What is this?
Exodus 16:2-16, Matthew 20:1-16
by Isaac Villegas
Sept 21, 2014
The Israelites fear their death, their annihilation in the wilderness, their dissolution in the desert sands. So they look back to Egypt, where life was somewhat stable, predictable, controllable — a familiar life, even if it was slavery.
The people say to Moses and Aaron, “In Egypt…we sat…and ate our fill. Why have you brought us out into this wilderness to kill [us] with hunger?” Back in Egypt, they say, there were warm meals. Now, in the wilderness, they starve. Even as they grumble, God provides. God provides by sending quail and bread, a meal from heaven, abundance in the desert. And this is where the story catches me, when I read about what happens next.
When the Israelites see the bread, they don’t recognize it, they don’t know what it is. Moses tells them that God will rain down bread from heaven, and as soon as they see it, as soon as they see the bread on the ground, they ask, “What is this?” — even though they were just told what was coming. They see it, the flaky bread, at their feet, and they don’t know what it is.
They go out in the morning, on the day that God said that there would be bread, and they walk up to it, and they don’t see how the stuff could be bread, how it could be what God promised. They expect bread, but not that kind of bread, not something so unfamiliar, something so strange. Their expectations blind them from God’s provision, from God’s grace. “What is this?” they ask, “What is it?” The food is unimaginable, unrecognizable — shockingly strange and foreign. This gift from God is so unfamiliar that they don’t know what to call it. It’s unnamable.
They end up calling it “manna,” which is just a Hebrew word that means, “what is it” (v. 31). Manna literally means “What is it?” What is it? I don’t know. Let’s call it “what is it.” That’s basically how it went down, or at least how I imagine the conversation going down. They don’t yet know how to name it, but they do the best they can with the words they’ve got. They name it the same phrase they use as their question when they first see it. Manna. What is this? When God’s grace happens, sometimes all you can say is, “What is this?”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus the same question. “What is this?”—this world, this life with you? He asks what Israel asks in the wilderness. What is this kingdom of heaven? Peter asks Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Well, Jesus replies, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Then Jesus tells a story, a parable, to explain what he means. What is this kingdom of heaven? Well, Jesus says, let me tell you a story. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.” In the morning he hires some guys and says he’s going to pay them a denarius for their work. Then he goes out again around lunchtime, then again in the afternoon, and finally again in the evening; and every time he goes out, the landowner hires new people, new workers. At the end of the day, when it’s time to pay them for their labor, the landowner starts with the last people he hired and he pays them the same as the first. Everyone gets a denarius, no matter when they started their workday. The people who worked the longest grumble and ask, “What is this?”
It’s called grace; it’s called generosity — “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. When heaven falls into the world, everyone gets equal pay, everyone gets enough, a living wage. That’s what the kingdom of heaven looks like. It’s good news, but it’s good news that leaves some people scratching their heads, confused and irritated, because God’s grace, God’s generosity, doesn’t make sense to everyone — so they respond, offended, by asking, “Hey, what is this?”
That’s what some of the workers say, the ones who worked all day — and who can blame them? Not me. I’d be annoyed, and I think you would be too. Because we’re used to a world where we work hard and get paid for our work, and if we show up at the jobsite at 8am, we expect our day of work to earn us more money than the person who starts an hour before quitting time.
That’s just how it works, especially if you’re a laborer, punching in and punching out, every day. But that’s not how it goes in the kingdom of heaven, where no one gets too much and everyone gets enough. The parable shows us what heaven looks like when God’s grace happens here on earth, in our lives, in those moments when grace breaks through the way our world is ordered, when generosity breaks through our systems of greed.
And when it happens, there’s confusion, bewilderment, because it feels like the end of the old order, the end of what we’re used to, what we’re comfortable with, the end of the familiar ways we’ve organized our lives, our work, our money — it feels like the end of the old and the beginning of something so new that it makes us uncomfortable, because it’s disorienting, we’re not used to heaven showing up on earth. What’s going to happen to us? What is this? That’s what Peter asks before Jesus starts telling his story: he says, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
The gospel brings us to the edge of this newness, to the point where we don’t know what will become of us, what will become of our lives, where we don’t know what God’s grace will require for us to change — about our selves, about our relationships, about our work, about our world.
As an old world fades away and a new one begins — a world of grace, of a life infused with God’s grace, the inklings of heaven on earth — as this world arrives, in us and in our neighbors, at work and at home, what will fade away? What has to go? What patterns of life are supposed to disappear?
Both of our stories today — the one from Exodus and the one from Matthew — have everything to do with economics, with money and work, with how much provision we need to live, to thrive, and how much people should get paid for their work. All of this has everything to do with the gospel, with the way heaven rains down on earth.
But the gospel means more than only economics. The gospel has everything to do with welcoming the grace of God into our lives, living by grace, letting grace surprise you, as you try again at forgiveness, as you try again at finding something good in that person you can’t stand to be around, as you try again, despite the pain, despite the hurt, as you try to find something of God in her or him, something surprising in the familiar, something you’ve overlooked, something you’ve ignored, something you haven’t been able to see, until now, now that you are waiting on grace, now that you are watching out for grace, now that you are anticipating God to happen — in your life, in his life, in her life.
All you know is that God has promised to sustain you, to give you life, to lead you in the way of life, even if you aren’t sure what God’s provision is supposed to look like, even if you aren’t sure what God’s grace is supposed to feel like, even if you aren’t sure what the bread of life is supposed to taste like.
We are like the Israelites, wandering in the desert, grumbling against God and one another, and figuring out how in the world the stuff in front of us is food, because it’s not what we expected, it’s not what we imagined, it’s not what we prayed for, it’s not what we hoped for. But it’s God’s food, nourishment for our journey with God.
Manna. What is it? It’s bread of life, God’s grace, bewildering and surprising, all around you.