JMC : Notes on the Lord's Prayer / by Raïssa Maritain

Chapter III

The Last Four Petitions


After beseeching God for his glory, we beseech him for us sinners.

Why did not Jesus, who has told us to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect,{1} include in the prayer that he has taught us a special petition relating to that perfection of love which is our highest goal here below, and which is set down as something each should tend toward in accordance with his condition and insofar as he is able. In truth this petition is not absent from the Lord's Prayer: it is included in the first three petitions, the ones addressed to the Father for himself. Because for those who wish to satisfy the Gospel precept to be perfect even as the Father is perfect, it is not their own perfection that they must ask for first, it is rather the Good of God, because they love God more than themselves and than their own perfection; it is not to their own perfection (to be attained) that they must attach the whole ardor of their desire -- they are Christians, not Stoics -- it is rather to the treasures of life and of goodness of their Beloved, who is Love and who asks for, and rejoices in, our love.

Those who are entering on the paths of the spirit should think a great deal about their perfection. Those who have advanced far enough on the paths of the spirit scarcely think any longer of their perfection -- perhaps they have been too harassed on the way; in any case it is Another that they are interested in.' Christian perfection closes its eyes to itself, it has eyes only for Jesus and for his Father; it is not a perfection of impeccability but a perfection of love. ~' Moreover, man's perfection is most certainly the work both of God and of man together. It supposes on man's part a fervent and tenacious will, heroically patient and persevering. It supposes that man's liberty has, under God's grace, faithfully cooperated with grace. But if one speaks the language of practical experience and not of speculative science, and if one reflects that in the "sons of God, led by the Spirit of God," ~ the human will has always the second initiative, under the divine motion, but never the first initiative (it is of evil alone that we have the first initiative, an initiative of primary cause) ,{4} then, and in this Sense, we must say that the perfect one, as such, derives everything from God, nothing from himself. What he draws from humanity is its weakness, and the proneness to sin always present in him; this is the lot of man the sinner.

This is why, when the petitions of the Lord's Prayer turn to man, it is to sinners that they turn -- non enim veni vocare justos, sed peccatores ("I am not come to call the just, but sinners"){5} -- it is with all us sinners, and according to our condition as sinners, that they are concerned (and who, indeed, recognize themselves to be sinners better than the saints themselves? "If we say that we have not sin," says Saint John, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us".{6} The Lord's Prayer instructs, and while instructing us it puts ointment on our wounds. If there are some among us who think themselves perfect, they will be cured of their presumption. If there are some who would like to be saints and grieve because they are not, they will be cured of their sadness. If there are some who are plunged in evil and darkness, they will begin to have hope.

What then do sinners need? To live, first of all, like the grass of the fields, and like those sparrows no one of which falls to the ground without God's consent. And to live as men, and as men redeemed.

And what they need after this is pardon, the remission of sins.

These are the two things they fundamentally need.

But still another thing is necessary for them.{7} For even pardoned they are still in danger; in danger because of weakness. They have need that God himself come to help them because of their weakness.


"Our supersubstantial bread, our daily bread."

The same Greek word, epiousion, is used by both Matthew (6:11) and Luke (11:3) to characterize the bread we ask for; but in the Latin version revised by Saint Jerome this same Greek word is translated in Saint Matthew by supersubstantialem and in Saint Luke by quotidianum. Truth to tell, the Greek word epiousion is an enigma, which already intrigued Origen, and concerning which modern scholars are scarcely more advanced than he. Origen remarks{8} that this word is not to be met with either in literary language or in popular speech; it was forged by the Gospel.

According to the etymologies consulted,{9} it means: in the first place, either the "bread of tomorrow,"{10} or the "bread of the present day,"{11} which is equivalent to the quotidianus of Saint Luke; in the second place,{12} either the "bread we need in order to subsist" -- this is the meaning that modern scholars regard as the most acceptable{13} -- or the bread "which is above our substance," because it is of the very substance of God (hoc est, qui est de tua substantia){14} -- thus the supersubstantialis of Saint Matthew.

