I’ve never quite marshalled whatever it takes to pull off preaching from 2 texts in a single sermon. I might allude to one, but a dual focus tends to scatter my attention – and it’s worse for the poor souls listening! But it’s tempting here, as Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16 illuminate one another in thoughtful ways. And the average churchgoer is familiar enough with both so you don’t have to start from scratch. Both are about food production, one miraculous, the other by labor – but with some miraculous economics.
Both are, at the end of the day, about what it means to have “enough.” We did a series called Enough right before the pandemic. How much is enough? Am I enough? When do we say ‘Enough!’? I’m straying in my mind to Flannery O’Connor. Once, after blurting out to a friend, who spoke warmly of communion as symbolic, Flannery said “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it” – but then added more graciously and theologically, “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” That is, the Eucharist is enough.
Exodus 16:2-15. “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:19). Or is the harder question, “Can this freed people stay free?” Check out photos of the Sinai. Paint the picture for your people. Not making a beeline for the Promised Land, but detouring far to the south through daunting terrain, the people had to wonder “Are we being led? Or are we merely wandering?” If they sang “I am bound for the promised land,” it wouldn’t have been bouncy and enthusiastic the way we sing it, but more of a dirge.
With what will become monotonous whining, the people murmured – and God answered their murmuring, not with a curse or thunderclaps from heaven, but with bread. This is sheer, unadulterated grace: God replies with mercy, not to prayerful repentance, but to doubt-riddled whining. God gave them Manna – a wonderful word whose Semitic origin means “What is it?” Well, if heaven isn’t really up, this bread that came down – what was it?
In Bible times, Josephus the historian described the Sinai’s honey like deposits of the tamarisk (packaged and sold as souvenirs today!); insects suck off shrub’s sap and deposit the surplus on the branches; the residue crystallizes and falls to the ground; but this manna, not very tasty but rich in carbohydrates and sugars, succumbs to ants not long into the heat of the day.
Questions abound: it’s not a miracle? Or it’s the miracle of the tamarisk and insects? They saw this provision as a divine gift. And clearly the story begs us not to get derailed with the murmuring of historical questions. Flannery O’Connor resisted the idea of Eucharist-as-symbol, but there is much symbolic in this story. The double portion on Friday to cover the Sabbath… although the Sabbath commandment hasn’t been given just yet! No wonder devotional guides play on this ‘daily bread’ image; did Jesus have the manna in mind? You have to look out for it every morning; you can’t save up for a few days… etc. You have to love the way God not only responds to the murmuring with mercy; then when God gives them the bread, there are conditions. I admire B. Davie Napier’s phrasing (in Come Sweet Death, pondering the tree in Genesis 3, but it fits the manna as well):
– with strings.
All glory be to thee, uncertain giver,
Who wants to have his gift
and give it too.
Jesus gave them enough – not just enough bread, or just enough Scripture, but his own crucified body, which really is enough, just as the manna and the commandments to come, and the promise really were enough. Which lead us to…
Matthew 20:1-16. This text about laborers in a vineyard is a splendid example of Jesus’ teaching, which is the antithesis of conventional wisdom, the kind of thing Clarence Jordan called a Trojan Horse: you let it in and Bam! Preachers typically preach to people who’d say I’m a 12 hour or a 9 hour kind of guy… but maybe they really are just one hour people, or maybe they aren’t in the field at all. It’s about the miracle of grace – and not last minute conversions. Grace is for everybody, and it’s enough for everybody. And there might even be a bigger surprise in the story – as I discovered when researching my book, Weak Enough to Lead. I’ll share this excerpt, which passes along a framework for how to read Matthew 20 that I find to be entirely persuasive, and alluring. Here goes:
Jesus made up a shocking story about a vineyard owner who hired laborers in the morning, then some more later in the day, still more in the afternoon, and finally a few with only an hour left. When they lined up for their pay, he gave every last one of them a denarius. Quite fair – for a full day’s work. Not surprisingly, the guys who put in more time were furious. We are tempted to put some clever spin on the story, as if it is about late in life conversion, or even the magnificent bounty of God’s saving grace.
But Amy-Jill Levine, rightly pointing out that “Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than how we get into heaven,” asks an intriguing question: “Might we rather see the parable as about real workers in a real marketplace and real landowners who hire those workers?” Our gut reaction is No way! But wasn’t Jesus the kind of guy who wanted everyone to have enough? If the guys who were hired late, through no fault of their own, only got one-twelfth of a day’s wage, their family would starve. This is the same Jesus who told a rich man to sell everything, who directed party hosts to invite those who couldn’t invite them in return, who spoke of lenders forgiving massive financial debts, who included despised and untouchable people in his close circle, who visited Zaccheus and left him so staggered he gave his hard-earned money back with interest to those he’d earned it from.
