Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is the second in a triptych of passages from the Sermon on the Mount regarding almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Matthew’s intended Jewish-Christian audience would have immediately recognized these three standard and complementary practices (c.f. Tobit 12:8-9). The centrally positioned treatment of prayer within the three passages would have highlighted for them its paramount importance.
With Jesus’ assurance that “till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:18), it might not be surprising that Christians have continued these Old Testament practices in every century since the coming of the Lord in flesh. Marvelously, just as a single subtle iota (ι) bore the weight of the Arian debate at the First Council of Nicaea regarding Jesus’ nature with respect to the Father—homo-ousion (meaning “same” substance) versus homo(i)ousion (meaning “like” substance)—so too does a single iota imbue a great richness to that prayer which the Lord himself gave us to pray. In Mt 6:11, ep(i)ousion is the adjective modifying ‘bread’ and is typically viewed as a compound of epi + ousion. St. Jerome translates this literally as “super-essential” or “super-substantial.” Yet the parallel presence of semeron – “this day” – in the verse shifts the context so that the petition seems to connote sufficiency for the day; in other words “daily” bread. However, that mischievous little iota, that would normally disappear after the compound construction of epi + ousion (i.e. to form ep-ousion), stowed away in the manuscript text for all time to teach us a little more about Jesus and prayer.
In the Lord’s Prayer, this one iota teaches us that simple bread is not sufficient. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). That word, that one word, which God spoke and eternally speaks is the Eternal Word – (I)esous – Jesus. He achieved the end for which he was sent and continues to accomplish the good work begun in us. This he does by his grace which he imparts to us through his all-sufficient substance in the Holy Eucharist. Just as the Israelites in the desert daily received bread from heaven through the Father’s providential care, we too need not “worry about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34). Jesus teaches us with this one iota to entrust our lives to Divine Providence, for our Father, who art in heaven, knows what we need even before we ask (Mt. 6:8).