Exodus 16 – Manna from Heaven

Matthew 20.1-16 – Workers in the Vineyard

 

These two passages seem straightforward enough.

There seems little to debate about their meaning

The first is from arguably the most important episode in the Hebrew Scriptures when the people choose to not trust in what they are told. They have been instructed to gather everything in. Instead they leave some manna for the next day not believing that it is possible for a further miracle. The next morning they discover that the manna they had left had grown mouldy overnight.

In the second passage we hear of workers who had toiled all day. When they came to be paid they were surprised and annoyed to not receive more than those that were taken on late in the afternoon.

The meaning to each of these stories appears to be: God provides and we merely have to trust what is promised and accept what is given without grumbling.

Seems straightforward enough doesn’t it? Or does it?

 

Frankly I have some sympathy for the people that chose to leave some manna out in the wilderness. I might also feel aggrieved for those workers that spent all day in the field only to be paid the same as those who arrived with an hour to go.

Seriously, who wouldn’t?

 

So let’s look more closely at what is going on in each.

I don’t think that it’s quite as simple as we may have first thought.

We begin with the Israelites in the wilderness.

They have already taken a great risk. They may have been slaves in Egypt but it was still a great step of faith to listen to Moses. After all the back-story wasn’t one that would necessary endear him to the people. I don’t believe for a minute that all the enslaved chose to set out for an unknown destination across the wilderness. Many would have said ‘not on your life, I am staying put.’

So those that are the players in this particular story have already shown great courage.

I think they would be wily characters, resourceful and maybe a little cunning.

If we consider migrants today fleeing economic hardship and environmental challenges, they tend to be amongst the most resourceful in their communities; those that aren’t tend to stay behind and face the consequences.

So when the Israelites see manna appear on the ground, seemingly more than enough to merely survive the night, they choose to be frugal and leave some for future use. Who wouldn’t?

Last week I again had the great privilege of meeting with my good friend Eva Schloss, Auschwitz survivor and posthumous step-sister of Anne Frank. She tells of how some prisoners in the camp would occasionally secrete a little bread away by placing it under their head before they fell asleep. The hope was that it would be there the next morning. Tragically it sometimes wasn’t because someone sleeping next to them had stolen it.

But you can understand why some would secrete the bread away – just in case there was no bread the next day.

In our own lives we might consider the possibility that no matter what God will provide.

But experience tells us that there are barren moments in our lives.

We pray, we may exercise a faithful discipleship but…life doesn’t always go as we had hoped or even had we been led to believe.

Who can blame the Israelites then?

 

Then there are the workers in the parable that Jesus tells. Or does he?

The Gospels were written long after the events of Jesus’ life. Indeed much later than Paul’s letters.

Matthew’s account was composed at a time of great tension between those Jews and Gentiles that believed in Jesus and those that didn’t. Part of the ongoing argument was whether or not those coming late to believe in Jesus were just as valued in God’s eyes as those that had been faithful for much longer.

In other words were the Gentiles that were recently converted to be treated equally to those that were already part of the community?

So this story is likely to be the early church struggling with whether there should be equanimity in the community of the faithful.

You can just imagine it from our own experience.

Who do these newcomers think they are?

‘I have been in this church all my life. Along comes someone new and their views are treated as seriously as mine.’

But that is exactly what God wants.

 

There is a common thread running through these two passages.

It is that God’s provision is sometimes precarious, or so it seems.

We know from experience that a faithful life doesn’t bring privilege.

We all face the same challenges.

The harvest may be good for us. But not so for our neighbour.

We may put in greater effort than someone else yet we might both receive the same reward.

Some might not think this is fair.

And in the capitalist world we have created it’s not.

But the Israelites, nor Jesus, were in a capitalist world.

They were in a world that was more communal than ours.

They were in a world where it really was necessary to share what they had with their neighbours.

To withhold from someone in need might mean that the tables might be turned next time. And on that occasion when we are in need we will need friends.

It is simplistic to suggest that the faithful do not face the same challenges as the faithless. In fact it would be a false claim.

A man whose ninety-year old mother had just died said ‘she attended church all her life…and it’s come to this.’

How very sad. Such misunderstanding and such a failure to grasp reality. Yet the church so often promotes the view that we only have to pray and all will be well.

The truth is somewhat different.

The follower of Jesus is not immune from illness, accident and tragedy.

The provision of God is not about protecting the faithful from such things.

The provision of God is about preparing us for the unseen and unknowable.

So when illness comes our way, accident or tragedy, the blow may still be swift and hard. But somehow the years of patient prayer, and fragile trust, place it all into perspective.

That is the provision that is not precarious but permanent.

For this and for all the blessings of God, we give thanks.

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