What Is It?

September 20th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

Thanks! What Is It?

How many of you have ever received a present from someone, but when you opened it up, you had no idea what it was? You’re honored that the person thought of you and took the time to buy or make you a gift, but you’re also confused as to why they would give you something that is not instantly recognizable. You look up with a feigned look of delight, but you cannot hide the confusion on your face as you, “Thanks! But what is it?”

This is the question that the Israelites asked when they walked out of their tents in the morning and saw the substance God had rained down out of the sky for them to eat. The name that they gave the substance — manna — literally means in Hebrew, “What is it?”

The Israelites had of course complained that they had nothing to eat, and wished that they were back in Egypt, where, according to them, they sat by pots of meat all day long and ate their fill. Of course they were looking back on the past with rose colored glasses, since for 400 years they had been enslaved, and had worked hard all day long with little reward.

Still, to them, being enslaved in Egypt was better than starving to death in the wilderness. At least in Egypt they usually knew where their next meal would come from. But here in the wilderness they had no clue how or where to find food. Here in the wilderness they were completely dependent upon God, who of course always had been their provider, they just didn’t know that until now.

The narrative we read here in Exodus seems to be a compilation of several different accounts. In the book of Numbers, we see the Israelites eating manna for a period of time, but then they grew tired of that and complained that they had no meat, so God sent quail. Here in Exodus we see God sending them both quail and manna at the same time. 

But in both accounts we see a similar pattern — the people complained to Moses, Moses prayed to God, and God provided, but not in the way that they expected. God did indeed miraculously provide what they needed, but God did so in such a way that they were also involved in securing their own provisions.

A little later in Exodus 16 we find that the Israelites had to not only go out and collect the manna, but it then had to be boiled or baked. Numbers chapter 11 provides an even more extensive description of the work involved in preparing the manna to eat. There we find that “The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it” (Numbers 11:7-8).

The same was of course true of the quail — the tiny live birds that came in and covered the camp. Eating this meat that God provided involved trapping, killing, cleaning, and cooking the quail before it would be fit to eat — providing plenty of work for everyone in the camp to do!

No Israelite Left Behind

Now this was an interesting miracle for several reasons. First, as we’ve already seen, God orchestrated the miracle in such a way that it involved each and every person. God could have provided food for them that was ready to eat — but God chose to involve them. But secondly, we also see that God orchestrated the miracle in such a way that everyone received exactly what they needed, but no more, and no less. 

Approaching this passage as 21st century consumers and entrepreneurs, we would have wanted to collect more than what we needed so we could sell the extras to those who failed to gather enough, thereby making a profit. But God made it impossible for the Israelites to do so. Those who tried to hoard more of their share of the manna found that in the end, when it was all measured out, they had no more than those who had gathered little. And those who tried to stockpile it and keep some until the next day found that by the next morning it had spoiled. 

The only exception was the day before Sabbath. On Friday mornings they people were instructed to gather twice as much as they needed so they wouldn’t have to go out and gather manna on the Sabbath. 

Sure enough, they found that the manna didn’t even fall from the sky on Saturday mornings. Even God rested on the Sabbath.

And so God involved them. And everyone had just enough, but nothing more. Through this they learned to depend on God, to trust God, to work hard, and to look out for one another.

The Vineyard Owner

In the book of Matthew we see a story that has many parallels. Jesus tells a parable about day laborers who are waiting around for odd jobs to do. Standing in the Home Depot parking lot, waiting for someone to come along and hire them for the day. 

One particular vineyard owner came along early in the morning and hired several of the laborers, providing them with a full day’s work harvesting in his vineyard.  He came back a few hours later and hired more, and then again at noon and 3pm and did the same. 

And then, at around 5pm, an hour before closing time, he came back and hired the last few laborers. 

When it was time to call it a day, he called all of the day-laborers together and paid each of them, no matter how long they had worked, a full day’s wage. 

Those who had worked only an hour were undoubtedly ecstatic. Getting paid a full day’s wage to work only an hour or so was unheard of! They were no doubt grateful for the abundant generosity of the owner who paid them way more than they deserved.

Those who were hired at noon and 3pm were probably pleased, but also somewhat confused. They looked at those who had been working all day and were happy that they got paid the same as them. But they glanced sideways at those who had only worked for an hour and wondered why they were paid the same amount?

But then of course there were the workers who have been working since before the sun came up. They were enraged. Why were they given the same amount as those who were hired later in the day?  Why wouldn’t the owner of the vineyard pay them two, three or even four times as much? What was the point of them laboring so hard all day when those who had lounged around for most of the day were paid the same as them?

Now of course Jesus’s parable was not intended to be an instruction manual for HR personnel, although there could be some interesting implications for those of us who are employers! But the money that the vineyard owner pays the workers in this parable is symbolic of salvation and mercy and forgiveness. Those who experience deathbed conversions receive the same mercy and grace and forgiveness as those of us who were placed on the cradle roll when we were born. To those who work hard for Jesus all their lives it may not seem fair.

What Is God Doing?

The question that comes up in response to this parable is the same question that the Israelites asked when they saw the flaky substance on the ground that God had rained down out of the sky: “What is it?” What is God doing? 

In Jesus’s parable, why would God extend the same grace and mercy to all who repent, no matter how long they’ve served the Lord? It seems so unfair to those who have been serving the Lord for as long as they remember. God’s generosity and abundant grace challenges our preference for reward and punishment, for everyone getting what we think they deserve.

But we are reminded through this parable that God’s grace is not given based upon our merit, God’s forgiveness is not something that we earn, and God’s mercy is given even to those of us who are most undeserving.

The key is that we put our faith and trust in God. That we look to Jesus for our provision and our salvation. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we recognize our desperate need and dependence on the Lord, and that our salvation and all that we have comes from the Lord.

Jesus — the Bread from Heaven

In the Gospel of John, Jesus referred to himself as the “true bread from heaven.” In John chapter 6, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:32-35).

Jesus, the true bread from heaven, who gave his life for the world. What an amazing gift! What amazing generosity. What abundant provision. No amount of hard work or effort that we do can make us deserving of that type of gift. All we must do is to recognize our need and dependence on God and receive this great gift that has been offered to us.

Our Response

How then do we live in response to a God who provides for our needs, a God who is lavish in generosity?

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are no doubt tempted to try to amass as many of God’s blessings and keep them for themselves. But, like the Israelites who tried to store up the manna and keep it until the next day, this will not end well for us. We are reminded that God’s blessings are meant to be shared. If we have been blessed with material prosperity, it is so that we can give to those who are in need. If we have been forgiven, we are also to forgive others.

We are living right now in a time when the realities of the pandemic have laid bare many of the disparities in our society. The division between “the haves and have nots” has grown stronger, the realities of racial discrimination, sexism, the abuse of power, and the vulnerability and powerlessness that so many people in our society feel and experience has been made clear.

It has often been said that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” And I believe that is true for the Church as well. How we as a Church care for and advocate for those who are the most vulnerable in our society is an indication of how much we are aware of the grace and mercy and blessings that have been bestowed upon us.

What is God up to in this season? What is it that God is doing? 

Could it be that God is calling us as the Church to step up, to speak up for those who are marginalized, to lead the way in caring for those who are weakest and most vulnerable in our world? The God who provides for us and looks out for our needs, the God who sent the Bread of Heaven down to this earth, is the same God who invites us to participate by sharing our bread with those around us. Let us be generous and lavish in our response. Let us give as we have received, let us forgive others even as we have been forgiven.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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