Exodus 16:13-21 | Luke 11:2-4
In the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, that we explored last week, we found a sort of statement of identity; of Jesus identifying with the traditions of intimacy with God, of holiness, and of justice that ran through the Jewish faith of his day – and indeed, the Jewish faith throughout history.
But it was more than just identifying Jesus, than locating him, as it were, in the broader streams of faith and spirituality, as it might have been if we had simply been overhearing a prayer that Jesus prayed. This was not just a prayer that Jesus prayed, it was his answer to the question “teach us to pray”. In other words, it was not simply locating himself in this intimate relationship with the Holy God whose Kingdom was being proclaimed in the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry – it was an invitation to us to see ourselves in that same place. Jesus does not just pray “father” – he invites us to do the same.
And now the prayer turns from locating us in our relationship with God, to seeking God’s involvement, God’s activity, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We turn to making requests of God.
And the first request is “your kingdom come”.
In keeping with all of Jesus’ teaching, most explicitly, of course, the sermon on the mount, the followers of Jesus are taught again that the first thing, the priority, the centre of their life as people of Jesus, is the Kingdom of God. “Seek first the kingdom”, Jesus taught; “pray first for the kingdom” he tells us here.
Perhaps the most important neglected truth of the faith of Jesus Christ is this: it isn’t about us.
The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t about us, and about our needs, it is about the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of which are citizens, heralds, ambassadors, and servants.
The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t about us and our needs. But the second is.
Give us, each day, our daily bread.
Pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom; but then also pray for those things you need. In the next chapter of the gospel we will Luke’s telling of the sermon on the mount, and these words “strive for God’s Kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”.
There is no denial of physical needs here, no call for self-abnegation; those things we strive for – sustenance, shelter, security – they are things we need, things God knows we need. The faith of Jesus Christ is not so self denying or hyper-spiritual as to deny our physical needs; it is simply reorientating: God’s kingdom first, and the rest will follow.
I’ve chosen to pair the gospel reading today with the story of the manna, because I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is the story that would have been called to the minds of those who first heard this prayer.
For the manna in the wilderness was one of those stories that every Jewish child heard as they grew up: if the story of the Exodus was the defining story of God setting the people free, then the story of the quail and manna was the defining story of God’s provision for God’s people.
So we hear God’s command: “gather as much as you need, all providing for all those in their own tents”. God’s provision, the giving of the manna, wasn’t a free for all; nor was each person responsible solely for what they needed. The responsibility was given to groups within the community to gather enough for their group – their family, perhaps, but more likely a rather more extended relationship group who travelled together. Don’t just gather for yourself what you need; gather, as a group, what you, as a group require.
But the command also specified that amount that would be needed; an omer to a person.
The gift that God was sending was to be enjoyed equitably; the God who, as Jesus would say “sends the rain on the just and the unjust” would here offer the same gift to all. Gather an omer for each person, God commanded.
Of course human nature being what it was, and the simple unpredictability of a large group of people setting out to gather a fixed total quantity, some gathered more and some gathered less. But when they came to measure it, the second, less prominent miracle occurred; they all found that they had the same, correct, amount – an omer each.
I remember reading this passage many years ago, perhaps when I was still in high school, and thinking “I understand those who gathered too much finding they only had the right amount. Those who were greedy, who took more than they were told, were not able to hold onto the excess. That makes sense. But those who gathered too little? Aren’t they just being rewarded for being lazy, when God makes up the difference?”
And only this week, as I came read the passage again did I realise the sort of subcultural assumption in my puzzlement. I had assumed that the only reason that someone might gather less than they were supposed to was laziness. Because I had grown up with that message all around me – that if you worked hard, you would be able to get what you needed; and that if you didn’t, you wouldn’t.
But there is no hint in the story of criticism of those who did not gather enough, no suggestion that they simply didn’t bother. And, for that matter, it’s hardly credible that hungry people in the wilderness, finding food on the ground around them, simply wouldn’t bother.
Indeed, the story tells us that when God commanded them to gather the manna, they did so – but some collected more, and some less.
And there are so many reasons why that might be, constraints of capacity, not willingness: tents in which the travellers were old, or young, sick, nursing, or pregnant, or simply incapable for one reason or another of gathering enough; where the load fell upon a few able bodied to provide for many who could not take part.
But the gift of God did not discriminate against those who were less able to gather; God sent the manna to old and young, healthy or sick, alike. Each gathered as they had ability, and found provision as they had need. The early Church, of course, would repeat this pattern – in Acts 4 we read that “there was none among them that lacked… for distribution was made to each as they had need”.
In fact, perhaps even more than they had need. For although it’s hard to be precise with ancient measurements, an omer was a generous serving; probably around a kg of bread. Certainly some chose to leave some of the manna for the next day. Perhaps they had learned well the lesson of scarcity.
Their decision to store food over was directly disobeying to Moses’ instructions to them. Which is one of those times when the command of God seems to go contrary to – well, not just common sense, but wisdom, and, in this case, the desire to provide for yourself and for those who depend upon you.
But God’s command was for a reason; placed into the broader context of the story, the people of God had been learning to trust God. Or rather, they had been fairly consistently failing to learn to trust God. The exodus itself, the column of smoke and fire, the provision of water from the stone; each miracle had been welcomed and then rapidly forgotten. The idea that God could be trusted for the future because of what God had done in the past had not taken root.
And when God is not trusted for the future, then we have to worry about it for ourselves… again, taking our minds, our focus, our attention, off the main game: first, the Kingdom of God.
“Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus will remind his friends, “tomorrow will worry about itself.”
And this does fight against all we learn; and challenges us, too, to question the balance we strike between living today, and looking out for tomorrow. For – and this runs terribly counter to our culture, especially to educated middle class culture – you will struggle to find any encouragement in the Bible to set aside for the future, and a great deal of encouragement to focusing on living the best, most generous life you can today.
We do, of course, have encouragement to provide for ourselves and those we are responsible for – and in our cultural context that can reasonably be thought to include planning for university fees, or costs of retirement and old age. But we ought, perhaps, to hear the words as a challenge – that the obsession with tomorrow can destroy our today.
That we live in a society that places great pressure on us to emphasise “productive time” over “relationship time”; and yet, as Rabbi Kushner wisely reflected, “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”.
An obsession with the needs of the future cuts into our relationships today, and it cuts into our generosity today; will I be generous with the surplus I find I hold, or store it against a rainy day?
The Lord’s Prayer, the sermon on the mount, the manna in the desert; all call us back towards that trust in God’s provision that sets us free to seek first the Kingdom of God, sets us free to invest in one another more than in our savings, sets us free to live generously with our time and money.
For we shall not live by bread alone.