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Aug8TueThe radical economic implications of depending on God. August 8, 2017 by Donald E. Burke
The Lord’s Prayer includes the petition “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11 NRSV). I have usually interpreted “daily bread” as our requirements for physical survival—food, shelter, drink. Our petition, then, is that God would be faithful in providing the basic necessities of life. But on further examination, I have found that this request has a rich background that casts it in a different light.
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The expression “Give us this day our daily bread” takes us all the way back to the early history of Israel at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Having escaped from Pharaoh’s service by crossing the Red Sea (see Exodus 14), the Israelites found themselves in the wilderness. It didn’t take long for the boisterous praises of Exodus 15 to turn into bitter complaints about the lack of food and water. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread” (Exodus 16:3 NRSV). Freedom might be a good thing, but empty stomachs trump freedom.
In Exodus 16, God responded to the complaints of the Israelites by sending manna, bread from heaven, to cover the ground each morning. The Israelites were given strict instructions about how to “harvest” the manna. First, each Israelite was to gather only enough manna for that day (that is, daily bread). Second, if they had some left over at the end of the day, they were not to keep it. Any attempt to store or stockpile the manna would fail as it became rotten. Third, on the sixth day of the week, they were to gather enough manna for two days. Surprisingly, manna kept over for the Sabbath would not rot. Finally, on the seventh day, the Sabbath, they were not to search for manna. The Lord had already provided enough bread on the previous day. With these provisions in place, Israel received its daily bread.
The Yearning for More
This story is often interpreted as a test of Israel’s willingness to obey God’s commands, and, to some extent, it is that. But it’s about more than the arbitrary requirements of a demanding deity. Probing more deeply, the story prompts such questions as: Would the Israelites be willing to trust God enough to live within the boundaries that he established? Would they be able to live out that trust in a concrete way by risking starvation if they only gathered enough for one day, and the manna did not appear tomorrow? Would the Israelites be willing to trust that the manna given on the sixth day would be sufficient for the Sabbath?
When we pose these questions, the narrative provides us with a great opportunity to explore the challenges presented by our insecurities and our distorted human need to assume responsibility for our lives. Why is it so hard for us to trust God’s provision?
Jesus exposes the same issue shortly after the Lord’s Prayer when he exhorts his followers to observe carefully the birds of the air, which don’t sow or harvest (see Matthew 6:25-34). They don’t worry about tomorrow’s food, but rather trust their heavenly Father for today’s food and drink. If the Father provides abundant “daily bread” for them, would God do less for us? Learn from the birds, is Jesus’ plea. When understood in this way, the petition for daily bread is both a prayer to our heavenly Father and an affirmation that daily bread should be enough.
When we return to Exodus 16, we find that, of course, there were those who did not follow God’s explicit instructions. Some gathered more manna than they needed and tried to keep it for the next day, building a stockpile just in case the manna did not come as promised. But, as predicted, the leftover manna rotted and filled with worms. Then there were those who couldn’t resist the urge to gather the bread on the Sabbath. Who needs Sabbath rest when manna may be sitting just outside the camp? Wouldn’t it be wasteful to leave it on the ground? Shouldn’t they take responsibility for providing their own food, in case God failed to provide it? Wasn’t that the responsible—if not the human—thing to do? The story in Exodus 16 recognizes the inevitability of the Israelites’ surrender to the temptation to gather more, and, at the same time, shows that even after the stunning events that led to their liberation from slavery, the Israelites still did not fully trust God. Having today’s bread was not enough.
An Alternative Community
While this is one layer of meaning in the manna story, I think there’s another. The issue explored in Exodus 16 is what kind of community Israel would become. The Lord called Israel out of Egypt to be an alternative community. They were not freed from bondage to Pharaoh merely to have a chance for economic success or even religious freedom. They were not liberated from Egypt’s tyranny to reproduce another little Egypt, in which the powerful and wealthy could lord it over those who had little power and few resources. No, Israel was to become a community in which there would be a broad distribution of resources and power. In Israel, no one was to have too much; no one was to have too little (see Exodus 16:17-18). The manna provisions were a concrete expression of this vision.
Why is it so hard for us to trust God’s provision?But if some Israelites were able to gather more manna than they needed to store the excess for future use, this would plant seeds of social and economic class distinctions that would elevate some Israelites over others. The reign of human greed would quickly establish itself, in an emerging disparity between those with much and those with little. Those with stockpiles of manna would be motivated to build “bigger barns” in which to store the surplus (see Luke 12:13-21). Over time, the rigid pyramid of power that characterized Egypt, and from which God had liberated Israel, would simply be reproduced in Israel. There would be a few who controlled the market on manna, and the many, who would become utterly dependent on them and subject to their manipulative power. The only difference between Egypt and Israel would be that a new group of Israelite tyrants would replace Pharaoh at the top of the pyramid.
Over time, this is what happened in Israel. By the time the prophets Amos, Micah and Isaiah appeared, Israel had become a community rigidly divided along socio-economic and political lines. The abusive practices that sustained Israel’s economic and social structure in the eighth century BCE had been entrenched in law. What was legal had little to do with what was just. As a result, for many, life in Israel was not so different from the lives of their ancestors under the tyranny of Egypt. Israel had become indistinguishable from Egypt or any other tyrannical, corrupt society. Israel had abandoned its vocation to be an alternative community. The prophets of the eighth century BCE railed against this perversion of Israel’s identity.
In light of Israel’s history, it becomes clear that God’s instruction to the Israelites in Exodus 16 to gather only their “daily bread” had, at its heart, a concern for the kind of community Israel would become—a community characterized by trust in God for his daily provision, rather than seizing the initiative to hoard for tomorrow. In this concrete way, Israel was to be a community in which trust in God’s provision trumped the human insecurity that drives us to hedge our bets by building “bigger barns.” Israel was to be a community with values alternative to those of Egypt, values that were expressed not only religiously but economically, socially and politically. The manna provisions in Exodus 16 were a way to cultivate this different kind of community.
Enough is Enough
Returning to Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer is placed within the Sermon on the Mount. Taken as a whole, the Sermon on the Mount is a charter of sorts for a new community centred on the lordship of Christ. Within this context, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he was concerned about what kind of community the church would become. The petition “Give us this day our daily bread” is not simply a selfish request for God to give us food to fill our bellies. It is much more! With the manna narrative in the background, it is a statement that the church should be a community in which enough for today is enough. Period. The rest can be shared with those who have less (see Matthew 6). Imagine what a difference it would make to how we live and witness in our world if churches accepted our daily bread with thanks, and shared the surplus with those who have little.
Dr. Donald E. Burke has served as the president of Booth University College since 2006. He will step down at the end of June 2016 to return to teaching full time.