17 Pentecost, Year A: Sept. 24
The miraculous feeding of the children of Israel in the desert is one of God’s great deeds, marvelous wonders, a work of power, a revelation of the glorious splendor of divine majesty (Ps. 105:1-5; Ps. 145:4-6). Is it not a marvelous thing to say, “They asked, and quails appeared, and he satisfied them with bread from heaven” (Ps. 105:40)? The God who is high and lifted up tends and cares for a people chosen to be free and to be a blessing to the world. Indeed, a miracle is no small thing, although in this case God’s provision is carefully measured and modest, sufficient for the day and no more.
The Lord speaks to Moses, saying, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough bread for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days” (Ex. 16:4-5). Gathering a double portion on the sixth day, they have food for the Sabbath without breaking the obligatory rest. This is an exercise to test their dependence on God for their needs one day at a time. In that regard, it closely corresponds to the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer.
Consider the food. “In the evening quails came up and covered the camp” (Ex. 16:13). Exhausted from their migrations, the birds were easily caught, so God makes miraculous provision through a natural phenomenon. Using another natural process, God feeds the people with a substance excreted by scale insects that infect the tamarisk bush. This sticky substance, dried by the sun, falls to the ground. Rich in carbohydrates and sugars, it can support the life of a starving person and, to the present day, is considered a gift from God by modern inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula (Harper’s Bible Commentary).
Unlike the quails that are easily recognized, the substance from the tamarisk bush is unknown, and this is important for the name given to it and important as a dimension of every encounter with the divine. There is always something we don’t know! “When the layer of the dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them. ‘It is bread that the Lord has given you to eat’” (Ex. 16:14-15). The question is sometimes translated as a statement: “It is manna.” The Lord feeds his people with “What is it?” The Lord is the “unknown” and the “strange,” the One who comes in mystery and obscurity.
God gives food for one day. In the gospel parable, set amid a monetary economy, the landowner promises not food but a day’s wage. Some laborers are hired early in the morning, some at nine in the morning, some at noon, some at three o’clock, and, finally, some at five o’clock. At the end of the day, all are paid the same amount, a day’s wage. To those who bore the heat of the day, it seems a basic rule of fairness has been violated. It is not, however, that simple. The first to be hired received a fair wage; all the rest received more than was fair because the landowner — God — is generous and cares that all should have their daily sustenance.
Everyone needs enough for one day. That is, everyone needs God.
Look It Up: Matthew 20:15
Think About It: Are you envious because I am generous?