It appears in any case that the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer can be understood in three different senses, which are moreover perfectly compatible: let us say, the univocal literal sense, the analogical literal sense, and the spiritual or mystical sense.

In the univocal literal sense, it is a question of material bread and of bodily food; we ask for that which we will need in order to subsist -omnis sutficientia victus (all sufficiency of food) as Saint Augustine says{15} -- as much as is sufficient for each one, but above all for the poor. Jesus has pity on our poor flesh; that it may be sustained, temperately of course, yet sufficiently for us to escape from hunger and from destitution which, in the terrestrial order, is a kind of hell.

This is the first meaning of the fourth petition.

In the analogical literal sense, it is a question of the bread which is the food of the spirit: the truth and beauty of which every human soul has need, and above all the Word of God: "Not by bread alone shall men live, but by every word that cometh from the mouth of God."{16} We should always be hungry for every word that comes from the mouth of God. And yet, taking into account our weakness and the ease with which we misuse even what is best, it is still as befits the poor that our petition is addressed to the Father: sapere, sed sapere ad sobrietatem, "not to be more wise than it behooveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety."{17}

In the spiritual or mystical sense, it is a question of the bread that is Jesus himself: Ego sum panis vitae -- "I am the bread of life. . . . I am the bread come down from heaven. If any one eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world."{18} One can scarcely see how the supersubstantialis of Saint Matthew could mean anything other than the Eucharistic bread. Also could Jesus, in the impulse of his love, think of the food on which man lives without thinking at the same time of the supreme gift of Himself which he came to bestow on us, of the Bread which is his Body?

We are told that this meaning, on which the Fathers liked to insist, departs from the proper meaning.{19} But if epiousion means epi tên ousian, "above the substance" (our substance is transformed by it, not it changed into our substance), it seems more correct to say that the spiritual sense of the fourth petition remains a proper meaning, although mystical or transcendent, and presupposing the first two meanings.{20} Jesus, wrote Saint Cyprian, "is the bread of those who constitute his body."{21}

What would be, then, the most proper translation? To cover the first two meanings we believe we must translate, as is done in the GreekCatholic rite: "Give us today our sufficiency of bread," or "the amount of bread necessary to us."

To cover the three meanings together, let us say with Theodore of Mopsuestia:{22} "Give us today the bread we need."


The fourth petition has us pray for today, not for tomorrow. "Be not anxious for the morrow; the morrow will have anxieties of its own. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof."

But we will pray tomorrow, and every day until our death, for what will be then our today.


In asking for our daily bread it is a kind of favor we are asking, a thing we are not certain of having for it is not assured us by nature. And if perchance it is assured us for today, we still ask for this favor as beggars and the indigent, for all those who do not have today what is sufficient.

That many do not have sufficient is all too true. And Jesus does not like this, nor does his Father. The remote cause of it is Adam's sin. But there are proximate causes; it seems that the responsibility of other men and of the great human community has a great share in the matter, at least by omission. If there were fewer wars, less craving to enslave or exploit others, fewer national egoisms, egoisms of caste or egoisms of class, if man cared more about his neighbor and really wished to bring together for the common good of the human species the resources which, especially in our day, he and his science have at their disposal and which he employs for mutual menace and destruction, there would be fewer peoples on earth who do not have enough bread and fewer children who die or are incurably debilitated by lack of food.

It is with great fear that we touch here on the mystery of universal solidarity. We ask ourselves, tremblingly, what barriers man in the course of his history (or must we still say his prehistory?) has raised and continues to raise against the Gospel. It has been said that to those who seek first the kingdom of God all else shall be added. Must we believe that as a consequence of conditions that more love and more justice could have prevented, there are men too bowed down by misfortune to have retained even the possibility of seeking first the kingdom of Heaven? Then will not this kingdom which they have not sought through no fault of theirs, in which through no fault of their own they have not hoped, will it not seek them out and await them at the door when they leave a world that has failed to perceive God's image in them? As for terrestrial history, it learns each day at its own expense that Deus non irridetur,{24} but it does not understand what it learns.


