When you are hungry, a good meal is always welcomed. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be filling.
I remember back to my early days living in the Pasadena YMCA. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I lived on a daily ration of a micro-waved frozen poor boy sandwich and cupful of imitation kool-aid. I kept the poor boys and the gallon jug in the little fridge at the bookstore where I worked. You can imagine how I felt when Peggy, the store’s assistant manager, would invite me home for a meal and the opportunity to wash my clothes. It was like manna from heaven.
As we continue our journey through the Exodus story, the thrill of freedom confronts the reality of hunger. The people begin complaining – again – “Did you bring us out here to the desert to starve to death?” If only we’d stayed back in Egypt where we could enjoy the “fleshpots of Egypt.” Yes, perhaps slavery is better than starvation.
I don’t think they really wanted to return to slavery, but they also didn’t want to die in the desert of starvation. So, with their bellies empty they become discouraged and begin to think that maybe going back to Egypt would be a good idea. That party they had after crossing the Sea was now a forgotten memory. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson remind us: “We who are well-fed need to recognize that nothing erodes confidence faster than hunger” [Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 91].
Psychologist Abraham Maslow has something to say about this in his “hierarchy of needs.” Back in our psychology courses many of us learned about Maslow’s belief that humans must address first level – physiological – needs before they can deal with anything else. We start with food, drink, and shelter. Then we can move up to safety and security. After that there’s love and belonging and at the top of the hierarchy we come to “self-actualization.” At the top of the pyramid are things like creativity and morality, which don’t make sense until our basic needs are met.
It appears from the Exodus story that the people didn’t think their basic needs were being met by their leadership. They couldn’t go any further with this God whom Moses proclaimed, until God put food on the Table. God hears their cries and offers a solution – quail in the evening and manna in the morning.
One of the key story lines in Exodus is God’s attempt to create a people from this collection of tribes. If this is going to happen, they will have to put their trust in God. And they’re saying to God – first fill my belly and then we can talk.
At one level this story is focused on physical hunger, but it’s also a story of overcoming fear. Each step along the way toward the Promised Land involves overcoming obstacles. At every obstacle or barrier, the people begin to wonder whether they should turn back. Is this Promised Land everything that Moses is making of it?
Overcoming obstacles is something we all deal with in life. Some people have more obstacles to overcome than others. If you’ve been watching The Roosevelts mini-series this week you’ve watched as Franklin Roosevelt overcame polio to become one of America’s great Presidents. He could have given up when he was stricken with polio. Many have given up, but he was determined to go forward with life. He had a goal. He had a sense of purpose. He had courage. He understood that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”
God answers the prayer and provides a meal – but God also offers this as a test. God is testing to see whether they will follow God’s instructions. God provides a meal for them, but God directs them to gather only what they need for that day. No more and no less. There will be no trips to Costco – only to the corner store. And what God offers them is a basic ration – nothing fancy. It’s not steak and eggs, it’s just quail in the evening and “What is this?” in the morning. I think “What is this?” is something akin to the lumpy oatmeal that often gets served at church camp breakfasts. We call it manna, but manna simply means “what is this?” And Moses calls it bread from heaven.
When we hear the story of the manna it’s easy to imagine something extraordinary happening, but both the quail and the manna are natural occurrences in the Sinai. In regards to the birds, the Sinai lies on a migratory pathway. Birds fly over the land, get tired, and need to find a place to rest in the evening. They become easy pickings. As for the manna, this is a white substance that appears on the ground each morning in the Sinai. This white stuff is the byproduct of plant lice piercing the fruit of the Tamarisk Tree. The lice secrete a substance on the ground that when it gets cool turns into a white ball, which people gather up and bake into bread.
What this suggests is that we needn’t look to the extraordinary to find God at work. God is at work in the midst of the ordinary events of our lives – we just have to pay attention.
The message of the manna gets mirrored in a phrase from the Lord’s prayer. In this prayer, we pray that God would give us our “daily bread.” There’s nothing fancy about “daily bread.” It’s just that basic provision that keeps us alive. In the Exodus story everyone eats their fill. No one gets too much and no one gets too little. And because the manna disappears as the day goes on, you can’t hoard it. It’s only on the sixth day of the week, the day before the Sabbath, that the people can gather up a double portion. Food for today and food for the Sabbath.
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard. Remember how the vineyard owner goes out and hires a crew to pick his grapes. Then later in the day, he hires some more. And still later, he hires more laborers. When it comes time to hand out the pay checks, the owner of the vineyard calls up those he hired last and he gives the full day’s wage. He does the same thing for the next group. They might be wondering why they got the same as those hired an hour before the day ended, they were happy enough to get the full day’s wage. When it came time for those hired first get their paycheck, they figured that since they had worked a full shift, the owner would pay them a bonus. When they got the same paycheck, they began to complain. This didn’t seem fair to them. How come those other workers, who didn’t work nearly as long, get the same pay? (Matthew 20:1-16)
Apparently that’s the way it is in God’s realm. Everyone gets paid what they need to survive, whether they work all day or not. It is a sign of God’s justice and God’s generosity. As the vineyard owner told the complaining workers – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15).
There’s another way in which we can read this story. We can read it through the lens of John 6. Remember how Jesus proclaims himself to be the Bread from heaven and the “Bread of Life.” He tells the crowd whom he had just fed and who had come to make him king, that he didn’t come to give them normal bread to eat, but instead offered himself up to them. He tells them: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In saying this, Jesus reminds us that there is a deeper hunger than just the need for food to survive.
At a deeper level there is a need to know God and the one whom God sent into the world to reveal God’s vision and purpose for life. Especially in our day, in our context, most of us are not so worried about where our next meal is coming from. We do worry, however, about the meaning and purpose of our lives. The bread of life, the “what is this” is that essence of God’s presence that gives us the courage to be, the courage to move forward with life. It’s not that we won’t have doubts, but we will have the courage to move through them so we can find our way through the desert to the Promised Land.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church
September 21, 2014