Exodus 16:2-4 | John 6:24-35
When I saw the way that the lectionary readings had coincided with the mission focus on our Vanuatu literacy project, my initial reaction was to try to rearrange one or the other in order to avoid having these readings on a day when we talk about our commitment to help our international partners.
What bad timing, I thought to myself, to have readings about God sending manna from heaven, and Jesus reflecting on the feeding of the 5,000, on a day when we particularly focus on those of our brothers and sisters for whom God seems not to have provided.
For there is a particular problem, for us in the wealthy western world, when we come to read stories of God providing for the people of God, a barrier to us really hearing the words of the scriptures as they were written: that these words were written by, and to, and for, a people who sometimes had enough, sometimes didn’t, but rarely if ever had more to spare.
And for most of us, most of the time, that simply isn’t the reality of life. Sure, we don’t have everything we might imagine that we want, but rarely do we wonder whether we will be able to eat the next day, or where we will we sleep, or whether our children or grandchildren will have school to go to, books to read, doctors when they need them, a roof over their head.
But as I stayed with the story of the manna in the desert, something about it grew on me. It’s brought out more fully in the surrounding narrative, but it’s here in the reading we had today:
I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them
Each day they are to gather “enough for that day”. God’s provision for them was to be enough.
Now I don’t know if you know the story, but naturally enough, some of the people, when they saw the manna in the morning, decided that just gathering one day’s worth was imprudent, an inefficient use of their time, an opportunity missed. So they gathered twice as much as they needed, and set half of it aside for the following day, no doubt intending to have a bit of a lie in the following morning when everyone else was out manna-gathering.
But the next morning, of course, the excess that had been stored overnight was maggot-ridden.
Each day, God said, the people were to gather enough. And in that way, God said, “I will test them”.
What, I wonder, was God testing?
Testing whether they would be obedient? Whether they would follow the (apparently arbitrary) instruction to only gather what they needed? A command with an echo of the garden of Eden – don’t eat from that tree: why not? Because I say so.
Or was it to test their faith – their trust that this was not just a one-off provision, but that God could be trusted to provide for them each day, their daily bread?
Or maybe even just to test whether they knew what “enough” was, that they could resist the temptation to take more simply because more was there to be taken.
Now I started by suggesting that it’s crucial to our understanding of this sort of story that we start by recognising that it isn’t a story about us; it isn’t a story about people who have plenty; it is a story about people who knew what it was to be hungry, who had fled from oppression and now wandered in the desert, never having enough.
But if it isn’t a story about us, it is surely still a story for us.
For us, who have successfully gathered more than we need, who have stored away the excess against a rainy day, who have built bigger barns and filled them. For us who, whether or not we feel wealthy when we look around our community in Wahroonga, have incomparable riches compared to many – most – in the world.
For us, for whom the words of the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” have none of the power that they have in the voices of the hungry.
Who have, perhaps, lost the ability, even the incentive, to trust in God to provide for us. For we live in the era of too much.
Last year Sureka and I took the “living below the line” challenge – that for five days, everything we ate would come out of a budget of $2 each, per day – $20 for the two of us for five days. And I remember the most striking thing about the experience being not hunger, but boredom: I commented on the Friday that if I never saw another lentil in my life, it would still be too soon.
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty pathetic, first world problem sort of response to experiencing a few days of something which is just a poor imitation of the lived experience of the majority world, day by day and week and month and year.
The provision of enough – the story of the Manna in the desert – left me grumbling about the luxuries I had to forgo; the lack of room in my budget for coffee, chocolate, or wine – or fresh fruit, green vegetables, meat or fish.
And of course, that too, is the story of the people of Israel – for when they get used to God providing them with manna, they start to take it for granted, and start to complain of boredom at the sameness of the food they get each day.
It’s simply seems to be the human condition – we are terribly bad at recognising when we actually have enough; far better at seeing the things we want than celebrating the things we have.
Which in the end isn’t a bad message when we come to focus on our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Vanuatu; to hear their gratitude to us for our help, when that help has merely enabled them to rebuild the homes and schools and clinics that we take for granted, at a cost for us of going without things that surely, in the end, matter far less.
In a few weeks time Sureka and I will be doing the living below the line challenge again, and I’d encourage you to consider whether you might join in – it really does give you quite an insight into the degree to which we take our ability to buy and eat a varied and healthy diet for granted. Alternatively, you might choose to sponsor the efforts – any money we raise will be going to the literacy project!
No answers this week, I’m afraid – just a few questions to leave
When we pray, week by week, “give us this day our daily bread”, what do we mean, when we already have all we need and more?
How might we discover – or rediscover what it might mean to actually trust God to provide?
And what might it mean if we really considered our brothers and sisters in the developing world to be our family?