Did you hear that the Energizer Bunny was arrested? He was charged with battery.
I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.
I know a guy who drinks brake fluid. I told him I think he’s addicted, but he says he can stop any time.
What can I say–I love puns! Hebrew does, too: the Old Testament is full of them. Exodus 16:15, from this week’s Hebrew Bible text, is a doozy!
When Israelites first see the miraculous food God has provided for them in the wilderness, they ask, “What is it?”—in Hebrew, man hu’. But since, in Hebrew, the word for “manna” is also man, they are answering their own question: man hu’ also means, “It is man.” That is why it is called “manna”: literally, “whatsit!”
Deuteronomy 8:3 makes a theological point of this:
He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors was acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (NRSV).
My teacher and mentor, the late S. Dean McBride, Jr., may light perpetual shine upon him, worked on the NRSV translation of the book of Deuteronomy. He suggested that this famous phrase (quoted by Jesus in the wilderness) could perhaps better be translated, “one does not live by bread alone, but by anything that the LORD decrees.”
The manna was an answer to prayer, but it was also a test. The strangeness of the manna was itself a test: would Israel submit to living on whatever the LORD provided? It has been said that it was a brave person who ate the first oyster–but what about the Israelites, gathering this “whatsit” off the ground?
The way that the manna was provided was also a test.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction (Exod 16:4).
The exceptions were the sixth day, when they could gather enough for two days, and save it, and the Sabbath, when no manna fell (Exod 16:23).
The Israelites fail this test. Some try to gather more than they need, but discover they have only gathered enough. Some try to save the manna, but it becomes wormy. Some even go out to gather on the Sabbath.
Surely we can understand and sympathize with their failure. The manna subverts our ideas of economy! It follows no laws of supply and demand. There can be no shortages, for everyone is given as much as they need. There can be no surpluses, for the manna cannot be hoarded. There is no incentive to greater productivity, because however much you gather, you wind up with no more than you need. Longer work hours are not simply discouraged, they are impossible: the manna evaporates as soon as the morning passes, and on your day off, it does not come at all!
The point is that God is generous, and that God’s generosity is not limited by our standards of fairness. In God’s economy, we don’t get what we deserve! God’s grace and acceptance are given to all. God’s generosity challenges us to live generously.
In today’s Gospel, the crowds who had been fed by Jesus seek him out at his home in Capernaum, looking for more:
They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” (John 6:30-31)
Jesus confronts them:
Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life (John 6:27).
Instead of giving them what they came seeking, Jesus offers himself:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).
As with Israel in the wilderness: God cares about our needs, but will not be reduced to a means to our ends—as though God were a cosmic vending machine. The test, once more, is whether or not we will respond faithfully, and seek, not what we want, but what God wants.