 years, Henry Aaron had compiled 755 career home runs. That places him second on the all-time career homer list, just behind Barry Bonds (762), and just ahead of Babe Ruth (714), and Alex Rodriquez (696).

Do you notice that two of those top four leaders had to cheat to get there? Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriquez didn’t understand the concept of ‘enough.’ They were such extraordinary athletes. They would have reached that rarefied status without steroids, but they cheated because it was never enough.

But forget about superstars with unearthly talent. What about the rest of us? America has lots of problems—a pandemic, race, rancorous politics, climate change—to keep us busy and fretting for the rest of our lives, but among the most urgent is income inequality; those foodbank lines are a vivid snapshot. The top 1% of income earners in the United States own 20% of the nation’s wealth; the top 10% own 70%; the bottom 25% own less than 4%.

Joseph Heller, the author of the acclaimed novel Catch-22, once went to a party at the Manhattan apartment of a Wall Street billionaire. When the author’s friend pointed out to him that this party host made more money in one day of hedge-fund trading than Mr. Heller had ever earned in all the years since Catch-22 was published, Mr. Heller responded, “Yes, but I have something he will never have: enough.”[3]

So there are really only four words in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: (1) Give. Prayer is in the imperative mood. (2) Us.  Not me, us.  The glory of the Christian religion is in its pronouns. (3) Daily. We pray for enough, even when it is a concept we haven’t grasped. And finally (4) Bread.

It’s bread that we pray for. The most ordinary stuff on earth. Just the staple of our existence. Fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa said, “We do not pray for luxuries so that the stomach, this perpetual tax collector, can live daintily through all this. Cling only to what is necessary.”[4] But it is necessary, and we needn’t be bashful in asking God for our daily bread.

So what is greater than God, badder than the Devil, the rich need it, the poor have it, and if you eat it, you’ll die? Nothing. Nothing is greater than God, nothing is badder than the Devil, the rich need nothing, the poor have nothing, and if you eat nothing, you’ll die.

God knows this about us, and is waiting to hear our prayer: Lord, give us this day our daily bread.

[1]William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 71.

[2] Dave Sheinin and Matt Schudel, “Hank Aaron, Baseball Great Who Became Force for Civil Rights, Dies at 86,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2021.

[3] John C. Bogle, quoted by Kristin Swenson in “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, September 21, 2010, p. 20.

[4]Quoted by William Barclay, The Lord’s Prayer (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 82.