A minor question, which is a question of words, still remains to be examined. The message of the Gospel is addressed to all the peoples of the world. It is sometimes asked why Jesus used in the Lord's Prayer the word "bread" rather than a more general word such as "food," for example, since there are people who do not use bread and for whom rice or cassava or some other product of the earth is the most striking symbol of daily food.

Several answers can be given to this question. First of all, it is not abstract words like "food," but rather concrete, 'picture' words which the Gospel prefers, and these words are inevitably particularized. It can next be noted that a certain particularization to a given historical and cultural milieu, that of the Jewish world at the time of Augustus and Tiberius, is implied by the very fact of the Incarnation, which took place at a given point in space and time; and this particularization due to concrete conditions in no way prejudices the universality of the Gospel message; it only needs to be explained, just as those to whom this message is transmitted need to be instructed.

Finally, Jesus had an altogether special reason to use the word "bread," if it is true that the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer refers, according to one of the meanings it includes, to the sacrament of the Eucharist. And just as it is possible to procure no matter where a little wheat flour so as to be able to celebrate Mass, so also it is possible no matter where to teach the people one is evangelizing the meaning of the word "bread." There are, in particular for the primitive tribes (and also for certain highly civilized cultural areas), indispensable words much more difficult to translate and to explain than the word "bread."

{1} Matt. 5:48.

{2} "They are no longer preoccupied with self, but only with the extension of the kingdom of God throughout the world that his Name may be loved by all men, beginning with themselves. All their prayers, petitions, works and sacrifices are directed principally toward this end and they are converted into invisible channels through which the graces of heaven descend on earth." Victorino Osende, Fruits of Contemplation (St. Louis: Herder, 1953), p. 310.

{3} Rom. 8:14.

{4} "The first cause of the defect of grace is on our part." Saint Thomas, Sum. theol., I-Il, 112, 3 ad. 2.

{5} Matt. 9:13.

{6} 1 John 1:8.

{7} It may be noted with Father Lagrange (Evang. selon saint Luc, p. 321, n.) that of the three things of which we are speaking the first concerns the present, the second the past, the third the future.

{8} De Oratione, 27, P.G., 11, 509.

{9} Cf. Lagrange, Evangile selon saint Luc, p. 323, n. 3.

{10} If epiousion comes from epienai.

{11} If it comes from epienai.

{12} If it comes from epi combined with ousia.

{13} Cf. Lagrange, loc. cit . -- Evangile selon saint Mathieu, p. 130, n. 11.

{14} Saint Jerome, quoted by Lagrange, Evangile selon saint Luc, p. 323, n. 3, according to Dom Germain Morin, Anecdota Maredsolana, Ill, ix, p. 262.

{15} Ad Probam. Quoted freely by Saint Thomas, Sum. theol., II-II, 83, 9. -- Saint Augustine (P.L., 33, 498, n. 12, and 499, n. 13) says: "sufficientia rerum necessariarum." Cf. col. 502, n. 21.

{16} Matt. 4:4.

{17} Saint Paul, Rom. 12:3.

{18} John 6:35, 51.

{19} Lagrange, Evang. selon saint Luc, p. 323, n. 3.

{20} On the three meanings distinguished here, cf. Thomas Aquinas, In Orat. Domin. Expositio (Marietti), n. 1078 and 1079.

{21} De Oratione Dominica, n. 18, P.L., 4, 531.

{22} Homélies catéchètiques, Hom. 11, on the Lord's Prayer (Vatican City: Ed. Raymond Tonneau, 1949), par. 14, p. 309.

{23} Matt. 6:34.

{24} "God is not mocked." Saint Paul, Gal. 6:7.

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