Our Daily Bread

September 24, 2017       Proper 25 – Creation Season

Exodus 16:2-15         Matthew 20:1-16

So the people of Israel have escaped from slavery in Egypt. God has redeemed them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; and now they find themselves in the desert, journeying towards the promised land. But it doesn’t take long before a practical problem arises: they are hungry. How does one feed this multitude in the desert? And being hungry, they are starting to get grumpy: we know how cranky some of us can get when we miss a meal.

Have you ever noticed how very realistic the Bible is on the question of our bodily needs for food? Many of the stories humans have told over the centuries speak of the great adventures of heroes, striding through the landscape conquering evil, occasionally feasting, but without much attention to the mundane question of where their breakfast is coming from each morning. Not so the Bible: again and again we encounter stories told from the perspective of the ordinary person’s most pressing concern: where the next meal is coming from. From the famine that brought Jacob and his family to Egypt, to the produce of the Promised Land, to the concern that the poor must eat expressed in the Law of Israel; from Jesus’s temptation in the desert to the feeding of the 5000, the question arises again and again. The Bible never forgets for a minute that as beings of flesh and blood we are a part of creation; and our oneness with creation is nowhere more clearly seen than in our basic bodily needs: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.

“Food security” is the expression that we have come to use in the realm of public policy. It is the recognition that food security, having access to sufficient healthy food, is a basic human right, and that we cannot simply leave it up to the markets to make sure that nobody starves in this world. In light of the environmental changes we have been talking about over the last couple of weeks, the challenge of food security will become even greater:
– certainly the catastrophic storms, and floods, and droughts that climate change brings with it all have an impact on food supply. Whenever that happens, precious crops are lost, and thousands of people need to be fed.
– climate change will continue to cause civil unrest. The conflict in Syria already was caused at least in part by climate change: it was the influx of farmers into the cities who had lost their farms to drought and desert that was at the core of the initial unrest that has led to the most brutal civil war in memory.
– the collapse of the bee population, if we can’t get it under control, will have a huge impact on crop yields.
– the loss of biodiversity in modern agriculture makes us much more vulnerable to climate change: when one variety fails, will be have sufficient diversity to be able to find a different variety that can cope better with the new conditions?
And so on.
Now clearly the story we have just heard from Exodus does not offer us an easy solution. We cannot simply rely on God to provide a special miracle to solve all our food security problems. The Bible itself, even as it tells us this story, sees it as a kind of special, exceptional miracle – a sign of God’s special intimate relationship of care as God nourished this infant nation. At best, the story is a reminder that God can and does provide in unexpected ways; that the goodness of creation far exceeds our understanding. But that doesn’t mean we can presume on this bounty, and continue to wreck the earth without regard for the consequences.

There is, however, another hint in today’s story that may be a helpful challenge to us. When God sends manna, this mysterious bread from heaven, to feed the people, it comes with some fairly precise instructions on how to use it. Specifically, each family is to gather as much as they need for the day; they must not gather more and hoard it, as it will go bad. The exception is Friday morning, where they are to gather enough for two days, so that they won’t have to gather on the Sabbath. The point being, when God feeds his people, he feeds them precisely what they need. In God’s economy, there is no room for hoarding and profiteering. God’s economy is an economy of sufficiency: to each according to their needs.

Interestingly, this is a theme that we can see in today’s gospel reading as well. The story that Jesus tells of the labourers hired for the vineyard is a parable of the grace of God – but it works so well as a parable because it so profoundly unsettles us on a literal level. It is so unfair: why should those who worked only an hour get the same as those who laboured the whole day in the hot sun? You should get paid what you earn – that’s the whole basis of our economy; otherwise you’re just rewarding laziness! Jesus seems to be telling us that God’s economy works differently, and that is hard to swallow.

Now notice that when the landowner hires his workers, he does so for the usual daily wage. That wage, in Jesus’s time, was a denarius: it was a small silver coin that represented the standard daily wage of a labourer throughout the Roman world. Nobody got rich off of a denarius: it was just sufficient, in good times at least, to pay for food and rent for the day. It was – just barely – a living wage, which I suppose is more than can be said for our minimum wage.

So when the landowner pays his workers each a denarius, he is not paying them what they have earned – he is paying them what they need to feed their families, so that their children don’t go to bed hungry. That is how God’s economy works: not by what you have earned, but on the basis of what you need. The economy of sufficiency again, of how much is enough for our needs.

When times are good, we go about our business of earning and spending, that little system we have built for ourselves that we call capitalism. And it has worked well enough for us, I suppose, generating vast amounts of wealth for some of us in this world, although others are left in poverty. But when things go wrong, then other rules apply. When people have to leave their communities because of fire in BC, or flooding in Houston, we feed them. We don’t ask if they have earned that meal – the very question is offensive. We set up in the legion and dish out the soup, because that’s what you do.

And when drought and war and genocide drive people in Sudan or Syria or, this month, Burma, from their homes and force them into refugee camps, then the international community needs to get its act together and see that they are fed. We don’t ask what they have done to earn their food, that would be an obscene question. We feed them, because everyone needs to eat.

And when people in this community can’t make ends meet, because of unemployment or sickness or injury or mental health issues or bad luck, or, yes, sometimes because of addictions or poor life choices, then we feed them. I was at the AGM of the Upper Room food bank in Kingston, and learned that over 5000 people were served there last year. Let that number sink in. And I’m sure it’s a similar story at the Twelve Baskets in Nictaux. We feed them, without asking how they have earned it, because people need to eat. That is God’s economy. Meanwhile, in our economy, supermarkets and restaurants and hotels and, yes, consumers like you and I, throw away $31 billion dollars worth of food each year; that’s 40% of the food we produce.

We are creatures of flesh and blood, part of God’s good creation. Often, when things go well for us, we seem to have the luxury of forgetting that. When we never really have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, then we can forget that we are only a few meals away from starvation. And then it is easy to forget the poor, as they struggle to feed themselves; indeed, we can even become so smug that we ask whether they deserve to eat. And at the same time, we forget God: we forget that we ourselves eat not fundamentally because of our own hard work or cleverness, but underneath all that because of the generosity of our Creator who provides us with the good things of this earth.

When that happens, we need to give ourselves a good shake from time to time and remind ourselves that we are part of creation, relying on a healthy natural environment, and on a generous social network, for the food we eat. And then we need to remember to pray consciously and intentionally the daily prayer that Jesus taught us: give us this day our daily bread. Give us our daily bread, what we need for this day: not bread to hoard or overindulge in or waste, but the bread of sufficiency, the bread we really need for this day. Give us – not just me and my house, but my neighbour as well, both near and far, our daily bread, and teach us to share of our plenty with those in need. And let us receive our daily bread, not as something we have earned and are entitled to for anything we have done, but as something we are entitled to because we need it, by the generosity of God.