Shares of stock in a company run by Jesus would plummet in value. But he is our leader, the childlike one who never tired of asking hard questions. Could we his followers lead in very different ways, in weaker ways? Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms and creator of the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible, was a bold, no-holds-barred Christian, one of those once in a generation believers radical enough to dare to do what’s in the Bible. One Sunday he preached at a gilded, high steeple church in Atlanta. After the service, the pastor asked him for some advice. The church custodian had eight children, and earned a mere $80 per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise, but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute, and then said, “Why don’t you just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn’t require any extra money in the budget.”
Jesus was like the child who can’t stop asking questions, like the child who sees a homeless person by the road and asks Mommy, can’t he live at our house? Maybe a leader can’t pull off the vineyard wage maneuver, or even the salary swap. But is there a way to lean in that direction, to engage in something dramatic to veer a bit more toward Jesus than business as usual? Jesus asks leaders, not merely to obey the law or even to be kind, but to be different.
End of excerpt. When is, and how much is… enough? Douglas Meeks (in God the Economist) was right when he described our culture’s sense of scarcity: no matter how much you have, there is this lingering fear it might not be enough. Enough for what? Fill in the blank… And then you complicate the question by asking how much is enough for the other guy, or the stranger.
Sometimes “enough” is simple contentment – a holy, divinely-purposed goal: it is enough. Gratitude is believing It is enough instead of It’s not enough. Grace, being God’s child, living as one in God’s image, etc., is enough. Enough describes divine intent regarding resources: God wants everyone to have enough. There’s the old Haitian proverb: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.” The idea is that God has given us enough – enough food, enough water, enough of all the basics of life. It’s up to us to share, instead of hoarding or blocking the sharing.
Oh, and Philippians 1:21-30 isn’t a bad text at all! If we back up and include verse 20, we understand Paul’s obsession here. Paul does not mind if he is disgraced, as long as Christ is honored – or “magnified” (which is the meaning of the Greek verb megaluno in verse 20). When Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she visited Elizabeth, and sang an eloquent song: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Do I magnify the Lord? If a magnifying glass were held up to my life, would God’s reputation be enlarged in viewer’s eyes? Or shrunk down or hidden? Would I be ashamed?
Paul’s prayer is that the Lord be magnified in his body. Too often we think of our faith as something spiritual, invisible, an emotion, an event in the soul. But the body is what matters: what do I do with my body? What do I put into it? Where does it go? Do I use my hands, my face, my back, my legs, to magnify the Lord? Your body is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
“If we are called to magnify Christ in
our bodies, in the face of all the forces seeking to exert control over us,
then we must be as intentional about all aspects of our life as Paul was. The
desires we manifest, our patterns of consumption, the ways we get, hold and
distribute wealth, can all be occasions where either we are disgraced, or
Christ is magnified” (Stephen Fowl).
At his age, and in the prison cell of Rome, Paul knew he was perilously close to death. But he wanted to die a good death that would somehow be a credit to God. In our society, death is such a terror, something we just don’t talk about – and so we deny our mortality, and lose all chance of dying well. We go to extreme measures to prolong life – understandably! But then the dying never get to say goodbye, to bless family left behind, to glorify God.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux lived just 23 years. Frail in health, her keen awareness
of the fragility of life wrought in her a remarkable intimacy with God. She
grew eager to die, praying that God might take her without delay into his
eternal embrace so that “I may be able to tell you of my love eternally face to
To die of love is what I hope for,
on fire with his love I want to be,
to see him, be one with him forever,
that is my heaven – that’s my destiny.
This readiness, even eagerness to die changes how we look at life now. I am less likely to be greedy, or cautious. I am generous, I love freely. I live for others, not for myself. Paul did not say “to remain in the flesh is good for me,” but “for me to remain is helpful for you.” To live for others, and so for God, is joy.
One and only one thing matters: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel.” How infrequently do we think about this! We measure our worth by our property value, size of our portfolio, corporate position, pace of fun and consumption… Is my life “worthy” of what Christ has done for us?
Part of the worthy life is being of “one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel.” Although I might prefer it, Christ does not permit me to go off and be pious by myself, to insulate myself in some solo spirituality. I must connect with others. Christ died and saved me to be a part of his Body, the Church. Are you striving with others for the faith of the Gospel? Or are you just too busy? too caught up in your own agenda?
To strive for the faith will feel like conflict with the world. We are citizens of a counter-culture – but do we act as if we are? How many Christians, and churches, lead innocuous lives, blending seamlessly into the landscape? Could it be that, until we follow Jesus closely enough to provoke hostility, we will never know courage, hope and joy?